Published at Innovation Excellence, June 15, 2015
There are four categories of factors that affect our creativity. The first is our genetics. Not all people were created equal. Some are good at certain things, and others are good at other things. Some people were born with higher IQ than others (after all, there is a reason why only 2% make it into Mensa). Some are “left brained” and some are “right brained”. Some people were born more creative and others less so. Many people I spoke with resigned to that fact. Many times I heard the statement: “I wasn’t born creative, and there is nothing I can do about it.” On the other hand, some said “I was born creative. There is nothing I can do to improve it, and I will never lose it.” Neither is true.
In comes the second category of factors: biography. Two people may have been born with the same IQ, and with the same “bourne creativity.” However, as Malcolm Gladwell cited in “Outliers”—those who spent their summers learning more did better in tests than those who spent their summers getting in trouble. Gladwell claimed that Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, and Bill Joy were simply born at the right time, and got exposed to the first days of computing, which led them to greatness in that area. Why would creativity be different? Some people, throughout their lives, exercised their creativity more than others. Some went to school and took classes that forced them to think differently. Think creatively. In one of his most inspiring speeches, at the 2005 graduation ceremony in Stanford, Steve Jobs (who never finished more than six months of college himself) described the moment he dropped out of the “formal program” and started auditing classes he found interesting as being very influential on his success, the ideas he had, and his obsession with design. The experiences we have, the diversity of such experiences, the education we received, and other life changing events affected our level of creativity. Both categories of factors bring us to today. We now possess a level of creativity shaped by our genetics and by our biography. Can we do something about it? Can we improve it? Can we lose it? I suggest we can do all of those. We can improve our level of creativity through how we implement the next two categories of factors. We can lose it if we do it wrong.
Put yourself where accidents happen
The third category includes the actions we take ourselves to improve our creativity. After the idea of penveu came to me, I had put together a business plan and presented it to the Interphase CEO. A week later I presented it to the board of directors. My presentation was received very well, and the directors described the product as very innovative and life changing to the company. After the board meeting was over, one board member came to my office and stated: “an idea like this comes to a person once in a lifetime.” “Why do you think that?” I asked, to which he replied: “because innovation is accidental! You cannot control when an idea like this will come to you.”
I had to think about that one for a while. On one hand is this board member, who believes that innovation is purely accidental. His position is supported by the glory of great “accidental ideas” the preceded my penveu. Newton’s apple. Archimedes’ Eureka! and many others. However, were they really accidental? Or was there an event that was merely the stimulus to launch this idea? When thinking about this, I took the “accident” analogy further. In one of my lectures on organizational innovation and individual creativity I included a slide called “great ideas are not accidental.” Let’s assume that I am riding my bike, and I would like to have an accident (my two daughters, Maya and Shira, who were sitting at the audience, had a terrified look on their faces when I said that, so I immediately had to explain that this is a hypothetical scenario. Then I needed to explain what a hypothetical scenario is…). If I was riding my bike on the bike trails in the park, the probability of an accident is minimal, if at all. Cars don’t drive in parks. Not on the bike trails, anyway. However, if I am really serious about having that accident, I should ride my bike South on the Dallas Tollway at 8AM (The Dallas Tollway is an infamous jammed highway in the Dallas area). I WILL have an accident. I guarantee it! Back from the analogy: I agree that the “aha” moment is accidental. Something triggers it. However, I also claim that I can put myself in situations where those accidents are more likely to happen. In other words—I can act in ways and do things that will make me more creative. But I can argue that it is not enough for me to want to be creative.
Climate of creativity
The fourth category of factors affecting our creativity includes the organizational factors. Significant research was done to identify factors that affect the creativity of employees within an organization. I spent almost two years researching for my Ph.D. dissertation to understand what makes people more creative in startup companies than they are in mature ones. I added to existing research by comparing those factors between mature companies and startup companies. The answer is obviously complex (I did spend two years researching, and did earn a Ph.D. degree for it…), but in a nutshell I can attribute this to five degrees of freedom that the organization has: hiring the right people (not necessarily only creative people, but the right combination of people), the organizational culture that can be conducive or destructive to creativity, the way the company experiments and implements new ideas, the team dynamics (which, believe it or not, can be influenced by the organization), and the creative team leadership. After all, eggs will not hatch if the right temperature doesn’t exist in the incubator…