by David Burkus
A summary of the original text.
The Myths of Creativity, summarized by arrangement with John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas by David Burkus. Copyright © 2014 by David Burkus.
In this summary:
· Demystify the processes that drive innovation by understanding the latest research into how creative individuals and firms succeed.
· Debunk the 10 most common myths about creativity to help you overcome your obstacles to finding new ideas and design truly innovative strategies.
· Overcome the mistaken ideas that hold people back, and learn to develop novel, useful ideas that will keep your organization competitive.
· Embrace a practical approach, grounded in reality, to finding the best new ideas, projects, processes, and programs.
· Grasp the reality behind the myths so you can better prepare yourself, and those you lead, to produce real creative thinking.
The Myths of Creativity
We tend to think of creativity in terms reminiscent of the ancient muses: divinely inspired, unpredictable, and bestowed upon a lucky few. But when our jobs challenge us to be creative on demand, we must develop novel, useful ideas that will keep our organizations competitive.
Our summary of The Myths of Creativity, by David Burkus, demystifies the processes that drive innovation. Based on the latest research into how creative individuals and firms succeed, it highlights the mistaken ideas that hold us back, and shows us how anyone can embrace a practical approach, grounded in reality, to finding the best new ideas, projects, processes, and programs.
Burkus is assistant professor of management at Oral Roberts University, as well as the founder and editor of LDRLB, an online publication that shares insights from research on leadership, innovation, and strategy.
This summary debunks the most common myths about creativity to help you overcome your obstacles to finding new ideas and design truly innovative strategies.
The Creative Mythology
There is a mythology that surrounds creativity.
Myths are stories that are developed and passed down in an effort to explain why certain mysterious events occur or to affirm how we should behave and think. Cultures develop myths when they can't rely on existing knowledge to explain the world around them.
The ancient Greeks told myths as a way to explain such mysteries as the forces of nature, what happened after death, and even the mysterious process of creativity.
They created the muses, who received and answered the prayers of ancient writers, musicians, and even engineers. The muses were the source of inspiration.
While the influence of the Greeks' mythology of creativity can still be seen in modern times, the scientific method has helped us move away from a belief in the muses.
Unfortunately, creativity still appears to many as a mysterious process. Over time, we've developed our own myths to explain how creativity works. Specifically, there are 10 myths of creativity in the modern workplace:
1. The Eureka Myth
2. The Breed Myth
3. The Originality Myth
4. The Expert Myth
5. The Incentive Myth
6. The Lone Creator Myth
7. The Brainstorming Myth
8. The Cohesive Myth
9. The Constraints Myth
10. The Mousetrap Myth
The Eureka Myth
We like stories of epiphanies. We like it when the hero is stuck and suddenly the answer just comes to her.
This is the Eureka Myth, the notion that all creative ideas arrive in a "eureka" moment. We tell stories about other people's genius ideas as if the idea came suddenly; we conveniently gloss over the tireless concentration that came before the insight, or the hard work of developing the idea that will come afterward.
For example, we cling to the story in which Isaac Newton sat under an apple tree, contemplating what kept the universe together. A falling apple struck Newton on the head and triggered something in his mind, causing him to theorize that some force must have been pulling the apple toward the Earth.
Newton had his eureka moment and discovered the force of gravity. It's a fascinating story, but it never actually happened.
The earliest account of the story comes from a biography of Newton by William Stukeley, who wrote that the two met for dinner at Newton's home. When they retreated to the garden afterward for tea, they were prompted to discuss gravitation because of the falling of an apple from a tree. Their discussion ended with the assertion that the size of an object affected its gravitational pull.
That's it. No sudden flash of insight. The apple incident could barely be said to have added anything new to what Newton already knew about gravity. But as the story was retold by many people, the apple changed its trajectory from falling on the grass to falling directly onto Newton.
Most of the historical evidence supports the fact that he had already been thinking about gravity's effect on planetary movement. At best, the fall of the apple only triggered Newton's mind into making the connection between the pull of gravity on small, planet-shaped objects like apples, and the possibility that a large pull existed between the Earth and the moon.
The Eureka Myth doesn't offer much in the way of guidance for generating creative ideas. Instead, the myth suggests that if you happen to be in the right place at the right time, then your idea will manifest itself when triggered by something outside your control.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has been searching for the real process that people use to produce these moments of insight. In one of his more famous research projects, he studied the thought processes of 91 prominent creative individuals.
What he found was that almost all of the people he studied shared a similar creative process that consisted of five stages: preparation, incubation, insight, evaluation, and elaboration.
Note that Csikszentmihalyi's stages include a moment of insight, when it feels as though all the pieces of the puzzle have fallen into place. However, where the Eureka Myth would tell us that these insights are triggered by a chance happening, Csikszentmihalyi has placed this moment in the center of a process. It includes one stage that is often overlooked: incubation.
Incubation is the stage where people briefly step back from their work. Many creative people set a project aside and take a break from their work, believing that this incubation stage is where knowledge from preparation is digested and ideas begin to come together below the threshold of the conscious mind.
Once the incubation stage has run its course, it should lead a person into the insight stage. This is where the feeling of "eureka" happens, where the ideas being incubated have fermented into a possible solution that can be tested and implemented.
Csikszentmihalyi argued that eureka moments don't just happen; they are preceded by research and preparation and are birthed from a period of mental unfocus.
When you work on a problem continuously, you can become fixated on previous solutions. You will just keep thinking of the same ideas instead of finding new possibilities.
Taking a break from the problem and focusing on something else entirely gives the mind some time to release its fixation on the same solutions. Then, when you return to the original problem, your mind is more open to new possibilities. When this return is triggered by a chance event or observation, it can often feel like the eureka moment of the Newton legend.
It's likely that Newton found the beginnings of his formula for gravity after a period of incubation. He allowed his mind to relax, and a chance observation directed his attention back to his problem, causing him to stumble on a new possibility. It was incubation that led to a solution, not a falling apple.
The lesson of incubation is to work hard on a creative task or difficult problem, but to shift tasks when you get stuck, giving yourself permission to let your mind wander to something else for a little while. You might just find that your mind drifts back to the problem, but this time it offers a new solution.
The Breed Myth
It often seems as if creativity is a limited resource accessible only to a rare breed of individual. This is the Breed Myth, the belief that creative ability is a trait inherent in one's personality or genes. We're eager to believe that some people are born creative, and others drew a different genetic hand.
If we believe that creative people are a different breed, then we have a safe rationalization for believing that we're not as innovative as they are. "I'm just not creative," we can say, and shirk the responsibility to think innovatively.
In many organizations, there is even a clear distinction between "creative" types and "suits." The "suits" occupy the traditional business disciplines, accounting, finance, operations, and management. The "creatives" can be found in different departments: marketing, advertising, or design.
But if there is a creative type, a particular breed of human specifically designed for creative pursuits, then we should be able to discover it by examining two particular areas: personality and genetics.
However, when researchers compared creative people to normal individuals using a personality test, the results implied that there isn't one particular creative personality type.
With personality out of the picture, it makes sense to look to genetics. In an attempt to discover a gene for creativity, scientists studied the differences between identical twins, who share the exact same genetic code, and fraternal twins, who only share half their genes.
If identical twins are more similar than fraternal twins, then the cause is likely nature. If there isn't a noticeable difference between the two groups' similarity, then the cause is likely nurture.
When a group of 117 twins, divided by whether the twins were identical or fraternal, was tested on various elements of creative ability, there was no evidence for a creativity gene.
So, if creativity isn't limited to specific types and it is not a genetic trait, then perhaps the way we structure our organizations should make it possible for everyone to contribute his or her own creativity.
There are a few companies that have done just that, and they've found that it enhances their innovation and profitability.
At W.L. Gore & Associates, all employees start in the same position: associate. There is no clearly defined assignment and no ladder to climb if the assignment is completed well.
In 2010, Gore and its more than 8,000 associates generated nearly $3 billion in revenue from a diverse set of products. Their most well known product, Gore-Tex, has become a platform for hundreds of products, from boots and gloves to medical products to the space suits worn by NASA astronauts.
Although Gore's products are innovative, its unique structure is the company's true innovation. Instead of a hierarchy, Gore is structured as what it calls a lattice. This is a horizontal structure in which everyone is connected to everyone else.
There are no real organizational charts, no ladders to climb, and no departmental distinctions between creative and noncreative roles. Gore's core structural units are the self-managed teams of associates who band together around each project.
Without a series of management tiers, there is no formalized system for green-lighting projects. So Gore relies on its lattice to develop new products. When someone has a new idea, he or she starts working to develop it and asks for help as needed. As people join the project, it gains momentum. If no one joins, the project suffocates.
There are no preconceptions about who is or isn't creative. Instead, if associates are interested and feel that they can contribute to a project, they make a commitment to the project and start contributing. The entire Gore organization is a creative marketplace where people invest their time in the projects that appeal to them.
This breeding ground for ideas is what allowed the company to grow to a portfolio of over 1,000 different products, from the fabric in space suits to the strings on a guitar.
It's easy to trust the Breed Myth. It's easy to believe that some are born creative and others less so. Our current understanding of genetics leaves us eager to explain away creative ability as coded into someone's genes and thus downplay the creative potential of others.
But the evidence supports a different conclusion. Creative ability isn't limited to a particular personality type, and it isn't controlled by our genetic code.
When traditional organizations separate those they think are creative from those they think are not, they are severely limiting their own potential for success. Smart organizations have abandoned this false division and have structured themselves so that creativity arises from across the entire firm.
The Originality Myth
Ideas, we assume, are generated in the mind of one individual and brought to life by that same individual's effort. When we tell stories about a new invention, we assume that its creator is entirely responsible for dreaming up the device as a complete whole.
This is the Originality Myth—the faulty belief that we would not have a given creation without its single creator and that the creator's idea is wholly original.
Yet new ideas don't occur so simply. Rather, a close examination of history reveals that ideas develop through a much more complicated path
There is typically a host of people involved in a new creation, often working independently on what becomes the same discovery. Incidents of nearly simultaneous discovery or invention have a long history:
· Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz both discovered calculus.
· The telescope was invented by six different people—with Galileo the last to figure it out.
· Both Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray filed competing patent applications for the telephone on the same day.
What is the explanation for this phenomenon? The writer Steven Johnson has been chronicling famous inventions for years and believes that he has found an explanation. At any given moment, Johnson asserts, there are a finite number of technologies available to be discovered.
As each new technology—each novel and useful combination of pre-existing ideas—comes into being, it increases the number of possible combinations, but it also increases the number of potential solutions to problems or needs, creating an opening for a new combination to emerge.
To describe that opening, Johnson borrows a concept from biologist Stuart Kauffman regarding evolutionary theory. Kauffman describes how chemical structures sometimes form spontaneously from simpler structures.
The structures that form are not totally random. Only those structures that can be made from combining the simpler structures had a likelihood of spontaneous formation.
Kauffman called those possible structures the "adjacent possible." Johnson applies this concept to ideas as a whole. He argues that the adjacent possible represents all of the possible combinations and new inventions that could be, but also the finiteness of those combinations at any given time. The adjacent possible dictates the inevitability of certain discoveries.
Johnson's concept of the adjacent possible helps explain why multiple inventors pursue the same idea at the same time. For example, before the invention of the telegraph, the idea that human voices and other sounds could be sent through a wire was outside the realm of possibility.
The telegraph gave both Bell and Gray a technology to experiment with in solving the problem of sound transmission. It opened up a door to a new possible combination. Bell and Gray were working at the same time with the same materials. That they came across the same successful combination could be said to have been inevitable.
Despite the fact that all inventors in a given period of time work with the same materials to achieve sometimes similar results, our tendency is to attribute ownership of an idea to a single person.
We know that innovation flourishes when individuals can build from pre-existing ideas, but the structures most companies currently employ are designed to prevent people outside their circle from using "their" ideas. They do this through patents, trade secrets, digital rights management, and intellectual property laws.
All these methods assume that ideas are the property of one person. That assumption carries a large potential cost. If ideas are harder to combine, we will get fewer combinations. If we always demand a single, original creator, we will get less innovation.
The Expert Myth
When facing tough problems that require creative solutions, we often believe that we need to enlist the help of more people with greater expertise.
This is the Expert Myth, the belief that a correlation exists between the depth of a person's knowledge and the quality of the work that person can produce.
Logical as this seems, the correlation between a person's level of expertise and his or her creative output isn't what one might expect. Research into the lives and careers of creative people shows that expertise can actually hinder the creative ability of individuals and decrease their creative output.
In an array of fields, younger minds counterintuitively tend to develop the sharpest ideas. In fact, there's a common joke among physics researchers that if you haven't done Noble Prize-winning work by the time you reach the age of 30, then you should probably move on with your life.
To someone outside the discipline, this may seem a little puzzling. The longer someone studies a field, we naturally assume, the smarter he or she becomes. Therefore, the older a person gets, the more likely that he or she is to produce breakthrough work.
But Albert Einstein was only 26 when he published his most famous and influential theories, including his theory of special relativity.
Confirming this idea, Dean Keith Simonton, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, found that physicists typically make their most influential discoveries before 30—old enough to understand the basics of the field, but young enough to view those basics with a fresh perspective and to question some of their underlying assumptions.
Simonton found that people in every domain appear to peak as they age, though some are less drastic than others. Social scientists tend to hit their peak productivity in their 40s or 50s, humanities scholars in their 50s.
It could be because they are less willing to embrace and promote ideas that seem more radical. It could also be that they become more constrained by conventional wisdom and the cultural dynamics of their field.
So although an expert may have a better or deeper understanding of a body of knowledge, his very depth of knowledge may hinder him from generating more ideas, or it may cause him to dismiss the fringe ideas that could turn out to be the most influential.
Although this peak-age phenomenon is widespread, it is not inevitable. It is possible to remain productive and influential throughout one's career by adopting the mentality of a young learner, an outsider to the field.
This means willingly forcing oneself to entertain nontraditional ideas and utilizing learned creative thinking skills to generate a greater number of ideas. The easiest possible way to fight the peak-age trend is to become an outsider by entering a brand-new field.
Many organizations are following this strategy on a larger scale, regularly seeking outsiders for new insights without regard to their education or specific expertise. These groups have chosen to open their doors and offer their problems to whoever would like to contribute.
For example, InnoCentive works a bit like an eBay for problem solving. That website was launched in 2001 by Alpheus Bingham, then a vice-president at pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly.
Bingham was frustrated with the traditional R&D model: finding the smartest people available and giving hard problems to them. Bingham had no way of knowing whether the right people were being assigned to the right problems. The traditional assumption was to try to match the brightest person to the hardest problem, but as we've seen, sometimes being the expert can put one at a disadvantage.
In 2003, the InnoCentive project was spun off from Lilly as an independent company, with Bingham still at the helm as its CEO. The website posts problems from hundreds of corporations like DuPont, Boeing, Novartis, and Procter & Gamble.
The range of problems is diverse, from designing lithium-ion batteries to developing reduced-fat chocolate alternatives. The range of individuals working on these problems, called "solvers," however, is even more diverse. Over 200,00 people have registered with InnoCentive as potential solvers.
This, Bingham believes, is the real reason the site works: "It produces a diversity of thought about the problem that can often make the solution rather unique." This diversity of thought is precisely where the solution comes from. Most problem-solvers on InnoCentive solve problems that aren't related to their traditional domain.
The majority of solutions come from individuals whose training brings them close enough to understand a problem's complexity, but not too close to limit their range of thinking when it comes to possible solutions. For example, an industrial chemist solved a problem that stumped experts in the pharmaceutical industry.
Efforts like InnoCentive have been so successful because they tap into the evidence that dispels the Expert Myth. Where creativity is concerned, it's possible to become too engrained in a single domain and be too much of an expert.
Not every organization can hand over every problem to the masses of potential online solvers, but they can still leverage the hidden talent of outsider perspectives.
Building teams of people from diverse backgrounds should allow for more perspectives on the problem and more potential solutions.
In addition, moving people around to various divisions brings the benefit of their old perspective to their new division.
Regardless of the method chosen, the key to combating the Expert Myth is to force ourselves to understand old problems in new ways.
The Incentive Myth
There's an old saying spoken in countless Principles of Management classrooms: "If you want something done in business, measure it. If you want something done well, monetize it."
This method has its roots in the early management practices of the industrial era; individuals were hired to complete specific tasks inside a highly structured factory. As the economy shifted from industry to information, the old methods remained, even in regard to managing creative work.
That we commission and reward creative work the same way we do industrial work is part of the Incentive Myth, which is the idea that the output and quality of creativity can be increased with incentives. This is how the majority of organizations work.
During the Industrial Age, Frederick Taylor, the father of management science, developed a system that he believed would better manage labor. He argued that if people found work dull and unmotivating, the best way to improve performance was to attach a monetary incentive to it.
In the early 1900s, when Taylor was experimenting, much of the work he studied was industrial work, which lent itself to this incentive scheme.
But creative work is different. In the work Taylor wrote about, there were usually clearly spelled-out instructions, and the task was to follow those to the letter. In creative work there are no spelled-out instructions, and the tasks to follow have to be discovered first.
This type of work is becoming more prevalent. According to a study by McKinsey & Company, close to 70 percent of job growth in the United States comes in the form of jobs for which instructions aren't known and problems still need solutions. These jobs call for creativity instead of repetitiveness.
Today, many organizations are departing from the Incentive Myth. They have found little correlation between creative work and the size of an incentive. Instead, they are seeking out talented individuals and finding ways to encourage their creative genius without traditional incentives. These new practices are having a dramatic effect on innovation.
Many companies are giving their people time off to tinker with intrinsically motivating projects and rewarding them when that work helps the company:
· The most famous of these programs is 3M's policy of allowing technical staff to spend up to 15 percent of their time working on projects of their own choosing without needing approval from their supervisors. The rule is known as 3M's "bootlegging policy," and most of the company's core products, including the invention of the Post-it Note, have emerged from time spent by bootlegging engineers.
· Australian software company Atlassian gives employees 20 percent of the workweek to work on whatever project they desire as long as it is outside the realm of their normal work. The policy generates numerous software bug fixes and product ideas.
· Innovation powerhouse W.L. Gore uses a method similar to 3M but gives people slightly less bootlegging time. At Gore, associates reserve 10 percent of their time to pursue new, speculative projects.
· The same 10 percent of company time is allotted to scientists at Corning, a glassware company. Scientists reserve Friday afternoons to pursue offbeat ideas under the radar of their managers and also to resurrect projects their bosses might have killed.
· The social media company Twitter holds regular "hack weeks": Employees are given an entire week to pursue an interesting project that is outside the regular domain of their job. Many work on new software fixes, but any project is fair game.
· The hack week concept was so successful at Twitter that founder Jack Dorsey took it with him when he founded the payment processing company Square. At Square, hack week has birthed a wealth of great projects. The extension application Square Wallet, which makes it possible to pay vendors using only a smartphone, began as a hack week project, as did a wireless receipt printing method.
· At Facebook, employees gather once a month for 12-hour "hack-a-thons." Everyone in the company is invited to pull a collective all-nighter from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. to experiment with new projects. Facebook Chat began its life as a hack-a-thon project.
In the traditional approach to managing employees, your people are paid to complete specific tasks, not to tinker with new ideas.
This tradition is rationalized through the assumption that the higher the incentive, the better the work. But many companies, from 3M to Twitter, share a belief that if they can identify talented, creative people with a track record of quality work, then they're better off allowing those people to work autonomously on projects that are intrinsically motivating.
The Lone Creator Myth
We have a tendency to favor stories of one person against the entire world. We likewise tend to attribute creative works or innovative ideas to one lone creator, even when that person isn't solely responsible. We love to imagine the heroic inventor working with nothing but his intelligence and a pile of junk.
This is the Lone Creator Myth. It's the belief that creativity is a solo performance and that the story of innovations can be told as the story of a single person working fervently on the new idea.
Books are filled with stories of lone creative geniuses. These stories tend to ignore a truth behind all great innovations and creative works: Those geniuses typically had teams.
For example, the story of Thomas Edison alone in a workshop experimenting with 10,000 different materials before inventing the lightbulb isn't true
It's difficult to know the exact number of materials that were tested in his workshop, but one thing is certain: Edison wasn't experimenting alone.
The bulk of Edison's work on electric lightbulbs came as a result of his greatest invention: Menlo Park. In its six years of operation, Menlo Park generated over 400 patents and became known as the "invention factory."
Edison was no lone inventor, but rather he compiled a team of engineers, machinists, and physicists who worked together on many of the inventions we now attribute to Edison alone.
The team referred to themselves as "muckers." There were approximately 14 muckers working alongside Edison.
The team at Menlo Park worked closely together, often sharing the same workshop space despite being involved with separate projects. They shared machines, traded stories, and passed along insights or ideas they believed might be helpful for other projects.
Their ideas and insights cross-pollinated; Edison and the muckers were unapologetic about borrowing ideas from clients in one industry and applying them to an invention in another field. In some cases, they borrowed ideas from other projects and parts from other machines.
The team of muckers quickly realized the power behind Edison's name. They found that when they tried to sell themselves to potential clients, their audience seemed to like the notion that a single individual had authorship of their ideas, especially when that person was Edison.
Edison's team took full advantage of the Lone Creator Myth that people want so much to believe in. For them, it was worth succumbing to the myth in order to find the funding needed to develop groundbreaking innovations. But this myth is promulgated in more than just the technological arena.
It shows up in almost every creative field. In art, we hold an image of Michelangelo perched alone, high atop some scaffolding, laboring endlessly to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In actuality, Michelangelo had assembled a team of 13 artists to help complete the work.
In 1995, Kevin Dunbar decided to research how collaboration happened in another field where the Lone Creator Myth dominates: science. Dunbar, a psychologist at McGill University, set up cameras inside four microbiology laboratories in order to study how their breakthrough insights occurred. Like art and inventing, science tends to hold tightly to the Lone Creator Myth, often attributing a team effort to the first named author on a research paper.
Dunbar's study, however, found that breakthrough insights usually don't occur alone in the lab the way we'd imagine. Instead, they happen most often at the conference table, during the meetings where researchers would gather to share information and discuss setbacks or odd findings.
As the scientists shared their findings, others in the team would notice connections to their own projects. When the scientists shared their setbacks, the others on the team would share problems from similar research and also how they overcame those problems. From these connections, innovative solutions emerged.
Dunbar also found that those labs with more diverse teams of individuals—people from different backgrounds and working on different projects—generated more creative insights and produced more significant research.
Why did the more diverse teams yield more creative insights and breakthroughs? Other research suggests that if all the scientists were working on the same experiment and had the same backgrounds, they'd all think of the same potential explanations.
However, in the laboratories running different experiments with people from different fields, everyone benefited from the knowledge of everyone else's past experiences. As scientists encountered setbacks or strange findings, it was the colleagues with different backgrounds who provided the best potential solutions.
All of these findings imply that creativity is a team sport. Teams operate best when they are a healthy mix of pre-existing and new connections—shared experiences and totally new perspectives. Teams with a wide knowledge of creative ideas and an efficient means of sharing them are best suited to produce new, innovative work.
The Brainstorming Myth
When most organizations need to unleash creativity, they follow largely the same formula: Assemble a team of people, put them in a room with whiteboard markers or sticky notes, and tell them to spit out as many ideas as they can. In short, they brainstorm.
Or rather they engage in what they think is brainstorming. They believe in the Brainstorming Myth.
The myth tells them that a great idea is all they need to produce innovation, and that by generating as many ideas as possible, they will find a single notion that they can bet their new project on. Once they get together and throw out ideas, they can sift through the pile and find that one, fully formed idea that's ready to display to the world.
After that, they're done. Brainstorming becomes the beginning and the end of their creative process.
When done correctly, brainstorming helps teams assemble a pool of ideas from which they can pick the most novel and useful. But it's rarely done correctly.
"When most organizations do brainstorming, it isn't very effective," says Washington University professor R. Keith Sawyer, one of the most prominent researchers on creativity.
Sawyer has studied the creative process for decades and did his doctoral studies under Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Recall from our earlier discussion that Csikszentmihalyi contends that the creative process has five stages. Sawyer's work built upon his doctoral mentor’s by combining it with a broader review of other research-based attempts to construct a model of the creative process.
When he had processed all of the available research, Sawyer concluded that as individuals and teams seek to produce creative work, their output comes as a result of moving through eight distinct stages:
1. Find and define the problem.
2. Gather relevant knowledge.
3. Gather potentially related information.
4. Take time off for incubation.
5. Generate a large variety of ideas.
6. Combine ideas in unexpected ways.
7. Select the best ideas.
8. Externalize the idea.
Sawyer's creative process doesn't replace brainstorming. Instead, it recognizes the potential of brainstorming when used inside the larger process of bringing creative ideas to the world. When done properly, brainstorming can become part of stage five, generating lots of ideas.
In this way, it is a technique for divergent thinking, but it also must be paired with convergent thinking in order to move toward the best possible idea. Convergent thinking occurs as ideas are combined and evaluated in stages six and seven.
Equally important is the information gathering that occurs before brainstorming ever takes place. Without the right knowledge, it's difficult to generate the right ideas and difficult to evaluate which ideas have the most potential.
Taken as a stage in Sawyer's larger creative process, brainstorming becomes one of the best tools for generating new and useful ideas. As mentioned previously, however, brainstorming in practice is rarely done effectively.
Most people equate brainstorming with getting a crowd together and throwing out potential ideas. After a few ideas are tossed around, the loudest person in the room or the one with the highest rank usually forces consensus around his original idea.
The Brainstorming Myth makes it easy to assume that the secret to producing innovation is simply to generate as many ideas as possible. However, the creative process is much more complex than simple idea generation.
Keith Sawyer argues, "brainstorming has to be embedded in a broader, longer-term organizational strategy where idea generation and creativity is a part of what goes on in the organization."
It's this long-term strategy and a culture embedded with creativity and innovation that help the most innovative companies churn out good idea after good idea.
The Cohesive Myth
When you imagine any consistently creative team, you picture smiling, happy people. You envision teams that get along throughout the process.
This is the Cohesive Myth—the notion that the most creative ideas and products come from teams that suspend criticism and focus on consensus. The Cohesive Myth leads us to focus on team building, on making sure every person on the team works smoothly with everyone else.
An excessive focus on cohesiveness, however, can actually dampen a team's creativity. It can narrow down options and cause those with a unique perspective to censor themselves rather than risk not being seen as part of the team. This myth is prevalent within a lot of organizations, but often the most creative teams aren't focused on getting along all the time.
While the exterior of these teams might seem pleasant, their inner workings can sometimes pull creative insight from the opposite of cohesiveness: conflict.
The headquarters of Pixar Animation Studios, for example, make it look like the happiest and most cohesive place to work in the world. A two-story atrium, designed by Steve Jobs, serves as the central hub for the entire building. Traditionally, movie studios sprawl out as wide as their campuses will allow, with separate buildings for each major function. Instead, Jobs wanted one building to house all employees.
His theory was that a design scheme that steered employees toward a large central hub would result in large-scale collaboration. Jobs firmly believed that collaboration fueled the outstanding creative work Pixar sought and that chance encounters were the fuel for collaboration.
The atrium is so large precisely because it is designed to be the home for these chance encounters. The mailboxes, bathrooms, game room, and conference rooms are all centrally located to force individuals from different divisions, with offices in different locations, to interact, share their work, and benefit from those discussions.
Many of the individual offices have been arranged in a U shape, with a central gathering area in the middle that encourages unplanned discussions on a smaller scale than those in the grand atrium.
Some of the individual offices aren't traditional offices at all. Instead, they resemble playhouses or tiki huts, whatever the offices' owners choose as a theme.
From the eccentric offices to the smiling employees playing foosball or Ping-Pong, it's easy to see that the Pixar team members enjoy being around each other and collaborating on award-winning movies like Toy Story and Finding Nemo.
Walking around the campus, it's hard to imagine employees fighting. Yet fight they do. For many of the animators at Pixar, conflict and debate are just part of their morning routine.
The animators, directors, and computer scientists at Pixar start many of their workdays inside a small screening room just off the main atrium where project teams gather for meetings, known as "dailies," to review their work from the previous day.
Those inside the screening room are given free rein to criticize and challenge every aspect of the animated frame. Nothing is left unexamined. No detail is too small to critique, and no one is prohibited from challenging someone else's work.
Everything from the angle of the lighting to the timing of certain sound effects is brought up, discussed, and debated. Frame by frame, the Pixar team fights over the details before settling on how to improve the frame.
Given that it takes 24 animated frames to complete a second of movie footage, this can be a laborious process. But while "shredding" each frame can be draining, the Pixar teams know that the process is vital to their ability to release quality films again and again. The more debate around each frame, the higher the end quality of the film.
It's easy to look at Pixar, or any creative team, and see its cohesiveness and friendly workplace as the reason for its success. From that perspective, the morning shredding sessions may seem counterintuitive to the creative process and like a drastic contrast from the open, laidback feeling of Pixar's main atrium.
But just below the surface of many outstanding creative teams, you'll find that their process relies on structured conflict, not cohesion.
Conflict is an indicator that diverse viewpoints are being considered and that the competition for ideas is still ongoing. During this competition, ideas are strengthened through further research, longer consideration, or the blending of different ideas into one that is stronger.
In contrast, when everyone in a group always agrees, it can indicate that the group doesn't have very many ideas, or that they value agreement more than quality suggestions.
When teams always agree, they don't push their ideas as far as they can; so overly cohesive teams rarely produce outstandingly creative works, whereas teams that seek to improve their ideas through debate are far more likely to generate innovative ideas.
Although the animators at Pixar enjoy their work and their teams, they also understand that conflict, not cohesion, can drive their creative process. When we focus too much on making our teams cohesive, we give up the creative boost that comes from having to defend an idea. We lose the ability to strengthen the idea through criticism.
If instead we learn how to use conflict to enhance our creative potential, then our teams and our organizations stand a better chance of generating consistently great ideas.
The Constraints Myth
When we think of the creative process, we assume that the most creative organizations are full of unbounded workers with unlimited resources building the future however they see fit. We assume that creativity needs total freedom to grow and develop.
These assumptions are made because of a belief in the Constraints Myth—the myth that creative potential is dampened by constraints.
There is no support for the idea that constraints hinder creativity. In fact, the research supports the opposite, and many innovative teams will tell you that creativity loves constraints. Constraints provide a structure through which to understand our problems and think of truly innovative solutions.
Innovation doesn't stem from wide-open spaces or from thinking outside the box. Instead, innovation happens when people work from inside the box, sometimes rethinking and reshaping the box entirely.
Constraints provide a starting point and a problem to solve. Both are necessary for producing creative insights. Many times the presence of constraints aids our ability to generate novel ideas and shapes their usefulness to the world around us.
For this reason, some companies willingly embrace constraints.
One such company, 37signals, goes beyond tolerating constraints for the sake of greater creativity. It creates them.
With Jason Fried at the helm, 37signals was founded in 1999 as a website design firm that specialized in creating websites for businesses. From the beginning, the group utilized an alternative billing approach that forced them to work within constraints.
At the time, many website developers billed by the hour. Instead, Fried's group billed $3,500 per Web page built, and offered to complete the page inside of one week. If the client wanted to add another page, the price was another $3,500 and another week.
Adopting this format forced Fried's team to work efficiently inside the constraints of time and medium—they had only one page, one week, and $3,500 in labor costs with which to develop their product. The offering took off.
In 2003, the firm's business model began to change dramatically. It was then that Fried hired David Hansson as a contractor to develop a project management system for 37signals to use internally. The program worked so well for the company's purpose that it decided to release it as a commercial product.
In 2004, Basecamp, the company's flagship project management tool, was launched. By 2012, Basecamp was being used by millions of people to manage over eight million projects—from Fortune 500 companies' product launches to presidential campaigns.
The product was built with a small team, and no outside funding. Although it was initially just a response to the constraint of resources, the simplicity of their Basecamp product became a self-imposed constraint for 37signals. Basecamp was such a usable product because it was so simple. The developers didn't have the resources to build a feature-laden product, so they didn't.
What they found was that users didn't want all those features; they wanted something that was simple to work with. Any new iteration of Basecamp, or any 37signals product, has to stay simple and devoid of the "feature creep" of most software tools. The initial lack of resources has turned into the keystone of the company's success.
37signals' enthusiastic embrace of constraints seems to be working. Its simple, elegant products generate several million dollars in revenue a year.
According to Fried and Hansson, "Constraints are advantages in disguise. Limited resources force you to make do with what you've got. There's no room for waste. And that forces you to be creative."
In organizations, the Constraints Myth leads to stalled-out projects and little innovation. It leads to teams focused on finding more resources and eliminating constraints instead of working inside those constraints and boosting their creativity.
If we believe the Constraints Myth and focus on solving the problem of getting more resources, then we divert our attention away from the original problem. Instead, the evidence suggests that we should focus on the structure that constraints provide around our problem.
The most innovative people and companies embrace constraints and focus their creative attention on coming up with solutions that work inside set limitations. Creativity doesn't just love constraints; it thrives under them.
The Mousetrap Myth
If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. We've all heard that saying.
The Mousetrap Myth is built on the assumption that once you have a creative idea or innovative new product, getting others to see its value is the easy part, and that if you develop a great idea, the world will willingly embrace it.
But this is often not the case. In fact, it is rarely the case.
A belief in the Mousetrap Myth sets us up for disappointment because the world's most common reaction to a new idea is to ignore it.
Consider the actual mousetrap. The U.S. Patent Office has issued over 4,400 patents for better versions of the mousetrap; of those, only about 20 designs have ever been developed into a commercially viable product.
The most successful design, by far, is the spring trap we all envision in our heads. This version was designed in 1899.
Despite the roughly 400 additional mousetrap designs submitted every year for a new patent, no design has yet surpassed the spring trap. Behind all these designs is a simple truth: Even if you can build a better mousetrap, there is still a lot of work involved in selling the world on your new design.
The examples of great ideas being utterly rejected are plentiful. Kodak's research laboratory invented the first digital camera in 1975 but didn't pursue it. Management had decided that the future was still in film because film offered a superior resolution. Kodak paid no attention as Sony stole the future of digital photography out from underneath it.
Kodak's failure to appreciate digital photography suggests that even experts in a given field have a tendency to reject the ideas that move the field forward.
Within organizations, most ideas travel through an approval process involving multiple people in multiple levels of the organization. At each level, managers or teams have to decide whether the idea is viable and, perhaps more important to them, whether the idea has the potential to harm their own business units or careers. If it does, then it's just too risky to pursue.
This effect is what David Owens, Vanderbilt professor for the practice of management and innovation, calls the "hierarchy of no." These organizations extol the benefits of creativity and innovation, but those benefits are rejected because of the biases present in the same people who make up these organizations.
Many organizations that consider themselves innovative might allow ideas time to develop, but they eventually force those ideas through hurdles intended to identify the best ideas for implementation. The problems occur when those hurdles are too high and when the bias against creativity filters out the ideas that would prove useful but are too novel to win approval.
Perhaps these organizations don't need more creative ideas; they may just need to develop a better system for identifying innovations and accepting creativity.
One company has developed such a system. Rite-Solutions is a software company based in Newport, Rhode Island.
The company makes a diverse range of software programs, from submarine command systems for the Navy to electronic gambling systems for casinos. Jim Lavoie and Joe Marino, who had worked together at a leading defense contractor, started the company in 2000.
During their tenure, they'd grown increasingly frustrated with the way their former employer handled innovative ideas. Lavoie explains, "If you had a great idea, we would tell you, 'Okay, we'll make an appointment for you to address the murder board.' The murder board's job was to make sure the company took no risk. Their job was to shoot down ideas."
These murder boards, Marino recalls, would assault the idea person with questions about market size, cost projections, or estimated return on investment. Against such an assault, it wasn't necessarily the best ideas or the best people who got a green light; it was the best presenters.
Lavoie and Marino wanted to establish a company where new ideas would be welcomed and cultivated, instead of shut down upon their initial hearing.
So they borrowed the concept of the stock market and turned it into a tool for judging innovation. In a market, anyone can invest in whatever company he or she feels has promise.
The "Mutual Fun" is a market-like system set up on Rite-Solutions' internal Web site with three exchanges for classifying ideas. The "Spazdaq" features ideas with considerable risk, usually entirely new businesses or technologies. The "Bow Jones" is for potential extensions on existing products, and the "Savings Bonds" is for small-scale operational innovations.
Anyone in the company can place his or her idea on any of these three markets. No one needs to get approval from management before listing an idea.
The new stock is given a starting price of $10 and assigned a ticker symbol. Each employee is given $10,000 in virtual currency to invest in whatever ideas intrigue him or her.
Just like in a real market, investment money flows unevenly to the ideas that investors favor and that they feel have the best chance of becoming viable projects. But employees don't just invest money; they also volunteer their time and expertise to help potential projects.
Once a week, a "market maker" logs into the system and revalues each stock based on the money invested and the time committed. The ideas that fail to attract enough interest are eventually removed. Ideas that gain momentum are given actual funding to help them develop into real projects.
When a stock moves from an idea to a moneymaking project, those who have invested their time get to share in the proceeds through bonuses or stock options in the actual company.
Even though it's been only a few years since its launch in 2005, the system has already become a huge success. In its first year alone, the Mutual Fun accounted for 50 percent of the company's new business growth.
What Rite-Solutions has created is a way to manage the ideas of its people while undermining the bias against creativity found in most organizations. Instead of having to run through an assembled murder board or a hierarchy of no, each idea is presented before the entire company within a system designed to allow the best ideas to float upward.
The decision to pursue an idea isn't left to a few people holding all the power and hence taking all the risk of uncertainty. Instead of forcing a yes-or-no answer from someone in management, this approach spreads the weight of these large decisions throughout the company.
Of all the myths of creativity, the Mousetrap Myth is perhaps the most stifling to innovation because it doesn't concern generating ideas. Rather, it affects how ideas are implemented. It's not enough for an organization to have creative people; it has to develop a culture that doesn't reject great ideas.
Like many traditional myths, the myths of creativity are useful for putting our minds at ease. They seem to explain our world and our creativity, or sometimes our lack of creativity.
However, as is true of many other myths, embracing them too tightly can hinder our understanding of reality. The myths of creativity might feel helpful, but stubborn belief in them, despite evidence to the contrary, will hinder us from achieving our creative potential.
Now that we know the truth, however, we can discard these myths and better prepare ourselves—and those we lead—to produce real creative thinking.
About the Authors
David Burkus is assistant professor of management at the College of Business at Oral Roberts University, where he teaches courses on creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship, and organizational behavior. He is the founder and editor of LDRLB, an online publication that shares insights from research on leadership, innovation, and strategy.
His work on leadership, creativity, and innovation has been published in numerous scholarly journals and practitioner publications. He is also a contributing writer for 99U and the Creativity Post. As a presenter, he has spoken on leadership and innovation to a diverse set of audiences, from start-ups to Fortune 500 companies to the U.S. Navel Academy.
For more information, please visit http://davidburkus.com
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