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The myths of creativity

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David Burkus is the author of the new book “The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas.” View the book trailer at the bottom of this post. He is also the founder of LDRLB and assistant professor of management at Oral Roberts University. When he isn’t writing books, he’s a blogger for 99U, Forbes, PsychologyToday, Harvard Business Review and SmartBlog on Leadership. Here, he discusses where our faulty notions of the creative process come from as well as how we can lead organizations to be more innovative. 

Why creativity? Don’t we already know whether or not we’re creative?

Actually no. A large number of the myths of creativity revolve around the faulty notion that some people have it and some people do not. We’ve tried to explain creativity as something a few people are gifted with, or that some people were born with. The truth is that we’re all born with the ability to think creatively. Over time, some people get better at developing their creative thinking skills, but anyone can develop them. In modern day, we face a lot of complex problems. Those problems will need everyone’s combined creativity to solve. We can’t just trust a few, seemingly “gifted” people. We need everybody to bust the myths and develop their creativity.

Where did the myths of creativity come from?

When we as humans don’t understand how something works, we usually develop some kind of educated guess or heuristic assumption about it. Over time, these heuristics become fully entrenched myths that can be hard to abandon. Creativity is a phenomenon that was hard to explain, so we developed myths. History is filled with myths around creativity, beginning with the Greeks and their ideas of the muses.

In the case of business, so much of management education teaches us to rely on solid principles and formulas that have been refined through the decades. Creativity, until recently, wasn’t like that. It was hard to reduce to a set of defined metrics, and so many in business abandoned it all together, outsourcing it when needed to “creative” firms. Thankfully, decades of psychological insight into creativity have given us a means to study where it comes from and how to enhance it for greater innovation.

What is the first step that leaders should make to enhance creativity in their own or their team’s work?

The first step is to closely examine the organization. As I talk about in the opening chapter, research from scholars like Teresa Amabile at Harvard has shown that creative insights happen when four factors are aligned: motivation, domain-relevant skills, creativity-relevant processes, task motivation and the surrounding social environment.

Domain relevant skills concern the traditional knowledge of your people; do they know what they’re doing in that role? Creativity-relevant processes concern their creative thinking skills; have they been trained to generate ideas? Motivation is a big one, and concerns whether or not the work they are doing is one they are naturally engaged in; are they intrinsically motivated to focus on the task? Lastly, the social environment concerns whether or not the organization has a culture that supports creativity; does the company judge ideas too quickly, or punish failure to harshly, or (perhaps worst of all) does it rely on a small group of people for all its ideas.

Where these factors overlap is where creativity happens. If you can structure the organization to enhance these, then you enhance the organization’s creativity. If you’re not in a position to change the organization, then can you use these four factors to change yourself or your team?

What are the most obvious common myths of creativity as they relate to the creative areas (advertising, marketing, publicity, promotions, events, etc.)?

Perhaps the most common myth related to the creative areas is the Breed Myth, the idea that only certain people are creative and that those people are unique and must be identified and cultivated. In reality, the creativity of anyone can be developed and great ideas can come from anywhere in an organization. Historically, though, organizations erect a wall between “creative” roles and presumably noncreative ones. In advertising, for example, the longstanding precedent was that account managers and actual ad men who designed the advertisements should be separate and rarely even community. This wall is gradually falling, but the lingering need for distinction may still be there.

What’s the most damaging myth about creativity?

There’s a popular phrase, “If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door.” I think this belief has developed into an entire myth, which I call the Mousetrap Myth. The truth is that if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat it down or (even worse) ignore it. Great ideas get rejected all the time. Kodak invented the digital camera but rejected it. Xerox invented the personal computer but handed it off.

We say we want more creativity, but when we are presented with new ideas, we have a hard time recognizing their utility. This is something I see in almost all organizations. Great ideas come from all levels of an organization, but pushing them through this bias at every level of the hierarchy is a long and arduous process that most people give up in the middle of. In this way, most organizations kill most of their innovative ideas. Yet we still think that the way to solve our innovation problems is to get our people to generate more ideas when perhaps the right solution is to get better at recognizing the great ideas we already have.