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Do we really want to encourage creativity?

Published 24th February 2014 by IIP Scotland

In a recent article republished in The Week Eric Baker retells the story of how researcher Vera John-Steiner set out to identify “What nourishes sustained productivity in the lives of creative individuals?” She interviewed more than 70 living creative geniuses and analysed the notebooks of 50 dead ones (including Tolstoy, Einstein, etc.) to look at their work habits.

She had planned to title her book The Leap, but in fact the great “Eureka!” moments turned out to be something of a myth. Instead, great ideas emerged through an on going process of  “drips and drabs, false starts and rough sketches”.  In other words creative moments are not one offs.  Barker offers some thoughts and “takeaways” on the implications of this including :

  • Stop expecting inspiration to deliver a finished product
  • Write all your ideas down as early as possible
  • Stop discarding half-baked ideas
  • Don’t think your first idea is the right one. And don’t think it’s perfect as-is
  • Give it time. Deadlines don’t make you more creative

Barker’s advice is directed to the individual more than an organisation, but it also raises some interesting questions about how we encourage involvement, innovation and creativity at work:

1. Do one off activities –  team planning away days, brainstorming sessions, suggestion boxes – encourage the on going development of ideas in the way that Vera John-Steiner describes?

2. Are leaders and managers who offer the opportunity to people to contribute their ideas and thoughts at their own discretion, limiting the potential for innovation and creative thought by retaining the control and direction as to when these activities take place?

3.  If organisations value innovation and creativity in their people how can it be hard wired into the day to day job?  Is this a troubling prospect for a manager, if so why?

4. To what extent is decision making which directly impacts on the customer informed by those who work most closely with the customer?

Whether the driver is higher levels of employee engagement – of which a key pillar is employee voice, or the need to encourage creativity, innovation and ownership, taking a bit of time to think through the logic of our approach will help us understand whether it’s really fit for purpose.