An unsuitable job for a gentleman

Simon Sholl wonders why British industry finds it so hard to be creative

Not many people would choose to make love in a straitjacket. It would be cumbersome, uncomfortable and not much fun - but, above all, the failure rate would be unacceptably high. At all events, fertility would be at a premium.

Yet much of British management and marketing is doing the equivalent, in an environment where innovation suffers the "death of a thousand cuts" and creativity is regarded with suspicion or outright derision.

After many years spent working in the creative services industry around the world, I have come to the conclusion that there is in Britain a deep-rooted cultural resistance to innovation. The French have the TGV, the Japanese their Bullet Train - and we have 1940s slam-door rolling-stock. Why?

I blame two interlinked facets of British society - our education system and our class system. It is a fact that most opinion-formers in the UK, including Richard Branson and the Prime Minister, were educated either within the public-school system or at schools modelled on this approach. Richard Branson's creative, entrepreneurial mind did not fit this model, and he was expelled - just as I was.

This style of education, central to British culture and government, is based on the "learn, don't question" principle. As my teachers used to say: "You know the answer perfectly well. You're just trying to be clever." Founded at a time when schools' avowed aim was to provide empire-builders, this philosophy produced an officer cadre whose goal was not to use initiative but to carry out orders. It set out to stifle creativity in the belief that there was only one way of doing things.

Linked to this is the British sense of class that continues to be a source of amazement and derision in the world of global business. In how many other countries could one tell, by accent alone, not merely which class someone came from, but which substratum? Our national psyche has inherited the pre-Industrial Revolution distinction between "gentlemen" and "trade". You don't believe me? Then why do the British so often despise salesmen? In the US, to be a salesman - independent, self-sufficient, wealth-creating - is something to be proud of.

As herd primates, it is in our genes to establish "pecking orders", to submit to or overthrow the dominant male in the group. In this respect we are no different from baboons. But the British class system reinforces and endorses this instinct at a human level - the master/servant relationship.

In my own field, brand and design consultancy, this ethos affects our relationships both with our clients and with our colleagues.

In our clients, it gives rise to "supplier mentality", an inability to trust in the expertise of consultants - which by definition is an expertise our clients do not share. This leads to an "I pay the bills, you do as I say" attitude, created and nurtured by our class system. Genuine, cross-disciplinary innovation - just about the only sort that works - is well-nigh impossible. This is in stark contrast to the situation in relatively classless societies such as Scandinavia or Germany, where most clients respect and act on the advice and expertise of the consultants they have retained.

Supplier mentality affects the way creative consultancies themselves are structured. Advertising agencies, brand consultancies and packaging designers are organised according to principles, beliefs and systems current before the turn of the century. In those days, "gentlemen" in suits wrote copy and represented the agency, while "the inky chaps in the studio" did the illustrations. Little has changed. Creativity is regarded as Trade, very much as a gentleman farmer would have regarded a blacksmith in 1899. The "Suit" takes the brief from the client and instructs the "Creatives" what to do. In due course, the Creatives show what they have done to the Suit, and the results are presented to the client. Creatives who dispute the brief are "stroppy"; Suits who don't like the work "don't understand creativity". The two tribes remain at loggerheads. In the meantime, creativity, like desire in a straitjacket, quietly withers away.

Commercially successful innovation cannot take place without creativity. Witness Britain's performance as outlined in Agamus Consult's recent study of major manufacturing companies, "Stars of Innovation". Out of 13 European and North American countries, Britain came sixth in terms of actual innovation, behind the US, Canada, Switzerland, Germany and Japan. But - and here's the frightening bit - we are perceived by others as being even less innovative (ninth) and we are 12th when it comes to the pressure we put on ourselves to innovate. Yet our innovation projects are the second most labour-intensive. So we use more employees, to innovate less effectively, than just about everyone else - and yet we don't actually think innovation is important. And this in a business climate where the speed of innovation, some say, is doubling every two years.

What's the solution? It will take a generation to change the way our education and our class-ridden society have taught us to think. Belatedly, government is on to this, at least in intention. The recent report Creativity, Culture and Education from the Department for Education sets out the requirements for developing creative minds: "We believe that the habit of learning has to be complemented by the disposition to be creative."

To force a switch from the reactive to the innovative means creating new management and reporting systems that put an end to the reiterative, approval-seeking approach to decision-making. It means breaking down functional barriers - and the tribal cultures that go with them. It means an enforced meritocracy (and maybe an end to job titles and individual offices). Above all, it means recognition, at an organisational level, that creative innovation is not the prerequisite of any one department, and that "informed intuition" - the basis for nearly all great inventions - has more value than sterile intellectualism or fact-based thinking.

Who knows - the British may shake off that straitjacket yet.

n Simon Sholl is planning and development director at Siebert Head, the international packaging, design, and identity consultants.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Neil Pavier: Commercial Analyst

£50,000 - £55,000: Neil Pavier: Are you a professionally qualified commercial ...

Loren Hughes: Financial Accountant

£45,000 - £55,000: Loren Hughes: Are you looking for a new opportunity that wi...

Sheridan Maine: Finance Analyst

Circa £45,000-£50,000 + benefits: Sheridan Maine: Are you a newly qualified ac...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe