Top

  Yes, You Are a Creative Genius!

Yes, You Are a Creative Genius!

Illustration by Blair Thornley

Don't give up on corporate America. Breakthrough research in creativity points away from the superstar CEO and toward a selfless, spiritual enterprise we might call Innovators R Us.

This article appeared in the Winter 2003 issue of Spirituality & Health.

Where facts are thin, superstitions flourish, even in allegedly rational activities like business. Consider the risk-loving, money-driven entrepreneur, the familiar John Wayne myth of macho capitalism that permeated the cultures of Enron and WorldCom. Thirty years ago, Harvard's late, great David McClelland and dozens of protégés around the world put the lie to the risklover stereotype. In hundreds of experiments, they found that successful entrepreneurs hate risk like the Devil, as do other true innovators. That's why they talk about it so much and get all the feedback possible on how to beat it -- and thus achieve their driving dream.

The myth that entrepreneurs are motivated by greed is even harder to dig out of capitalism's conventional economic theology. When you talk incentives in business, the dogma remains dollars. Yet McClelland demonstrated again and again that entrepreneurial people do not perform better when they are offered economic incentives. In fact, they do worse. "It is the challenge of the job itself that rewards the achiever people," he wrote. He found that entrepreneurs who do get rich from their efforts tend to be surprised because it wasn't really the goal of their enterprise.

McClelland and his followers developed rigorous measures of what really motivates achievement, what he called the need to achieve, or nAch, that energizes artists as well creative entrepreneurs. His measures were standard pictures and drawings. One favorite is of two women in lab coats, one with glasses and the other working with beakers. Each test-taker writes a few paragraphs telling what's going on. If the story tells of one bossing the other, the test taker tends to be power-driven, either for social power (more admirable) or personal power (more apt to be noxious). If it's two friends talking about a good time together, it's need for affiliation. If the story tells of colleagues working toward an important accomplishment, it's achievement need. McClelland taught start-up CEOs to think in such images. He also measured such images in pop culture and art to measure which cultures are moving into a hotter entrepreneurial phase and thus more productive economies.

McClelland, whose work would become a backbone of research into emotional intelligence (EQ), took his entrepreneurial training to India in a ten-day course for small businessmen. Compared to a matched sample who did not take the course, those who learned to think in achiever images started four times as many new businesses over the next two years, invested twice as much new capital, and created twice as many new jobs.

The myth of the money-hungry risk-lover is part of a much larger, even more powerful illusion by which business hierarchs blind themselves to normal, everyday creativity of men and women at all levels. Creativity is expected to be weird, different, dangerous, not for mere mortals. It's a myth that's hard to beat because it goes so far back. The Old Testament frowns on man for biting into the apple of knowledge and later, at Babel, for presuming to create his own environment. The Greek gods tortured one of their own, Prometheus, for daring to bootleg creative tools and fire to mere mortals. Small wonder that centuries of poets and painters felt obliged to beg for divine inspiration from fickle little goddesses, the Muses.

Around World War II, the myth took on the flavor of historical reality with Arnold Toynbee's popular theory that most people don't count because "creative minorities" shape history. Mainstream psychology focused for years on the search for personality traits, perhaps inherited, among an inspired few certified as "creative." More recently it's the myth that empowers newly minted MBAs to look in the mirror and see the best and the brightest unfettered by any connection, let alone obligation, to anyone else. Enron recruited the hottest of this breed. Sure that greed is good, the best and brightest, as they saw themselves, figured out how to unlock the wealth of companies for their own purposes.

Even now, despite mountains of contrary data and record-setting bankruptcies, the elitist illusion lives on. The most comprehensive summary of this conventional confusion was published in September 2001 in the Harvard Business Review by Stanford professor Robert I. Sutton. In "The Weird Rules of Creativity," Sutton argues that creative environments are "remarkably inefficient and often annoying places to work." He goes on into never-never land: "Managing for creativity means placing bets on ideas without much heed to their projected return on investment. It means ignoring what has worked before. It means taking perfectly happy people and goading them into fights among themselves. Good creativity management means hiring the candidate you have a gut feeling against. And, as for those people who stick their fingers in their ears and chant, 'I'm not listening, I'm not listening,' when customers are making suggestions? It means praising and promoting them."

From 15 years of research in many companies, Sutton assures everyone that such rules are close to universal. He's a believer himself, by the way, and shares the widespread conviction that the weird stuff really works. It's nonsense, buried in blinding beliefs. But such is the power of convenient illusion.

Ordinary Innovators, Driven by Fun and Fascination

The very word "creative" has become so polluted that for the last eight years of building teams to develop new products -- and figuring out processes that work for them -- the coauthors of this article often tried to abandon it entirely. We work with a humble trust in "ordinary innovators."

Psychologist Teresa Amabile gave our work the grounding it needed. She began at Brandeis in the 1980s to build upon a body of research into motivation. The extrinsic motives triggered by money incentives and social approval, or the fear of losing them, served the industrial revolution's need for regiments of industrial workers to do the same things over and over. More money will speed up an assembly line. But people don't do something original, she found, unless their primary motives are intrinsic -- the interest and joy of the work itself, often in service to others. Her findings clicked with McClelland's as well as with years of our own struggles among innovators and entrepreneurs.

Brushing right past the creative elite dogmas, Amabile herself sounded an audacious call to humility: "Although lay people and creativity theorists often make the assumption that individual creativity depends primarily on talent, there is considerable evidence that hard work and intrinsic motivation -- which can be supported or undermined by social environment (and so by bosses) -- also play central roles." Under the right conditions, most of us have creative genius in things we care about.

Our Corporate New Ventures (CNV) teams at Procter & Gamble begged Dr. Amabile to let us be guinea pigs in her 26-company database. Her central concept turns typical top-down management control on its head. At CNV, the boss begins not by assigning people to jobs already defined, but searches instead for each person's deepest interests and driving passions. All CNV members came in as volunteers. Each initiated a new product team, or joined one. They came at their previous salaries and were given no extra financial incentive for success. The one big carrot was the intrinsic pleasure of originating something useful, and when a fast-track woman passed up the prestigious job of Tide brand manager to join CNV, we knew we were onto something.

Tapping 30-something years of creativity research in management and psychology (much of it dead ends) we worked down through layers of New Age assumptions endemic to new product teams. We abandoned their blinding beliefs in brainstorming, focus groups, off-site inspirational junkets, the incremental advances of experts, and most of the "weird rules" of orthodoxy in the creativity cults of so many companies. Creativity and innovation seemed to us more like the natural output of diverse groups who figure out how best to combine their knowledge and talents in common work.

We took nothing for granted. Designing our own office space for easy flow of information and ideas -- both scientific and pop journals in coffee areas and both johns -- we were startled at the energy welling up among two dozen men and women who went into business with their favorite product ideas. Having first scored about average on Amabile's innovation scale, in ten months CNV outscored all the other 25 companies. After 15 years of launching no categorically new products, P&G jump-started a new era of creativity in a 164-year-old company. Over the next four years, P&G new-ventures teams, not just CNV, launched a third of all new U.S. packaged products with yearly sales above $100 million. Adding up to $2 billion in sales, these products focused on everyday human needs: the Swiffer mop, the first with its own liquid reservoir and disposable cleaning pads, Crest White Strips for bleaching teeth at home, and ThermaCare, the self-heating pads for pain relief. We were having such a ball that we got moved out of our offices at corporate headquarters for making too much noise.

Taking Time for Creativity

Meanwhile, Amabile's research into the intrinsic nature of creativity keeps getting stronger. Writing in the Harvard Business Review this August, she dispels the myth that time pressure is a good nudge for creativity. Practical originality involves combining information from two or more knowledge silos and letting the combos incubate. It takes its own sweet time. Intense pressure tends to make people feel more creative but it actually tends to reduce creative thinking -- even after the pressure lightens up.

Redeeming Capitalism

What all these studies add up to is an overwhelming correlation between creativity and spirituality. Both require listening, tapping into our deeper concerns with the world around us. Both flourish with a heartfelt desire to improve our capacity to serve others. And both can be altruistic.

As our country reels from its era of infectious greed, it's handy to notice McClelland's conclusions from years of research into entrepreneurs: "One of the peculiar ironies of history is that Marx won his case with his sworn enemies, the capitalists, who have accepted his charge that they work only for self-interest, the profit motive. I'm an academic, and nothing has surprised me more than to find myself trying to rescue the businessman from the academic trash heap, dust him off, and offer him intellectual respectability." In other words, there is no inherent contradiction between capitalism and spirituality. Where one appears, capitalism has betrayed its primary function of service through innovation.

Six Thoughts for Ordinary Innovators

Intuition comes not from a eureka light, but a miner's lamp. Or, as a management guru Peter Drucker puts it, "Creativity is an activity, not a gift." If you want to keep your group at its creative best, consider these six ideas.

1. Thinking "out of the box" assumes that there is a box. Believing that creativity is some weird kind of thinking blinds people to the seasoned insights that help you begin to glimpse unlikely new connections between different technologies, different disciplines.

2. Information is energy. It is useless unless it flows around and combines with other information. When turf wars lock knowledge into separate "silos" such as university departments or company divisions, innovation stagnates.

3. Innovation — like civilization — blossoms on trade routes. When different cultures mix their insights, art flourishes and knowledge makes magic.

4. Keep Out of Skunkworks. Remembering the success of Lockheed's super-secret "skunkworks" (a name borrowed from Li'l Abner) back in World War II, corporations love to create their own teams of certified creative geniuses who are carefully insulated from the outside world. The problem is that these "creatives" tend to be cut off from good information – such as the needs of consumers.

5. Women and men create better together. Data from a review of initial public offerings during the high-flying '90s is clear: Companies where women made up a significant proportion of the executive team achieved both higher stock prices and greater earnings. When women made up at least 20 percent of the executive team, share prices were 28 percent higher and earnings were 28 percent higher than at all-male companies. Synergy of the sexes pays off.

6. Look for common work, which emerges when people are able to elevate mission above ego. That means not letting pride or selfish concerns corrupt your contribution. Don't let your ego block your insight or blind you to someone else's.

People don’t create something original unless their primary motives are intrinsic — the interest and joy of the work itself, often in service to others.

Join Us on the Journey

Sign Up

Enjoying this content?

Get this article and many more delivered straight to your inbox weekly.