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
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
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
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.