This is the second blog, in a series, on applying critical thinking to information to make well-informed and sound decisions. The blogs, and white paper, are the result of a collaboration between SAP and published authors, and professors of Critical Thinking, Dr. Sharon Bailin and Dr. Mark Battersby. Subscribe to www.sap.com/BINews to read the subsequent blogs on this topic.

Companies are always asking for creative employees who can innovate and come up with new ideas and products that push the organization to the leading edge. Innovators are creative geniuses who work alone. Do you agree or disagree?

We all want to be more creative both as individuals and as contributors to our rapidly changing society.  Companies are always asking for creative employees who can innovate, who can come up with new ideas and products that will push the organization to the leading edge. Nor is there a shortage of advice on how to become more creative, e.g., books and videos (our favorite is the video claiming to make you more creative in 30 days or your money back), and consultants offering creativity training. The problem with most of this advice, though, is that it’s wrong. It’s based on common myths about creativity, myths that have largely been discredited by theorists and researchers (see e.g., S. Bailin, Achieving Extraordinary Ends: An Essay on Creativity 1). Our intention here is to de-mythologize creativity and to offer some suggestions which emerge from the research on some things organizations can do to foster innovation. 

Myth #1: The artist in the garret

Innovators are creative geniuses who work alone.


The reality:

Innovation almost always involves many people. Even our usual exemplars of creative individuals (e.g., Michelangelo, Einstein, Jobs) were influenced by the ideas of those around them. And increasingly, creative work is conducted by teams of people sharing their expertise, critiquing each others’ ideas, using the ideas of others as catalysts for new and better ideas.

Myth #2: Ignorance is bliss

Knowing too much inhibits creativity as reliance on past experience keeps you ‘in-the-box’.

The reality:

Creators know a lot. Expertise and a depth of knowledge in an area are crucial. But so is a breadth of knowledge. Innovations are often the product of making connections based on a cross-fertilization between domains. For example, Steve Jobs’s interest in Zen greatly influenced his design ideas and his fascination with calligraphy was instrumental in the development of multiple type faces and proportionally spaced fonts2.


Myth #3: Break all the rules

Innovations represent a radical break with what came before, so you need to break all the old rules.

The reality:

Innovation is incremental. Research on the work of famous innovators (including such figures as Picasso, the Wright brothers, Darwin, and Watson & Crick) has demonstrated that even the most radical innovations developed gradually and built on what came before.

Myth #4: No critical thinking, please

Critical thinking hinders, suppresses, or leaves out creativity, so you need to abandon logic and judgment in order to be creative.

The reality:

Critical thinking and creativity are inextricably intertwined. Criticism of the way things are is often a stimulus to creative solutions. E.g. 3M’s Arthur Fry’s discontent with bookmarks falling out of his hymn book led to his developing post-it notes (Imagine. J Lehrer3). Making critical judgments and well-grounded decisions involves considering credible alternatives. Thinking up alternatives requires a good deal of imagination. Realizing which of the new ideas is in fact the right one involves a great deal of critical judgment.

Myth #5: The “aha” moment

Creativity is spontaneous and intuitive and happens in a burst of inspiration.

The reality:

Moments of insight make up only a small part of the process of innovation, which also involves testing, re-thinking, revising, elaborating and a lot of hard work. Innovations tend to build slowly and incrementally, with small insights throughout. For examples, the creation of Swiffers was the result of many mini-insights from a variety of sources building on each other over several years (Imagine. J Lehrer3).


How do you foster innovation?

What does all this mean for organizations wanting to foster innovation? For one thing, it means that it’s not just a matter of hiring more ‘creative’ people. Rather, a lot depends on the organizational structure and culture.

Collaborative teams

The importance of collaboration is a consistent theme in studies of innovative organizations. In fact, research shows that team-based firms perform better than traditional bureaucratic firms. Innovation labs and a collaborative team approach are being used successfully by a number of well known companies. Sony, for example, creates collaborations among designers, engineers and marketers to develop products. And companies such as Mattel, Proctor and Gamble, Wrigley, and Boeing are also finding that this approach shows positive results in terms of product development.4

But collaborative teams need to have certain characteristics in order to function successfully as incubators of innovation.

Deep and wide knowledge

Individual expertise is crucially important, but so is interdisciplinarity. Having individuals from different domains allows for the cross-fertilization that is often a catalyst to creativity. The most effective teams tend also to be cross-functional. Innovation is not just the creation of a good idea but also its design, manufacture, implementation, dissemination, adoption etc., and the original insight often changes significantly in this process. Thus the exchange of ideas from all areas throughout the process is important.

Collaborative thinking

Collaborative thinking does not mean just that everyone contributes their ideas. (It’s been demonstrated consistently that simple brainstorming does not work). Rather, it involves a true interaction of ideas. There needs to be some free wheeling but also critical thinking, constructive critique, questioning assumptions, building on others’ ideas, and playing off one another, with each person’s contribution inspiring others to think of new and better ideas. Researchers have compared a collaborative team to an improvising jazz ensemble, where the members of the group draw on large repertoire but modify and embellish it, and build on the musical ideas produced by the other members.

References:

1. Sharon Bailin, Achieving Extraordinary Ends: An Essay on Creativity (Kluwer 1988; Ablex 1994)

2. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (Simon & Shuster, 2013)

3. Imagine: How Creativity Works (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012)

4. Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration by Keith Sawyer (Basic Books, 2007)





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  1. Kerry Dunn

    Brilliant and inspiring. Please insist that senior managers read, learn, inwardly digest and enable the creation of an innovative environment. Cheers, Kerry

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