Culture develops myths when they can’t rely on existing knowledge to explain the world around them.
Humans are made to be creative, it’s both a survival skill and part of who we are. Like any skill, reaching our creative potential takes time, work and commitment. Let’s ensure that any mystery surrounding creativity is finally removed, to ensure there are no barriers to incorporating creativity into all aspects of your life.
Author and researcher, David Burkus believes that even though science has helped dispel the creativity mythology, newer myths have developed. His book, The Myths of Creativity, describes those that still exist in our culture, and workplace, particularly in the corporate world. Myths are misleading, not based on science and can lead us to make poor decisions in our everyday lives. In the context of creativity, they can become so compelling that they could become self-fulfilling.
The Eureka Myth, the divine spark is illustrated in stories about Isaac Newton and the falling apple. But Newton’s insight was more likely to have come to the surface in an ‘aha’ moment from his hard work, preparation, iterative changes, incubated over time in the subconscious as he connected ideas.
Nor is creativity a trait inherent in our genes through the Breed Myth which has no supporting evidence. The ‘I’m just not creative’ statement could even be seen as shirking the responsibility required to reflect or have the confidence to work on hard problem solving.
What about the myth that to be creative is to be completely original. The history of technology provides ample evidence that new ideas are often the product of shared contributions from people and older ideas. The Originality Myth aligns the idea with one originator, ignoring the historical precedents that enabled the idea to be combined and shared to generate a new innovation.
This is often associated with the next myth, The Lone Creator, which reflects the tendency to attribute breakthrough inventions and creative works to a sole person. This ignores other influences, collaborations and the creative teams behind these breakthroughs. It’s epitomised in the story of Thomas Edison alone in a workshop experimenting with ten thousand filaments to design the electric lightbulb. In tracing the origin of the lightbulb, historians Robert Friedel and Paul Israel have shown this to be a myth. They compiled a list of twenty one people who invented incandescent lamps before Edison even filed his first patent for a lightbulb. This classic story that Edison tested ten thousand filaments before finding the perfect material, appears to have been circulated by Edison himself, to advertise the rigor of his invention process and the superiority of his new lightbulb.
While this myth shouldn’t take away from Edison’s entrepreneurial skills, it’s now known that the bulk of the lightbulb research came as a result of Menlo Park, a complex he founded and made up of a team of engineers, machinists and physicists who worked on many inventions that are now attributed entirely to Edison.
The Expert Myth is a particularly entrenched belief, that seems so logical that it’s difficult to argue with. When dealing with difficult problems, we often enlist the assistance of people with greater expertise. Except that, logical as it seems, Burkus says the correlation between a person’s level of expertise and their creative output isn’t as one might initially expect. While depth in the domain is important, at a certain level it may actually hinder an individual’s creative output.
As noted, sometimes the best insights come from diverse and multi- disciplinary environments and from those outside the particular field. Building teams of people with a variety of domain expertise and diverse backgrounds, sharing problems solving across teams, avoiding functional fixedness, should allow for more perspectives and potential solutions.
The Incentive Myth, argues that incentives, monetary or other, can increase motivation of people and help to increase their creative ability. While these external motivators can help, it has been well researched that they often do more harm than good. Many organisations are moving away from the incentive approach as they’ve found little correlation between creative work and the size of the incentive. Instead they’re seeking talented individuals and finding ways to encourage their intrinsic motivation.
The next four myths are particularly relevant to workplace and organisational cultural myth making.
It starts with what Burkus refers to as the Brainstorming Myth. By now most of us have experienced a brainstorming session where teams are assembled in a room with a whiteboard, markers and sticky notes and told to spit out as many ideas as possible. I can hear the groans so I’ll assume you can all relate.
The problem is not the brainstorm theory, it’s the way its executed, usually it’s the only tool used and often undertaken incorrectly.
The next is the Cohesion Myth, popularised by images of open plan offices, relaxed dress codes, free food, pool tables and filled with smiling people. Burkus says this is associated with happy teams endlessly collaborating in fun playful settings. The myth is based on the notion that creative ideas come from teams that can suspend all criticism to focus just on cohesion.
The problem with the approach is the focus on getting along all the time, self-censoring and reducing the ability to critique, all in the effort to give the impression of cohesive team dynamics. It has confused this with the value gained from debate, challenge and structured conflict. The research confirms that testing and strengthening the value of ideas comes with “conflict, evaluation, and confrontation bought about by expressing and debating differing viewpoints and drive teams to an overall more creative output”.
Groups that always agree can also indicate a lack of ideas or that they value agreement above the quality of outputs. Burkus stresses that conflict for the sake of it, is not effective and can become personal. Task or intellectual conflict focuses on the merits of the ideas and is far more productive as its focused on a better result rather than winning or losing. Teams that can walk that fine line, however can bring out innovative insights from everyone to bring about consistently stronger ideas.
This is interestingly linked to the Constraints Myth, that creative potential needs total freedom to grow and develop, that we need to think outside the box, often without having fully explored the inside of the box. Burkus notes that we can also find the opposite and that a lack of resources can be used as a crutch for the lack of creativity.
The research suggests that constraints can actually help build a better end product by forcing us to work within boundaries in order to find a solution. Constraints provide a starting point and a problem to be solved, aiding our ability to generate novel ideas and shape them to be appropriate to the world around us. The most creative people and organisations embrace constraints and focus their attention on coming up with solutions that work inside a set of limitations. “A lack of resources may not be the true constraint, just a lack of resourcefulness”.
The final myth described by Burkus is the intriguingly titled Mousetrap Myth, named after the catchy line “if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door”. The term is used to offer hope to those working on potentially good ideas. But Burkus believes this is bad advice and the belief is built on the assumption that once you have a creative idea or innovative new product, all you have to do is release it and getting others to see its value is the easy part.
But new ideas won’t necessarily be embraced or celebrated and are often ignored. Creative ideas by their very nature invite judgement. Organisations ask staff to come up with fresh ideas, but staff often fear the rejection that comes with it. Creative ideas can even make people uncomfortable. A team of researchers found a ‘cognitive dissonance between creativity and practicality (that) may actually create a subtle bias against creative ideas ’. We’ve a preference for the familiar and regardless of how open minded people are, they experience a bias against creativity in uncertain situations, even limiting our ability to actually recognise it as creative.
Within organisations, recognising creativity can be even more complicated, according to Professor David Owens, who came up with the ‘hierarchy of no’ to describe what happens as ideas travel through the approval process involving multiple managers. At each level they decide whether an idea is viable or has the potential to harm their own work patch. Bias against new ideas could be because the ideas are too novel to gain support or the manager’s filters are set too high, becoming innovation hurdles. This can be stifling to innovation, because it’s not about the actually generation of ideas, but reflects how ideas are implemented. New ideas don’t just need to be good, there creators need to have persistence to move them from idea to innovation.
Sometimes myths continue because they show us as we like to imagine ourselves- the lone creator or eccentric painter. Psychologist Keith Sawyer views myths in the context of society and culture and reinforces that the “things that distinguish us from animals are language, communication and creativity”. An honest explanation and dispelling of myths, helps to focus on what can assist us to have greater creative insight: our mindset, environments, our skills and the organisational structures surrounding us.
Burkus, D. (2013) The Myths of Creativity , John Wiley and Sons, USA.
Sawyer, K.R. (2006) Explaining Creativity: The science of human innovation. Oxford University Press