They take risks. They connect the dots. They observe everything. They turn obstacles into opportunities. These are just some of the qualities that differentiate people who are creative with those who are not. Creative people see the world differently to others and they think outside the box, making them attractive candidates to employers looking to innovate.
If creativity is the capability or act of conceiving something original or unusual, innovation is what happens when these ideas get implemented.
Recently, many of us have come to almost idolize, or place too much importance in, disruptive innovation. Big stories like Uber and Airbnb captivate everyone’s attention and organizations feel the pressure to innovate for exponential growth or to avoid becoming obsolete.
With disruption leading the conversations around innovation, many leaders have lost sight of the value of continuous improvement and the significant impact that small changes can make towards an organization’s bottom line. I believe that there’s art and beauty in applying yourself in a daily grind to always be improving. And in fact, most of the time, it’s these small, incremental changes that yield much better results.
In the professional world, being creative often means identifying the details that matter and applying creativity to solve problems. In other words, creativity is often exhibited in how we accomplish our goals and not necessarily the goals themselves.
Employees can learn to become creative by experimenting, exploring, questioning assumptions, using their imagination, and synthesizing information in the workplace. The role of the organization is to develop and provide the right processes, habits, and culture that fosters creativity and innovation within your organization.
This article looks at different ways to approach creativity in the workplace by examining how to recognize, exercise, apply, and master it.
What do you associate, or more specifically, what have we stopped associating with creativity?
Let’s consider Steve Prefontaine, a former American middle and long-distance runner, who finished fourth at the Olympic 5,000 meter race in ‘72. Although fourth place may not sound remarkable, Steve has been a major inspiration for runners decades later. One of Steve’s well-known quotes is, 'Some people create with words, or with music, or with a brush and paints. I like to make something beautiful when I run. I like to make people stop and say, ‘I’ve never seen someone run like that before.’ It’s more than just a race, it’s style. It’s doing something better than everyone else. It’s being creative.'
To understand this, you first need to understand that 5,000-meter race (his main event) is hugely tactical. The winner is typically the runner with the strongest kick at the end of the race. A runner who leads too early rarely wins.
Steve did not have a strong kick, he was what the running community calls a 'front runner'. This means he took the lead early on hoping to cause enough suffering for his competitors that no one would have a kick left at the end of the race. This involved setting off at a blistering pace and Steve raced this way every race. So he couldn’t rely on surprising people, he had to be that good and have that much resilience during the race. To do this and win consistently, Steve had to apply himself fully to training every day and always look for every possible way to improve. Steve famously never missed a practice.
Although running is rarely described as a creative sport, it was his creative execution that enabled him to win 120 of the 153 races he competed in.
The reason that I like this example is that it shows how continuous improvements over a long period of time can be considered being creative, can be inspirational, and can lead to amazing results.
Problem finding versus problem solving
Steve Prefontaine differentiated himself from competitors not by trying to copy how they ran, but by focusing on improving his own style of racing. He saw an opportunity to outperform his competition by focusing on what he was good at and maximizing his opportunity to develop and reach his potential. In other words, he was more focused on problem finding as opposed to problem solving. The obvious way to solve his problem was to work on his kick at the end of a race. But instead of focusing on the obvious solution, he took a more complex view on understanding his strengths, his competitors, and how he might solve his end goal of being the best runner in the world. He focused more on finding or understanding the problem before committing to the solution. It turns out this is a very important trait in creativity.
Some of the best research on problem finding versus problem solving as it relates to creativity and originality comes from psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Mihaly ran an experiment at the Art Institute of Chicago to test this. During the experiment, artists were given an hour to make a composition with a set of objects and then paint it. At the end of the study, judges evaluated their work for creativity.
Some of the artists quickly settled on a composition and within 10-15 minutes of painting, judges could determine what the finished product would look like. Other artists spent much more time creating the composition. These artists had to paint for 45-50 minutes before the judges could determine what the artists were painting. The paintings by the first group were beautiful and described as applying more 'craft', while the second group’s paintings, also beautiful, were described as being more creative and surprising.
The second group spent much more time thinking through alternative approaches and potential 'problems' they could solve before proceeding. This camp was classified as 'Problem Finders' and shared the following characteristics:
- Increased willingness to switch direction when new approaches reveal themselves
- Open to reformulating problems as they experiment with different perspectives
- Slow to judge their work as absolutely finished
- Able to evaluate critically the probability that improvements are achievable
Artists who rated high in these areas were considered by judges to be exceptionally creative. Follow up studies on the artists 18 years later demonstrated that they achieved a higher degree of professional success compared to their less creative counterparts.
How to manufacture creativity
One way to foster creativity in your organization is to take it out of the realm of being this special skill possessed by a few people and put more of a focus on problem finding as a path to coming up with good ideas. Spend more time coming up with the problem you’re trying to solve and all the context associated with it than you do on coming up with the solution. The solution will follow easily, and as we saw in the art experiment, be more creative if you spend more time on this step.
Giving yourself an opportunity to think through problems individually is critical to generating creative ideas. Allow for some time to think about the problem or come up with new problems and solutions alone. Provide a platform for employees to capture these ideas, such as an idea and innovation management program.
Research has shown that brainstorming as a group too soon into the ideation process leads to fewer ideas and less creative ideas. This is because:
- We anchor. We get stuck on the first idea that gets blurted out;
- It’s easier to get stuck in confirmation bias (our tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one's existing beliefs or theories);
- Extroverts dominate discussions, shutting out introverts;
- We defer to HiPPO (highest paid person’s opinion); etc.
Once you’ve ideated individually, then you can brainstorm in a group, place the ideas into themes, and discuss and debate them. After the brainstorming exercise, you may have new insights into the problem. Add this context and give people time to once again digest this and work on their own. Then come back together and brainstorm once more.
Another myth about brainstorming is that you should withhold criticism and debate. Constraint and criticism actually fuels further creativity, so encourage employees to speak their minds and not to hold back.
Creativity is a muscle that grows when you continuously exercise it. Becoming a more creative individual and organization takes conscious practice. All you need in order to be successful is focus more on identifying the problem than the solution, and to set your employees up with the right tools and processes that inspire and encourage them to think outside the box. When employees have the freedom to experiment, challenge the status quo, and explore different problems, they become more creative.