An IBM study of 1,500 CEO's found that creativity was considered the essential feature of their organization. 60% of the CEOs surveyed said that creativity even ranked higher than integrity.
Think about that. We live in a world where sexual harassment allegations, supporting Trump, “greyballing,” and exploiting protesters can send one of the most powerful companies in the world into complete turmoil. Yet, over half of our business leaders still think high-mindedness, honesty and moral principles come second to… being creative. It must be really important, and therefore, worth exploring.
Despite putting such high value on creativity, when asked to actually define it, none of the CEOs surveyed could agree on a clear definition. The responses varied widely, ranging from “fresh thinking” to “a new technology,” all the way down to something as vague as “something new.”
If companies truly want to foster creativity, then the best place to start is to first have a clear understanding of what it really means. Here's four things you need to know to really understand creativity.
1. Stop confusing art with creativity.
Like “user experience,” creativity is a very bastardized term; one of the most used, and abused, terms in the modern lexicon. There are several connotations and applications. By far, the most common misuse of the term “creative” is in reference to an artistic style or artistic abilities. In fact, if you do a quick google image search for creative person, it auto-suggests tags in “drawing,” “photography” and “artist.”
But there’s a fine line between art and creativity that needs to be drawn; it’s highly unlikely that the CEOs in the study were signing off on budgets to hire more painters, sculptures or photographers.
Art is about creating something with the intent of expressing ourselves through a medium. An artist, for intents and purposes, is concerned with the expression of an emotion or a unique perspective.
Soho House is a good example of the blurry boundaries between art and creativity. The premise of the social club is in valuing “creative souls” over wealth and status; only "creative" professionals are admitted. The application process is mysterious, but the club only admits people from industries like music, art, television, film, advertising and tech—mostly professions with artistic mediums. You’ll never walk around the club and meet anyone in finance, law, politics, medicine or the likes. Similarly, most people don’t associate creative individuals with those that put on a suit or a lab coat before going into work every day.
But all things considered, some of greatest creative geniuses of human history were physicists, mathematicians and composers like Isaac Newton, Thomas Edison and Wolfgang Mozart. I’m just speculating, but it’s highly unlikely that Soho would admit Henry Ford based on his “creative” capacities, and he’s basically responsible for inventing modern-day transportation and our workweek schedule.
Art is about creating something with the intent of expressing ourselves through a medium. An artist, for intents and purposes, is concerned with the expression of an emotion or a unique perspective. A singer/songwriter is an artist because he or she creates an auditory piece that expresses an emotion. Painters or graphic designers create visual assets to articulate political or social commentary.
Artists serve a very different function in the business landscape and workplace than creatives, and are particularly effective in maximizing branding, marketing, PR opportunities.
2. Creativity means being original, and it boils down to a science.
Art is a form of expression in which the creator looks introspectively for inspiration. Creativity, on the other hand, is inspired by ideas in the environment. Unlike art, creativity doesn’t necessarily have a distinct style or medium. It’s a way of thinking; seeing things in a way that others can’t; making connections with two or more seemingly unrelated ideas, concepts or things.
To some extent, creativity can be scientifically measured. The Alternative Uses Test, designed by J.P. Guilford in 1967, is used frequently in creativity research today. For the test, participants are asked think of as many uses as possible for a simple object, like a brick or a shoe or a paperclip in a small period of time. The scoring methodology, however, is very telling of how researchers and psychologists define creativity, and reinforces the definition for creativity as creating a novel idea:
- Originality - points are given to responses that were not given by other participants in the test.
- Fluency - the higher the volume of responses, the higher the score.
- Flexibility - the more categories used, the higher the score (i.e. using the object as food and as a weapon would be considered two different categories).
- Elaboration - the more vivid the detail provided, the higher the score.
This approach is relatively objective only if you accept the assumption that divergent thinking, the ability to come up with many responses quickly and easily, is the essence of creativity. This is really important because it narrows down the definition of creativity to a phenomenon Steve Jobs described best:
Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.
In other words, Jobs also believed that creativity resulted from being exposed to many different perspectives and ideas. This explains why divergent thinking is so important in creativity.
3. You are creative, and don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.
Divergent thinking, a pillar in Design Thinking, is about gathering as much stimulus and inputs, widening your perspective of what is possible, and generating new ideas. We use divergent thinking every day. Any time you are asking yourself “What are my options?” you are exercising this type of thinking, such as choosing where to go for dinner.
You start by looking in your pantry and fridge. You begin taking an inventory of ingredients and considering all of the combinations you could make. You even consider going out to a local restaurant or even ordering in. Thai? Pizza? You even consider places you haven’t eaten at in a while. You make a mental map of all the restaurants within walking or driving distance and add them to the list.
The notion that an individual is a creative is a dangerous one because it’s not an innate or inherent characteristic and it assumes that only select people can be creative. But the fact of the matter is it’s a way of thinking, not a characteristc. In fact, it is thinking in the purest sense, unconstrained and free-flowing. Creativity is fueled by generating a high volume of ideas and then drawing connections between them. If it really is as simple as that, then every human being has creative potential and convincing someone that they’re not creative further hinders that potential.
Particularly in the workplace, ideas that create new value typically come from uninhibited exploration and brainstorming. It starts to become clear then that, because it’s a mindset, creativity can be nurtured and honed by building a culture that encourages periods of unconstrained, rapid, reckless ideation. Creative culture should not discriminate; ideas can come from anyone, anywhere in a company and at any time. Which means creative environments afford everyone a voice regardless of his or her place in the corporate hierarchy.
The first step to building creative culture is encouraging divergent thinking or design thinking and embracing the notion that everyone in the workplace can make creative contributions.
4. The secret to creativity is simple: you just have to be an idiot for a little while.
If creativity is defined by breaking convention, how are you supposed to be creative while living your life conventionally?
Growing up, we’re all taught to be practical and reasonable. Wait your turn in line. Fill in the bubble of the right answer. Eat your dessert last. Tie your shoes and tuck your shirt in.
We’re conditioned to think that there’s a right and wrong answer. We’re shuffled into groups based on tests and our career paths are defined by our resumes. We’re embarrassed when we ask a dumb question or say something stupid. But if creativity is defined by breaking convention, how are you supposed to be creative by living your life conventionally?
By virtue of the fact that what you are trying to do has not been done before, there’s a lot of uncertainty involved. It requires us to break the habits we developed by “growing up” of fitting within the confines of right and wrong answers and checking the boxes. It requires us to be OK with making mistakes and sharing bad ideas, to fumble around with things that feel unnatural. To be an idiot. After all, creativity is a result of connecting the dots, so the more dots there are, good or bad, the more connections there are available to make.
It’s important to not just embrace bad ideas, but also understand that the concept of bad is merely perception. Some of the most creative geniuses of the last century were seen as crazy, unstable, weird and total misfits. Some of the most revolutionary ideas in human history were ridiculed. If we followed the constraints around what is deemed a good idea or a bad idea, we wouldn’t have things like human flight; we wouldn’t have the internet; we wouldn’t have Netflix for christ sakes.
Just because an idea is “bad” by anyone’s standards, doesn’t mean it’s not worth pursuing further. It’s OK to suck for a little while, because that’s how some of the greatest inventions of our time came to be.