OUR ASSUMPTIONS about creativity are often wrong, unsupported by research. Take the creative individual, someone who survived formal education with their creativity intact.
This is not quite right.
The tension between Batman and Superman provides a good analogy for what research tells us about creativity and individuals. .
Some people find it easy to generate new ideas. Like Superman, they have a (creative) superpower. Superman’s problem is that he struggles to understand when his superpower detracts from what he’s doing (rather than adding to it). Superman constantly generates ideas, many (most?) of which are not useful (or possibly even new). This detracts from the work, annoying his co-workers. He needs to learn to be Clark Kent, to fit in, to understand when creativity is appropriate and which ideas are useful.
Others find it difficult to generate new ideas. Like Batman, they need tools to have a creative superpower, to generate new ideas. However, they find it easy (unlike Superman) to determine when an idea is useful, to know when it’s appropriate to use these tools, to fit in.
There is more to creativity that some innate human capability. Nor is it simply the result of technique, a skill that can be learnt. Creativity comes from a confluence of factors, some that we can control and others which we only can influence.
We see creativity as a nebulous concept, an ineffable quality that wells from creative individuals. Firms struggle to engage with creativity as there is no process that provides a guaranteed outcome.
Unsurprisingly creativity has fallen into the same trap as innovation, passing in and out of favour as business priorities shift, rarely seen as an essential part of operations.
However, in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, it’s creativity that drives value creation and differentiation. This is particularly true in 2021 with the global pandemic pushing us into unchartered territory, making past experience a poor predictor for the future. Creativity sets companies apart from one another.
There’s a deep vein of research we dig into to pick apart this problem. A good place to start is understanding what creativity is (and what it isn’t).
A working definition is:
Creativity is the interaction among aptitude, process, and environment by which an individual or group produces a perceptible product that is both novel and useful as defined within a social context.1
There’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s start at the end.
For a work to be creative it must be both novel and useful. Obviously, if something is creative it will be novel, but if an idea is novel without also being useful then it’s useless (and so not creative). Creativity doesn’t just depend on an individual’s ability to generate new ideas —these ideas must address the problem at hand. They also need to be considered at an appropriate time, when the ideas add to the work rather than distract from it.
The requirement for a creative idea to be useful, and not just novel, also means that creativity is contextual —it’s not a transferable skill. Being creative in one area doesn’t not imply that you will be creative in another. A lack of understanding of the domain could impede your ability to find useful ideas. Or you might struggle to generate new ideas at all, unable to distinguish between what is new and what is not.
Research defines the context for creativity in terms of the Four Ps:2 person, process, product, and press (which we’ll refer to as ‘place’). While the individual, the person (or group), contributes to creativity, it also depends on how they can be creative (the processes and tools), what is creative (what is useful) in the current context, and how creativity can be nurtured (or stifled) by the social and physical environment the work takes place in. A creative business, then, is a business that balances person, process, product, and place to foster creativity. in what it does; not a firm that uses ‘creative’ tools and methodologies, which works in a particular sector, or hires creative individuals.
It’s useful to think of these four factors in terms of projects, given that most of our time these days is spent on project work.
If we want more creative outcomes from projects, projects that find novel ways to deliver new value, then we need to consider more than the skills of the people on the project team. A creative business needs to think about how it defines, creates, staffs, and manages projects, from estimating and budgeting through how projects interact with others that depend on them.
Creativity is a journey of divergence (generating new ideas) and convergence (eliminating the unsuitable). This implies a cost, as it requires us to imagine and explore alternatives, many of which won’t bear fruit. This cost needs to be quantified and factored into a firm’s operating procedures for project estimating, budgeting, and delivery planning, otherwise the procedures will actively discourage creativity.
The firm, on the other hand, needs to create an environment where individuals can speak their mind without fear of judgment or reprisal and, therefore, to effectively collaborate and encourage creativity, an environment of psychological safety. An environment where teams can change direction and react to new ideas without being hamstrung by overly prescriptive operating processes and operational safety.
The trip from ‘business’ to ‘creative business’ is an ongoing journey rather than transformation project. Simply hiring creative people or adopting creative methodology will not have the desired effect. Changes need to made across all four Ps, not just one or two.
The good news is the mini-c 3 creativity, the creativity of personal insights, should be in every firm’s reach. With feedback from other people, practice, reflection, and growth, firms can expect to reach little-c, the next level of creativity, everyday creativity where their efforts are recognised by other firms as being creative. Practice and a commitment to improving will get them to pro-c, where the firm is considered a creative expert in its chosen field. A lucky few will make it to pro-c, legendary creativity, where the firm’s genius and eminent work that will be appreciated and remembered for centuries.
2. Rhodes, M (1961), ‘An Analysis of Creativity’, The Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 42, no. 7, pp. 305–310, <www.jstor.org/stable/20342603>
3. Beghetto, R. A., & Kaufman, J. C. (2014). Classroom contexts for creativity. High Ability Studies, 25, 53-69.
Published 10 Jun 2021