Managing Creativity

An important set of cornerstones for strong conceptual skills are creativity and innovationOpens in new window.

These concepts are distinct from one another, but they share some underlying similarities. We discuss creativity here, and then describe innovation in the next postOpens in new window.

Creativity is an individual-level phenomenon and can be defined as the ability of an individual to generate new ideas or to conceive of new perspectives on existing ideas.

  • What makes a person creative?
  • How do people become creative?
  • How does the creative process work?

Although psychologists have not yet discovered complete answers to these questions, examining a few general patterns can help us understand the sources of individual creativity within organizations.

The Creative Individual

Numerous researchers have focused their efforts on attempting to describe the common attributes of creative individuals. These attributes generally fall into three categories:

  1. background experiences,
  2. personal traits, and
  3. cognitive abilities.
  1.    Background Experiences and Creativity

Researchers have observed that many creative individuals were raised in environments in which creativity was nurtured. MozartOpens in new window was raised in a family of musicians and began composing and performing music at age six. Pierre and Marie Curie, great scientists in their own right, raised a daughter, Irene, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Thomas Edison’s creativity was nurtured by his mother. However, people with background experiences very different from theirs also have been creative. Frederick Douglas was born into slavery in Tuckahoe, Maryland, and had very limited opportunities for education. Nonetheless, his powerful oratory and creative thinking helped lead to President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order in which he outlawed slavery in the United States.

  1.    Personal Traits and Creativity

Certain personal traitsOpens in new window also have been linked to creativity in individuals. The traits shared by most creative people are openness, an attraction to complexity, high levels of energy, independence and autonomy, strong self-confidence, and a strong belief that one is, in fact, creative. Individuals who possess these traits are more likely to be creative than those who do not have them.

  1.    Cognitive Abilities and Creativity

Cognitive abilities are an individual’s power to think intelligently and to analyze situations and data effectively. IntelligenceOpens in new window may be a precondition for individual creativity — although most creative people are highly intelligent, not all intelligent people are necessarily creative.

Creativity also is linked with the ability to think divergently and convergently.

  • Divergent thinking is a skill that allows people to see differences among situations, phenomena, or events.
  • Convergent thinking is a skill that allows people to see similarities among situations, phenomena, or events.

Creative people generally are skilled at both divergent and convergent thinking. Interestingly, some Japanese managers have come to question their own creative abilities.

The concern is that their emphasis on group harmony may have stifled individual initiative and hampered the development of individual creativity. As a result, a few Japanese firms, including Omron CorporationOpens in new window, Fuji PhotoOpens in new window, and Shimizu CorporationOpens in new window, have launched employee training programs intended to boost the creativity of employees.

The Creative Process

Although creative people often report that ideas seem to come to them “in a flash,” individual creative activity actually tends to progress through a series of stages. These stages are illustrated in Figure X-1. Not all creative activity has to follow these four stages, but much of it does.

The four stages to creativity The creative process often follows the four-step sequence shown here. Preparation lays the foundation, while incubation allows ideas and insights to evolve. Insight or illumination occurs when the idea or insight crystallizes. Verification is then needed to test the validity of the idea or insight. The creative process does not unfold in a mechanical fashion.
  1.    Preparation

The creative process normally begins with a period of preparation. To make a creative contribution to business management or business services, individuals usually must receive formal training and education in business.

Formal education and training are usually the most efficient ways of becoming familiar with this vast amount of research and knowledge. This is one reason for the strong demand for undergraduate and master’s level business education.

Formal business education can be an effective way for an individual to get “up to speed” and begin making creative contributions quickly. Experiences that managers have on the job after their formal training has finished also can contribute to the creative process.

In an important sense, the education and training of creative people never really ends. It continues as long as they remain interested in the world and curious about the way things work. For example, Bruce RothOpens in new window earned a Ph.D. in chemistry and then spent years working in the pharmaceutical industry learning more and more about chemical compounds and how they work in human beings.

  1.    Incubation

The second phase of the creative process is incubation — a period of less-intense, conscious concentration during which the knowledge and ideas acquired during preparation mature and develop.

A curious aspect of incubation is that is often helped along by pauses in concentrated rational thought. Some creative people rely on physical activity such as jogging or swimming to provide a break from thinking.

Others may read or listen to music. Sometimes sleep may even supply the needed pause. Bruce Roth eventually joined Warmer-Lambert (now Pfizer Inc.), to help develop medication to lower cholesterol.

In his spare time, Roth read mystery novels and hiked in the mountains. He later acknowledged that this was when he did his best thinking. Similarly, twice a year Bill GatesOpens in new window retreats to a secluded wooded cabin to reflect on trends in technology; it is during these weeks, he says, that he develops his sharpest insights into where MicrosoftOpens in new window should be heading.

  1.    Insight

Usually occurring after preparation and incubation, insight is a spontaneous breakthrough in which the creative person achieves a new understanding of some problem or situation.

Insight represents a coming together of all the scattered thoughts and ideas that were maturing during incubation. It may occur suddenly or develop slowly over time.

Insight can be triggered by some external event, such as a new experience or an encounter with new data, which forces the individual to think about old issues and problems in new ways, or it can be a completely internal event in which patterns of thought finally coalesce in ways that generate new understanding.

For example, one day Bruce Roth was reviewing data from some earlier studies that had found the new drug under development to be no more effective than other drugs already available. But this time he saw some statistical relationships that had not been identified previously. He knew that he had a major breakthrough on his hands.

  1.    Verification

Once an insight has occurred, verification determines its validity or truthfulness.

For many creative ideas, verification includes scientific experiments to determine whether the insight actually leads to the results expected. Verification also may include the development of a product or service prototype.

A prototype is one product or a very small number of products built just to see if the ideas behind the new product actually work.

Product prototypes are rarely sold to the public, but they are very valuable in verifying the insights developed in the creative process. Once the new product or service is developed, verification in the marketplace is the ultimate test of the creative idea behind it.

Bruce Roth and his colleagues set to work testing the new drug compound and eventually won FDA approval. The drug, named Lipitor, went on to become the largest-selling pharmaceutical in history.

Enhancing Creativity in Organizations

Managers seeking to enhance and promote creativity in their organizations can do so in a variety of ways. One important method for enhancing creativity is to make it a part of the organization’s cultureOpens in new window, often through explicit goals.

Firms that truly want to stress creativity, such as 3M and Rubbermaid, for example, state goals that some percentage of future revenues are to be gained from new products. This clearly communicates that creativity and innovationOpens in new window are valued.

Best BuyOpens in new window recently picked four groups of salespeople in their 20s and early 30s and asked them to spend 10 weeks living together in a Los Angeles apartment complex (with expenses paid by the company and still earning their normal pay). Their job? Sit around and brainstorm new business ideas that could be rolled out quickly and cheaply.

Another important part of enhancing creativity is to reward creative successes, while being careful not to punish creative failures.

Many ideas that seem worthwhile on paper fail to pan out in reality. If the first person to come up with an idea that fails is fired or otherwise punished, others in the organization will become more cautious in their own work. As a result, fewer creative ideas will emerge.

See Also:
    Research data for this work have been adapted from the manual:
  1. Management Skills: Assessment and Development By Ricky Griffin, David Van Fleet.