The following article is based on a presentation made during the
Second International Conference on Integral Psychology,
held at Pondicherry (India), 4-7 January 2001.
The text has been published in:
Cornelissen, Matthijs (Ed.) (2001) Consciousness and Its Transformation. Pondicherry: SAICE.
This paper will show how Western ideas about how creativity develops have changed over time, through a consideration of the role of inspiration, luck, ability, style, mental flexibility, motivation, experience, intuition and context. It will go on to discuss the reasons for the recent interest in creativity in management and the implications of this shift in thinking for the development and empowerment of employees and the way organizations are run.
There have been attempts by Western scientists to understand creativity for sixty years or so. Whilst hitherto a minority interest, the topic is now of interest to cognitive scientists interested in how the mind works, educators who want to develop thinking students and businessmen interested in drawing out the creativity in their workforce.
Research has been carried out on creative people, the processes they use, the “products” they produce and the places in which creative endeavour occurs. Much work into creativity has been based around biographical studies, life history interviews, and the use of personality and other inventories. There is a fair amount of work on creative artists and scientists, gifted children and genius level creativity, but less on the more common “local” or everyday creativity, creative influencers or how creative ideas come to be accepted.
Many scientists think of creativity as entailing something new and appropriate. West and Farr (1990) point out that by new we mean relative novelty, i.e. something that is new to the perceiver. That a work must also be appropriate indicates it must have an element of quality, being different is not enough, the work must also be apt.
Traditionally creativity was thought to be associated with grace . If fortunate, you were visited by the muse who provided all the creative inspiration you could need. And indeed if one considers the work of geniuses such as Leonardo da Vinci, Mozart or Shakespeare, a divine source seems to be an understandable explanation for such extraordinary work. This view placed creativity outside the head. Nowadays Western scientists see creativity as a property of the individual or emerging from the context in which they work or some combination of the two. Indeed there a is a body of work which goes to considerable length to deconstruct what they see as the myth of genius (see Weisburg 1986 for example.)
A certain rapprochement of Western and Eastern views of creativity may be found in the acceptance of certain psychodynamic and humanistic psychologists that creativity is a sign of healthy development. Thus Winnicott (1971), for example, believed that creativity was a universal and natural component of healthy development, and Maslow (1962) included creativity as one characteristic of his self-actualised individuals.
In addition various Western scientists and practitioners have commented on the state of mind which seems well suited to receiving ideas from the unconscious (the presumed source of creative ideas). McKim (1980) refers to this as a state of relaxed attention. Claxton (1997) advocates quietening the mind and slowing thought as good ways to allow new ideas to surface. A number of stories attest to the value of non-verbal images for creative thought; one famous account is Kekule's dream of two entwined snakes which gave him the clue to the structure of benzene. Nonaka has pointed out that while Western rhetoric stresses explicit analysis, Japanese researchers seem to feel comfortable working to more ambiguous briefs that leave room to play with implicit hunches and allow creative understanding to emerge over time (Nonaka and Takeuchi 1995).
Early studies of creativity in the 1940s and 1950s tended to assume that creativity was an ability and that some people were more creative than others. Thus psychologists of this period devoted considerable attention to trying to identify the personality characteristics of creative individuals with a view to developing pencil and paper tests that would enable them to identify creative from non-creative individuals. This approach was in keeping with the emphasis on personality traits common at the time.
Guildford's (1959) extensive studies of the creative personality emphasised, amongst other things originality, flexibility, idea fluency, problem sensitivity and redefinitional skills. Perkins (1981) more recent studies show parallels: he stressed intrinsic motivation, risk taking, mental mobility, tolerance for ambiguity and problem-finding skills. Many studies of creative people have concluded that they spend longer on what is termed problem finding, i.e. considering which problem to address and the nature of the problem before trying to find a solution to it (Getzels 1975). This applies equally to artists as scientists. The idea that creativity is an ability suggests some people are creative and others are not.
In passing we may note that a number of eminent geniuses, including Einstein and Edison, were not particularly outstanding students. In addition numerous successful innovators, including Richard Branson of Virgin, Steve Jobs of Apple, and Bill Gates of Microsoft, have left either school or university without finishing their studies. On the other hand the combination of a creative maverick and long standing business partner seems to be a fruitful innovative combination, for example Honda and Fujisawa or Anita Roddick and her husband.
Recently interest has shifted to creative style , the different ways in which people show their creativity. For example Kirton's (1994) theory of adaptive and innovative creativity differentiates between the innovative creativity of people who like to challenge the status quo and do things differently and the adaptive creativity of those who prefer to work within existing frameworks, demonstrating creative improvement by doing things better. There is some work, Goldberg (1993) that suggests that these style preferences may have a genetic underpinning as they are related to a trait called openness. (There is increasing consensus that this is one of five traits with a genetic underpinning. The others are extroversion/introversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and emotional stability.)
In Western societies we have tended to associate creativity with the radical breakthroughs favoured by Kirton's innovators. However most inventions come about through a series of incremental improvements that build on what has gone before. TVs and planes today are quite different from the original models and if they weren't we would probably not be using them as much. Many companies now appreciate that they need to bring out the creativity in all the workforce if they are to survive.
In contrast cynics often incline to the view that creativity is simply an accident of serendipitous good fortune, a matter of being in the right place at the right time. (The serendipity here, being attributed to nothing more than chance.) On this view Flemming was just fortunate that he happened to notice the Petrie dish with the odd reaction that led to the discovery of Penicillin, as opposed to being a bright lad (with creative ability) having the presence of mind to realise the growth he saw was significant.
Perhaps the most popular lay view of creativity is that creative ideas are largely the result of a fruitful association —mapping a metaphor from one area, via lateral thinking, and being fortunate enough to see that this leads to a useful new idea. The most famous example is Archimedes who when taking a bath, realized that the volume of water he displaced suggested a way of measuring the gold in the king's crown. Koestler's (1969) theory of bisociation provides an example of this line of thinking.
Studies of creative people show that they do indeed possess a certain mental flexibility that allows them to withhold judgement and shift perspective on an issue. In the 1960s and 70s the notion that creativity was largely a matter of mental flexibility became popular and various people endeavoured to teach skills they attributed to the creative mind. DeBono (1971) for example popularized the notion of lateral thinking, Adams (1974) the need to overcome mental blocks and Osbourne (1967) the merits of suspending judging before deciding on the way forward. This led to creativity training that emphasised brainstorming, creative problem solving, or procedures for teaching anyone to draw (Edwards 1982). Many organisations still use creative problem solving and related approaches.
Whether creativity is more a matter of technique or attitude is a moot point. Certainly part of the gain in many creativity courses is working on one's own “stuff”, and through this an unblocking of previously held assumptions, which makes creativity easier.
The idea that learning is principally about inputting skills is currently very popular with governments, who often believe that the answer for education and training is to input ever more mental skills and competencies into the brain. Creativity, decision making, communication, assertion and indeed just about any personal and interpersonal behaviour you can think of have been analysed in the belief that complex social phenomena can be taught and that they are skills that are transferable—i.e. once learnt in one domain, they can be transferred to another.
Extensive studies by cognitive psychologists and others show convincingly that creativity and indeed many other skills are not readily transferable to other contexts, rather that knowledge is situated. In the context of creativity this means that the creative doctor is not necessarily the creative engineer. These studies have pointed to the important part played by experience in creative endeavour.
The idea here is that working in a field for a long time enables you to develop a certain expertise which means you chunk the information you hold in your brain about that field differently than a novice would. We know novices tackle problems differently than experts. Creative experts seem to be better able to distinguish the important problem from the non-important one due to their more elaborate map of the area. On this view Flemming, who had looked at hundreds of Petrie dishes in his time, had the experience to realise the reaction he saw that day was significant and worth studying further. It seems that Pasteur was right in his edict that Chance favours the prepared mind.
It has been suggested that truly great creativity such as that demonstrated by Einstein or Beethoven, needs at least ten years of apprenticeship working in the field (Hayes 1989). Weisburg (1986) claims that the ten year rule works just as well with apparently difficult cases like Mozart, claiming that he had been composing for ten years before he produced any truly great works. A similar claim has been made in respect of those who have successfully turned around organisations, for example Lee Iaccocca at Chrysler or Jan Carlzon at SAS, had been working in their respective fields—the automotive and airline industries—for many years before turning their companies around. Worth (2001) found that even those nominated by their peers as being creative in a local context (e.g. one of the more creative individuals in a single organisation) had also been working in the field they were nominated for, for seven years prior to that nomination.
One consequence of this view is that managers might want to think twice before downsizing. Younger staff maybe cheaper but they will lack the domain dependent know-how locked up in people's tacit knowledge.
But experience is not the only factor, a number of studies attest to the fact that motivation , and the love you feel for your work, is also a very important factor (Amabile 1975). By motivation I refer to intrinsic motivation, i.e an interest for personal satisfaction, not extrinsic motivation—the desire for financial gain, status or power. Creativity often involves challenging the status quo in some way and if you care about what you are doing you are more likely to be prepared to do that. In addition most successful creative people have been found to work hard over a long period; caring about the area they are working on gives them the impetus to carry on. Indeed most successful people enjoy their work. There are various stories that attest to how far motivation has taken some people. For example the tennis player Tim Henman, apparently showed only moderately good performance at his chosen sport in his youth but has gone on to do well through motivation, persistence and technique.
One interesting consequence of this aspect of creativity that many organisations recognise is that creativity needs an element of freedom. Successful innovative companies such as 3M, make a point of allowing their research scientists 15% of their time to work on projects of their own choosing. They also provide seed grants to support such projects. 3M's motto is “Find the inventors and do not get in their way”. Companies have found that this largesse easily pays for itself in the long run. Post-it pads are one example of a product that emerged from a free-time project.
Individual creativity seems to be more likely when a certain mental flexibility, intrinsic motivation and experience coincide.
From around the 1940s to 1980s psychologists focused on individual creativity, assuming creative ideas were generally the province of a single mind but more recently attention has switched to the communities of practice from which creativity emerges through an examination of the role of the group, culture, network and system.
Studies of groups that bring projects to successful conclusions suggest that a team made up of people with diverse natural styles are more likely to complete a project, whether creative or otherwise, and that those groups where the members have similar mental tendencies are less likely to succeed. Successful groups may only have one person with a natural talent for coming up with ideas, but they probably also have some who attends to the groups social needs, another who keeps focuses on the task that needs doing, someone who is good with detail, someone who knows what is available outside and someone who is good at monitoring and evaluating progress. One person may handle more than one of these roles, however studies suggest most of us incline to one, two or three or these roles and not all of them (Belbin 1981).
The culture we find ourselves in can also affect our creativity. Psychologists know that babies are more likely to explore their environment if they feel safe and the same seems to be true of adults. Most of us seem to be more likely to speak out and consider alternative ways of going about things if we feel valued and appreciated. Many people react defensively when threatened. Studies of organizations suggest that those that grant employees freedom as to how they do their work, encourage challenge, tolerate rather than punish mistakes and nurture new ideas seem to be more creative (Ekvall 2001).
At certain places and times in history there seems to have been a creative flourishing, for example painting in Florence in the 14th century, writing in Bloomsbury in the 1920s, pop music in Liverpool in the 1960s and Manchester in the 1990s, IT in Silicon Valley in the latter part of the 20th Century, and software development in Bangalore at the turn of the 21st century. A basic infrastructure may be needed to support this, e.g. patrons, and sufficient technical expertise, however it is assumed that the participants' creativity benefits from building on each others work.
Another aspect of creative work that has been given little attention until recently, is that of persuasion. For a work to be considered creative is has to be recognised as such by others. This is another reason why creative networks are important.
A consequence of this view is that managers might be advised to spend less time worrying about individual traits and more time facilitating the system of social relations from which creativity emerges.
So far we have been looking at creativity as if it were a property of the individual or a team but the new science of complexity looks at creativity from the outside in, noting the characteristics of the system from which it emerges. Complexity is concerned with the dynamics of complex adaptive systems, i.e any system of agents that adapt to their changing environment. These agents might be brain cells in a brain, the rise and fall of stock and shares or water molecules, and the systems studied include weather patterns, ant colonies or organisations of people. The surprising finding here is that if agents follow a few simple rules their collective behaviour produces creative solutions. Termites for example appear to be programmed merely to drop little bundles of mud near the strongest chemical marker, and since they mark these piles as they drop them, the smell is stronger where two are close together which makes it more attractive place for future bundles. This process allows termites to build large multi-cellular structures several metres in height merely by doing what comes naturally to them.
Complex adaptive systems over time incline towards one of three states: order and repetition, disorder or finally a balance between the two. Disordered systems and societies do not last long, very ordered ones become limited in their range of actions which leaves them more vulnerable to disaster when the environment changes. It turns out that those societies on the edge of chaos between order and disorder seem to have the best chance of survival, partly because they retain the capacity for creative and unpredictable responses.
On this view creativity is not a characteristic of an individual or a team, but is an emergent property inherent in the interactions between agents and their environment. Furthermore the creative outcomes of such systems cannot be anticipated. This has led certain consultants who accept the applicability of these ideas to organisations, to abandon attempts to plan, monitor and control and to focus their efforts instead on facilitating fruitful relationships and networks, confident that creativity will emerge automatically when people are allowed sufficient autonomy and interaction (Wheatley 1994.)
Creativity in management
Creativity, innovation and knowledge are currently hot topics in management. One of the main reasons for this is the increasing competition, particularly in high wage economies. Technology has enabled globalisation, this coupled with deregulation has increased competition and the speed of change world wide. Many organisations find the only way they can survive is by a process of continual creativity that involves all staff. In addition the nature of work is changing as we move from the industrial to an information age. It is now imagination, intellect and creativity that hold the key rather than land, labour and capital, as evidenced in the value of intangible assets which tend to be worth anything from three to a hundred times more than most firm's tangible assets (Handy 1998).
In order to engender sufficient responsiveness to meet this changed business environment (which moves faster and is more responsive to customer preferences) many organisations have had to fundamentally change their mode of organisation. In the West in the 1980s this entailed a lot of downsizing, delayering and decentralization as organisations tried to reduce costs, and push responsibility down. In the 1990s many companies realised they needed to engage the hearts and minds of all their staff in a process of continuous creativity if they were to keep pace with the competition. Popular organisational change programmes focused on quality, empowerment and continuous improvement. However you cannot legislate for creativity, it needs freedom and support to flourish, so many organisations have tried to develop a more open culture where employees feel able to challenge the status quo. To empower staff to learn, organisations realised they needed to develop their staff and that this process needs to be tailored to the individual's declared needs and wants. At the turn of the millennium organizations have begun to realise they need to get staff to want to share knowledge. Handy (1998) argues that most people are only likely to do this when they feel trusted and respected and that this will normally limit the number of people they are likely to be willing to share knowledge with.
Organisations have begun to turn their attention outwards; key management buzz words are partnership and cooperation as organisations reach out to benchmark practices in related organisations. Many erstwhile competitors like Ford and VW have joined together to share development costs and badge essentially the same product under different logos.
Some more avant guard companies (including Semco, a Brazilian pump manufacturer, through Oticon, a Danish hearing aid company, to Dutton, an English sheet metal working company) practice a form of minimal management and self-organisation that includes some combination of open accounting—making cost, charge and profit data available to staff and clients, abolishing the standard organisational chart, trying to minimise memos, letting staff choose who they wish to appoint, selecting their own hours, and running the business through a series of temporary projects staff elect to join (Henry 1999a).
Several commentators have argued that increasingly what holds the modern organisation together is common values (Kanter 1999). In a sense the private sector is beginning to manage itself more like a professional practice (such as doctors or lawyers) or a charity. So the command and control paradigm where the manager was feared has gone in many quarters and the rule and committee bound bureaucracy is going. These days many Western managers are more coordinators or facilitators acting as coach and mentor to colleagues rather than as a captain telling them what to do. Though the management paradigm has changed this does not mean that all managers “walk the talk”. It is very difficult for many middle managers to feel safe enough to be able to give up the power they have been used to, and this is one reason reality does not always match the management rhetoric of participative empowered partnership.
Many of the ideas about how to achieve creativity in organisations are based on strategies that appear to work in Western companies. The stress on the importance of freedom and speaking out seems fitting for individualist cultures. It may be that in other cultures, with other values, such as a greater sense of communality and/or higher power-distance, different patterns of organisation would be equally creative. For example overseas Chinese communities have developed highly successful networks of linked companies based around family clans. These organisations tend to be very lean and have few of the corporate trappings found in the West. On the other hand each individual company tends to be smaller than the typical Western multi-national. However most large organizations I have spoken to in, for example, Hong Kong, India, Malayasia, Borneo and Ethiopia, have felt that a culture where staff felt more able to speak their mind would be beneficial to the company's creativity and believed their culture needed to change to accommodate this. On the other hand I have met managers in Vietnam and China who were more doubtful that their staff could offer much in the way of creativity until they were better educated. Participatory action research offers a form of creative problem exploration that is used extensively in development management with illiterate villagers. It aims to allow all to participate creatively in decisions that affect them.
Changing conceptions of creativity
Ideas about what causes creativity have changed over time as illustrated in Table 1. For the purposes of this paper these possible causes have been grouped into four areas.
Table 1. Changing conceptions of creativity
(Source: Adapted from Henry 1999 p. 10)
Conceptions of creativity have changed fundamentally over time. Nowadays scientists believe individual creativity to be the result of a combination of intrinsic motivation, a certain mental flexibility and experience in the field, normally arising from a particular community of practice. They also increasingly recognise the value of non-rational ways of thinking. Organisations are now keen to draw out the creativity in their staff. This appears to be easier in open cultures that allow staff a lot of freedom and support to undertake work in a manner, time and place of their choosing. These trends appear to promise a more humane form of management. These themes are developed in more depth in Henry 2000 and 2001.
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