If there is one word that has been hot in the business world the last few years, then it is creativity. We like to state with alacrity how important we think it is. A life necessity even, in these times of exponential changes. In many vacancies they are looking diligently for ‘daredevils with ideas’, born ‘out-of-the-box thinkers’ or even ‘rebels and troublemakers’. We nod yes fervently when we listen to lecture number umpteenth by some creative evangelist. And even the chairman of the country’s most archaic union announces with gleeful eyes he wants to play for stakes on ‘fresh new ideas’. Well intentioned. But that façade obscures a bitter truth: we don’t like creativity.
“I want to involve my people, let in some fresh air. I feel something is stirring on our floors, ideas are flying everywhere.” Seldom did I see a more enthusiastic CEO at the other end of the table. And never have I been able to end an intake interview – that customarily precedes any brainstorm session – that fast. ‘How can we make sure we will be the Tesla, Apple or Google of our market within the next three years?’ Talking about an ambitious brainstorm question. Marvelous surely for this almost 130-year-old textile company with deep family roots. “Give them enough pepper, lure them out of their lair. I want them to go through the roof with their ideas.” The childlike sincerity with which he said it was almost moving.
And so it happened. It was really not that difficult to bring a group of ten young and more mature enthusiasts to creativity. A bit hesitant in the beginning, but once the ice was broken, we got to a rough sea of spinning ideas fast. Often crazy, but just as often original ideas that warmed everybody’s heart. The energy level did not seem to falter. At the end of the day we were left with a trio of really strong concepts in which creativity and originality reigned supreme. Practice just a little more to be able to present a strong pitch. And then the boss came to listen in…
“Gosh, that is a bit very creative, isn’t it” were the words coming out of his mouth. “But are there also ideas that we can … ehm … realize more easily?” Chilling silence. What should have been a heyday ended in a tragedy. All ideas were put aside carefully. And even small creative downgrades didn’t help. The good man was torn apart and clearly bothered. “It’s a risk I don’t dare take”, he admitted somewhat timidly. And those were the last words spent on the brainstorm.
Avoiding risks, meeting expectations
From recent research at Berkeley University in California it appears that even people who are looking for creativity often respond negatively to creative ideas. So, there you have it, a whopper of a paradox. Some even have named it: the creadox. “We view creative people as real heroes”, says Barry Staw, the principal researcher, “They are cheered and celebrated. But what we celebrate is not the creativity as such, but the result of that creativity: the successes.” According to Staw’s research the cause for aversion to creative ideas is that we primarily want to avoid risks. Exactly like in the story above. Insecurity is the downside of creativity, but sadly is an inextricable part of it. Most people hate insecurity and doubt. According to research even so much that they don’t only fear creative ideas, but don’t even recognize those ideas as being creative.
Another reason is our craving for conformity. However, much we in the West believe in values like freedom and independence, we still see a pressure towards compliance with certain (unwritten) agreements and expectations, that transcends those values. We are all mostly ‘satisfiers’ and ‘pleasers’ and this is often at the cost of creativity and originality. In a business context we see this translated to: new and original ideas could offend others (our clients, our boss, our stakeholders), because they don’t correspond with their pattern of expectations. At least, that’s what we think. And again we want to avoid the risk. So, away with it.
And actually this concealed aversion for creativity is not all that surprising. The place where our tender creative ideas should flourish, is the very place where she gets restrained and shoved to the side. Research shows that teachers discriminate creative students highly, to the benefit of students who follow agreements diligently. The cause of this can be found in our educational system itself, that – albeit often one of its objectives – in fact doesn’t know how to deal with creativity. Assessment in our educational system today is still based on exact measurable criteria. For the ‘most important’ subjects, anyway. Creativity, sadly, not being not one of them
So, is it all squalor and disease, then? Is there really no place for more creative minds in our Western world? Are they pushed aside out of insecurity, pressure towards conformity and lack of measurable criteria too often? Maybe, but it also has its advantages. At New York’s Cornell University, the effect of (social) rejection on the creative process has been studied. The research shows that people who feel misunderstood or excluded because of their creativity, experience that exclusion as liberating. Precisely because they don’t have to meet expectations and agreements anymore and therefore can give full vent to their creativity.
But the biggest consolation is this: the most brilliant creative minds from our history were labeled crazy and out of touch with reality. Examples a plenty: Pythagoras, Galilei, Michelangelo, Edison, Oppenheimer, Tesla, and so many others. Also the work of a whole lot of Nobel Prize winners had been reject for a long time. Maybe for a lot of creatives the pain of misunderstanding and rejection are the very reason why they persevered. World sized ideas need time to permeate.