Who's killing creativity?

Let's stop dividing the world into creative "haves" and "have-nots".

30 September 2009, by Tracey Swanepoel

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

And then it hit me, for business folk this word (that I love so much) typically conjures up images of longhaired, unkempt artistes - 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.

We are born to create

In fact there are thousands of examples from the momentous to the mundane 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 DIY 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 more than 2m clips are being uploaded to YouTube, there's Flickr, Facebook , MySpace, millions of bloggers and commentators all eager to show off their creative bent (or in some cases warp!). 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, "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 literally go down the drain, daily - what a waste!!

We don't have to learn how to be creative. It's been proved that uncreative behaviour is in fact learnt. Faced with a problem the average 6 year old is able to come up with over 60 alternatives. The average adult? Between 3 and 6! There is hope though. Our innate creative muscle memory can be strengthened with appropriate training, stimulation and exposure.

The business case

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

Creativity needs focus

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, appropriate and focused. It must solve the problem, capture the message and address the issues at hand. It's about how to climb the mountain, not deciding which one to climb. The advertising industry talks of the freedom of a tight brief (and they are not talking about underwear here!).

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!

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