Is there a limit to creativity?

Creativity in the workplace
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Karen Drury
Internal Communication advisor, executive coach
fe3 consulting
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Creativity is a big thing in organisations – it influences, apparently, everything from individual productivity to product innovation, from financial performance to competitive edge.

It’s widely seen as a driver for growth and development, enabling companies to thrive in dynamic environments. Without it, technology companies in particular would be out of business in no time.

Academics and practitioners have been studying creativity since the mid-1950s in the guise of communication and problem solving. Creativity research has experienced a resurgence of late as the pace of technological development demands more new ideas, focusing mainly on Amabile et al’s 1996 definition of creativity as the generation of ‘novel and useful’ ideas.

But can everyone be creative?

Creative people?

Research has concentrated on either the individual (what makes someone creative?) or the organisation (what environments help or hinder creativity?).

There’s a mass of material on individual creative ‘traits’ but one of the issues with the research is that so much of it is self-report – people might describe themselves as ‘creative’ when they’re not.

However, a meta-analysis from Silva da Costa et al in 2015, which looked at studies covering more than 15,000 participants reveals that more creative people are characterised by greater divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is a thought process or method used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions. The practical application which springs to mind would be brainstorming.

An interesting finding from the research was that - with the exception of Openness to Experience, which has a moderate association with creativity - none of the Big Five personality factors play a significant role in creative thinking.

There’s a general view that everyone can be creative to a greater or lesser extent – but that what makes the difference in organisations IS the organisation.

A creative culture

For example, culture plays a major role in how creativity lands. Research looking at Hofstede’s cultural dimensions believes that culture influences creativity and innovation because the difference in cultural traits affects the generation of creative ideas.  Novelty requires employees to break free of existing norms.  Cultures which score high on collectivism (the degree to which people are integrated into groups) may stifle new thinking.

Likewise, uncertainty avoidance – an intolerance for ambiguity and the unknown – is unlikely to welcome new ways of doing things, new products and novel ideas. Power distance is the extent to which less powerful employees accept and expect that power is unequally distributed. A culture high in this dimension may influence employees to conform to rules and not experiment without explicit permission.

Away from Hofstede, Goran Ekvall, a Swedish industrial psychologist, observed the differences in how the working atmosphere of different companies affected the degree of participation in idea suggestion schemes. From this he developed the Creative Climate Questionnaire.  This has been developed, with Scott Isaksen into the Situational Outlook Questionnaire. The questionnaire considers nine dimensions of organisational climate necessary to enhance creativity.

Karen Drury

The role of leadership

The literature has a strong thread which indicates that dissatisfaction, tension and conflict can create new solutions – either getting rid of the status quo or working around it to reduce satisfaction.  Ekvall notes that debate promotes creativity – and conflict hampers it as people concentrate on the conflict rather than being creative.

The role of leadership here is make it OK to disagree, as long as the disagreement is focused on the idea, rather than the individual – in short, to turn conflict into debate.

Supporting the leader will be the facilitator.  Facilitators are key to providing a structure for the discussion and balancing the potential tensions within the group.  External facilitators are often less likely to be perceived as having an agenda.

Creativity limited?

In among all the positive outcomes associated with creativity, it’s worth noting that being creative, introducing innovation is change.  And change may be painful.

Critical research has noted the very positive rhetoric to much creativity research – that it is focused on outcomes, about company performance and competitive advantage.  There isn’t much room for creativity without an outcome – which then cuts off all discussion of creativity which isn’t ‘useful’. Critical views note that in the short term, creativity may carry the risk of failure and extra costs, but often these elements are ignored.  Which may mean we don’t actually know much about ‘real’ creativity.  

In the mindstretch®, one participant commented that some ideas are before their time – so are they therefore useless?  This point is particularly pertinent to the creativity of R&D scientists in pharma, where years of work may not see the light of day. The current literature would assume that they are not ‘creative’.

Our participants concluded that creativity is possible without an outcome, and that this should be welcomed.  This is certainly the thought of a new strain of research which focuses on the links between creativity and employee well-being.

It would be nice to think that organisations would cherish creativity for this reason alone, but maybe that’s just a wild idea…

This article was developed from an fe3 mindstretch® held in June with senior HR, change and communication professionals. Karen Drury is a communication consultant and coach specialising in leadership and change. 

About Karen Drury

About Karen Drury

Works in Internal Communication to get management to treat employees like adults. Works as executive coach to create spaces for people to think and see things differently.

Masters in Organisational Behaviour from Birkbeck College, BA Hons from University of Leeds. BPS qualified in Level A&B testing, also NEO Personality Instrument. EQA Postgraduate Certificate in Executive Coaching (Senior level practitioner).

Sector experience includes pharma, education, charity, local authority, central Government, oil and gas, recruitment.

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