That’s why organizations expect their managers to be creative on demand from 9 to 5. Yet for many managers, creativity just doesn’t come naturally.
So what do we do? We send management to creative workshops. We hire agencies. We organize creative Lunch and Learns. Yet studies show, for many organizations, the Holy Grail of creativity remains as elusive as ever.
Why? What are we missing?
Over the last few years, I have supported dozens of organizations in their ideation sessions, and I’ve taught seminars at the Master’s level on the scientific fundamentals of creativity. I’ve encountered groups brimming with creativity, and others that turned into some of the longest three hours of my career. Let me share my experiences with you.
But first, a piece of advice: You are creative. The key is learning how to cultivate it.
The parameters of creativity
One thing’s for sure: If you’re looking for creativity in the definition of the word itself, you’re going to come away empty handed: “Creativity is generally defined as the generation of ideas or products that are both novel and appropriate (correct, useful, valuable, or meaningful).” – Amabile (1997)
Thankfully, researchers have put a lot more thought into this definition, and concluded that creativity is made up of three inherent, fundamentally human parameters: motivation, expertise, and creative ability.
Motivation is defined as an individual’s desire to act, whereas expertise means the knowledge an individual has gained as correlated to the challenge they wish to solve.
Creative ability is more complex. It’s a mix of intellectual independence, self-discipline, perseverance, and the ability to tolerate risk. In other words, all the qualities needed for someone to give themselves time to think and not come to a grinding halt when faced with the absence of an obvious solution.
The diameters of creativity
What took me a while to really grasp—and the point I wanted to share with you here—is that the diameters of the circles above can change drastically from one individual or group to the next. They are in constant movement. Put another way, everyone is creative, but to different degrees, for different reasons, in different contexts.
Here are just a few examples of a lack of creativity that I’ve witnessed:
- A highly motivated group trying to find a solution to a problem that exceeded their level of expertise.
- A highly qualified group (expertise) with zero motivation to solve the problem in front of them.
- A highly motivated and qualified group where a VP—who probably considered themselves inspiring—had to have the last word, no matter the group’s creative ability. It made for an ideation workshop filled with “yes men/yes women” and zero intellectual independence.
In each of these workshops, one of the creative variables was suppressed—largely limiting the group’s ability to be creative. In order to lead a creative group, a manager must not only know these parameters, but learn how to control them.
The practice of creativity
For all those managers who say “But my teams have taken classes on creativity!” or “But I hired creative agency people!” Don’t be surprised if you’re not seeing results. You’re probably controlling only one parameter!
So the question is: How do you control more parameters? From the outset, it’s a sustained effort. Creativity isn’t created—it’s cultivated. Creativity is not a switch you can turn on and off at will.
Each of these parameters can be explored at great length. But here is what they mean in a nutshell:
Here are some questions to ask yourself: Does your group know why your organization exists? Is your vision clear and inspiring? On a personal basis, is the career of each of your team members living up to their expectations?
Motivation is the most emotionally driven parameter. If you answered “no” to these questions, for your organization or group, you won’t be able to be creative.
The expertise of an individual or group is not the challenge here. Everyone has some level of expertise! That said, do they have the expertise needed to find a solution to the problem they’re being faced with? You wouldn’t ask a group of accountants to build a rocket to Mars!
A group of managers may not have the expertise needed to solve a complex problem related to your business model—as opposed to a group of executives—but could still tackle the challenges in question.
Be sure you really understand your colleagues’ expertise, and build a group that can address issues that call for their specific expertise. It sounds simple, but I assure you it isn’t. In some cases, someone’s area of expertise is subtle and difficult to detect.
A large part of creative ability is highly personal: Am I disciplined? Can I persevere? Do I think independently? Some people have it, others don’t.
That said, like any good manager you can hone your team’s creative ability in a general way by:
- providing access to training
- offering downtime to think and reflect
- offering flexible work schedules
- not micromanaging your team
- not deciding what’s best for your team
- answering questions with questions
- showing your team they’re allowed to be wrong
- providing feedback
- simply listening
- understanding that sometimes it takes multiple ideation meetings to find the right solution
In conclusion, creativity may be complex, but it’s also manageable. You just can’t treat it like some element that appears out of nowhere like magic. Creativity has to be cultivated.
Photo credit: Annie Spratt / Unsplash
Amabile, T. M. (1997) Motivating Creativity in Organizations: On Doing What You Love and Loving What You Do. California Management Review, vol. 40, n°1, p. 39‑58.
Amabile, T. M. and Khaire, M. (2008) Creativity and the Role of the Leader. Harvard Business Review, p. 100‑109.