You should be able to spot a creative type from a mile away. In Mad Men, the AMC show set in a 1960s advertising agency, that’s not so easy. Both the executives and the creative staff wear suits. Both chain smoke as though it were going out of fashion. And both have similarly dull offices where the only creativity-sparkers are bottles of Bourbon and a sofa with a dent shaped like a secretary. Compare that to today’s attitude to creativity. Software firms like Google are famous for stuffing offices with giant rubber balls, lava lamps and idea boards. Sofas have been replaced with beanbags. And not even the CEO wears a suit. Without the right toys and bags of freedom, it seems, those creative employees just aren’t going to be churning out the ideas to keep an innovative company in business. In fact, the need for a child-like environment is just one of a number of myths about creativity that are not only wrong but which can actually hold a firm back.
Here are several more.
Brainstorming is the Best Way to Generate New Ideas
Whenever a firm is looking for a new direction, a new product or a solution to an aching problem, the temptation is often to call together a bunch of heavy-thinkers for a brainstorming session. By bouncing ideas off each other, the best option should quickly emerge. Or so the story goes.
In fact, creativity just doesn’t work like that. Psychologists have found that putting people together in the same room produces fewer and lower quality ideas than allowing people to do their thinking alone and in private. One study found that the number of new ideas actually fell by half when people are asked to think together.
And instilling a sense of competition makes the situation even worse. When employees feel that their careers depend on producing better ideas than their colleagues can create, they tend to keep their thoughts to themselves and pick holes in concepts produced by others.
In general, the best ideas come from people who are passionate about their work, and allowed to mull them over in private.
Deadlines Generate Creativity
And with plenty of time too. Another myth concerning creativity is that tight deadlines spark the best ideas. Not true. According to Keith Sawyer, author of “Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration,” tight deadlines can increase productivity but if they have any effect on creativity, it’s to dull innovative thinking. Ideas need time to emerge, he says.
Teresa Amabile, who runs the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at Harvard Business School and whose research program specializes in creativity, agrees. She found that time pressures stifle creativity because they don’t allow people to fully engage with a problem. Worse, not only did the stress limit creativity before the deadline, but they continued to drag down creative thinking for another two days afterwards.
In fact, says Amabile, the best predictor of a creative day is a happy day before.
Good Ideas Must Come from Creative Types
Perhaps the most prevalent myth concerning creativity is that there are certain creative types. They dress funny, read comic books and have jobs in design, copywriting or fashion that require plenty of out-of-the-box thinking.
If you want a new idea, it’s the Creative Department you want to call, not the mail room.
But that’s not true either. While some individuals are clearly more creative than others, there’s no shortage of creative thinking right across organizations. The best way to judge whether someone is likely to produce a creative response to a problem isn’t by looking at their job title but by seeing how my much they enjoy what they do.
In general, the people who are most engaged by their work and feel the closest connection to the company are the people most likely to put in the extra brain work to come up with new ideas.
Disorganization Is the By-Product of Creativity
And if the title on the office door isn’t always the best sign of a source of creative solutions, neither is the mess inside the office. To many people, creative types are often a kind of manic genius: slightly bi-polar and incapable of dealing with the day-to-day tasks — like cleaning. So their offices are disorganized, their desks buried under piles of books and notes, and if they have a task manager, it was lost years ago.
Not only is that a stereotype, it’s also completely wrong. Creativity needs the space for ideas to grow and develop — without distractions. Working in a disorganized space though can sometimes generate its own diversions. Instead of thinking about the next step in the process, you can be tempted to turn your mind towards tidying up a pile of papers or picking up the trash on the floor. A clean, comfortable space can often deliver so much more.
A Good Idea Comes Fully-Formed
That development is vital too. Light bulbs only appear over people’s heads in cartoons. For the rest of us inspiration is a process. It begins with a concept that looks promising. Then excitement settles in and then the creative process takes over, looking at the possible problems during implementation and the potential for the idea to work in areas beyond solving the immediate problem.
As long as the atmosphere in an organization is collaborative rather than competitive, the idea is then shared, flaws pointed out and new potential identified. The final result might look nothing like the original concept.
Twitter is perhaps the best example of this. The original idea was to create a platform that would allow for the public access of mobile text messages. That it’s become so much more is the result of allowing users to develop the site in whatever direction they wanted, from trend-watching to live chatting. The users checked all the boxes for creativity: they felt engaged with the product; they were passionate about it; they working alone or in virtual teams rather than real groups; they had time to think about their ideas without deadlines getting in the way; and they were collaborative, not competitive.
While the myths about creativity might be destructive then, the best thing about innovation is that when the conditions are right, there’s little you can do to stop it.