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August 21
Fostering Creativity Even Through Adversity & Chaos

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We may live in a world where the most highly prized people to employers tend to be knowledge workers, but what sets us apart from the machines is not knowledge at all - it is creativity. Acquiring, managing, and sharing knowledge is essential, but it’s what we do with it that really matters.

It’s no surprise that creativity has become the de facto Holy Grail for many modern businesses. A recent survey of 1,500 chief executives conducted by IBM's Institute for Business Value found that business leaders believe creativity is the most important leadership competency for a successful enterprise.

So what are ways to foster creativity?

One of the surprising answers to that question is adversity. This is a difficult one for businesses to apply in practice, of course. Business leaders should not deliberately make the lives of employees more difficult, but it's an interesting phenomenon nevertheless and has important repercussions for how people deal with stress and challenges. 

In fact, psychologists now have a label for the process whereby people respond positively to serious difficulties. They call it post-traumatic growth, and it is characterized by a growing appreciation for the positive parts of our lives, greater spirituality, and increased ability to think creatively and solve problems in new ways. As artists and writers have known for centuries, serious challenges - even profound traumas and unhappiness - can prove the source of great creativity. "I create in order not to cry," as the artist Paul Klee put it.

Marie Forgeard, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, recently decided to put this idea to the test. She asked approximately 400 U.S. subjects with an average age of 40 to indicate a difficult or traumatic episode in their lives and gauge its impact on their creativity and personal growth. Research showed that the number and type of difficulties encountered by individual preceded creative growth, following a period of introspection and taking stock. 

One of the conclusions Forgeard came to was that life's challenges make for more interesting and creative art. She makes the point by contrasting Louisa M. Alcott's tale of loving sisters, Little Women, with Tennessee William's play The Glass Menagerie, which draws on the writer's difficult relationship with his mother and sister. This is not to suggest, of course, that adversity is a prerequisite for creativity. Just that the wells of creativity can meander and run very deep. 

Another surprising source of creativity can be chaos. And unlike adversity, it is something that organizations can - and increasingly do - nurture. This is also something that writers and artists have known for many years. In his 1883 novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzche writes, "I tell you: one must still have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star." The idea has been expressed in many ways, but few of them quite so poetic. 

The same idea is evident in the work of people from the economist Joseph Schumpeter, famous for his idea of 'creative destruction' to the management guru Tom Peters and even Albert Einstein who once said, "If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?"

Last year, a team led by psychologist Kathleen Vohs at the Carlson School of Management published research suggesting that order and chaos are both perfectly sound ways for firms and individuals to operate, depending on what they wish to achieve.

The first part of the research explored whether an ordered workplace had any effect on the ethical aspects of individual behavior, including healthy eating and charitable giving. Subjects were made to work in either a messy or tidy office and then asked to donate to charity and choose between an unhealthy or healthy snack. The results were remarkable. Those who had worked in the ordered office donated twice as much to charity and had a greater tendency to choose healthy food.

The second part of the research sought to establish whether an untidy workplace could foster the equally desirable outcome of greater creativity. Once again, volunteers were made to work in either a messy or tidy office, followed by a test of their creative thinking.

Again the results were unequivocal. The research subjects who had worked in chaotic surroundings performed significantly better than their counterparts with tidy desks. They were more likely to display unconventional thinking and a willingness to break from tradition. 

Our goal is not to apply such research in a simplistic way. However, the main point is that this represents yet more evidence on the complex links that exist between our surroundings and how we think and act, and not least how we think creatively.