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The Death of Creativity = The Death of Innovation

Last week, I was working from the 24th floor of a hotel in Lima, Peru, overlooking an ocean dotted with surfers under skies filled with skydivers, working on a new training program on innovative and strategic thinking for a client, when an email message popped up. A good friend of mine interrupted my flow with an article. At first I thought I'd check out the article later. But since I was in the middle of writing a workbook section on the value of exploring, of taking unplanned "excursions," as the innovation firm Synectics calls them, I thought I should take a peek.

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman recently authored a cover story for Newsweek magazine titled "The Creativity Crisis." It is worth a read, but if you do not have time, here is my "CliffsNotes" version:

1. You CAN measure creative potential: a long-term study of children, initiated by Dr. E. Paul Torrance, has shown that by seeing how young children perform certain tasks, you can predict their future creative output (the number of patents they file, books they write, businesses they start, research papers they write, etc.). While the "Torrance test" is not perfect, it seems to be surprisingly accurate.

2. U.S. creativity is dropping: the average Torrance score of U.S. children had been rising steadily until 1990. But for the past 20 years it has been in decline.

3. Creativity outside the U.S. is rising: through Europe and Asia, schools that once encouraged rote learning are embracing creativity, while in the U.S. we have been regressing, squeezing out time for creative thinking because we have been increasingly training our students to pass standardized tests. Could this mean the U.S. is losing its "innovation" advantage?

4. Killing creativity has social costs: creative problem solving is composed of two phases—convergent thought in which you diagnose potential problems and divergent thought in which you create potential solutions. People who are able to do both—to diagnose problems and create solutions—tend to have better relationships and are "more confident about their future and ability to succeed." Unfortunately, we seem to be training our students to do more problem identification and less solution creation.

5. We can teach creativity: studies showed that music students, Jazz musicians, and dancers are able to "turn on" creative thought more easily when improvising their art than people less trained in the arts.

6. Teaching creativity does not come at the cost of "real" learning: there seems to be a common belief that if children have time to be creative (e.g., to take art classes) then they are being robbed of time for real learning (e.g., memorizing scientific formulas). But the experience of some innovative schools shows that by having children explore creative solutions to problems, they learn important facts without even knowing it. One school had students come up with creative solutions for insulating the room from outside noise. By the end of the process, the students understood how noise conducts through different types of materials. They didn't learn the science by memorizing. They learned it by trying to solve a problem.

7. Creativity is not bound by art: I believe strongly in the power of "strategic creativity." I believe the people who have significantly impacted the world—from Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr.—share an ability to see strategic solutions that others overlook. This article supports this view. It shows that creativity need not be contained to art rooms or music halls. By practicing creativity in any domain—creatively solving science or history or social or, as I do with clients, business problems—we enhance our ability to find exciting solutions to any type of problem.

I also think the article beautifully plots out the path of creative thought:

"When you try to solve a problem, you begin by concentrating on obvious facts and familiar solutions, to see if the answer lies there. This is a mostly left-brain stage of attack. If the answer doesn't come, the right and left hemispheres of the brain activate together. Neural networks on the right side scan remote memories that could be vaguely relevant. A wide range of distant information that is normally tuned out becomes available to the left hemisphere, which searches for unseen patterns, alternative meanings, and high-level abstractions.

Having glimpsed such a connection, the left brain must quickly lock in on it before it escapes. The attention system must radically reverse gears, going from defocused attention to extremely focused attention. In a flash, the brain pulls together these disparate shreds of thought and binds them into a new single idea that enters consciousness. This is the "aha!" moment of insight, often followed by a spark of pleasure as the brain recognizes the novelty of what it's come up with.

Now the brain must evaluate the idea it just generated. Is it worth pursuing? Creativity requires constant shifting, blender pulses of both divergent thinking and convergent thinking, to combine new information with old and forgotten ideas. Highly creative people are very good at marshaling their brains into bilateral mode, and the more creative they are, the more they dual-activate."

As you can see, I was pleased to take a break from my workshop preparation to be reminded and validated for what I am constantly sharing with readers and clients—create a culture that fosters innovation. Follow the suggestions below to become a better creative strategist and grow your business as well as your brain power.

1. Do not think that your domain experts—your operations people, accountants, or statisticians—cannot contribute innovative ideas to other areas of your business.

2. Block out time for creative exploration throughout the day. In every meeting, no matter how tight its schedule, set aside a little time to explore creative ideas. Tell your people, "Let's think about how many different ways we could solve this problem." This expands the innovative capacity of your people and may lead to breakthrough ideas.

3. Encourage your kids to think. My son asks "Why? Why? Why?" 100 times per day (actually he asks "Por que? Por que? Por que?" because we speak Spanish at home). Encourage your people to keep asking why. Don't let them be satisfied by the accepted solution.

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  • Siddhartha Herdegen

    Sometimes children ask “why” so they don’t have to think. I counter with, “why do you think…?” and then let them come up with their best creative answer.

  • Val W

    This is a good article, but the issue of how to successfully foster creativity and innovation is complex; there are no easy answers, and some answers that have previously been 'proven' as successful are not. A very interesting recent article that I read online brings together some of the various strands of research around this subject. To read, Google or Yahoo 'the role of psychological distance in creativity and innovation'. The link is http://thelaughingbuddha.wordp...

  • cedar51

    one of the problems with "why, why, why?" is that parents and elders get tired of the questions and finally go down the pathway of "just because"

    i remember quite clearly as a child getting that response...I now think that was because my parents really didn't know or that they were actually having a lot of 'down days' - neither of them were young and both were quite unwell most of the time

    i now (nearly in my 6th decade) rarely ask 'why' - I try to find the answer myself and usually somewhere on-line I can find it or more options for me to chose; collect data and make up my own mind on any issue