Creativity at Work

Posted by on Mar 31, 2011 in Creativity, Leadership | 0 comments

Does creativity matter throughout an organization?

Recently, a client asked whether I believed that innovation or creativity was important throughout an organization.   “Is it only the R&D folks that need to be creative?  How about the marketers?”

Everyone, was my answer.  The world is changing too fast for any of us not to be interested in new and better ways to do things, in looking for opportunities by making connections between seemingly dissimilar ideas, etc., and it’s the leader’s job to create a culture that nurtures creative thinking.

What is creativity?  Why bother to be creative?

Why does being creative matter to all of us?   I turned to Wikipedia:

“Creativity refers to the phenomenon whereby a person creates something new (a product, a solution, a work of art etc.) that has some kind of value. What counts as “new” may be in reference to the individual creator, or to the society or domain within which the novelty occurs. What counts as “valuable” is similarly defined in a variety of ways.”

I Googled creativity and came to Psychology Today and an article by Carlin Flora, published on November 01, 2009 on “everyday creativity” – meaning that any of us in any activity can be creative, both the officially artistic ways and in the way we go through our day, choosing a new route home, changing our hair style, telling a joke.

I was excited to read about a researcher at Tufts University (my alma mater). “Ivcevic found that students who practiced forms of everyday creativity share, on average, certain personality traits with their “officially” artistic classmates—qualities lost on the conventionals. They share a tendency toward open-mindedness and curiosity, they are persistent, and they are positive, energetic, and intrinsically motivated by their chosen activities. Whether engaging in everyday creativity could foster such personality traits in the conventionals remains a question, but other studies show that taking up creative pursuits actually makes people more flexible and less judgmental.”

Looking from the pespective of value, Wikipedia listed research by Nonaka, who examined several successful Japanese companies, finding creativity and knowledge creation as being important to the success of organizations.

It seems obvious to me that creativity is a basic survival skill both individually and organizationally, with the extraordinary pace of change we live with today.  How is creativity and innovation to be of value throughout organizational life, however?  Evidence appears when we go back to the benefits of everyday creativity listed above and expand them organizationally: being more flexible and less judgmental, allowing for more diversity, greater exploration of market needs, wider panoramic view, successful problem solving.

What does it take to create or subvert creativity in organizations?   I found an article in the magazine Fast Company describing new research by  Amabile, a Harvard Business School  professor who has spent her whole career exploring creativity.  With massive new research results being analyzed, she debunked 6 myths that businesses hold about creativity, the first that it’s only important in R&D, etc..  Amabile saw creativity – the development of new and valuable approaches, processes, etc. – as relevant in any and all parts of a company.  She also talked about commonly thought motivators of creative thinking as time pressure, competition, shrunken resources, as having a negative impact on creative thinking because energy and openness gets sapped.  So, in fact, creativity does need a nurturing environment to flourish.

Moving back to the individual from the systemic conditions, from the world of business to the world of my day, what does it take for me to nurture creativity in myself?  Assuming I see the value in being able to be curious, to create something new, what do I need in my environment to foster it?

Seth Godin, marketer, entrepreneur,  and prolific business writer has his own theory of a basic prerequisite for creativity that makes immediate sense to me.  He writes in the book Linchpin:

“Finding good ideas is surprisingly easy once you deal with the problem of finding bad ideas.  All the creativity books in the world aren’t going to help you if you’re unwilling to have lousy, lame, and even dangerously bad ideas….One way to become creative is to discipline yourself to generate bad ideas.  The worse the better.  Do it a lot and magically you’ll discover that some good ones slip through.”

In order to learn to be more creative, or indeed to learn anything, we (I) need to be more tolerant of mistakes., tolerant of the awkwardness of not knowing  – the answer or the system, tolerant of experimentation.

In order for an organization or an individual to be creative, it’s important to be intentional about it and build the conditions for it into the culture and into the environment.  This is part of the leader’s role.  Ultimately it will be a defining characteristic, and potentially a survival tool.

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