The Truth About Creativity At Work

To better understand how creativity works and to debunk a lot of creativity myths, I spoke to David Burkus. David is the author of The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas. He is also founder of LDRLB and assistant professor of management at Oral Roberts University. The following is a brief interview I did with David about how his book can be used to make you more creative, and thus more valuable, in the workplace.

Dan Schawbel: What causes us to be creative in one moment and void in the next? 

David Burkus: We used to tell ourselves stories about where creativity came from to try to explain why creative ideas seem so sudden, like flashes of lightning on an otherwise dark plain of uncreative thinking. The research, however, suggests that creative insights happen whenever we’re properly motivated to solve a problem, we have enough background knowledge of the field to understand it, and when we have creative thinking skills. That last one is the biggest. Too often we wait for creative ideas to strike us, but there are a wealth of techniques we can learn (brainstorming, creative problem solving, design thinking, etc) that can help us discover creative ideas more frequently. Ultimately, you’re in control of your creativity.

DS: What makes someone more or less creative than their co-workers?

DB: Really it’s about perception. We look at certain careers or jobs in an organization and we naturally think those are more creative. Sometimes we even refer to those people as “creatives.” While it might be a fitting description of the value they bring to the organization, it’s a dangerous label because it suggests that anyone without that label isn’t creative. In reality, everyone has the potential to be creative. We’re all born creative, but gradually we move away from the creativity we experienced as children in order to prepare for the “real world.” Those people we call creative just did a better job of hanging on to their childhood creativity. But past experience is not destiny. You can re-discover your creativity.

DS: What is the biggest truth about creativity?

DB: Creativity is a team sport. We tend to think of outstandingly creative people as working alone, slaving away in a studio or workshop like a mad scientist or genius inventor. The truth is that almost all outstandingly creative people have teams behind them. Thomas Edison didn’t work on the light bulb, or much of anything else, alone. At the peak of his performance inventing, he had a team of 15-20 inventors working alongside him at his Menlo Park facility. Michelangelo didn’t paint the Sistine chapel alone; he built a team of 13 artists who assisted him at all stages of the project. If you really want to enhance your creativity and generate innovative solutions, start by finding people who will work together as a team.

DS: What is the biggest myth about creativity?

DB: There’s a saying that “if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door.” It’s a catchy maxim but it’s also total rubbish. I call it the Mousetrap Myth – the false belief that people love creative ideas. History is filled with innovative ideas being rejected when they were first presented. Kodak invented the digital camera and never marketed it. Xerox invented the personal computer and handed it off to Apple and Microsoft. Harry Warner, of the Warner Brothers, first saw the technology that would allow talking movies and rejected it say, “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” Research supports this idea. We say we want creative ideas, but we also have a psychological bias against them. Meanwhile, we run our lives and our companies thinking we need more innovative ideas. The truth behind the myth is that innovation isn’t an idea problem, it’s a recognition problem.

DS: What are your top three ways to become more creative?

DB: Copy, Fight, and Constrain.

1) Copy. Almost all creative ideas are actually combinations of older ideas. Consider how Star Wars is a combination of Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces, Flash Gordon movies and Akira Kurosawa films. Gutenburg’s printing press is a mash-up of the wine press and moveable type. We build new innovations from the innovations of the past. So the more you study other ideas and copy them, the more you’re building a repository of possible future combinations to create from.

2) Fight. We are quick to suspend judgment during brainstorming. Many of the most creative teams build structured conflict into their work process. When conflict is present, it’s a sign that we’re submitting and testing enough ideas. If there’s no conflict, we’re probably not thinking that creatively. That’s why companies like Pixar regularly schedule time where directors and animators review their film-in-progress and criticize it frame by frame. It’s a difficult process, but it’s what keeps them churning out quality work consistently.

3) Constrain. A lot of times it can feel like constraints are inhibiting our ability to be creative, but the opposite is actually true. We’re terrified by a blank slate. Constraints help us structure the problem we’re looking to solve and allow for more creative answers. Research suggests we’re more creative after encountering obstacles and road blocks. That’s why creative companies like 37Signals build constraints into their projects – limiting the number of people or features a product can have. Creativity doesn’t just love constraints; it thrives on them.















Dan Schawbel

Dan Schawbel is the managing partner of Millennial Branding, a Gen Y research and management consulting firm. His new book, a New York Times best seller, is called Promote Yourself: The New Rules For Career Success (St. Martin's Press) and his previous book, Me 2.0, was a #1 international bestseller.

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