Julie Burstein’s Spark: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: March 19th, 2011 by bobmorris

Spark: How Creativity Works
Julie Burstein
Harper/HarperCollins (2011)

The process by which to “ignite” creative and innovative thinking that has breakthrough impact

I have read and reviewed most of the books published during the past decade whose authors focus on leadership and/or management of creativity, innovation, and/or collaboration within a business context.  I think Julie Burstein’s book is one of the most valuable. Others have their own reasons for thinking so. Here are three of mine.

First, she reviews research on breakthrough creative/innovative thinking that revealed business lessons previously shared in sources she duly acknowledges. She supplements that valuable material with what was revealed during more than one thousand interviews conducted for Studio 360.

In a series of chapters with a rigorous discussion of a major theme in each, she focuses on 3-6 exemplars in each chapter (a total of 35 “individual case studies”) who have much of value to share about how creativity has worked for them. For example, “Engaging Adversity” (Chapter 1), “Imagination’s Wellspring” (Chapter 5), and “Reweaving a Shattered World” (Chapter 8). The variety of perspectives provided in each of the nine chapters invests the narrative with a multidimensional texture appropriate to the complexity of the nutrition, gestation, ideation, and refinement process. Business leaders would be well-advised to master the skills of a world-class gardener.

I also admire how skillfully Burstein inserts relevant digressions (footnotes, anecdotes, clarifications, etc.) to supplement the primary narrative. The reader learns about, for example, the death of Donald Hall’s wife and how he dealt with it within and beyond his art; why “the forces of gravity are integral part of Richard Serra’s monumental steal structures” (each weighs several thousand pounds but each is free-standing, “designed to balance on a slim edge”); and how an encounter during a highly contentious faculty meeting at the University of Pennsylvania led to a “creative partnership” between architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown that spanned 50 years during which they married and raised a son. As Burstein demonstrates time and again, breakthrough ideas (however brilliant) have their greatest impact when anchored in human experience.

I have other reasons, to be sure, but will offer only these two. However, I presume to suggest to those who read the book that they be alert for Julie Burstein’s observations and suggestions with regard to (a) the barriers to the creative process and how to overcome them, (b) how important it is to engage adversity with courage and then conquer it with cunning, and (c) why throughout the entire creative process, passion and determination tend to be more important than inspiration. When asked if he was always painting, Henri Matisse replied, “No. But when my muse visits me, I better have a brush in hand.”


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