Creativity in Your Organization

This story appears in the
Association Focus Pub 2 2022 Issue 2

There isn’t an exact recipe book for how to make work original, but this technique plays off the mind’s spectacular ability to make connections and patterns.

Creativity changes the world by creating new products for new markets. It is a valuable game-changer that makes fortunes and reputations.

To increase the amount of creativity in your organization, the first step is to determine which people have the skills to be constructively creative. Some employees are already there; others have the potential. Like many other skills, creativity can be developed and improved. It’s up to you to provide the necessary opportunities and encouragement.

Intelligence plays a role in creativity, but not as much as one might think. Intelligence and creativity are both functions of the brain that process information to determine a solution or answer a problem. 

Creativity draws on the same processes in the brain as intelligence, but while intelligence can be measured by the intelligence quotient (IQ), creativity is not so easy to measure. Scientists have found a correlation between those individuals with an IQ of 120 or more having a higher level of creativity, but the relationship between intelligence and creativity is more of an overlap of skills or abilities instead of a dependence on one another.

Therefore, to increase creativity in your organization, look for intelligent people who also possess other important characteristics. For example, look at those individuals who understand that no one can create new value without understanding what has already been done. Look for independent risk-takers comfortable with new perspectives and ambiguity. And watch for those who are self-disciplined and intrinsically motivated.

Conversely, in his book Originals1, Adam Grant provides a different list of creative people. In the chapter about “groupthink,” he describes them as movers and shapers, curious and rebellious, honest and non-conformist, and claims they are more afraid of not succeeding than they are of failing.

Organizations wanting to be more creative should consider how creative employees will impact the establishment and vice versa. Creative employees need a creativity-friendly environment, including how their work is evaluated. Managing an established process is very different from managing the birth of something new; it makes no sense to measure a creative employee’s performance in ways disassociated from their creativity. You expect all employees to be reliable and hardworking; any significant achievement requires systematic effort.

Increasing creativity in your organization requires creative teamwork. Many projects are easier to accomplish through team efforts, but putting together an effective creative team involves different skills. Some people have the skills to be creative and manage a team, but the combination isn’t required. Instead, it works well to pair at least one creative person with others who know how to take the creative person’s work and get results.

Often, team sports offer essential insight into building good creative teams, partially explaining why many former athletes do well in business. Another place to showcase the art of group creativity is the theater. And watching musicians is also helpful since many perform in a group.

That said, consider what can be learned from musicians. At the end of 2021, Peter Jackson produced a three-part documentary about The Beatles. He used film shot in 1969 during practice sessions at the Twickenham film studios in Middlesex, England. When The Beatles began practicing, they hadn’t performed for almost three years because their focus had been on making new albums. It took some time to get their creative juices flowing positively (their first set of sessions ended after a week when a frustrated George Harrison walked out), but they soon moved over to a basement studio at Apple Records’ London headquarters, and four weeks later, on the top of that building, they performed publicly for the last time.

The concert began at noon and lasted 42 minutes in cold weather. Nearby businesses complained about the noise, and though the police strongly considered stopping the concert, they eventually allowed The Beatles to finish performing. Footage from the concert went into their feature film documentary titled Let It Be.

Outlining some of what can be learned about team creativity from Jackson’s documentary, Jere Hester wrote an article in The New York Times on Dec. 8, 2021. In it, his first takeaway covered the importance of ambitious brainstorming. For example, Paul McCartney tried to convince the other group members to write 14 songs in two weeks, then record them on live TV. However, that was too ambitious and didn’t work out. But the Fab Four reflected on what else could be accomplished, such as possible performance venues. And the various ideas they discussed led them to the idea of performing on the roof.

Jackson’s documentary also delineated the genius and imagination that flowed from The Beatles’ team creativity:

  • Working together even when difficult
  • Alternating improvisation and structure
  • Changing locations and goals
  • Bringing in other people to provide fresh ideas
  • Being disciplined about working
  • Understanding the value of repetition
  • Being aware that moving forward requires some change

Watching documentaries like the one by Jackson is especially useful because it shows highly creative people working together. There aren’t any diagrams or flow charts, just people in a room.

Increasing creativity in your organization has at least one more important aspect. It isn’t enough to seat people at a table and tell them to be creative. Malcolm Gladwell has spoken about going to the library, finding a book on a specific shelf, and looking at the shelves around that book to see what other books are in the same general neighborhood. He says this technique added breadth and depth to his work because it caused him to find unexpected connections that enrich whatever he is writing.2

In Originals, Adam Grant conducted a similar discussion in Goldilocks and the Trojan Horse chapter.3 He points out that the results fall short if you ask people to develop creative ideas about a familiar object – such as a three-ring binder. But if you ask them to think of something else – such as in-line skates – the resulting ideas are 37% more original. In turn, thinking about in-line skates led to developing a pen to use subtly to track time during an interview instead of a watch.

The key is developing an original idea and combining it with something unrelated but familiar. The idea is essentially the same as Malcolm Gladwell’s: connecting two ideas, one familiar and one not, and seeing what happens next. There isn’t an exact recipe book for how to make work original, but this technique plays off the mind’s spectacular ability to make connections and patterns.

In summary, increasing creativity in your organization involves making a safe space where creative employees have room to experiment and establish new ideas. Afterward, define the problems by encouraging employees to start with something that seems completely or partially unrelated. They will generate something entirely new as they find connections between the starting point and the problem to be solved.

1 Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, published February 2, 2016, non-fiction.
2 Refer to Malcolm Gladwell’s Master Class for more information.
3 This article mentioned Adam Grant’s book twice. It is an excellent book about creativity.