Is creativity a product of nature or nurture? While some people have a higher proclivity to creative expression, we all have the potential; it’s part of human nature. But we are forced to specialise so early in our development, we shut down pursuits, interests and disciplines unconscionably early. The arts are often the first to go, either because parents push their children toward so-called ‘safe’ subject matters to set them up for stable careers, such as engineering, mathematics and the like, or schools shove art, music, creative writing and drama into the periphery of the curriculum, if they appear at all. In grade school, I recall that my music and art classes only occurred once a week versus daily sessions in math, history and science. There may be exceptions, but most schools do not hesitate to shave funding from the arts at the first sign of budget cuts. As the harried principal shouts when firing the titular music teacher in the film Mr. Holland’s Opus, ‘If I’m forced to choose between Mozart and reading, writing and long division, I choose long division.’ To which, the music teacher Mr. Holland retorts, ‘Well, I guess you can cut the arts as much as you want, Gene. Sooner or later, these kids aren’t going to have anything to read or write about.’[i]
Too many schools minimise or ignore creativity, too many parents discourage it and too many companies devalue it. Our firms abrogate responsibility for innovation to a select fraction of the employee population, often someone with a lofty title like Chief Creative Officer, which of course tacitly communicates to the rest of the company that they should leave creativity to the specialists. This is not only a shame but a great waste since seventy-five percent of productivity gains can be traced back to bottom-up ideas from front-line employees.[ii] Or our company’s leaders encourage innovation in their words but deprioritize it in their actions, always selecting the safe, the incremental and the staid in their decisions. Or if we observe how our leaders spend their time, and by extension how we should spend ours, they are tacitly telling us that creativity is relegated to possibly a few minutes a week and ideally in one’s free time, not when we’re ‘on the clock’. In my advisory work, I usually find this last condition, lack of time, to be the most common and pernicious reason why people tell me they cannot be creative at work.
The problem is that if we budget very little time in our lives to innovating or adapting to try new ideas, we typically incur a double deficit in our creative capacity. First, we never make the time because creativity is always at the bottom of our priority list. Inevitably, we can never plan on all the firefighting and pop-up meetings that will occur in the week, so our real week is much more full of ‘dealing with the day to day’ than our diaries suggested on Monday morning.
Second, if we do keep and honour a tiny fraction of our week or month to creative thinking, brainstorming and the like, we find our attention span is constantly distracted, and we never seem to produce anything worthwhile as a result. So we face each new window of opportunity for innovation with an ever growing, soul-sucking impression of dread or, at the least, resignation.
What we’re learning now is that we’re actually training our brains to deliver this depressing result. These hurried, captured moments of precious time for innovation yield paltry results because our brains just can’t turn on the magic for such short, unsustainable periods of time. Because we don’t have balance between the mundane and the creative, we can’t achieve creativity even if we give ourselves those fleeting thirty minutes a week to do so. We must change our routines so that we give our brains more time to marinate in innovative thinking or expression and increase the frequency of those marinades. Like any muscle, the creative function in our brains requires exercise in order to improve, but as importantly, to be receptive to create in the first place.
The point is not that we denude all traditional routine from our organisations; we need some of that. But the hundreds of companies that I’ve worked with usually operate at a ratio of about ninety-nine percent business as usual to one percent creative time…on a good week! So if you’re feeling uncomfortable that I might be suggesting something like a fifty-fifty balance, I’m not necessarily saying that. But the better ratio surely has to be closer to eighty-twenty at least? I’m merely entreating us to ask ourselves honestly, ‘Is the balance right?’
For more on my thinking on this topic, please see my book, Sparking Success: Why every leader needs to develop a creative mindset [Kogan Page, 2023].
i. Mr. Holland’s Opus, directed by Stephen Herek (1995; Burbank, CA: Hollywood Pictures).
ii. Bilal Gokpinar, ‘Driving Efficiency Gains Starts with Frontline Employee Innovation,’ UCL School of Management, 21 July, 2021, https://www.mgmt.ucl.ac.uk/news/driving-efficiency-gains-starts-frontline-employee-innovation.