1.1 What is creativity?
Creativity is a key focus for organisations of all types, but what exactly is it?
Many people struggle with the notion of creativity, seeing it as the reserve of artists, musicians, poets and the like. Yet creativity is an innately human characteristic – everyone is creative even if you do not necessarily recognise or actively engage with that side of your personality.
Bink and Marsh (2000) make the point that there are as many definitions of ‘creativity’ as there are researchers in the field. Nonetheless, in recent years a generally accepted definition of creativity has emerged. This holds that creativity is:
the generation of novel and useful products within a specific context.
These ‘products’ refer to everything from physical products to services, ideas, and processes, etc. Critically, however, the way that these ‘products’ are generated can vary substantially from context to context.
Activity 1 Are you creative?
Do you consider yourself creative? Reflect on the times that you have solved a problem – at work, at home or elsewhere – by coming up with a creative solution. How did you do this?
Everyone can be creative, but how and when you demonstrate that can vary greatly. An engineer grappling with a design challenge might be just as creative at those critical moments as an artist seeking to find a new way of expressing themselves. At its core, being creative is really just about solving problems – often in new, exciting and unexpected ways.
The following examples might help illustrate this.
- Joanne leads a team of civil engineers working on road-building projects around Europe. The job is highly complex owing to the existing infrastructure that she and her team must accommodate when building new roads or upgrading existing roads. Things such as bridges, drains, railway lines and electricity lines must be taken into account, not to mention the need to manage tight budgets and varying stakeholder requirements. Joanne describes her job as trying to complete a three-dimensional jigsaw without knowing what size or shape the pieces really are or what the end result is meant to look like. In that sense, her role involves not just problem solving, but also problem finding!
- John is an accountant working in the audit function of a large international firm. His role requires an excellent awareness of national and international regulations to ensure that the companies he audits are fully compliant at all times. John’s life would be much easier if all businesses presented their accounts in exactly the same way, but sadly this is not the case. He needs to find novel solutions to deciphering the information presented by clients so that he is able to fully understand the data presented.
It is also important to note that the understanding of what is meant by creativity has changed considerably over time (Box 1).
Box 1 Changing definitions over time
Where once upon a time creativity was viewed as a gift of the gods, recent academic theories of creativity can be loosely associated with different decades. In the 1950s, creativity was often thought to be an ability possessed only by the gifted few; in the 1960s, it was associated more with the skill of mental flexibility that could be learned. In the 1970s, the role of relevant experience was more fully appreciated by researchers and in the 1980s attention was drawn to the key role of intrinsic motivation (doing things because you want to).
These theories focused on creativity at the level of the individual; however, more recently managers and researchers have turned their attention to the part played by the social context. In the 1990s, organisations paid more attention to the effect that work culture and environment have on the potential for creativity on people in organisations. In the current millennium the focus has shifted towards understanding creativity as an emergent phenomenon that builds on what has gone before and arises from ongoing interactions, a perspective that considers the part social context plays in the genesis of ideas.