Words by Liz Hollis
Ping pong tables, pod chairs, beach huts and giant slides — is this really what it takes to make us more creative at work?
Creativity has never been more popular. Chief executives believe it is the most important leadership quality for success in business, according to a recent IBM study, ranking it higher than global thinking and integrity. Companies are redesigning their offices and revamping their corporate cultures, all in the name of encouraging creatives to do their best work.
“Not all industries require creative people but some will surely fold without them,” says occupational psychologist Dr Mike Rugg-Gunn. “For them, creativity is a strategic imperative. The better we understand what makes people more creative, the better companies can shape an effective creative culture.”
And yet the more that business tries to lure “star talent” or nurture creativity, the more slippery the concept becomes. Employer tactics such as attractive salaries or quirky workspaces might even stifle imagination rather than encourage it. Scientists are now applying a systematic approach to understanding the components of creativity — drawing on advances in psychology and neurobiology to unpick what was once considered an elusive preserve of artistic genius. Will it ever be possible to find a formula to develop and nurture the creative mind?
Death of the genius
The “creative mind” is itself a problematic concept. The lone genius has been a seductive idea for centuries, and the earliest attempts to subject creativity to scientific inquiry started from the assumption that such people have a pattern of innate personality traits. Founded in 1949, the Institute of Personality and Research at the University of California invited some of the world’s most renowned creative people, from author Truman Capote to architect Eero Saarinen, for analysis. Its researchers noted recurring characteristics, from non-conformism to rating their ideas above other people’s and preferring complexity and ambiguity over simplicity and order.
Once you’ve defined what makes a creative, it’s just a matter of attracting these people to work for you, right? Unfortunately, this rarely works. “Superstars” from one company often fail at another, as Wired journalist Bryan Gardiner recently noted, citing the example of Ron Johnson, the creator of Apple’s Genius Bar who lasted just 17 months as chief executive of JC Penney. “Star talent is partly innate, sure,” Gardiner wrote, “but it’s also linked to specific teams or projects or just the culture of the company.”