A team of researchers offers a framework to help organizations support creativity more effectively. Elements of this framework including balancing the usefulness and originality of creative ideas depending on the organization’s needs and choosing the best approach to creative ideas: 1) focusing on the sheer quantity of new ideas, 2) exploring the potential of a category, or 3) looking for creative ideas across categories.
Creativity, once thought an innate, unteachable attribute, is now seen as possible for all. One doesn’t have to be a genius to be creative. But creativity does require the right environment to thrive, which is why organizations need to have the right structure and resources and incentives in place to enhance and encourage employee creativity. They also need a clear understanding of the different paths to creative ideas, which can depend on the organization’s ultimate goals.
According to researchers Niek Althuizen of ESSEC Business School, Berend Wierenga of the Rotterdam School of Management and Bo Chen of Sungkyunkwan University, organization must match the demand side of creativity (what do you need creativity for? what is the desired outcome of creative processes?) and the supply side of creativity (what skills and resources exist in your organization to facilitate and support creativity?).
Creativity is used to generate ideas that are both original and useful. Therefore, on the demand side — that is, concerning the need fulfilled by creativity — the fundamental question is: does the organization need ideas that are more original or more useful? This question of originality (or novelty) vs. usefulness (or effectiveness) is answered by looking at the nature and desired outcome of the task in question. In marketing, for example, promoting products requires greater originality, since the goal is to attract the customer’s attention; on the other hand, the principle goal of any creative pricing or distribution decision is not novelty but effectiveness.
The supply side is all about resources, individual and organizational. Resources linked to individuals include: individual abilities and skills (e.g., divergent thinking is a prized ability for creativity); existing knowledge and previous experiences; personality traits (e.g., individuals who score high on the big Five trait of ‘openness to experience’ are more likely to seek out unique or novel experiences). Motivation is also an individual resource: creativity requires motivated people. Organizational resources include creativity-enhancing management practices (including incentives and feedback and support mechanisms) that reward rather than punish creativity, and creativity training. Creativity-enhancing management practices can sometimes be counter-intuitive — for example, new research has shown that time-constraints can actually boost creativity rather than hinder it.
Matching the demand (creativity-related needs and objectives) and supply (creativity-related resources) side of creativity is the key to enhancing creativity in the organization. Matching the demand and supply side of creativity effectively requires a better understanding of the creative process — specifically the three idea-generation approaches, or cognitive pathways in the terms of the researchers, that lead to creativity: fluency, persistence and flexibility. Fluency involves generating a great number of ideas; the focus is on quantity — the more, the merrier. Persistence involves generating a great number of ideas within a particular domain or category, thinking ‘inside the box,’ if you will. Flexibility involves generating a great number of ideas across different categories — thinking ‘outside the box.’ Breadth rather than depth is the focus of flexibility. To promote a beer brand, persistence leads you to find the creative twist on previous beer advertisements; flexibility leads you to creatively adapt a life insurance advertising campaign.
With both your managerial objectives (i.e., originality vs. usefulness) and the three cognitive pathways in mind, you can now better match the creative supply to your demand. To take just one example, if you are seeking a truly original idea, you probably want to assign an individual to the task who is comfortable with the flexibility pathway — exploring other categories rather than staying in the safety of his or her own category. That individual will more likely to have the personality trait defined as ‘openness to new experiences.’ It doesn’t matter whether you identify this individual through personality tests or simply through your personal knowledge: this individual is the best (supply) choice for your task (demand).
The final step in the process is to evaluate the creativity of the outcome. For example, if your goal was a high quantity of ideas, do you have the diverse quantity you hoped to generate? Engaging ‘judges’ to assess the creative ideas or using scoring systems can further help organizations evaluate the outcome of their creative processes.
The researchers, building on an extensive review of the academic research, have created a framework that managers can use to guide their creativity decisions: identify the originality or usefulness priority of your objectives, identify your individual and organizational resources, understand the different cognitive pathways to creativity, use your objectives and the pathways to best match your resource supply to your needs.
This framework can be adapted to any business or organizational situation. In their paper (see the link below), the researchers offer examples related to the full range of marketing decisions (including pricing, distribution, product, and promotion). For example, Starbucks’ phenomenal success in turning a commodity into a high-priced product illustrates the potential of the persistence approach (creatively exploring the potential of the category rather than seeking creative ideas from other categories).
At a more general level, this research offers some general lessons. The first is a differentiate approach towards creativity. For example, originality is often used as a synonym for creativity. However, originality does not always fit the need of the organizations, whose goals might be better served by more useful ideas.
The second lesson concerns the strategic assignment of resources. For example, if you are seeking to follow the flexibility pathway — exploring ideas across categories — you might want to bring in outside experts who can provide new perspectives that you will not find among your own managers and employees.
Finally, organizations are encourage to put in place effective creative-enhancing instruments, from creative ability tests and creative training programs to incentives that the motivation of employees to be creative.
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