Boundaries are a funny thing, aren’t they?
Boundaries exist in various realms of our everyday life. Whether it’s within relationships, hobbies, or careers, boundaries are necessary (just ask your cell membranes). With clear boundaries, you can save yourself and/or your company from getting burned by an unforgiving fire. When we define our personal boundaries in social situations, they help us understand our own preferences and value systems. Boundaries in business and finance help us feel safe and secure — like when we’re protecting our assets, managing our career path or finding competitive advantages.
Organizational design is one area where designing boundaries has been used to encourage cooperation and innovation, foster large-scale cultural shifts, and develop self-responsible teams and employees. The idea of liberating structures, for example, was first introduced by William Torbert, a proponent of integral approaches to leadership. Torbert wanted to explore organizational structures that would guide people to develop the skills to guide themselves. Setting simple rules in a collaborative setting can make it easier for people who don’t know each other to create something emergent together.
If boundaries in the home and corporate workplace are seen in this positive, life-altering light, why are they initially thought to be restrictive within creative fields?
“The structure of a network determines the flow of information.”
Let’s zoom out a bit to network dynamics. In complex networks, boundaries can limit, channel, and/or define network effects. For example, if you want to reduce a product’s time to market, you might want to limit the number of democratic, consensus-driven decisions and instead divide, conquer and reconvene. When you draw boundaries in an organization for a project or process, you’re essentially either enabling or limiting the number and direction of interactions across the network of your team. Sometimes you want open collaboration. Other times you want to vet major decisions through a team lead or project manager. These are two different network structures, and the structure of a network determines the flow of information. (There will always be emergent interactions however, as no network is perfectly ordered and hierarchical.) Some boundaries are drawn to enhance productivity, while others are there to provoke innovation. Sometimes a clear boundary allows more room to play within.
“Boundaries aren’t an option. Boundaries are a necessary part of creation.”
The notion that boundaries drive creativity isn’t new to network science or nature. As Yaneer Bar-Yam of NESCI said, “If you create boundaries, then different parts can do different things.” For example, boundaries between your organs allow them to specialize and work together. Boundaries aren’t an option. Boundaries are a necessary part of creation.
But what about creativity? Do boundaries work differently in networks of artists or in processes of innovation? There’s no denying that what’s being done now in artistic sectors is innovative and reliant on some form of randomness. And indeed it seems that the boundaries among artists and among works of art in one genre might be more flexible and permeable than those you might find between different companies working on the same kind of software.
Marketers, designers, and AI experts pay a lot of attention to how new styles and trends emerge, and even to how your preferences emerge in response. There are algorithms behind every song you discover on a Spotify playlist, to every “new” artist played on your Pandora station, and every body of written work. We can’t always pin down the source of the “randomness” that brings us the delight of discovery. Sometimes truly we stumble upon it on our own, and sometimes that pathway is designed for us and we mostly unaware of it. We know this, and wonder if originality has died out due to the limiting belief that “everything’s been done before.” Being innovative has become daunting to creatives of different sectors alike because unlike the algorithms they create, the pulse of America’s largest generation — the millennials — is difficult to measure.
Now more than ever, breaking prior boundaries and remolding them in the name of innovation is essential.
Many of these innovations show up in the form of networks. A business model built around a network capitalizes on what networks do best: combining existing elements to form new ones. Mark Barrett is the creator of WrittenByYou, a site that allows users to create their own stories while adding onto others. The site cures writer’s block by blurring the boundaries of authorship, and allows for emergence through collaboration with other writers.
“Writing is becoming less and less a solo enterprise, with teams and pairs of writers producing every genre of writing very successfully. I think it is extremely important that fellow artists spend time viewing, reviewing and enjoying each other’s work,” Barrett said.
This same principle rings true in the land of music. In the industry, many artists have received criticism for plagiarism in their songs, yet “sampling” is a common practice in many genres and is as old as music itself. Nobody creates in a vacuum, and attitudes about this as well as the boundaries themselves have had to loosen up, signalling the bell’s toll for record companies’ longtime business models. Projects like Hit Record acknowledge and design for collective collaboration at the scale of networks. Collaboration among emerging musicians has become more distributed thanks to social networks, especially YouTube and Vimeo. Trends, styles, and methods evolve faster than before, because as a musician you’re more connected to the pool of other musicians around the globe, and if you’re still learning, you don’t have to travel far and wide to track the latest trends and emerging methods.
“A business model built around a network capitalizes on what networks do best: combining existing elements to form new ones.”
As the boundaries between genres and styles blend and in some cases disappear, will music begin to homogenize? The prescription for success seems to be finding a niche but being able to adapt to rapidly changing times. The formula works better for some than others, depending on whom you ask (Does anyone really like the new Coldplay?).
But for labels, creativity and innovation isn’t what pays the bills; it’s what the general market will buy. If a song of the past had massive success, there’s a strong likelihood that repurposing the same sounds will give a similar result.
Where other artists have fallen victims to the norms they think they’re bound to, others have used this culture shift to their advantage. Artists such as Jon Bellion have kept a steady eye on the increasingly digitalized world of music, and the user-base that will go out of their way to get what they want when they want it — for free. Bigheads at the labels are forced to re-evaluate their recreations of former songs. They allow the artists, who are kept within the walls of a contract, to win back creative rights they signed away.
Jon Bellion — whose ‘first’ album, The Human Condition, was released in June — is a key innovator in the shifting times of this musical ‘revolution.’ Bellion had released three albums prior to this release with his label, Capitol Records, but not in the traditional way. He released them through SoundCloud, a global music-sharing platform, while uploading periodic video blogs onto his social channels. By doing so, Bellion created a fan-base in a way that money can’t buy. He catered to the shifting boundaries within the industry and to the evolving standards of today’s user-base, thus catapulting his career with the official release of his first (for purchase) full-length album.
In an interview with Sway Colloway of “Sway in the Morning,” Bellion broke down how to breakthrough in the world of freebies and a generation with an elusive musical pulse.
“In today’s day and age, you can’t necessarily fake the funk. You can spend 500 grand on a video for Katy Perry, but that doesn’t mean a 15-year-old is going to watch it. Because there’s no outlets that are monopolizing people’s attention. . .these labels are crumbling because they can’t put their finger on a pulse of this generation because it’s all just organic. . . it’s almost as if we’re in this wild west of music. . .”
These limitations placed upon artists are now driven by organic and often real-time feedback from their audiences. Obstacles that arise organically should be treated in an organic way: with a beginner’s mind. True innovators treat so-called setbacks as opportunities to not only innovate, but to reach out into their network and create a world where creativity flourishes like water when channeled by feedback. One day, you’ll thank the world for the limitations and obstacles placed on your path, because they made you adaptable, because they connected you with others and turned an ordinary walk into a quest.