The Creativity in Conflict

Birth, destruction, transformation, and rebirth

Shiva and Parvati – to many of those who have recently voted in the UK’s referendum on membership of the European Union, hearing these names can create a deep psychological urge to want your country back. But these are ancient names that predate transnational governmental institutions, banal English nationalism, or referenda. These are names that predate even history itself. Shiva and Parvati are the sacred names of Hindu Gods, part of the fountainhead of the world’s oldest religion. Shiva, the Lord of the Dance, the Divine Archer, Storm Lord, bringer of truth, a leader of armies, holding the full destructive power of the Universe at his finger tips. Parvati, the icon of fertility, divine strength, gentility and compassion, who can conjure life with her celestial hands. Shiva and Parvati are not just deities but also husband and wife, a sacred union, and it is to their time, the time before time, that we travel.

Rudyard Kipling described India as ‘a place beyond all others where one must not take things too seriously – the midday sun always excepted’. It is to escape this punishing midday Indian sun that one morning the Goddess Parvati leaves her house to take a refreshing bath in a quiet, shaded pool nearby. Her husband Shiva is away at war and she has no-one to care for the house whilst she takes her leave to bathe. She takes some root of the turmeric plant beaten into a paste, closes her eyes and summons her divine power. With a flash of her hand the Goddess of fertility creates a beautiful young boy whose skin has the resplendent hue of the magical turmeric paste from which he was drawn forth. She names him Ganesh and kissing him fondly on the head she charges him with guarding the family home as she leaves to take her bath – “No-one is to pass this threshold my son, no-one”. 

Before Parvati’s bathing has finished Shiva returns to their home. He is war weary, exhausted by the ravages of constant fighting, and finds the entrance to his abode guarded by this mysterious boy. He tries to enter his home but the boy blocks his way, “I am Lord Shiva, destroyer of armies, do not block me from entering boy” seethes the furious God. The boy, innocently implacable in the face of this enraged God, repeats the words “No-one shall pass this threshold, no-one”. Shiva rises up and with furious vengeance instructs his armies to attack the boy. But even the armies of a God fail to dislodge this strange yet special boy from his guard post. On witnessing this Shiva draws both further reserves of anger and also his sword. With one fatal blow he decapitates the boy, whose head, still implacable, still a picture of loyal determination, topples from the body and rolls along the ground. 

It is tragedy beyond measure that a parent should ever have to bury their child. Be they peasant, pauper, or Goddess, the pain is equally unbearable for all. On returning to her home to find her husband has slain her only son Parvati summons a rage that shakes all of heaven and earth with its thunder. It is a rage she cannot control, a grief so deep and all consuming that it threatens to destroy everything in the world. Fearing this apocalyptic power Lord Brahma, creator of the universe, intervenes. He pleads with Parvati to calm her incandescence, to save the world from a destructive force that once unleashed can never be undone. Furious, tearful, her whole body shaking with the force of this uncontrollable grief, Parvati tells Lord Brahma that there can only be peace if two conditions are met – firstly that her son Ganesh be brought back to life, secondly that he be worshipped before all other Gods. 

Lord Brahma, now the peacemaker, the Kofi Annan of the Hindu Gods, takes these conditions to Shiva whose countenance is no longer consumed with the red mist of battle. He listens to Lord Brahma’s words and seeing the sense in his counsel agrees to Parvati’s conditions. To meet the first condition he asks Brahma to bring the head back of the first animal whose path he crosses. Brahma returns with the wise and kind head of an elephant which Shiva places onto the body of Ganesh. As he breathes new life into this body he declares Ganesh to be his own son, giving him the status of being the foremost amongst all Gods. This new God, forged in a cauldron of the passions, a process that was equal parts love and fury, becomes an inspiration for all across the Hindu faith. Ganesh becomes the patron saint of the arts, of sciences, his Elephantine head an icon for the intellect and wisdom of the beast it was taken from. From conflict, something new and better was born. 

Creative Destruction

The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter was not a devout Hindu, or perhaps his devotion was very well hidden. Indeed it goes without saying, Western intellectuals are not always known for their humility in recognising the global context to their ideas. It would seem unlikely that when Schumpeter announced his theory of ‘Creative Destruction’ he was aware of expressing an idea that Indian civilisation, the oldest continuous civilisation in our world, has had close to its heart for millennia. 

The idea at the heart of both the Hindu story of Ganesh and Schumpeter’s theory of capitalist innovation is this – to create something new it is often necessary to destroy. Whilst destruction can be painful, heart wrenching, and devastating, it is a necessary element of the process of creation. The creation of the new involves the destruction of what went before. And hence if we cannot accept and embrace the chaos of destruction as a necessity, there will be no progress, no creation of the new ideas that propel people, organisations, cultures, and dare I say it, brands, forward. 

Constructive Conflict

In a memorable Ted Talk “Dare to Disagree” the writer Margaret Heffernan discusses how learning to manage conflict is at the heart of invention. She describes the journey of Alice Stewart, the scientist and pioneer of data analytics who discovered the link between X-rays during pregnancy and incidents of childhood cancer. Alice was a gregarious, outgoing, and empathetic person who had as a partner for her work George Kneale, a solitary introvert, whom Heffernan describes as liking numbers more than people. These two could not be more different in personality, disposition, and working styles but created a working partnership that was so effective anyone, parent or otherwise, should be thankful of. George’s role in the partnership was one of disconfirmation. He would say “my job is to prove Alice wrong”. It was only by not being able to prove that she was wrong that George could give Alice the confidence that she was right.

Heffernan helps us understand that it is human to not want to disagree. It is human to seek out those whom we are most comfortable around. It is human to want others to confirm not just our ideas and beliefs but also our biases and prejudices. However, these human instincts can do a disservice to the quality of our thinking. Heffernan quotes research that shows how 85% of people working in companies in Europe and America had issues or concerns at work that they were afraid to raise. Fear of rocking the boat, of being seen as difficult, or in the worst circumstances fear of being seen as a whistleblower, is hindering too many organisations from growth. Cultivating a culture which is intolerant of difference, disagreement, and critique is a recipe for a culture which will find progress and innovation much harder than it needs to be.

It seems obvious to say but if we don’t allow critique how can we ever seek to change the status quo? If we cannot handle confronting our own conceits and prejudices we will fail to develop. The challenge that represents the views and ideas of others can never create anything new unless we are willing to work with it. As Heffernan says, “Openness is not the end, it is the beginning”. So rather than seeing conflict as hard, painful, and something to be avoided, we really need to acknowledge that conflict is simply thinking. If we as individuals can be better at conflict we will be better at creativity. If we can help the companies we work with to foster a culture which is better at conflict we will have more creative businesses. 

“They hated my brief…”

From the surface a creative brief can appear a rather innocent and inconsequential document. A piece of paper with boxes like ‘objectives’, ‘audience’, and ’proposition’ shouldn’t be threatening. It’s merely trying to communicate some information. Sticks and stones may break your bones but briefs will never hurt you….

It can come as a surprise how much conflict these seemingly innocent little documents can create. Data tells us that 3/4 of the creative briefs issued by businesses are seen as confusing and uninspiring by the agency people that receive them. In early June the creative director and advertising writer Mark Duffy described creative briefs as “The worst pieces of communications in business history” in a polemic which brings to life why agency people often have such a poor opinion of the briefs they receive. 

It is clear that creative briefs are generating more conflict than ever before. To anyone involved in the giving of briefs this is probably disheartening. It would all be nicer and easier if every time people were briefed they would say “That’s amazing, I love what you’ve done and I’m completely fired up to crack it”.

But they don’t.

Conflict and Briefing

Working in creative occupations is rife with opportunities for fear. Uncertainty is a hallmark of the creative process. Exposing your ideas is not easy as it entails personal risk. Many of those with great creativity are introverts to whom this sense of social exposure is anathema. Creating a brief is similarly fraught with opportunities for fear – What if my work is critiqued? What if others reject my ideas? What if nobody agrees with the direction I think we need to go in? 

It is only natural to have these fears. Good briefs need commitment, they need to take a stance. Taking a stance risks the opportunity to be wrong, the opportunity for rejection. When you share ideas that you have invested in or care about you are opening up your insides, exposing elements of your personality that are less often seen. When people reject our ideas it is only human to feel like they are also rejecting us.

Giving in to these fears means ultimately creativity will be the victim. If creativity, originality, new ideas are the endpoint we need to become good at conflict, not fear it. We need to embrace it as a necessary part of the process, and the difficult emotions it brings as part of the price of doing things properly. Unless you can become comfortable with conflict it is unlikely that you will ever be very good at briefing.

Ultimately this means being okay with people challenging your ideas. As opposed to this being aggressive or mendacious we need to embrace the worldview of Alice Stewart and Margaret Heffernan and see it as simply thinking in action. If there is nothing to question in your brief then it is unlikely that it has done its job. Questioning reflects a brief that has got people thinking, which is really the most fundamental thing that it needs to do. 

“I never read the brief”

The Planner Constance DeCherney wrote a recent article for The Drum entitled “A strategists point of view on why you should shred your brief”. She recounts how the Creative Director in her advertising agency told her that “I don’t read briefs” – something that blew away her belief that her briefs were giving “a precise, data-driven, yet emotionally-inspiring view of who the consumer is, why we care about them and how to best connect.”

This challenge inspired Constance to change the way she briefed. She dumped the written document and instead turned her briefing process into an experience. For the launch of a protein brand targeting athletes, she applied the principle of ‘living the brief’. She took her teams to the gym at 6am so they could see what it was like to do an exhausting workout. The team lived, breathed and behaved like the people who their brief was targeting, lived, breathed, and behaved. 

Some creative people get a benefit from written briefs so I’m not sure if there is a golden rule to be drawn from Constance’s experience that everyone should dump the writing part. However this example illustrates that when faced with a challenge to your brief, there is more creativity to be gained from rising to the challenge, seeing the conflict as positive, rather than becoming entrenched, defensive and sticking to your guns. Turning your briefing process into an experience is a great idea and if that helps creative development in the agency then all power to it. Conflict, critique, and challenge help to inspire innovation.


Ganesha image sourced from:

Margaret Heffernan “Dare to Disagree”:

Wikipedia on Creative Destruction:

Mark Duffy rant about briefs (thanks to Nick Kendall for sending this in my direction and for his most gratefully received mentorship over the last few months):

Constance DeCherney from The Drum:

Author: Pete Heskett

I am a firm believer in the magical power of creativity to transform culture, the human experience, and the businesses that drive our economy. With 21 years working as a Planner in top global advertising agencies I have extensive experience of both being briefed and of briefing others. In that time I've seen and been involved in the good, the bad, and the ugly of briefings. This blog is dedicated to providing advice and inspiration for those seeking to improve the quality of the briefings they give.

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