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Organized Creativity: Creative Processes and Constraints

October 20, 2023 859

Creativity is often associated with freedom, but creatives like songwriters must work within constraints as well. Sociologist and musician Tobias Theel discusses constraints and the creative process in his reflection on “Organizing Creativity With Constraints—Insights From Popular Music Songwriting Teams,” which was written with Jörg Sydow and recently published in the Journal of Management Inquiry (JMI). Find the paper’s abstract and Theel’s reflection below.

Creative processes within and across organizations have not only been associated with freedom but also with constraints. By taking a dialectical process perspective, we examine how creatives actually engage with constraints and how constraints thereby emerge, unfold and terminate over time. Based on ethnographic observations and interviews with popular music songwriting teams, we found that collaborators do not simply experience but also actively utilize constraints. Doing so enables songwriters to process constraints and to organize for an oscillation between stable, generative, and flexible constraint characterizations, fueling the creative process. Notwithstanding the persistent nature of some structural constraints, these findings contribute to research on organizing creativity by conceptualizing constraints as intertwined, malleable and even transformable by actors as they unfold. Thereby, the findings extend the current understanding of creativity with constraints by pointing to the crucial role of certain constraint characterizations that need to alternate procedurally between stability and fluidity.

What motivated you to pursue this research?

Being a sociologist and an amateur musician myself, I have always been fascinated by music scenes, music cultures, and how the music industry works. One day, I stumbled across the research topic of professional songwriters through a podcast on Deutschlandfunk Kultur. Songwriting in popular music is far from a new phenomenon, but most people are not aware of how many songs are not actually written by the artists themselves but by other people behind the scenes. I found it exciting to research this more hidden aspect of the music industry and decided to dig deeper. What’s more, the paper is part of the doctoral thesis I wrote during my time at Freie Universität Berlin, where I was a member of the research group Organized Creativity.

I was very happy when Jörg Sydow, who was the spokesperson of our research group during my time at the Freie Universität, later joined me as a second author to work on the publication at JMI. He has been familiar with this research from the very beginning and has supported me many times in the past as a friendly reviewer.

What has been the most challenging aspect of conducting your research?

The most challenging part was gaining access to popular music songwriting studios, as they rely heavily on informal networks and music industry reputation. I was lucky that our project funding included a video documentary with a professional video shoot and editing that I could offer to studio owners to use for their own purposes, as well. Once I got into contact with a studio owner and artist manager and was able to establish a good relationship by spending a few days at the studio, he recommended me to a bigger studio in Berlin that I had been unable to get access to before. And that was where I gathered most of the data for the paper.

Is there anything that did not make it into your published manuscript that you would like to share with us?

Observing and analyzing popular music songwriters’ constraint-centered creative process is not only the main topic of the paper, but also greatly influenced my own personal approach to making electronic music. Utilizing and translating constraints helped me to gain more control over organizing my creative process and to nurture creative flow through oscillating between stability and fluidity. I can report from first-hand experience that the insights from this research help to manage creativity in music, and I have learned a lot from the songwriters I was able to observe.

Tobias Theel (pictured) is a sociologist, organizational researcher and policy consultant. He received his doctorate degree from the School of Business & Economics at Freie Universität Berlin, Germany, where he was a member of the Research Unit ‘Organized Creativity’ funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). His research areas are organization theory, creativity management, social inequality and social participation. Jörg Sydow is a professor of management at the School of Business & Economics of Freie Universität Berlin and a visiting professor at Strathclyde Business School, Glasgow.

View all posts by Tobias Theel and Jörg Sydow

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