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The Psychometrics Centre

University of Cambridge Judge Business School

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Creativity in an Organisation

last modified Oct 05, 2013 05:27 PM

Ian Florance

"We have too many good ideas but never actually make them happen"

There's a lot of talk about creativity in business at the moment. Large corporations hire poets and theatre-groups to break the mould. Teams are asked to 'think the unthinkable'.

The dot.com boom and crash illustrated the dangers of unfettered creativity untempered by basic business disciplines. Yet this hasn't blunted our enthusiasm for the maverick and unpredictable as long as it's set in a structured environment.

If change is a condition of business existence, where do the new ideas come from? Almost any technological or product advance can be copied in a couple of months - where does an organisation's competitive advantage live? The answer to both of these questions seems to be 'people'. You can't innovate by committee. Your unique identifiers may well be your customer service team; they can also be the personalities, knowledge and originality of key staff.

What Is creativity?

No-one truly knows, though recent work on neuroscience and computer models of the brain is making breakthroughs.

There are lots of definitions. I'd suggest two useful ones:

'Seeing connections between things that other people don't - and making these connections frequently.'

'Thinking that seems to come from nowhere and wakes you up when you hear it.'

How does creativity work?

Again, lack of certainty has created confusion. My observations in both business and the arts suggest it has five stages:

  1. "Gathering your ingredients" or taking in information. Creative people tend to take in a lot of information all the time, often from seemingly irrelevant and trivial areas. They're not necessarily preparing to solve a problem; the more information they have, the more likely they are to make an unusual connection.
  2. The "TV Chef" phase - putting the ingredients together and letting things simmer. Creative people often do this by themselves. They think about something different from the project in hand; the "simmering" goes on in the background.
  3. Ideas appear - they can rarely be forced. Creative people in a number of fields report that solutions appear out of the blue in dreams or through a sort of self-induced meditation. You have probably tried to remember a name, given up, then find it on the tip of your tongue some time later. The experiences are very similar.
  4. Deciding which are the good ideas (the ratio is about 99-1 nonsense to brilliance).
  5. Making the good ideas happen efficiently.

1-3 are what most people think creativity is. But there are two more stages in poetry, art, music and business 
People who are good at 1-3 are rarely interested in 4-5, and it's a lack of understanding of this point which, I believe, led to the dot.com crash, and still leads to the common syndrome of companies saying: "We have too many good ideas but we never actually make them happen".

In business, creativity must serve a purpose. But, if you introduce a goal or purpose too early in the creative process you immediately make certain thoughts unthinkable. Stages 4-5 are the time when ideas are seriously evaluated against company goals, whatever they may be. Before that, a certain degree of anarchy must reign. Common techniques like brainstorming reflect this but are often introduced without real understanding.

Do firms stifle creativity?

Individual managers and companies are trained to be risk-averse. This is especially true when times are hard; managers emphasise command and control because the risks of getting things wrong are too great. Creative ideas are by their very nature difficult to manage and dangerous.

In addition, there's a hierarchy effect. Coming up with the ideas is sometimes seen as the province of senior managers - who may be much better at controlling, rather than being creative.

Corporations create their own language, a culture of how employees can act and dress, even a particular way of thinking. This helps people to work towards a common goal: but it stifles aberrant behaviour and thinking, and creativity is, by its nature, aberrant.

Why is creativity important?

Rational planning can create a good, efficient company but, combined with new IT systems, tends to make all companies look and act alike.

Creativity is individual. Only creativity can provide the transforming idea that makes a great company and leaves competitors trying to catch up. This is borne out as much in science and art as it is in business.

Creativity is human - and businesses are having to take on a more human tone of voice, either because that's what their customers expect or because it differentiates organisations.

Can you identify creativity?

Not easily, since there is no one agreed definition of creativity.

However, psychometric tests and other techniques can indicate people who are more predisposed to come up with ideas and make connections. They can also show who's comfortable in that sort of role - for instance, who likes taking risks, doesn't follow external rules, is less focussed on the here and now. Some people get anxious unless they have set rules to follow; others feel stifled.

Tests can also identify people who help other people feel creative, and those who are likely to be threatened by creative individuals. Very detailed, process-oriented people who cannot tolerate lack of clarity will undervalue creative ideas and actively fight against them. To recognize these differences is crucial in setting up any creative team.

A final warning. Most people like to be considered "creative": it sounds more attractive than being "efficient". So when people claim this quality don't accept it at face-value. Examine it.

Creating a creative culture

This is a huge area, but here are a few straightforward ideas.

  1. Don't jump on people if they make mistakes, if they come up with ideas before they have thought them through. Feeling comfortable about making a fool of yourself is essential for a creative person. They get things wrong many times before they come up with a great idea.
  2. Tiredness and ill-health kill creativity. A tired person can still produce a lot of ideas - but bad ones.
  3. Don't surround creative people with lots of other creative people. Creative people compete - the old idea of the other-worldly artist/creative person is a fiction and they'll talk for years without doing anything. Many creative people are introverts and an essential part of the process is letting them go away to mull over a problem
  4. Don't mistake good communication for creativity. Just because you write or speak well doesn't mean you're truly creative; and many creative people find it difficult to communicate.

Qualifications required to administer psychometric tests

Human Resource professionals need to be specially qualified in order to administer psychometric tests. Both psychologists and non-psychologists can obtain these qualifications. A Level A certificate is required for the administration of ability tests, and a Level B certificate for personality testing. The Psychometrics Centre offers training courses at London and Cambridge leading to both of these qualifications (issued by the British Psychological Society).

Careers in psychometrics

The Psychometrics Centre also offers both full-time and part-time advanced training in psychometrics suitable for numerate and highly motivated human resource professionals, as well as for graduates with a good science degree who wish to follow a career in psychometrics.

 © Ian Florance, April 2004. All rights reserved

Ian Florance is Director of Only Connect Ltd. and an Associate of The Psychometrics Centre.