Posted by: Liz Massey | January 6, 2010

The Artist @ Work: Michelle James, Center for Creative Emergence

Michelle James, CEO, Center for Creative Emergence

Our latest edition of the Artist @ Work series features an interview with Michelle James, CEO of The Center for Creative Emergence and founder of the Capitol Creativity Network and Quantum Leap Business Improv.

Michelle is a business creativity consultant, facilitator and coach who has pioneered concepts related to creativity and improvisation in business for 15 years. She recently produced a sold-out Creativity in Business Conference in Washington, DC. She performs with Precipice Improv and is an abstract painting artist.

Enjoy learning more about Michelle’s thoughts about the creative process, as well as how to blend artistic creativity with the needs of the business world!

Creative Liberty: Tell us a little bit about The Center for Creative Emergence and how you developed it as a business entity.

Michelle James: CCE is a company is a creativity coaching, consulting and training company for individual, groups and organizations, dedicated to “mainstreaming” creativity and integrating the split we’ve been living between creativity and business. We help solopreneurs and creatives do anything from create their unique signature to design a program to develop a new income-generating business using their creativity.

(CCE’s) development was mostly nonlinear. I was simultaneously engaging different avenues of learning and exploration – organizational development, psychology, improv, the arts, the brain, bodywork, philosophy, healing, coaching and other modalities, with a work history in marketing and media – until it all came together in an “emergence,” in which the disparate parts formed into a new whole. I needed to create and income-generating business structure where I could bring in my experiences, training/education and the whole-brain modalities that were most alive for me, and the only way I could do that and not feel like I was losing a part of myself was to create my own business. I learned a lot about the principles of creative emergence in the process.

The linear progression of the business is that I went from working in the media and marketing (and having my creative and philosophical pursuits on the side) to owning a creative services business, to co-owning an organizational development company (bringing creativity in through the back door), to finally establishing CCE, which has the convergence of creativity, purpose and serving a greater good front and center.

How would you differentiate personal creative efforts from organizational or business-related creativity? What are the similarities and differences?

Similarities: Creativity is everywhere, in everyone and in every group, organization, culture and system. It is always there, and can always be accessed and used for the good of that person, group or system. Creativity is transformative by its nature and changes the status quo. Resistance (contraction in a creative process) then shows up. Moving through it – and not turning back – is the key. For me, every person, group or system has infinite creative potential, and the potential to align him/her/itself to its highest potential.

Differences: Personal creativity and business creativity might have different objectives, i.e., creating for self expression vs. creating a new product or a new business structure. Individual creativity allows you to go deeper, have more space, feel less self-conscious, have unfettered expression, and create from internal motivation and expression. Organizational creativity allows you to access a collective intelligence/creative field, where the creativity of whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Business creativity, to me, is using your creativity to both create and achieve your business objectives and structure.

With that said, the more you follow your passion and purpose, the less you may tend to experience personal and work creativity as different … if you’re willing to make necessary changes and follow your creative impulse. It might mean some structural changes in your work and life, and that can be tough at first … and may require long periods of being in ambiguity – in between the trapezes – in trial and error.

Being in that exploratory ambiguity is part of the creative process. Real creativity is messy. It can leave loose ends along the way … but there is always a larger creative intelligence at work, and the loose ends often come back later as completely coherent part of the NEW structure you are creating.

How does your Emergence Focus approach to creativity differ from other more traditional approaches? What can artists learn from this approach?

Emergence focus allows a large space for exploration and the unpredictable. I call it Emergent Space – where something emerges (an insight, idea, etc) that changes, usually by expanding, the course of the original plans, and still often includes them. Goals are seen as flexible guideposts, not static end points. It focuses on what’s next, not a static future vision.

Visioning processes are great and I recommend them to discover what calls to you and to serve as a compass, with a flexible destination. The emergence focus is specifically engaging what is in front of you and unfolding/creating what is next. In other words, as you create what is next, the “what’s next” after that emerges, and so on. That way, you remain flexible, adaptive and creative as you are go along, and can adapt your vision in light of new information, inspiration or awareness. It also focuses on the “yes-and” not “either-or” way of navigating seemingly conflicting ideas. If the question is “Do I do x or y?” and you are passionate about both, then the answer is “Yes”…it just requires going up to a new level of creative thinking to emerge a way they can both co-exist. For example, often my clients have 2 or 3 different business ideas. When they engage the emergence process, a new can structure emerge that allows all 3 to be part of the business, rather than having to eliminate one.

Creative emergence contains the balance of both structure and flow. Generally, those who feel more comfortable in flow – often artists – learn how to build structure to contain, direct and focus the flow. Those who are more comfortable with structure – often business people – learn how to unleash more creative flow to help take their work or business to the next level.

What are common struggles that businesses have related to innovation or creativity?

Being prepared to handle what happens when real creativity is unleashed in a system. It means change – deep, real, and often uncomfortable change. And it comes with resistance – being able to navigate the natural resistance that comes with transformation. People will feel anything from energized to terrified … the entire range must be accommodated through a creative process. Also, willingness to let go, (because) change means some people will opt out of that system.

The fear of failure and the fear of the unknown are the 2 biggest blocks to creativity – almost all other fears can fall under one of those. That’s why I believe improvisational theater training should be mandatory for all employees (and leaders) – improv principles and practices are one of the most accessible, easy and enjoyable ways to help people shift those fears. Through improv, you can’t help but develop a new relationship to the unknown, failure and risk-taking. The unknown becomes potential, failure becomes an invitation to create, and risk taking is exploration. Once you get comfortable with the unknown, and see failure as an essential part of the exploration, it is earlier to move past struggles and into new creation.

What are some common errors that people, particularly artists, make about the intersection between making art and making a living?

Many artists, like anyone else in our culture, have a set of foundational belief systems that have separated the business bottom line or generating income from creativity. Some take pride in being the “staving artist” and not “selling out.” Some carry negative stereotypes about business/business people that can interfere with the creating of a thriving business for themselves. The old paradigm was not very appealing to creatives, unless perhaps you were working in a creative services department or a creative services business. But … a new business paradigm is emerging that is different – one that can serve the greater good, make a profit, AND use your creativity. It requires everyone to leave old foundational beliefs behind, and embrace more expansive and inclusive models of creativity, the arts and commerce.

How can creative people leverage their aptitude for innovation in the world of business?

Meet the business world where it is – engage in classes, trainings, coaching, whatever you need to understand how the business works. That will help you in finding or create opportunities to bring your unique gift to the world and get paid for it. Create your niche based on your passion, and structure it to include the bottom line. Artists who value the bottom line are more likely to find ways to generate a healthy one.

Create a business, or work for one, that already values creativity as part of their culture. Align your belief systems to a new, healthier paradigm of business. If you can get beyond old models and stereotypes, and into the essence of business as service and value exchange, then it’s easier to leverage your creativity within it.

Tell us about why you developed the Capitol Creative Network and the Creativity in Business conference.

To establish a community of practice for those of us interested in applied creativity – the practical applications of creativity in the business world, and to give us an opportunity to regularly and consistently explore and experience a variety of approaches to weaving creativity and business together. CCN was established in 2004. Before then, I had participated in various arts, holisitc, organizational development and business groups, but none that were exploring business through the lens of creativity, and using whole-brain creative process at every meeting to do so.

At CCN, we have a different creativity facilitator each time, and at the Creativity in Business conference there were several break-out sessions from which to choose, each focused on a different type of creative process. There are as many ways to facilitate creative process as there are people called to do it. I am passionate about giving people an opportunity to experience different dimensions of their creativity, and applying it to life and work.

What can live creativity-oriented events provide that online social networks cannot?

There is still something special that can happen in a live group. A group field can emerge – a collective creative intelligence – in real time that is greater than the sum of its parts. There is a shared “we” space that informs the creative process.

Co-creation is dynamic and immediate, and responds to real-time feedback. Since 55 percent of communication is non-verbal, you can experience a richer, more embodied context and intimacy. The resonance is immediate. You connect more with the whole person, not just their ideas. Emotions and energy, which fuel the creative process, are more easily cultivated.

For this to happen often requires consciously setting the conditions for a generative group field. Sometimes, if the container is not set, live groups can fall into a comfortable groupthink that inhibits the creative process. Social networks also have some advantages. I advocate engaging multiple channels of collaborative potential – live and online, small group and large.

Where do you see your efforts to promote creativity in the workplace going over the next decade?

I can really only answer it from the lens of emergence, which can’t be fully predicted. I am committed to the “meme” of emergence, foundational creativity, whole-person/whole-system creativity and generative work structures. I trust that if I remain directed, present to my purpose, create from what is in front me now, say ‘yes’ to what feels most alive and vital (and ‘no’ to what does not), pay attention to emerging patterns and feedback from the world, and adapt to new information and advances, I will evolve my work in ways that I can actually not imagine now. That’s how emergence works. Evolving technologies and social systems, and my continued evolution and growth, will inform and expand my vision along the way – and surprise is the critical, and most rewarding, element.

I think in terms on “entry points” – what I know now and what is next. Some of ways I see my efforts being expressed now and next are more live and online events, experiential workshops, and interactive products. I am writing a book(s) on foundational creativity and the practices and principles of creative emergence, and plan to create videos on these topics. I see myself working help entrepreneurs and organizations at foundational levels structure their for creativity and innovation; working with creativity from multiple levels: cognitive, intuitive, somatic, energetic, consciousness and the soul at work – possibly establishing an online community; and bringing in more whole-brain, improvisation-based, intuitive and bodied-centered practices into the business arena through a variety of channels.

I would like to remain a life-long learner and creator, so whatever I do, I have to balance my knowledge/experience with a “beginner’s mind” to keep my own creativity actively engaged and a living, evolving vision.

What do you think a greater appreciation of the creative process at work would mean for American businesses? American artists?

I believe creative energy is the most transformative energy there is – it has the power to change all situations. Once it is more valued, engaged, and cultivated in our work culture, anything is possible. We are starting see shifts in now only how we create, what we create, and how we do business. Most businesses are still operating form old foundations, modeled after mechanical processes instead of organic, creativity-centered, living-system foundations.

Once creativity permeates the work culture, structures will change dramatically. I can’t predict how it will look because it will be co-created by all of us, but I believe we will see more aliveness and ingenuity in the work place; blurred boundaries of what was previously siloed; more adaptive, dynamic business models; and more work climates that feed the soul and inspire contribution to a larger whole.

Is there anything else we haven’t covered that you think is relevant?

Once we let go of outdated, limiting notions of who and what is creative and embrace a larger framework of creativity, then it’s easier to cultivate it in every workplace. We need FOUNDATIONAL shifts in how we think, interact, and engage. We need to integrate previously unrelated disciplines to create new, more inclusive ones. It’s time to let go of inhibiting paradigms and embracing more holistically generative ones. This is already beginning to happen, and the more conscious focus and attention we put toward it, the more quickly it will evolve.


  1. I agree that online social networks can not beat the offline liveliness. I guess both has their advantages and disadvantages.

  2. […] The Artist @ Work: Michelle James, Center for Creative Emergence […]

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