Who's killing creativity?

2009-10-08 00:00

I’VE got a confession to make: I love the word creativity. It’s all about hope, opportunity, discovery, newness, growth and, above all, fun. It also happens to be the thing that sets us apart from all other species.

Yet when I mention this word in serious business circles, it’s met with blank, shutdown-like stares; “creativity, no … I know nothing about it”. For a bunch of people obsessed with growth, innovation, value creation, return on investment, new ideas, solving problems, continuous

improvement and streamlining processes, why such resistance to the idea of creativity?

And then it hit me. For business folk this word typically conjures up images of longhaired, unkempt artists — the purple-haired kaftan brigade. There seems to be a silent, perhaps even unconscious, “them and us” in play when it comes to creativity. It goes like this: there’s “them”, a tiny, creative (albeit weird) elite who come up with sizzling solutions, then the rest of us — well I guess we have sentenced ourselves to 20 years of boredom. By professing to know nothing about creativity and by refusing to see it in others or ourselves, we are guilty of perpetuating “creative apartheid”. We might be killing creativity softly, but we are killing it nonetheless.

There are thousands of examples that prove that it’s ordinary people who come up with extraordinary innovations. The guy who invented the CAT scanner was no scientist. He didn’t even have a university degree. The personal music player first launched by Sony was invented by a Brazilian philosophy student living in Switzerland. Creativity is a basic human urge: we cannot not be creative. We design gardens, we embark on do-it-yourself projects, put together new recipes, photograph ordinary things in unique ways, tell jokes and redecorate our houses — the list goes on. Look no further than the Internet. As you read this, clips are being uploaded to YouTube, there’s Flickr, Facebook, MySpace, millions of bloggers and commentators all eager to show off their creative bent. TrendWatch.com has tagged this group “Generation C” (for creativity), a group defined not by age, occupation or nation but by their desire to express their creativity.

So where is this Generation C? Right next to us. Down the passage. In the next building. The truth is that our workplaces are filled with bloggers, photographers, writers and “creatives” who are just waiting for the time to pass at work so they can exercise their creativity doing what they love most. So why don’t they bring it to work? Not because they lack imagination, but because they lack opportunity. Companies are rarely run as if ordinary employees could be extraordinary innovators. In so doing, huge quantities of human imagination go down the drain.

We don’t have to learn how to be creative. It’s been proven that uncreative behaviour is in fact learnt. Faced with a problem, the average six year old is able to come up with over 60 alternatives. The average adult? Bet­ween three and six. There is hope though. Our innate creative muscle memory can be strengthened with appropriate training, stimulation and exposure.

But where’s the proof that creativity actually adds value to the bottom line? Chew on these statistics from creativity@work.com:

• At General Electric, implementing a two-year in-house creativity course resulted in a 60% increase in patentable concepts.

• Participants in Pittsburgh Plate Glass creativity training showed a 300% increase in viable ideas compared with those who elected not to take the course.

• At Sylvania (a United States-based electronics company) a 40-hour course in creative problem solving delivered a return on investment of $20 (R149) for every $1 (R7) spent.

I suspect that creativity scares us because it sounds like anarchy. Doesn’t creativity equal chaos­ in our neatly ordered corporate world? Not necessarily. Toyota did a superb job of harnessing the problem solving abilities of its employees as part of total quality management initiatives. The trick with creativity is to make sure it’s relevant and focused. It must capture the message and address the

issues at hand. It’s about how to climb the mountain, not deciding which one to climb.

We need to stop killing creativity — our own and other people’s. Dividing the world into creative haves and have-nots completely misses the point. There’s an old advertisement that talks about a certain coffee creamer that can’t be found in the refrigerator. The punch line is, “it’s not inside, it’s oonnnnnnnn top”. In the case of creativity, it’s not “on top”, it’s inside. — Moneyweb.

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