Most people think creativity is divinely-inspired, unpredictable and bestowed on only a lucky few. There are a lot of popular myths about business creativity, yet none of them have much scientific evidence. A new study based on the latest research– “The Myths of Creativity,” by David Burkus — helps demystify what’s behind the forces and processes that drive innovation.
Burkus’ research supports what I have always believed — that with the proper training, anyone with a common-sense mindset grounded in reality can deliver creative and innovative new ideas, projects, processes, and programs.
The first step is to not limit your thinking. That means not following these ten long-standing myths about creative thinking:
1. Eureka myth. New ideas sometimes seem to appear as a flash of insight. But research shows that such insights are actually the culminating result of prior hard work on a problem. This thinking is then given time to incubate in the subconscious mind as we connect threads before the ideas pop out as new eureka-like innovations.
2. Breed myth. Many people believe creative ability is a trait inherent in one’s heritage or genes. In fact, the evidence supports just the opposite. There is no such thing as a creative breed. People who have confidence in themselves and work the hardest on a problem are the ones most likely to come up with a creative solution.
3. Originality myth. There’s a long-standing myth about intellectual property — the idea that a creative idea is proprietary to the person who thought of it. But history and empirical research show more evidence that new ideas are actually combinations of older ideas and that sharing those helps generate more innovation.
4. Expert myth. Many companies rely on a technical expert or team of experts to generate a stream of creative ideas. Harder problems call for even more knowledgeable experts. Instead, research suggests that particularly tough problems often require the perspective of an outsider or someone not limited by the knowledge of why something can’t be done.
5. Incentive myth. The expert myth often leads to another myth, which argues that bigger incentives, monetary or otherwise, will increase motivation and hence increase innovation productivity. Incentives can help, but often they do more harm than good, as people learn to game the system.
6. Lone Creator myth. This reflects our tendency to rewrite history to attribute breakthrough inventions and striking creative works to a sole person, ignoring supportive work and collaborative preliminary efforts. Creativity is often a team effort, and recent research into creative teams can help leaders build the perfect creative troupe.
7. Brainstorming myth. Many consultants today preach the concept of brainstorming, or spontaneous group discussions to explore every possible approach, no matter how far-out, to yield creative breakthroughs. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that just “throwing ideas around” consistently produces innovative breakthroughs.
8. Cohesive myth. Believers in this myth want everyone to get along and work happily together to foster innovations. That’s why we see so many “zany” companies where employees play foosball and enjoy free lunches together. In fact, many of the most creative companies have found ways to structure dissent and conflict into their process to better push their employees’ creative limits.
9. Constraints myth. Another popular notion is that constraints hinder our creativity and the most innovative results come from people who have “unlimited” resources. Research shows, however, that creativity loves constraints. Perhaps companies should do just the opposite — intentionally apply limits to leverage the creative potential of their people.
10. Mousetrap myth. Others falsely believe that once we have a new idea, the work is done. But the world won’t beat a path to our door or even find the door to an idea for a better mousetrap, unless we communicate it, market it and find the right customers. We all know of at least one “better mousetrap” that is still hidden.
If these are indeed the myths of business creativity, what then are the true components? According to Teresa Amabile, director of research at Harvard, creativity is really driven by four separate components: domain expertise, a defined creativity methodology, people willing to engage and company acceptance of new ideas. Where these components overlap is where real creativity happens.
If you believe your startup’s success depends on your company being more creativity and innovative than your competitors, don’t just blindly following the historic myths. Instead spend the time needed to understand and nurture the components of creativity in your environment. How creatively are you pursuing innovation in your business?