In this article, you will learn:
- 😶🌫️ Why creative work is such an elusive concept in our modern workforce
- ⭐ What is creativity in 5 key ingredients
- 🎢 What is a creative process in 6 steps
- 👩🔧 How to spark creativity in the workplace in 4 actions
What is creativity?
If you had to define the concept of creativity on the spot, without giving it a second thought, how would you describe it? Talking with a founder of an early-stage company about work cultures - we argued that anyone in his team was creative.
We build a product from scratch that solves a problem. We go through ideation phases, and we set up original initiatives to attract talent from all over the world. This team produces creative work every day and they are product managers, sales, or talent & people professionals.
He believes (and so do I) that creative work is wider than artistic work. While most people conflate creativity with art, it is only one of the many misconceptions we have.
Why is creative work such an elusive concept?
Mainly because creative work as we know it today is quite recent.
According to Rahaf Harfoush, when we shifted to a knowledge economy from the industrial revolution, people suddenly had more abstract tasks such as writing, problem-solving, or strategizing. Companies struggled to figure out who was working and who wasn't and adapted the old models of productivity to this type of work - creative work.
The problem is not only these old models of productivity don't make a lot of sense, they have also obscured our understanding of creative work. Sir Ken Robinson, who led significant projects about creative education, argues that « If you don’t stop to think what creativity is, it’s hard to know how to promote it."
The same thing goes for organizations. If you want to boost creative output, you need to fully understand creative work, the creative process and how to create the best conditions for your team.
Let’s dive in! 👏
What is creativity: 5 key ingredients
1. Creativity is applied imagination
Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It just seemed obvious after a while. (Steve Jobs)
Creative work is connecting the dots, but contrary to general beliefs you've got to show something for it. Ken Robinson beautifully explains the correlation between Imagination, Creativity, and Innovation:
- Imagination is the wellspring of creativity - it is the ability to bring into mind things that are not present to our senses. You can visit the past, predict the future or use empathy to imagine how it is in someone else's shoes. It is fascinating because this is always an interpretation of your ideas, memories, and wishes connecting. Imagination is where all begins.
- Creativity is applied imagination - it is when you put your imagination to work. You might believe creativity is not about results, it is quite the opposite. To be creative, you've got to show something for it, it has outcomes in the public arena. Creativity is when things happen.
- Innovation brings value to creative work - it is ensuring that your creative work is valuable and useful to your community. Innovation is when you and others connect the dots.
2. Creativity builds upon discipline
I will always remember what my dance teacher told me once - we were practicing a variation and learning the choreography took hours of repetition. I was exhausted. I still remember that moment though, when I mastered it. This moment of knowledge, my body knew the choreography by heart. My teacher noticed, looked at me, and simply said "Now, you can dance."
While creativity is often perceived as antipathetic to discipline and learning facts, it is quite the opposite.
- You can't be creative on the piano if you can't play it
- You can't be creative in mathematics if you're innumerate
- You can’t be creative in coding if you don’t know how to code
You’ve got to know the rules to imagine a world beyond them.
Creativity is not disorganized and unstructured, but it rather builds upon facts, knowledge, and discipline. Creativity is all about the practice.
3. Creativity has to be original and valuable
Research shows that to be creative, an idea must not only be original but also have value. The Creativity Research Journal defines it as bipartite:
- Originality is defined as something novel, unique, unusual if it is commonplace, mundane or conventional then it is not original therefore not creative. And while originality is vital for creativity, it is not sufficient. Original things must be effective to be creative.
- Effectiveness is defined as usefulness, fit or value. Effectiveness brings value to the original work - It means you applied critical judgment to the idea. Whatever you are creating, there is a constant process of interrogation by you and others.
For instance, Steve Jobs has shown tremendous creativity building the first iPhones. It was not only original at the time, but it certainly brought value to our world. Picasso, in his own expression of creativity, has brought as much originality than value with Guernica, and his several other paintings.
4. Creativity is for everyone, applied to everything
Creativity is for everyone
We tend to believe only special people are creative. You will notice that when someone thinks he is not creative, he usually means he is not artistic. "That whole romantic image of the creative genius doing drugs and running around and sleeping with everyone is played out" (Austin Kleon in Steal Like an Artist).
Not only should you not conflate creativity with art, but also not reduce creativity to a few lucky ones. You can be creative in the arts, but also in finance, HR, and more. It is not limited to one activity or another.
Creativity is everywhere
"Creativity is not confined to (-) artistic domains, but also occurs in fields such as business, manufacturing, technology, medicine, administration, education, even defense says Arthur Cropley in the Encyclopedia of Creativity".
Creativity is the heart and pulse of society. It is represented everywhere and what sets us apart. We create virtual worlds, great cities, different beliefs within cultures, we simply create the world we live in. As long as you're a human being, creativity usually comes with it.
Creativity is diverse
Creativity feeds from a diversity of cultures, experiences and concepts. "Creativity is a sort of cognitive alchemy" explains Paul J.Silva. "We know things - experiences, ideas, images, words, concepts - and somehow from what is old and known comes something new."
When put into paper, drawing or strategy - this set of knowledge helps put original and unique ideas in the public arena. What you need is access to the right toolbox and framework - you need access to the creative process.
5. Creativity is a process, not an event
"Pow! Two unrelated ideas, adolescent cruelty, and telekinesis, came together, and I had an idea" shares Stephen King in his Memoirs, "I didn't leave my post at Washex, didn't go running around the laundry waving my arms and shouting Eureka!, however."
Much more than one eureka moment, Ken Robinson describes creativity as the process of having an original idea that has value.
Rather than an event, creativity is a process - a conversation between the material and the idea.
So, how does this conversation happen?
What is a creative process in 6 steps
Usually, the creative process comes in 6 phases as an iterative cycle rather than a step-by-step plan. It goes like this:
- Preparation stage: it all starts with exploring and absorbing new ideas, it requires calm and observing what already exists.
- Idea incubation stage: the subconscious does the heavy lifting at this stage, your ideas are slowly connecting.
- Insight stage: it is the classic eureka moment. It usually happens in a low-level activity, such as Stephen King had an idea while washing his clothes. When we say ideas happen when you're taking a shower - that's it. Also, if you have a creative block, a walk in nature can help.
- Evaluation stage: it is a practical step, you need to be critical of your idea.
- Feedback stage: it is when you get valuable criticism, and this is an inherent part of the creative process. You get a glimpse of "is this idea not only original but also valuable?"
- Creation stage: this is when you put in the reps, when you get to work. This is when you go from imagination to creative work. You sit down to write, to design this website, to clarify your brand strategy. This is the practice shipping creative work, sit down no matter what.
Let's not forget that this process can take years, take it from former Pixar's CEO Ed Catmull "The initial idea for the movie—what people in the movie business call “the high concept”—is merely one step in a long, arduous process that takes four to five years."
How to spark creativity in the workplace 👩🏼🔧
Creativity vs Productivity
Digital anthropologist Rahaf Harfoush warns us that "knowledge (creative) workers are facing a big challenge. They are expected to be constantly productive and creative in equal measure. But it's almost impossible for our brains to continuously generate new ideas with no rest" and it hurts your creativity, but also the company's creative output.
Your creativity has its rhythms, and your energy fluctuates daily, weekly even seasonally. And these are important clues to efficiently measure your creative output and ensure you (or your team) meet goals.
Companies like Convertkit understand that it is not about happiness at work with free lunch and ping pong tables anymore, but rather "a culture of trust, clear feedback, focused work, and meaningful connection".
Four actions to spark creativity as a team
People flourish when the culture is right, here are a few ideas to promote one that will attract and retain creative minds:
- Hire diverse: A diverse workforce can simulate the process of divergent thinking on a much grander scale. If every employee possesses a thought process unique to their own experiences, then the ideas generated will be as broad and diverse as the team itself.
- Embrace feedback with a peer culture: Pixar, at the time of Ed Catmull, set up the "Brain Trust", a group that met every time one member required assistance, they would share every raw feedback they had without holding back, putting their ego aside. "The problem-solving powers of this group are immense and inspirational to watch."
- Design workdays around energy levels: I talked with a freelancer recently who told me "my creative bursts usually come at night", a start-up founder shared that most of his ideas come from daily walks and nature hikes. To embrace this as a team, Nathan Barry, founder at Convertkit implemented "no meeting days" for his team to do organize their work on their own terms.
- Take time off: Downtime is a necessity for our brain to recover and to operate properly. As a manager or founder, showing your team that you take time off not only promotes trust but fosters collective creativity.
In our common past, productivity was about rigid structures and controlling the inputs. Our modern workforce, however, is all about flexible structures, and autonomy to reach goals in a sustainable way. Normalizing flexible schedules, 4 day weeks, or simply not care about the number of hours worked, and focus on the outputs is key.