Creativity is often misunderstood. And it’s no wonder, given the romanticized aesthetic of thin wire-framed glasses, paint-covered overalls, and eyes that glimmer despite the dark circles underneath caused by a late night of working.
We’ve come to believe that certain professions are the gatekeepers of creativity. Musicians, actors, writers, and the like are deemed “creative” while professionals in other fields are labelled as “left-brain thinkers.”
But creativity isn’t reserved for self-proclaimed artists - it is for innovators, problem-solvers, and idea-generators. Creativity is a mindset more than it is a specific job function.
Creativity can be defined as the act of generating something new. Robert Weisberg argues that for something to be truly creative, it must also have value and rise to the intellectual demands of the given problem.
Traditional Tools Don’t Actually Work
Advertising executive Alex Osborn introduced the most common model of creative ideation to the world in the 1950s: “brainstorming.” However, over 50 years of research on brainstorming suggest that Osborn’s method is not more effective than coming up with ideas on your own. In fact, individuals are more likely to generate a higher number and quality of original ideas when they don’t interact with others.
Brainstorming confines the flow of creativity to an on-demand request that often pushes people to grasp onto obvious ideas in the hope of looking smart and involved. In some work environments, people are less productive in a group and tend to support the ideas of the person in charge. As a result, ideas are left behind, rather than built up.
From “Brainstorming” to “Burstiness”
Despite the limitations of brainstorming, generating ideas completely solo isn’t the answer. The lone genius, like the romanticized artist, is a myth. Teams, rather than individuals, create breakthrough innovations through a series of sparks and ideas rather than a single epiphany. The key is seeing genius and value in another person’s idea, building on it, and then revising it until it meets the goal. Psychologists call this process “burstiness.”
Leigh Thompson, a researcher for creativity in organizations, argues that individuals are better at developing a diverse set of ideas, whereas groups are better at selecting which concepts are worth investigating. “Burstiness” doesn’t happen by accident, though - it requires the right working environment, a combination of comfort, critique, closeness, and diversity. When people are free to express questions, ideas, concerns, and mistakes - without fear of punishment or humiliation - fresh concepts are introduced and carefully critiqued to produce refined ideas.
A combination of scheduled collaboration and individual conceptualization is the best way to inspire creative solutions. Researchers recommend first creating concepts as individuals, and then discussing them in a group. The “write first, talk second” method (known as “brainwriting”) produces 20% more ideas and 42% more “original” ideas than traditional brainstorming groups. Relationships between colleagues are also key: both organic relationship-building and spontaneous interactions lead to a higher volume of ideas in the workplace.
Finally, diversity - in demographics, beliefs, and personality - should be welcomed. After all, a wide range of experiences incite diverse ideas.
Cultivating a Creative Environment
Our Catholic Faith teaches us that we are uniquely made to create. This has been a part of God’s plan since the beginning. Whether it's problem-solving a business plan or painting a mural, our creative works mirror God’s creativity.
Furthermore, our Faith urges us to be relational, attentive to others, patient, and loving — all of which are essential for the atmosphere needed for ideas to thrive. Pope Francis touched on this when he wrote about a culture of encounter: “People only express themselves fully when they are not merely tolerated, but know that they are truly accepted. If we are genuinely attentive in listening to others, we will learn to look at the world with different eyes and come to appreciate the richness of human experience as manifested in different cultures and traditions.”
As we develop our own creativity, we are also challenged to listen to others and champion their ideas. Knowing that creativity is helped or hindered by our workplace environment, it’s on us to build the atmosphere needed for ideas to thrive. So let’s begin by building relationships, spending time with our colleagues, and preparing to listen to one another.