An unsuitable job for a gentleman

Simon Sholl wonders why British industry finds it so hard to be creative
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The Independent Online
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.