Creativity – everyone seems to need more of it. That’s understandable because creativity is at the root of innovation and gets us past the impasses that would otherwise mean failure to an endeavor. Because creativity is so valuable, and because it is often hard to come by, people often think: “More is better, period.” This view is rooted in research on brainstorming, which often mistakes the creative idea for the product or process that the idea becomes. It is why when I interview people who make their living in creative fields (e.g., video game designers and music producers), they do not agree with the “more is better” view. Based on the research on how people actually think, I don’t either.
Creativity is like salt in cooking. Salt is a critical ingredient that has many useful functions in cooking. But use too much, or use it in the wrong way, and the food tastes terrible. And like salt, I think we tend to overuse creativity, often in hopes that it will bring out the flavor in mediocre ingredients.
If we look at successful innovation, the number of ideas that are truly creative is tiny in comparison to the number of ideas that emerge from well-honed craft (i.e., non-creative ideas). Take any example you want and this is true. The Tesla Roadster is still mostly a car that operates like other cars. Starbucks may have completely disrupted the coffee shop industry, but what’s inside — how people buy, what they buy, and how business is conducted — conforms to how cafés are run. Radiohead’s Grammy-winning “Karma Police” is a song that was created using the same instruments, recording techniques, song structure, and key as a great many others. These observations take nothing away from how amazing all of these innovations were. But it should get you to realize that they work because there are tiny dashes of creativity used at just the right time and in accordance with craft. Those tiny bits make a world of difference.
Edison said that invention was 2% inspiration and 98% perspiration. Another way to interpret this is that the vast majority of ideas we use are craft (the 98%). Creativity’s 2% has a disproportionate impact on the utility of the product, and it turns out that usually such a small creativity-to-craft ratio is about right. There are a great many other inventions that had far larger creativity-to-craft ratio, and these often go nowhere. The Segway, the Chevy Aztek, the Apple Newton, Intellivision, and quadrophonic sound are examples from history where despite a lot of novelty and real utility, they never caught on. There are a million others you never heard of in the patent office.
People who create for a living have a word for something that is heavy on creativity and light on craft – immature. Leaders have twice the reason to avoid this “more is better” trap. They use creativity themselves to generate unique and inspirational visions if they are to lead and not just copy. They also need to try to develop (or at least not quash) the creative potential in those they lead. But for both of these to work, use creativity sparingly, and with finesse.
So while you are pondering your next strategy, or encouraging a colleague to develop their own creative insight, remember:
1-Creativity is “the production of useful novelty” (emphasis added). So as open as you might be to novelty, be merciless in the demand for usefulness (as dictated by the audience) of that novelty.
2-You don’t need to challenge everything to make something creative, just the things that block progress. Early hybrid vehicles looked futuristic. That was not a problem that needed to be solved. Battery life was (which is what Tesla focused on).
3-Different is not the same as good, and good can sometimes be different enough.
Matthew A. Cronin is an associate professor of management at George Mason University. He received his PhD in organizational behavior from Carnegie Mellon University. Cronin’s research seeks to understand how collaboration can help produce creative ideas, and what it takes to then bring these ideas to fruition.