Every entrepreneur believes in their heart that their startup is more innovative and creative than their competitors. Yet none knows exactly where creativity comes from within, or how to pick and motivate the most creative people for the team. Most believe and follow one or more of the popular myths on business creativity, even though none of them have much scientific evidence.
Like most people, they think of creativity as something divinely-inspired, unpredictable, and bestowed on only a lucky few. A classic study based on intensive research, “The Myths of Creativity,” by David Burkus tries to demystify the processes and forces that drive innovation.
His research supports what I have always believed, that anyone with a practical and common- sense mindset, grounded in reality, with the proper training, can deliver creative and innovative new ideas, projects, processes, and programs. The first step is to resist the urge to limit your thinking to the following long-standing myths:
- Eureka myth. This myth arises from the fact that new ideas can sometimes seem to appear as a flash of insight. Research shows that such insights are actually the result of hard prior work on the problem, usually followed by time to incubate in the subconscious mind as we connect threads, before the ideas pop out as new innovations.
- Breed myth. The belief here is that creative ability is a trait inherent in one’s heritage or genes. In fact, the evidence supports just the opposite; there is no creative breed. People who have the confidence in themselves and work the hardest on a problem are the ones most likely to come up with a creative solution.
- Originality myth. This myth is fostered by the long-standing emphasis on intellectual property, making a creative idea proprietary to the person who thought of it. The historical record, and empirical research, shows more evidence that new ideas are combinations of older ideas, and sharing those helps generate more innovation.
- Expert myth. Many companies rely on a technical expert, or team of experts, to generate a stream of creative ideas. Harder problems call for more knowledgeable experts. Instead, research suggests that particularly tough problems often require an outsider’s new perspective, or people who don’t know all the reasons why something can’t be done.
- Incentive myth. The expert myth often leads to another myth, which argues that bigger incentives, monetary or otherwise, will increase motivation and hence increase innovation productivity. Incentives can help, but often they do more harm than good, as people learn to game the system.
- Lone Creator myth. This reflects our tendency to rewrite history to attribute breakthrough inventions and striking creative works to a sole person, ignoring supportive work and collaborative preliminary efforts. Creativity is often a team effort, and recent research into creative teams can help leaders build the perfect creative troupe.
- Brainstorming myth. Many consultants today preach the concept of brainstorming, or spontaneous group discussions to explore every possible approach, no matter how far out, to yield creative breakthroughs. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that just “throwing ideas around” is enough to consistently produce innovative breakthroughs.
- Cohesive myth. Believers in this myth want everyone to get along and work happily together to foster innovations, so we see “zany” companies where employees play foosball and enjoy free lunches together. In fact, many of the most creative companies have found ways to structure dissent and conflict into their process to better push the creative limits.
- Constraints myth. Another popular notion is that constraints hinder our creativity, and the most innovative results come from people with “unlimited” resources. Research shows, however, that creativity loves constraints, so perhaps companies should do just the opposite – intentionally apply limits to leverage the creative potential of their people.
- Mousetrap myth. Other people falsely believe that once we have a new idea, the work is done. In fact, the world today won’t beat a path to our door, or even find the door, on an idea for a better mousetrap, unless we communicate it to the world, market it, and find the right customers. We all know of at least one “better mousetrap” that is still hidden.
If these are indeed the myths of business creativity, then what are the true components? Teresa Amabile, Director of Research at Harvard, asserts that creativity is really driven by four separate components: domain expertise, a defined creativity methodology, people willing to engage, and company acceptance of new ideas. Where these components overlap is where real creativity happens.
Thus if you believe that your startup success really depends on more creativity and innovation than your competitors, it behooves you to spend the time needed to understand and nurture the components of creativity in your environment, and not blindly following the historic myths. How creatively are you pursuing innovation in your business?