Jerry Hirshberg left General Motors in 1980 after 16 years to found Nissan Design International (NDI), Nissan Motors' US design studio, in La Jolla, Calif., where he is now president.
The Monitor interviewed him in New York at an unprecedented presentation of future Nissan models, many designed by NDI.
Mr. Hirshberg's book, "The Creative Priority," (HarperBusiness) published in June, lays out the organizational structure he set up at NDI to maximize creativity. The same principles apply to creativity in any organization, he says.
In your book, you say that the creative process "humanizes" the workplace, makes workers happier. Can you explain how? Did you set out to build such a workplace, or was it a byproduct?
I would feel embarrassed to tell you that my motivation was humanizing the workplace, but the minute I think about that for a nanosecond, what else could it conceivably be?
By nature people who are engaged with the creative process are engaged with the human process, and if you're interested in creative thinking, making a place safe for ideas, then you're making a place safe for people.
As a kid, I began to learn about creative interaction through music. Nothing gave me greater joy than seeing a bunch of people freely popping up with ideas, sharing them, interacting, being mutually inspired, even being critical, saying it like it is.... That was one of the most wonderfully energizing things in life.
So the idea ... of creating a workplace that can function like that, like a good jazz group, like a chamber music ensemble, or kids playing and making a fort together, was a powerful motivational force for me. So it's only a byproduct when I'm not thinking.
You write about managing to foster creativity. Does that make you a management guru?
I don't regard myself as a guru. To me, if the book has any value at all, it's that it's not coming from academic theory. It's not a second-hand recounting of observations of the way this stuff works. It's a guy who's still working, still learning, using this stuff, and sharing how this stuff works in real life situations.
When Harper-Collins took a picture of me - the picture that's on the jacket of the book - it's me sitting on a table in the lotus position. I said, "Take that out! I'm no guru, I'm a workin' stiff."
What inspired the book?
My whole life. I have been dealing with creativity for as long as I can remember. It's been something I've been fascinated with since before school, literally. The whole business of where ideas come from, it was like magic. And I thought to myself, I need to understand that....
My wife, Linda, said that you ought to put this stuff down.
If I had known what it would take, to run an organization and to do this ... I mean, it's not part time. It was back-breaking, it was incredible.
You mentioned four overarching principles in the book. Are the concepts in the book the creative priority in total, or is it still evolving?
I'm quick to say it's still evolving. By the definition of creativity, I don't see how it's possible to make a neat box around that, because the subject itself will confound you by expanding its own boundaries....
Some thinkers have envisioned a world where everybody works for himself and organizations just hire temporary consultants. Where does such outsourcing fit in the creative priority?
It's a cop-out. People treat creativity as something to deal with off-site, or down the hall with the odd people, the creatives.
Creativity is not an element of human behavior that's limited to a certain kind of humanoid. Everybody has great potential.
So I think the entire organization has to be involved in creativity.
There are constructive critics, the skeptics, the refiners, the developers, and most important of all, other than the initiators, are the spotters.
A lot of people have a lot of ideas. The art is in picking out the one that matters, the one that has legs, the one that can grow, and that can impact the most.
If we've got a good idea out there today, somebody in this organization has to say which one it is and go with it.
Management itself needs to get involved. Management needs to be the spotters, they need to be the developers, they need to be the people who can enable, and organize the corporation to effect these ideas. It's not good enough to have them.
GM has plenty of ideas, but they aren't getting out on the road. So the question is, why is that?
That's why I think there's been so much escaping from the discomfort of this issue.
People tend to think of creativity as a plaything, as something you do for fun - in fact it's quite uncomfortable. The uncomfortable part is coming up with it and dealing with the fact that you can't tell people why you think it's right. You can't, by definition, prove it yet. It has no history. It's not comfortable until the thing is out there and celebrated.
We have to engage our executives back into the creative process. If we don't get that front row of executives from Nissan today as an active part of realizing some of those concepts, they won't happen. Even if it's just saying "Let's go with it," they're taking an action at the edge of the known, and that's part of the creative process.
Nissan is widely seen as an automaker in trouble, with big debts and slow sales. Yet you have said repeatedly that this is a great time to work at Nissan. Why?
For the creative folks, it's a time filled with potential, because the corporation is acknowledging that "our old ways clearly weren't working," and are asking, "What should the new ways be?" And that's the job of creativity. So we're having a good time reinventing the way we're doing business and ultimately the products that we produce.
Measuring Creativity: 'Soft Stuff' vs. 'Tough Stuff'
Many will find it difficult to adopt the central proposition of this book. It is not that the changes effected by the new procedures are too complex or strange ... but that they appear to threaten and run counter to familiar tactics for retaining control and avoiding risk.
Creativity has always been categorized as ... "soft stuff," along with intuitive thinking, human resource management, motivational issues, employee assistance programs,... The "tough stuff," all those aspects ... that can be ... described by military analogies,... retains a firm hold on most executive boards.... - From 'The Creative Priority'