There is a mythology that surrounds creativity.
Myths are stories—usually very old stories—that are developed and passed down in an effort to explain why certain mysterious events occur or to affirm how we should behave and think. Cultures develop myths when they can't rely on existing knowledge to explain the world around them. The ancient Greeks told and retold stories of gods, supernatural creatures, and regular mortals as a way to explain how they thought the world worked. The myths they developed were an attempt to explain the mysteries they couldn't readily understand, such as the forces of nature, what happened after death, and even the mysterious process of creativity.
They created the muses, who received and answered the prayers of ancient writers, musicians, and even engineers.1
The muses were the bearers of creativity's divine spark. They were the source of inspiration. Even thinkers as great as Plato believed that poets drew all of their creativity from the muses, so that any works by the poets were really considered works of the muses.2
As the Greeks' mythology developed, the muses did as well. Their mythology ultimately included nine muses who acted like patron saints of creativity, each providing mortals with inspired insights in a specific area. Calliope was the muse of epic poetry; Clio, the muse of history; Erato, the muse of love poetry; and so on.
The Greeks believed that all creative insight flowed from these muses, so they worshipped them in search of a creative source and the experience of creating something extraordinary. The act of creating something inspired by the muses was a divine privilege. Some of the greatest minds in Greece at the time, including Plato and Socrates, built shrines for or worshipped at temples dedicated to their muse of choice (or hedged their bets and prayed to them all). The classic Greek epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey both open with prayers to a muse.
The Greeks even developed legends to warn against crossing the muses. In one story, Thamyris, a skilled singer, became overly proud of his musical skills. He boasted that he could outsing the muses and challenged them to a contest. The muses indulged his insolence and accepted the challenge. He competed against the muses and lost. The muses did not look kindly on his challenge. They blinded Thamyris and stole his ability to write poetry and play the lyre, leaving him unable to create art ever again. The legend of Thamyris was told to reinforce the belief that gods and the muses were the source of all talent and creative ability. Just as they could bestow it, they could also take it away. The only means of sustaining a creative career, then, was to continue to worship the muses and thank the gods that created them as a means to send their gifts to mortals.
This belief that creativity is a divine gift isn't limited to the ancient Greeks. Theologians from a variety of religions throughout history, including Christianity, asserted that God was the sole source of creativity in the universe.3
Even into the Middle Ages in Europe, the prevailing belief was that creative ideas were divine and that their derivatives were human. God's blessing was the explanation for all creative talent and inspiration. When one was asked where the idea for a song, poem, or invention came from, the answer of that time was always the same: from God.
Over time, the Greek influence on the Western world ensured that the legend of the muses continued on. It can be seen in literature throughout Western history. In Canto II of Dante's Inferno, he cries out to the muses for aid. In Troilus and Criseyde, Geoffrey Chaucer woos Clio, asking her to serve as his muse. William Shakespeare's Henry V opens with an invocation to the muses in the same style as The Iliad and The Odyssey. During the Enlightenment, many of the leading thinkers of the eighteenth century sought to reestablish a “cult of the muses” as a means to further their own intellectual pursuits. Voltaire, Danton, and even Benjamin Franklin attended meetings at a Masonic lodge named Les Neufs Soeurs, “the Nine Sisters.” Our modern culture still feels the effects of their efforts in such words as museum, whose original meaning was “cult place of the muses” but has since come to refer to any place where public knowledge or creative works are displayed.
The remnants of this original mythology appear in many of the conversations I find myself in, such as one I keep having with an old friend of mine from college. We've taken a few writing courses together, and she's always wanted to write a novel. When she came up with the initial concept over ten years ago, she did all the research but never got started on a manuscript. When last we spoke, she was still no closer to writing her novel. She had nothing but a notebook full of research and a blank page. When I ask about her writing, she always gives the same response: “I just couldn't find the inspiration to sit down and write.” She may never outwardly say it, but her actions (or lack thereof) reveal a subtle belief that some outside force has to come to her to give her what she needs to write.
Every so often I have a similar conversation with another longtime acquaintance. He has always wanted to start his own business but has so far spent his entire career working inside the same large company. I've lost count of the number of entrepreneurship books he's read or start-up magazines he's purchased. He is always researching, but never creating. He can tell you the specific details of how so many great companies started small and how their growth exploded. “All you need,” he tells me, “is a great idea.” Just one great idea, and he'd have everything he'd need to become his own boss and start a company that would really make an impact on the world. If only that one idea would come to him from wherever it is waiting in the universe.
While the influence of the Greeks' mythology of creativity can still be seen in modern times, the modern scientific method has helped us move away from a belief in the muses. Research is moving us toward an empirically proven model of creativity that can be used to generate innovative ideas. We don't need to rely on belief in an outside force to generate great ideas. We have everything we need inside ourselves.
If these novel and useful ideas don't come from the divine, then where do they come from? What causes us to be creative in one moment and void in the next? What makes someone more or less creative than his or her peers? Where do our flashes of creative insight come from, and how can we generate more of them? The idea of a sacred being visiting us on occasion to bless us with a creative revelation or that the act of creation should be a near-religious experience might explain why creativity appears so fleeting, but for those who are challenged with being creative on demand, this mythology doesn't really help. Research on creative individuals and innovative organizations does.
Although there is still no precise and agreed-on definition of creativity despite nearly one hundred years of research on the subject, there appears to be at least a small consensus. Creativity is seen by most experts in the field as the process of developing ideas that are both novel and useful.4
The novel is easily recognized, but the useful is just as important. The Mona Lisa is universally renowned as an important creative work, but a photocopy of the Mona Lisa is probably not considered quite as creative. However, photocopies themselves have been incredibly useful and were also novel when the first office photocopier was released by Xerox in 1959. In organizations, developing ideas, projects, processes, or programs that are both novel and useful is the vital antecedent to leveraging innovation and staying competitive.
There is a unique relationship between creativity and innovation. Teresa Amabile, a Harvard Business School professor, believes that “creativity by individuals and teams is a starting point for innovation” and writes that “the first is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the second.”5
Amabile believes that creativity is the source of innovation, but she does not believe that it comes from the divine. Instead she champions what she calls the “componential model of creativity.” Based on decades of research into creativity, this model was designed as a means of explaining the creative process and its various influences.
Amabile's assertion is that creativity is influenced by four separate components: domain-relevant skills, creativity-relevant processes, task motivation, and the surrounding social environment.6
These four factors determine whether a creative insight will occur. Where they overlap is essentially where creative work happens. The degree to which these factors are present affects the level of creativity an individual will experience. Stated another way, creativity will be strongest when an intrinsically motivated person with significant creative thinking skills and a given level of expertise operates in an environment that supports creativity. Innovation happens when these factors align and the resulting creativity is applied.
Domain-relevant skills (commonly called expertise) are the knowledge, technical skills, or talent an individual possesses in a given domain. These are necessary resources that individuals will utilize as they move through the creative process. Just as it is difficult to imagine a composer writing a symphony without some knowledge of musical keys, scales, and harmony, it is difficult to imagine an architect drafting an office building without knowledge of physics, engineering, building materials, and various other fields of knowledge. In many domains, such as the traditional fine arts, we can easily mistake domain-relevant skills for creativity itself. If we can't imagine being as good as the composer, then we assume that the composer is more creative than us. What we typically don't imagine is the years of deliberate practice required to gain such expertise.
Creativity-relevant processes are the methods people use to approach a given problem and generate solutions. These are the techniques employed to examine a problem from various angles, combine knowledge from various fields, and depart from status quo responses. These skills vary a little depending on personality. Independent risk-takers who can empathize with various perspectives tend to be better creative problem solvers. However, even though a given personality might lend itself to adopting these practices more quickly, the skills can also be learned. Even codependent, risk-averse narcissists can be taught how to generate ideas more easily and combine possible outputs to leverage synergy.
Task motivation is the willingness to engage. Simply put, it is passion. It is the desire to solve a problem for the challenge it poses or the mere satisfaction of working on it. Although expertise and creative thinking are the weapons used to attack creative challenges, no skirmish will be fought until the individual or team agrees to take to the battlefield. The architect with all the right knowledge and the skill to generate new perspectives might be exactly what a client needs, but if she lacks the motivation to engage in the challenge, then those resources will go untapped or be utilized on some other project.
The final influencer, social environment,
is the only component that exists entirely outside the individual. We all exist inside a larger environment, and that environment influences us more than we're probably aware. Research shows that the environment an individual operates in can either positively or negatively affect creative expression.7
Are new ideas welcomed or harshly criticized within the organization? Does management emphasize continuous improvement or the status quo? Are there political problems within the organization? Are collaborative, cross-functional teams utilized? Is there freedom in how problems are approached? Are ideas actively shared throughout the organization? All these questions and more must be asked to assess whether the organization's social environment will increase or diminish the creativity of its members.
The elegance of Amabile's model is that it is applicable in a variety of ways. These four factors can be used to adjust the positive or negative influence an organization has on the creativity of its members. If we want our people to generate great ideas, we can analyze our organization according to the four factors. Some of these factors have a wider range of influence than others and thus a more pronounced impact. However, if these four factors are designed with conscious intent, then they will eventually lead to an increase in creative ideas.
Domain skills can be improved. A photographer can learn a new technique for using light, or expand her knowledge into the domain of filmmaking. Likewise a computer programmer can learn more about a specific coding language, learn to code in a new language, or even study a new field like industrial design. Many organizations already utilize the influencer of domain skills through corporate training, job rotation, and even outside learning programs such as tuition reimbursement. However, one requirement of these programs in most companies is that they be specifically relevant to the present job. As we'll examine later, sometimes a broader range of domain knowledge may be a better creativity enhancer than a deeper level of knowledge in the same domain.
Creativity-related processes can be learned. People can learn how to brainstorm (or, more likely, how to brainstorm properly). They can be taught problem-solving methods or lateral thinking techniques. If they can generate more ideas or develop a better ideation process, the quality of their creative work increases. The aforementioned photographer can be shown how to better imagine the staging of portraits or how to combine elements of multiple styles to develop a unique look. The coder can be taught how to design multiple versions of software or how to combine elements of various programs into a new and better offering.
Both expertise and creative methodology can be taught, but their presence is irrelevant without the motivation to work. The photographer may have an inherent understanding of how her lens captures the stories that only she can tell, or she may just sit behind a kiosk and snap portraits for lines of families. The programmer may be working diligently to change the world by designing the next interface between humans and technology, or he may simply be making one more drop-down box to mark the user's country of origin. Fortunately, jobs and programs can be designed to better motivate individuals. In Chapter Six
, we'll uncover why designing a job to be intrinsically motivating will yield a better creative return than designing the traditional corporate bonus program.
The social environment of the firm is usually the hardest component to redesign; however, it may also be the most important. The social environment enhances or detracts from creativity by influencing the other three internal components. The level of an organization's commitment to continuous improvement and learning has a direct effect on the ease with which individuals seek to grow their expertise. Likewise, the amount of cross-functional work within the organization affects whether individuals benefit from a broader, group expertise. The openness of top management to new ideas and the availability of resources affect how often creativity-relevant processes are used or how much the “same old, same old” remains the method of choice. Whether top management actively spreads a vision of continuous innovation and reinforces it with actions and policies determines how open individuals are to expressing their creativity. In addition, the emphasis on the impact and significance of the work being done throughout the organization affects how intrinsically motivated individuals are to show up every day and create or innovate.
This four-component model of creativity pulls back the veil on what many believe to be a mysterious and sacred endeavor. Creativity is less the outcome of a divine blessing or visitation and more the result of designing the right ecosystem and filling it with properly trained people with diverse perspectives. While the creative mystics may still pray to the muses or look jealously on the blessed, the implications of this empirically based model are clear: under the right conditions, anyone can be creative. Everyone can generate great ideas.
Despite the empirical challenge Amabile's model p...