Setting the conditions for creativity

In a recent article for the Harvard Business Review, author, speaker and advisor, Greg Satell, outlines why mangers need to create a culture that enables staff to embrace their creativity

One of the most damaging myths about creativity is that there is a specific ‘creative personality’ that some people have and others don’t. Yet in decades of creativity research, no such trait has ever been identified.

The truth is that anybody can be creative, given the right opportunities and context.

If you don’t believe me, take the least creative person in your office out for lunch — someone who doesn’t seem to have a creative bone in their body. Chances are, you’ll find some secret passion, pursued outside of office hours, into which they pour their creative energies. They just aren’t applying those energies to their day jobs.

The secret to unlocking creativity is not to look for more creative people, but to unlock more creativity from the people who already work for you. The same body of creativity research that finds no distinct ‘creative personality’ is incredibly consistent about what leads to creative work, and they are all things you can implement within your team. Here’s what you need to do.

 Cultivate expertise

One of the things that creativity researchers have consistently found for decades is that expertise is absolutely essential for producing top-notch creative work — and the expertise needs to be specific to a particular field or domain. So the first step to being creative is to become an expert in a particular area.

The reason expertise is so important is that you need to be an expert in a specific field to understand what the important problems are and what would constitute an important new solution. Einstein, for instance, studied physics intensely for years to understand the basic physical model for time and space before he understood that there was an inherent flaw in that model.

So how do you cultivate expertise? Performance expert Anders Ericsson has studied that problem for decades and found that the crucial element is deliberate practice. You need to identify the components of a skill, offer coaching, and encourage employees to work on weak areas. That goes far beyond the intermittent training that most organisations do.

Encourage exploration

While deep expertise in a given field is absolutely essential for real creativity, it is not sufficient. Look at any great body of creative work and you’ll find a crucial insight that came from outside the original domain. It is often a, seemingly random, piece of insight that transforms ordinary work into something very different.

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A team of researchers analysing 17.9 million scientific papers found that the most highly cited work is far more likely to come from a team of experts in one field working with a specialist in something very different. It is that combination of expertise, exploration, and collaboration that leads to truly breakthrough ideas.

That is how Google’s ‘20% time’ policy is able to act as a human-powered search engine for new ideas. By allowing employees to work on projects unrelated to their formal job descriptions for 20% of the time, people with varied experiences and expertise can combine their efforts in ways that would be extremely unlikely in a planned company initiative.

Reward persistence

Far too often we think of creativity as an initial, brilliant spark followed by a straightforward period of execution, but that’s not true in the least.

One firm that has been able to buck this trend is IBM. Its research division routinely pursues, seemingly outlandish, ideas long before they are commercially viable. For example, a team at IBM successfully performed the first quantum teleportation in 1993, when the company was in dire financial straits, with absolutely no financial benefit.

However, the research wasn’t particularly expensive and the company has continued to support the work for the last 25 years. Today, it is a leader in quantum computing — a market potentially worth billions — because it stuck with it. That’s why IBM, despite its ups and downs, remains a highly profitable company while so many of its former rivals are long gone.

Kevin Ashton, who first came up with the idea for RFID chips, wrote in his book, How to Fly a Horse, “Creation is a long journey, where most turns are wrong and most ends are dead. The most important thing creators do is work. The most important thing they don’t do is quit.”

Yet all too often, organisations do quit. They expect their ‘babies’ to be beautiful from the start. They see creation as an event rather than a process, don’t invest in expertise or exploration and refuse to tolerate wrong turns and dead ends. Is it any wonder that so few are able to produce anything truly new and different?

This is an edited excerpt from the Harvard Business Review.

Greg Satell’s first book, Mapping Innovation: A Playbook for Navigating a Disruptive Age, was chosen as one of the best business books of 2017 by 800-CEO-READ. You can follow his blog at Digital Tonto or on twitter @DigitalTonto.

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