The Problem With Creativity


For decades, business leaders have placed innovation as a top priority for business -- if not the top priority. However, they struggle to find people with the skills to innovate.

It hardly needs to be said that innovation requires creativity, reworking existing knowledge, ideas, or objects into something new. And our intuitive thinking about creativity sees a connection to curiosity because curiosity involves chasing after new knowledge and experiences, which can feed the creative process.

Strangely, considering how critical innovation is, there has been little research of the direct link between curiosity and creativity. However, recent research supports our intuition that curiosity is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for creativity. In particular, "interest curiosity" or "diversive curiosity"-- characterized as "a broad interest in new information" -- is a predictor of creative problem-solving.

Like math and music, people's creativity falls on a spectrum. What's going on in the minds of highly creative people? And how is it different from less creative people? New neuroscience research demonstrated that creativity involves "a complex interplay between spontaneous and controlled thinking the ability to both spontaneously brainstorm ideas and deliberately evaluate them to determine whether they’ll actually work."

That research shows that brain scan data taken from test subjects involved in a "divergent thinking test" could predict the subjects' creative abilities. This found that creative people had stronger connections between three centers: one involved in spontaneous thinking (like daydreaming, mind-wandering, etc.), a second executive control center used to focus or control thought processes, and a third set of regions that link the first two, and balance between them.

In general, when the executive network is active, the spontaneous network is usually inactive. But the results suggest creative people run the two networks in parallel:

Our findings indicate the creative brain is “wired” differently and that creative people are better able to engage brain systems that don’t typically work together. Interestingly, the results are consistent with recent fMRI studies of professional artists, including jazz musicians improvising melodies, poets writing new lines of poetry and visual artists sketching ideas for a book cover.

So, what's the problem with creativity? If we know that creativity is sparked by curiosity, find people who are curious, and point them at areas needing innovation. Or use techniques that nudge people into more creative pathways, some of which have been discovered in recent years.

One that stands out for me is this simple technique. To increase curiosity, a researcher sent out a text message to a group of about 200 people working in various companies and industries twice a week for four weeks that read "What is one topic or activity you are curious about today? What is one thing you usually take for granted that you want to ask about? Please make sure you ask a few ‘Why questions’ as you engage in your work throughout the day. Please set aside a few minutes to identify how you’ll approach your work today with these questions in mind."

The researcher sent out a text to a control group that left out the curiosity nudge: "What is one topic or activity you’ll engage in today? What is one thing you usually work on or do that you’ll also complete today? Please make sure you think about this as you engage in your work throughout the day. Please set aside a few minutes to identify how you’ll approach your work today with these questions in mind."

The first group scored higher, after the four weeks, when questioned about whether they made suggestions for improving organizational problems, for example.

So, if you want to be more creative, create a daily/weekly recurring task for yourself, along the lines of the first text sent by the researcher, and then act on it, to increase your curiosity, organically.

However, small studies that last a short time might indicate how curiosity can be amped up in the small, but what about large-scale innovation over long periods of time? What's the hold-up?

The bottom line is businesses are schizophrenic regarding creativity. They want innovation but they struggle with the messy creatives that spark it. Francesca Gino, a leader in this area, surveyed 3000 employees in a range of industries and companies and found "only about 24% reported feeling curious in their jobs on a regular basis, and about 70% said they face barriers to asking more questions at work."

In one of my first jobs as a programmer, I had to ask over a dozen times to be able to bring my personal Macintosh to work (a very early Fat Mac) so that I could use MacDraw to generate charts and diagrams for a proposal my group was working on. I needed to ask more and better questions. This required me to take the Mac in and out of the facility every day, and fill out a detailed form each time. Things only changed after we won the $19 million contract (to build something like GitHub), and I was promoted to technical leader of the project after showing the design and a prototype to the program's eventual sponsor. I had been ordered by senior management to not build that prototype, under any circumstances. And they outfitted me with a corporate Mac, and no more forms.

Gino argues that business leaders have the wrong mindset about curiosity.

Leaders often think that letting employees follow their curiosity will lead to a costly mess. In a recent survey I conducted of 520 chief learning officers and chief talent development officers, I found that they often shy away from encouraging curiosity because they believe the company would be harder to manage if people were allowed to explore their own interests. They also believe that disagreements would arise and making and executing decisions would slow down, raising the cost of doing business. Research finds that although people list creativity as a goal, they frequently reject creative ideas when actually presented with them. That’s understandable: Exploration often involves questioning the status quo and doesn’t always produce useful information. But it also means not settling for the first possible solution—and so it often yields better remedies.

In an uncertain world, curiosity and creative planning have become even more important, because they allow us to adapt to changing markets and pressures. Creative thinking comes up with better and more innovative solutions to problems.

Companies should by all means hire the curious and creative. Gino recommends they should also encourage curiosity and creativity by having leaders model inquisitiveness: they should adopt a listening mindset, acknowledge that they don't have all the answers, and channel discussions in the context of intellectual humility. The company should also focus on learning across the board, which should be valued as much as the top and bottom lines.

Adopting curiosity as a norm across the business and for each individual is the path to broad innovation and creative business culture. And there is no alternative.

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