22/100: Discovering the Box: Creativity in the Workplace

The Creativity Imperative

Businesses today consider creativity of their staff as a critical, possibly the most critical, factor for their ongoing survival.

This is because the environment, political, social and commercial, has become so fluid; as Yogi Berra put it, “the future isn’t what it used to be”. Constant change, demanding and more aware customers and citizens, rapid information dissemination through new technologies of information and communication, and intense competitive and regulatory pressures, are pushing companies and people who work for them to innovate and adapt continuously.

Set in this context, employee creativity has a whole new meaning. It is traditionally understood as people thinking about products and services, which did not exist before, or tweaking and improving the existing ones. Competitive pressures add to this creativity imperative. Information is fast and cheap, and communication technology is driving the costs of production and distribution constantly. Besides, in this age of Wikileaks, the companies are under continuous scrutiny or fear of scrutiny to do things right. The imperative for survival is therefore to be continuously improving, doing better with lesser resources, knowing what is being said of it and be seen acting on it.

But the scope of creativity has expanded beyond this. Today, an employee needs to be creative even at the shop-floor level, connecting with consumers and responding to unanticipated demands and unforeseen events, because a wrong transaction can potentially land a business on the front page of a newspaper. Rules and processes, usually the cornerstone of good management, are no longer enough. Human imagination at work is regularly demanded, and the companies that fail to provide this usually land up in the wrong side.

So, ironically, while robots are replacing people in a Japanese restaurant to serve patrons, employees in organizations across the world are being told to become more creative. Creative thinking is central to management’s agenda in all kinds of organization, and training programmes offering to make people creative are flourishing. In fact, governments across Atlantic are united in thinking that creativity and innovation led by For-Profit businesses are the panacea to the great economic recession faced by the G8 economies at this time.

However, while the case for creativity is clear and expectations are high, businesses often struggle to make their staff think creatively. The usual motivational techniques, those of extrinsic rewards in the form of bonuses and incentives, do not seem to generate a proportionate creative output. While training methods abound to teach staff creativity, their results are often questionable and at best, limited.

It is appropriate, therefore, to seek to understand the phenomenon of creativity and the approaches of teaching people creativity inside the organizations. This involves an exploration of theories of creativity and of organizational learning, as well as of motivation theories. Finally, because business creativity is seen as the panacea in context of the current recession, it is also appropriate to examine how some of these practices could be applied in a different organizational setting, for example, in modern universities.

Understanding Creativity

Geoffrey Petty (1997) defines creativity as:

“Whenever a problem is solved or a difficulty overcome, whenever something new is made or something old adapted, creativity has been at work.”

This definition broadens the popular concepts about creativity, which revolves around big events and rare geniuses. While the street-view of creativity is that it is an exceptional gift, businesses contend, rightly, that everyone can learn to be creative.

David Bohm (1998) presents a model of ‘two interpenetrating activities of the mind – imaginative and rational insight and imaginative and rational fancy’. The rational insight is the way, for example, Sir Isaac Newton would have wondered ‘why doesn’t moon fall on something’ and questioned the then common wisdom that earthly matters follow different rules than heavenly bodies. To seek an answer to this, Newton made associative links with existing scientific knowledge and emerged with a precise hypothesis, against which his original insight was to be tested. This associative process, according to Bohm, is the imaginative fancy at work.

While the example cited by Bohm is Sir Isaac Newton, the doyen of ‘romantic science’ and around whom one of the great mythologies of the creative process, the fall of the apple, revolves, the process of rational insight and rational fancy is at the core of everyday business creativity. Creativity training in work settings revolves around asking appropriate questions and making associative links.

A more recent work on the nature of creativity closely follows Bohm’s ideas, and backs it up with some detailed empirical and historical evidence. Steven Johnson explores the nature of creativity in his ‘Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation’ (2010). Johnson’s understanding of creativity centres on the exploration of the ‘Adjacent Possible’, the exploration of ideas or possibilities one small step at a time. Johnson writes:

The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore those boundaries. Each new combination ushers new combinations into the adjacent possible. Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin with a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet. Those four rooms are the adjacent possible. But once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point. Keep opening new doors and eventually you’ll have built a palace.”

Johnson describes the act of Stephane Tarnier, a Parisian obstetrician, who watched Chicken Incubators on a day off to Paris Zoo, to come up with the idea of human incubators, as an act of exploring the adjacent possible. The opening of the door, the question, needed rational insight; stepping into the next room, the associative link, was an act of rational fancy.

Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (1999) asserts,

Psychologists tend to see creativity exclusively as a mental process [but] creativity is as much a cultural and social as it is a psychological event. Therefore what we call creativity is not the product of single individuals, but of social systems making judgements about individual’s products. Any definition of creativity that aspires to objectivity, and therefore requires an intersubjective dimension, will have to recognize the fact that the audience is as important to its constitution as the individual to whom it is credited.’

This conception, termed ‘Systems Perspective of Creativity’, which sees creativity as a process where individuals, the cultural aspects of the environment, or the domain, and the social aspect, the field, interact, is inherently consistent with what Steven Johnson finds in his historical survey of creativity. Johnson’s history shows how ideas had to build up over time with contributions from a diverse set of individuals but came to be accepted only when the wait for the right moment to be accepted, like De Forest’s experiments with electro-magnetism which formed the basis of vacuum tubes and early computers three decades later, when both the additional knowledge and technologies evolved sufficiently to make the idea possible.

Learning to be Creative

Companies usually approach creativity on the basis of the popular notions around it – that this is the preserve of rare geniuses, who must be separated from the rest of the organization to come up with big ideas. Often, creativity gets boxed in a separate ‘creative’ department, where privileged few is treated differently (starting with dress codes) from the rest of the organization. This approach, one can argue, is counter-productive, as this limits rather than expands an organization’s creative capacity, and makes other employees, for example those working on the shop-floor, feel unable to be creative and imaginative.

Robinson (2001) argues that organizations must develop a systemic strategy to nurture creativity of the ‘whole organization’. He also defines three challenges that most organizations face in this process:

The first is to understand the real nature of creativity..The second is to implement a systemic strategy for developing individual creative capacities. There are techniques for doing this, which build on a number of common principles. Creativity can be developed, but it must be done sensitively and well. Most people do not know what their creative capacities are and are worried about the process involved in finding out. Third, there must be a systemic strategy to facilitate and reward creative output. Occasional courses in creative thinking have limited value. Like rain-dancing, they underestimate the nature of the problems they are trying to solve.”

Robinson accepts that the challenges for the organizations are enormous, as their efforts to make people creative comes up against a formal education process based on conformity (a similar point was made by Ivan Illich in his famous Deschooling Society (1995)). However, it is the first challenge, of understanding the real nature of creativity, is where most organizations tend to stumble.

Most organizations indeed view creativity in terms of individual technical achievement, rather than as a social process. Besides, following the pre-dominant norms of scientific management, businesses want to see creativity as a defined, measurable process. Finally, most businesses tend to institute an elaborate financial reward structure for creative achievements, consistent with the bonus culture that exists in modern businesses.

In this setting, ‘occasional courses in creative thinking’ are indeed the norm. Often, such courses revolve around well-defined processes with catchy acronyms, like Petty’s ICEDIP (Petty, 1997) which follows a sequence of Inspiration-Clarification-Evaluation-Distillation-Incubation-Perspiration. Other popular models, such as Tony Buzan’s Mind Map and Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, are big multi-million pound businesses. While participants in these workshops often report finding it ‘inspiring’, ‘interesting’ and ‘insightful’, as a simple internet search may reveal, such models emphasize on the individual dimension of creativity at the expense of its social nature.

One can also argue that creativity is a process of Play (Petty, 1997) and Error (Johnson, 2010), and indeed of ‘slow hunch’ (Johnson, 2010), which modern management thinking is somewhat at odds with. Also, extrinsic rewards, such as incentives and bonuses, are often not effective in inspiring cognitively challenging work (Pink, 2009; Kohn, 1999) and fail to generate creativity. Instead, the motivation theorists like Pink (2009) suggest a system of intrinsic rewards, following the work of Edward Deci and other psychologists, which revolve around ‘autonomy, mastery and purpose’ for inspiring a creative workforce.

A number of theorists, however, place creativity firmly in the social context of the organization rather than the individual domain. These theorists place a greater emphasis on organizational conditions for fostering creativity.

For example, Jay Galbraith (1996) presents the following table, to contrast an ‘operating’ organization with an ‘innovating’ organization:

Operating Organization

Innovating Organization


Division of Labour


Span of Control

Distribution of Power

Roles: Orchestrator, Sponsor, Idea Generator (Champion)




Providing information and communication

Planning and Budgeting

Measuring Performance

Linking Departments

Planning/ Funding

Getting Ideas

Blending Ideas


Managing Programmes

Reward Systems



Leader Style

Job Design

Opportunity/ Autonomy

Promotion/ Recognition

Special Compensation


Selection/ Recruitment

Promotion/ Transfer

Training/ Development

Selection/ Self-selection

Training/ Development

Also, Ayas (1999), citing Brown and Eisenhardt (1995) point to three distinctive streams of pioneering work on innovation effectiveness:

First, the rational stream that builds on Myers and Marquis (1969) and SAPPHO studies (Rothwell, 1972) focus on a broad range of determinants of innovation success, including interaction of the various functional groups within the organization, internal organization, market attractiveness etc.

Second, the communication stream, building on the work of Allen (1971), argues that better project performance depends on the information capacity in the system and such capacity is a function of the intensity of the communication patterns.

Third, the problem-solving stream builds on the study by Imai et al (1985) focuses on roles of leadership, a clear articulated vision of the products image, performance and fit with the company, an experiential approach to product design through frequent iteration and testing.

These authors tend to see organizational creativity in the context of the social processes within the organization, despite the popular focus on technical aspects of creativity and attempt to teach employees how to be creative.

Glaveanu (2010) summarizes the various studies of creativity in terms of three paradigms, the He-paradigm (the solitary genius), the I-Paradigm (the individualistic paradigm which asserts everyone can be creative) and the We-paradigm (which asserts the socio-cultural roots and dynamics of all our creative acts).

Finally, for a comprehensive view which balances the individual and social aspects of organizational creativity, and presents concrete suggestions on how an organization can enhance creativity of its employees, one may turn to Teresa Amabile (1998), who suggests that creativity can be taught, if only within the social context of the organization.

In her view, creativity, within every individual, is a function of three components: Expertise, Creative Thinking Skills and Motivation. Expertise, generally considered as technical skills and knowledge required, can be disseminated by training and management of knowledge in the organization. Creative thinking skills can be enhanced by various techniques, for example, the ICEDIP model (Petty, 1997), Six Thinking Hats (Bono, 2009) or Mind Map (Buzan, 2010). Motivation can be balanced in terms of intrinsic (such as passion and recognition) and extrinsic (such as money).

However, for creativity to foster, Amabile argues, managers must create the organizational conditions for creativity. Amabile’s research points to six general categories of managerial practice that affect creativity, namely, challenge, freedom, resources, work-group features, supervisory encouragement and organizational support.

Can Universities Learn Creativity from Businesses?

The question is deliberately provocative, as universities meant to be the fountain-head of ideas in a society. However, at the same time, the current government policies on both sides of the Atlantic are strongly in favour of bringing ‘business practices’ to the universities. These policies have been in place for almost three decades now, as Head (2011) argues, and many of the techniques of modern business organizations, including Balanced Scorecard and Reengineering, are already in place in universities and related funding organizations.

However, there is a case to be made for universities seeking to make their staff more creative. F M Cornford, the Cambridge classicist, wrote in his satirical guide for young academics, Microcosmographia Academica (Menand, 2010), ‘Nothing should ever be done for the first time’: His advice seems to have been taken literally at some quarters. There was indeed a point in Clark Kerr’s complaint (Kerr, 1963): “Few institutions are so conservative as the universities about their own affairs while their members are so liberal about their affairs of others.”

Despite these limitations, it may still be difficult to argue that business practices for teaching creativity to its employees have much to offer to the universities. The reason varies from the fact that businesses are not exactly good at creativity itself, and most of the practices of modern management are out of step with what makes an organization really creative, to the rather obvious statement that universities and businesses are two different kinds of organization. While policy-makers seem to want to disregard the differences, they are quite clear in areas like creativity: While businesses are only starting to learn the limits of extrinsic motivation, the universities primarily offer intrinsic motivation to its staff, and only now being pushed to the market system and extrinsic motivation by the policy-makers.

There may be a self-evident irony at a time when the businesses, primarily because of creativity imperative, are adopting a more ‘collegial’ atmosphere, whereas the universities, because innovation is needed, are being encouraged to adopt ‘managerial’ practices. It is interesting to note that while the companies increasingly realize high pressure and high creativity do not go together (except when they are on a mission, but this usually works on a short timescale; Amabile, 2002a and 2002b), the universities are put under increasing strain to make them more creative.

Therefore, while the businesses may not be able to offer universities much insight on how to foster creativity, it may guide the modern universities on how not to kill creativity. Despite the difference in setting, backgrounds and aims, the lessons learned in business are as valid as ever for the universities to look at.


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