If you’ve attended a conference or visited the business section of a bookstore recently, you’ve likely been encouraged to bring your creativity to work. There are dozens of books out, promising help you get unstuck and start your creative juices flowing. Almost half of the lectures involve a discussion on the pressing need to be innovative and creative to survive. A recent piece on this in the New Yorker (Creativity Creep) quotes a 2010 IBM study of 1500 executives to identified creativity as the #1 attribute they valued in employees.
It makes sense, actually. The business world is more complicated and turbulent than ever, putting pressure on everyone to “think outside the box.” This reminds me of all the marketing and branding books that came out at the turn of the 21st century, along with the proclamation that “Everyone is in the marketing department now!” The best of those books (The End of Marketing As We Know It) finally defined marketing functionally, which empowered readers to actually become effective at it.
We are at that point with the business creativity boom. We know we need to be creative. What most people aren’t clear on is as to exactly what the heck ‘being creative’ means in a business context. I’m writing a new book on creativity in the sales process and doing quite a bit of research along the way. I’ve been looking for a very practical definition of creativity that applies to professional life. And I think I’ve found a good one.
In The Handbook of Creativity, Cornell professor Robert Sternberg offered a crystal clear business-centric definitinon of creativity: “The ability to produce work that is both novel (unexpected) as well as appropriate to the situation (useful).” While other creativity experts argue that any new idea should be deemed creative, I like Sternberg’s framing of the concept. Like any other piece of business acumen, the proof is in the pudding.
If you are creative at work, you produce the unexpected, the new…but it solves the problem and doesn’t produce complications. Notice I didn’t say that creativity required completely original ideas as there is no such thing. It’s all about approaches that are unexpected.
The reason we need to produce unexpected work (processes, products, ideas) is because people quickly develop tolerance to our expected approaches (often termed “best practices”). Think of the joke that you laughed at the first time you heard it, chuckled a little the second time you heard it and then didn’t even respond the third time you heard it. That’s how a prospecting or closing technique plays out with customers. That’s how products become stale with customers, creating opportunities for incumbents to be disrupted with a fresh approach.
The opposite of creative thinking is reproductive thinking. This is where you use a conventional approach to reproduce success. Your tried-and-true products yields customer delight. Your conventional sales tactics yield revenues. In the past, best practices had a long shelf life. Companies could hatch them quicker than customers grew tired of them. But those days are long gone. To be successful, we have to take it upon ourself to produce the solution and not just rinse-and-repeat.
What does it take to produce unexpected work that is appropriate to the problem at hand? Sternberg points out that creative work stems from ordinary thought processes that happen to produce extraordinary results. It’s not divine inspriation or genius thought processes. Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile describes creativity as the “Confluence of intrinsic motivation, domain-relevant knowledge and creativity-relevant skills.” That’s it.
If you care enough, learn enough and develop chops relevant to the problem space, you can produce creative work. You can solve the problems that stand between you and success. Creativity requires a lot of hard work on your part, and it starts with a clear understanding of your product, your customer and the processes that drive your business. If you have the motivation to do all of this work, the fresh and useful ideas will emerge.
In the end, regardless of your desires or effort, you’ll need to be objective about the efficacy of your ideas. You need to be able to test them for usefulness and be ready to jettison the out-of-the-box-never-been-done-before ideas that don’t solve the problem. They aren’t creative. They are merely imaginative and that’s not what the CEOs in IBM’s study were looking for in their talents.
To borrow from designer Tim Gunn’s lexicon, “Be the new, but make it work!”