Wellbeing is the Fuel of Creative Resilience
by Joseph Pistrui and Dimo Dimov

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For over 1000 years Icelandic farmers have had a symbiotic relationship with eider ducks. They create shelters (‘Skjól’) for the birds to keep out predators. In May and June, the birds arrive to lay their eggs in these man-made sanctuaries, while farmers keep a watchful eye over them. After the eggs hatch and the birds leave to return to fishing, the farmers collect the down lining in the abandoned nests and process it into the most desirable natural materials for bedding. 

The resilience of this arrangement comes from its simple principle of preserving the birds’ natural, innate ambition, so to speak. Icelandic farmers were early system thinkers. They see the ducks not as employees to be managed, but as ecosystem partners, whose wellbeing is to be cherished. 

Organizations can be seen as shelters for human wellbeing – the most desirable natural material for creative resilience. Its predators – the dulling of skill, extinguishing of ambition, and reduction of possibility – lurk at every turn with attempts to make humans subservient to corporate objectives.

The edge of chaos

Insights from the study of complex systems suggest that creative resilience – such as life’s ability to sustain itself with sufficient creativity to be called ‘life’ – arises at the “edge of chaos”, that fine line between order and disorder. In this state, a system’s components do not quite lock into place, yet also do not descend into chaos. Too much tightness makes the system rigid and thus fragile in the face of external shocks. Too much loosening makes the system turbulent and hard to maintain. 

The locking mechanism for organizations is the taming of personal ambition in the service of corporate, top-down purpose. Employment and entrepreneurship are often juxtaposed as two distinct forms of productive engagement in the economy. Traditionally, one can be an entrepreneur – pursuing their own ambition – or an employee, moderating personal ambition to accommodate organizational purpose. In employment, autonomy and flexibility are traded off for certainty and predictability. Yet with digitalization and artificial intelligence (AI) transforming the workplace, the emergence of non-standard employment leads to potential increased flexibility and freedom. This can promote more entrepreneurialism across the economy, blurring the boundaries between the two forms of engagement. It is now commonplace for established organizations to embrace entrepreneurial thinking and behaviors as they endeavor to survive, renew and prosper in the age of discontinuity. This means that designing work systems that nurture the creative energies of everyone involved in the value creation process is paramount. Wellbeing serves as the fuel and gauge for this evolution.

Me. We. It.

The cornerstone of entrepreneurship as the channeling of creative aspiration is an individual’s ambition to make a distinct mark on the world, control their own destiny and strive for a new, imagined future. With autonomy and freedom come higher uncertainty and workload and resource constraints. The organization that arises is thus a vehicle for individual expression, its purpose subservient to the individual. 

Over time, as the organization expands, it develops the will to survive. The founder becomes a CEO, a custodian of organizational survival. Entrepreneurs often refer to their ventures as their children, but as they transition to the CEO role the child is now a grown-up, with a life of their own and their own interests. Motivation and meaning no longer come from the inside, but from the outside. Size counteracts the creative zeal of founding. The established, growing business unleashes other forces – it seeks to defend its turf, to outcompete. It is now a contestant in a market tournament and driven by the rules of the game. It is an employer. 

A child’s play

How can one keep the creative zeal in a large organization? Nietzsche’s metamorphoses of the spirit suggest an answer. Camel is the load-bearing spirit, quietly carrying the burden of “you shall”. Lion is a freedom-creating spirit, rebelling with the roar of “I will”. This is often the first founder spark in which we dare dream of a different future. The danger is that, with success, our own creations usher back the camel – the organization can load us with “you shall” baggage of its own interests. Child is the spirit of the new: innocent, curious, forgetful, and always seeking a new beginning. An organization needs to enable the spirit of the child, even if it goes against its natural instinct of taming lions into camels. 

In entrepreneurship, creative resilience is fuelled by an ambition to excel in something meaningful. While most organizations embrace an individual’s need to grow and develop, it may not always share their individual priorities, timing, or long-term trajectory. For most organizations, an individual’s ambition must pass the alignment test, and be understood to reinforce the wider organizational purpose. 

The tension between individual ambition and organization purpose represents an important design challenge as work becomes increasingly entrepreneurial across the economy. By some accounts, “entrepreneur” could be traced to “inner life” (antah prana) in Sanskrit. With personal ambition as the fuel of imagination, creativity and innovation, how it is unlocked–and by what means can it be connected to collective purpose–will be crucial to the resilience of creative work.

All is well that stays well

Just as the eider down, creative resilience is a by-product of cherished wellbeing. The places for people in organizations are not positions to be filled, but nests to be protected. A recent AI summit pronounced that in an AI future, no jobs would be needed. Let AI handle the spirit of the camel, while we all enjoy the playground.  

“What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

The end is where we start from.” (T.S. Eliot)

About the Authors:

Joseph Pistrui is co-founder of Kinetic Thinking, Professor of Entrepreneurship & Innovation at IE University in Madrid, and a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for the Future of Organization, Drucker School of Management.

Dimo Dimov is co-founder of Kinetic Thinking, Professor of Entrepreneurship & Innovation at University of Bath in the UK, and author of two books on entrepreneurship.

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