Instead of searching for creativity, we should be fostering it in people we already work with—and redefining what it is
I recently asked a room of 40 executives to raise their hands if they thought of themselves as creative. This was a group who had been hand selected from their corporation as the future of the company, the big up-and-comers. Only three hands went up.
It feels as if just about everyone is looking to bring creativity into his or her organization. The theory seems to go that hiring creative people could bring much needed innovation, new thinking, and organizational revitalization. A recent study by IBM demonstrates CEOs' belief that "creativity" is the key to success for their companies in the coming years—more than "rigor, management discipline, integrity or even vision." So, if creativity is the key to the future of business, then why aren't more executives raising their hands?
The fact that these professions may be overlooked as creative is in part because only certain fields are labeled "creative" and others aren't.
One reason creativity is hard to claim as a personal trait might the popular image of the creative genius: a lone figure, someone who was born to create and is driven by an inexplicable compulsion to make art. While these creative people inspire us, they aren't necessarily the ones corporate America is looking to stock up on. Then there is the equally popular counterargument to the creative genius theory, spearheaded by Ken Robinson, that we are all born creative and the educational system sucks it out of us by the time we're a few years into school.
This second theory is a little more compelling to those of us who aren't tortured artists and/or have bills to pay, because it implies that we could be creative again. However, many of us don't need to be re-taught to be creative, we just need to be supported creatively, especially at work. Creativity in the workplace requires context. At work creativity is not a personality trait. It arises out of an ecosystem.
Creative thinkers are not the rare commodities that we tend to make them out to be. If you are running a business and want the innovation, flexibility, and problem-solving power of creativity, you don't necessarily have to hire creative people. You probably already employ them. I define a creative person as someone who has the ability to identify and deeply understand a problem, and then solve that problem by breaking the conventions of the status quo. By this definition, tortured artist or not, all of us can probably think of plenty of individuals we know who are creative.
The best teachers are usually the ones who don't do things "by the book." The same goes for great doctors, entrepreneurs, mail carriers, and even tax accountants. All of them are in a position to know the problem well and, when given enough leeway, can find a successful solution. Even at our frog office in Austin—a veritable shrine to creative thinking—one of most creative staff members is the receptionist, Elena, who is an intensely skilled problem-solver. The fact that these professions may be overlooked as creative is in part because only certain fields are labeled "creative" (design and advertising, for example) and others aren't. This is a symptom of the larger problem, and a dangerous notion if we are relying on creativity to bolster the business world.