Defining Creativity

History often shines a light on the success stories at the expense of all the hard work, and all the failure behind the few standout stars. When we face reality, we find that real creativity has nothing to do with business. It is a harsh and dirty process, and those that practice it in its truest form, most notably musicians, artists and writers, are more likely to live on the margins of society and at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Creativity in business, therefore, is actually synonymous with innovation and problem solving. If channeled properly, it can be a powerful force for any company and in any industry. Creativity can be one of the greatest problem-solving tools for any business, as long as you know how to properly use it. Some of the most innovative companies have leveraged creativity in similar ways, and their processes have begun to reveal a pattern.

As a business owner and entrepreneur, where do you start following in these innovator’s footsteps? The best way is to first decide if you really want creativity to be a core part of your business. If you strive to be an expert in your field, to be as efficient as possible and to work in a comfortable environment where everyone gets along, the answer is probably “no.” But if you’re willing to dedicate completely to being uncomfortable, candid and even argumentative, your business may be suited for a creative environment. The best place to begin is with the source of the inspiration: the people who will define this creative environment.

Hiring Creative People

Creativity requires surrounding yourself with the right people. And in many instances, this means hiring the “wrong people” for the job. The fact is that experts are often too entrenched in their field of expertise to be able to think outside the box. Creativity can sometimes come from the most unlikely places and from people who know very little about an industry, a product or a market; it’s the ability to see solutions through new perspectives, not something learned through years of experience. For example, IDEO, one of the more famous product design companies and often-cited examples of innovation at work, is known for hiring people with very diverse backgrounds and skills.

Managing Creativity

If you’ve been bold enough to throw out traditional hiring practices and bring on people with very diverse backgrounds and expertise, you now have to figure out a way to manage them and their diverse forms of creativity.

The first thing to keep in mind is that creativity is very inefficient, and traditional management practices simply will not work. As a business owner, you must be willing to waste more time than you feel comfortable with exploring new ideas and holding out until you stumble on something useful. On top of this, you must protect your team from outside influences who don’t know what’s possible yet, including investors and managers, who are often influenced by the bottom line. This may even include you, who at the end of the day need to prioritize being able to make payroll.

Creative teams and ideas, therefore, must often be incubated away from outside business influences. This is the reason Xerox set up its Xerox PARC research center in Palo Alto, Calif., away from its New York offices. One example is Gary Starkweather, who came up with the idea for the laser printer in 1969 at Xerox’s New York lab. Because of company culture, he was unable to get any support from his superiors, despite test after test showing he had a feasible idea. It wasn’t until he was transferred to PARC in 1971 that his project took off, eventually becoming one of Xerox’s bestselling products.

Besides shielding creative teams, you must ensure that they are consistently producing ideas. One way to start catalyzing new ideas is to follow Bob Sutton’s advice to “find some happy people and get them to fight.” This means that, assuming you successfully hired for creativity, the teams that produce the best work should be constantly questioning and arguing about their ideas, weeding out the bad ones and ensuring only great ones survive their scrutiny. This can be a messy process, but it is essential that everyone on the team cares deeply about their own ideas and is willing to fight for them, but is also prepared to let go if their position has been thoroughly disproven. Self-confidence is a must. So is respect, both individually and between team members. Personal issues should never be allowed to distract creative work, and no creative disagreements should ever be taken personally.

Simple Steps to Increase Your Creativity

Author Jonah Lehrer, who wrote the book Imagine: How Creativity Works, looked at problem-solving and creativity studies and came up with some ways to increase individual creativity:

1. The color blue, which normally leads to more relaxed moods, increases problem solving of insight puzzles.

2. People who are groggy, or even drunk, perform better at certain types of creative problem solving.

3. Daydreaming is a sign of a creative mind.

4. Laughter, induced by comedy, can raise creativity, which was shown in people trying to solve insight puzzles.

5. When tested for creativity, people who worked directly outside of a cubicle performed better than those who worked inside of it.

6. People who have lived in multiple countries were more likely to perform better on insight puzzles.


At the end of the day, creativity and innovation do not spell success. The creative process is full of wasted time, arguments and a constant churn of new (and often uncomfortable) ideas. It is simply not for every company; many small businesses require consistency and stability to succeed. Most businesses will be better off learning tried-and-true management practices to run an efficient operation, with the exception of those exceptional few: Those who truly believe that creative vision, differentiation and innovation will be what sets their business apart from the crowd.

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