Debunking the key myths about creativity

Creativity is one of the most mysterious processes undertaken by the human brain.

Despite its having been studied by everyone from philosophers to neuroscientists, we are still not much closer to understanding what it is or how it works.

Businesses are constantly looking to hire creative people, not just for activities such as research and development and innovation, but as thinkers and problem solvers who can unravel the complexities of everyday management.

But as a consequence of this lack of understanding of what creativity is, businesses then struggle to manage creative people effectively. Much of their energy and output is wasted.

According to David Burkus in his book, "The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas," a mythology has grown up around the subject of creativity.

He traces the origins of this mythologizing to the ancient Greeks, who believed that creativity had a divine source and was granted to only a few individuals whom the gods favored. These divinely inspired people became society's "creatives" and were admired by the rest as heroes.

Today, says Burkus, we still subscribe to those myths. We continue to believe in the divine spark, the "eureka moment" when someone has a great idea.

We continue to believe too that creative people are solitary, genuine talents, whose best work is done in isolation. And we continue to believe that great ideas will always be recognized.

Burkus, an assistant professor of management at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., argues that none of these beliefs is true. After exploring the idea of creative mythology, he proceeds, in 10 tightly written chapters, to explode the key myths about creativity. There is no such thing as a creative spark or a eureka moment; true creativity is an iterative process, often consisting of slow, incremental changes and developments to an existing idea.

Creative individuals seldom flourish in isolation; in fact, groups are better at innovation than individuals. Great ideas are not always recognized at first; many take years to be appreciated, and others simply fade into obscurity.

In his book published by Jossey-Bass, Burkus also debunks corporate efforts to incentivize creativity, arguing that there is little evidence such efforts result in more innovation.

Creative people are motivated by the work itself, which they find personally satisfying; extrinsic motivators play a relatively small part in their lives. The answer, he suggests, is simply to give people work that they want to do, that they find satisfying.

He also argues that a happy workplace and a good team spirit, commonly believed to be beneficial to creative thinking, can in fact act as inhibitors.

"An excessive focus on cohesion . . . can actually dampen a team's creativity," he writes. "It can narrow down options and cause those with a unique perspective to censor themselves rather than risk not being seen as part of the team."

He goes on to take issue with the myth, common among creative people themselves, that creativity requires freedom. On the contrary, says Burkus, creative people need something to kick against. Give them complete freedom and they tend to wander and lose focus. Give them a barrier and they will try to knock it down.

Burkus' engaging book makes its case in good, clear language. Many might disagree with some of Burkus' conclusions, but he at least forces us to challenge some widely held assumptions.

However, the overwhelming majority of the examples of creativity that he cites are American — such as Post-its, PayPal or Gore-Tex.

This is disappointing. Businesses around the world have proved themselves creative, sometimes in ways that differ from their American counterparts. Failure to acknowledge those differences is the primary shortcoming in an otherwise interesting book.

Witzel is a frequent contributor to the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.