Creativity at Work

By Adrian Furnham

Creativity is not an easy topic to research and few serious scientists conduct work in the area. First, creativity is difficult to define and secondly, there are few good ways of measuring it. In this article, Adrian Furnham queries the popular belief that ‘we are all creative’ and creative workshops will help unleash, liberate our creativity. Organizations who are looking for creative individuals must understand the true nature of creativity and personality.

Many businesses say they value creativity because it is the father of innovation which in turn is the engine of change. They often spend billions on Research and Development on a creative process or people which looks to find different, better, cheaper, stronger, etc. products and work processes.

Some have argued creativity is an individual’s, an organisation’s, a society’s, indeed even a species’ greatest resource. Creativity means adaptation and innovation. Some organisations have innovation or innovativeness as a supposedly measurable core competency for senior staff. They attempt to select for, encourage and manage innovation believing it to be a major resource. Some appear to believe that innovation is best achieved through the selection and management of creative individuals. Hence they attempt to recruit those with trait creativity which is usually conceived of as an ability to come up with new ideas.

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People like to believe they are all (particularly, especially) creative. Organisations like to believe they need creative ideas which come from creative people. Managers might or might not be wrong depending on the organisation they come from. Others believe that creativity can be relatively easily taught. Many researchers have been sceptical of the many courses available that supposedly teach creativity.

A great deal of nonsense is talked about creativity. It’s not an easy topic to research and few serious scientists conduct work in the area for two simple but fundamental reasons: the first is that creativity is difficult to define; the second is that there are few good ways of measuring it. If you can’t agree a definition or have good tools of measurement you aren’t really off the starting blocks.

Creativity is a bit of a scientific backwater. This problem is measurement: there is no simple, agreed, robust and valid measure of creativity. This means it is difficult to test theories and ideas such as where it comes from and whether it can be taught. As a result, the whole area attracts Charlatans, Conference Troubadors and Purveyors of Piffle. It certainly seems that really creative people are difficult to manage. Further, we know that creativity in the arts and sciences are very different. Often “Arty-farty” creative types are often poorly adjusted, disagreeable and unreliable, while scientific types are geeky, picky and perfectionistic. Innovation is more difficult and more important than creativity



At the heart of most definitions of the concept of creativity is the production of ideas and/or products which are both novel and useful. That is, an idea might be new, but not at all useful, or practical but not new. The essence of the idea is that real, genuine creativity is marked by new thinking that has real applications.

One issue that does seem important is to decide on whether the determinants of, and the process involved in, creativity are different in different areas like arts, business, commerce or science. Another is whether creativity as an ability or trait is normally distributed in the population as a whole, or highly skewed such that only a very few are highly creative.

Yet, creativity remains an academic backwater mainly because of how to decide whether a person, invention, work of art or science is truly creative. The question is who makes the judgement and the extent to which they have to agree before one can say ‘it’ is a real manifestation of creativity. Criteria could be based on patent awards, judgements made by professionals, social recognition or even sales.   Different groups have different criteria and different levels of reliability. For the scientist the whole enterprise hardly gets off the starting blocks. If one cannot adequately, robustly and reliably describe the criteria or label the product it remains particularly difficult to understand the process.

It seems that researchers have adopted essentially one of four approaches to the problem:

1. The creative person: differential psychologists have attempted to delineate the particular and peculiar set of abilities, motives and traits that together describe the creative individual.

2. The creative process: this is an attempt to understand the thought (cognitive) processes that go on in the process of creativity. It is not so much an attempt at the who, but the how question.

3. The creative situation: social and business psychologists are particularly interested in cultural, environmental and organisational factors that inhibit or facilitate creativity. The idea is that one can therefore construct situations that induce creativity even in the not particularly creative.

4. The creative product: this approach attempts to study all aspects of creativity by looking at those products that are clearly defined as creative.

Is creativity defined by a person, a product, a process or an environment? Can a person be creative without creating anything? If so, what are the personal characteristics of creative people? Can you have creative groups, rather than individuals, where somehow the group dynamic is the key to the creative process? Can you only really define creativity by the output of creative persons or groups? That is, creativity is best measured by tangible, agreed upon, outcomes.

Or is creativity a process? Is it the way painters sketch, writers scribble, sculptors carve, that makes them creative rather than some innate ability, drive or attitude? Or is it the environment that people or organisations engender that promotes creativity? Does one need funky murals, new age music, and a spirit of non-judgmental communication to be really creative?

Alas, it is little more than a conformity myth perpetrated by workshop junkies or salesman that people can be taught to be creative.  We are not all creative anymore than we are all musical or mathematically gifted.

Most people seem happy with the concept of a creative person. Many of the creative people one can mention like Van Gogh or Mozart died young, ignored, penniless and mentally ill. Later generations thought them creative but they were not recognised as such in their life times.

But if, for the sake of argument, one believes at very minimum there must be something inside people to make them creative the question at least for the psychologists in this: is creativity

1. A stable trait?
2. A (mood) state?
3. A thinking style?An ability?

If creativity is an ability, we would expect it, like intelligence, to be normally distributed. Most physical abilities (with each sex) are like this. High jump and long jump; linguistic ability and spatial ability are normally distributed. Some people are naturally talented and an equally small number are, alas, talentless.

You measure abilities by performance tests. They are tests with correct and incorrect answers and speed of processing may also be taken into account. It was patently obvious at school that with identical tuition, some did very well at maths and others were…shall we say ‘numerically challenged’. The same is true of languages: some people just seem to have an ear. If creativity is a (cognitive) ability it can certainly be improved, but the ability level (from very bad to very good) dictates the range of improvement.

Is creativity more a personality trait, like extraversion or neuroticism? Is it a temperamental thing, possibly related to pathology? Certainly there do seem to be high incidences of similar behaviours and backgrounds in successful writers, artists etc. But personality is like ability: normally distributed and difficult to change partly because it is “hard-wired” and biologically based. Some introverts can pretend to be extraverts and vice versa, but it is tiring and unnatural for them and the pretence cannot be kept up for too long.

Is creativity a state, like a mood state? Can it be induced by music, watching a film, even detecting a powerfully evocative smell? Most of us may feel subjectively more creative after a couple of glasses of Chardonnay but alas the evidence is against us. True trait creatives work better when in various specific emotional states but all the drug does is get you in the mood. In fact, from the numerous confessions of very creative writers, state-altering substances (the preference is booze) rarely if ever facilitate creativity…in fact, the precise opposite.

So what about creativity as a thinking style? This is the preferred word of our time. Why? Obviously…because style involves easy change. Just as you can change your clothes and hairstyle…even political beliefs, so we are told, you can change your thinking style to become more creative. The message you hear at creativity workshops is (a) everyone is creative and (b) we can teach you to find your creativity (inner voice, inner child…blah, blah) by using techniques that alter your approach to issues. You can be taught (easily but expensively) to alter your thinking style so your “natural creativity” can breakthrough. And so you do a bit of brain storming, a bit of de Bonoing etc. and get to feel you can become a lateral thinker.

Alas there is precious little evidence to support this breathlessly exciting approach to creativity. We know scientists tend to be convergent thinkers and artists divergent thinkers. We know both can be creative in their own ways. We also know that nearly all creatives have always been that way. It is very rare to find someone who once went on a course and suddenly became creative, though it is possible…only if they had the ability and temperament in the first place.

Alas, it is little more than a conformity myth perpetrated by workshop junkies or salesman that people can be taught to be creative. We are not all creative anymore than we are all musical or mathematically gifted. You can learn to do better but only within the constraints of your God-given, biologically based, genetically determined make-up.


Teaching Creativity

The language of creativity-cultivating sessions is particularly interesting. There seem to be five related models.

First, there is the muesli model. People need to unblock their creativity. They are in some curious way creativity-constipated and unable to let go and express themselves. In this sense creativity courses may be seen as laxatives.

Second, there is the dominatrix model. Here we are told to unleash our creativity. Somehow we have been bound up, tied down, physically constrained from that most natural and normal of tasks, namely being creative. So courses are liberators.

Third, there is the arsonist model. Creative consultants and trainers aim to spark ideas and light fires. They see people as dry tinder just waiting for the right moment. Their job is to find ways of facilitating fire-setting ideas. The courses are igniters.

Fourth, there is the kindergarten model. The problem appears to be that we have all forgotten how to be playful. Playfulness is apparently not only a lot of fun but it is also very productive. So our trainer helps us regress to a time when we were happy and quite unabashed to draw pictures, sing songs, etc. These courses aim for rediscovery.

Fifth, there is the gaol-liberator model. The problem, you see, is that we have all been boxed in a sort of cognitive gaol that has stopped us…..wait for it…thinking outside the box! And here, our happy consultants throw open the doors of our prison and out pops our creative jack-in-the-box. The course delivers a release.

Note that all the models assume that somewhere and somehow our natural creativity is suppressed. Quite contrary to all that we know about individual differences and human abilities, the assumption is that creativity is not normally distributed: everybody is (potentially) very creative.

Clearly not everyone is musical, or good with numbers, or a natural sprinter. Almost all human characteristics (ability, personality, motivation) are normally distributed. Handedness is an exception. It means most people, by definition, are average on any characteristic and only a few are relatively high or low. It is the Bell Curve of life. And this suggests that most of us have average creativity talents, some are worse than average and a few are greatly endowed.

Certainly people can be taught skills and they can become better at almost everything they do. The question is what and how much they need to practise and with what overall and long-lasting effect.

Studies of genuinely creative individuals show they have both considerable talent but also sustained effort. Whilst it is true that ‘good ideas’ emerge often in times of relaxation (called the incubation period), a great deal of work has gone into thinking about the problem at hand. Creatives are talented, driven, hard-working….and by reputation quirky, unconventional, difficult to manage.

Certainly people can be taught skills and they can become better at almost everything they do. The question is what and how much they need to practise and with what overall and long-lasting effect.

Most creativity courses are enjoyable, whether arsonists or kindergarten teachers lead them. Most aim at ‘fun and games’ and are more about self-concept and self-esteem than anything else. Many people are neither blocked nor gaoled, and given the right circumstances they may all display some level of creative thinking

Alas, Edison was right: it’s 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. Learning to “thought-shower” – the new PC term for brainstorm – in a nice hotel at the company’s expense may be a fun break from the office routine, but is unlikely to do much more than persuade people – rightly or wrongly- that they are as creative as anyone else.


Creativity and Innovation

The way people most often use the word “to be creative” is both different from, and certainly more desirable than being innovative. Innovation is about doing things radically differently. It seems implicitly assumed that creativity is special, innovativeness ordinary; that creativity is a rare gift; innovativeness can be learnt.

It is certainly true one of the pathways to success in organisations is indeed through innovation. Some have rejoiced in the innovative product route. Disney, Polaroid, Sony and Windows typify this route to success. Others have developed innovative technology like Benetton, Honda and Evergreen. Some have tried to be innovative in the way in which they have a relationship” with their customers. Some of the airlines (Virgin) and credit card companies have been successful doing this.

But other organisations have been extremely successful without any particular innovation. Some have simply explored the rigidity of their competitors like Federal Express or Easyjet. Others have turned around a slowly declining business like the Hilton Hotels. Saatchi and Saatchi arguably were successful not because of amazing creativity but rather by capitalising, mobilizing and manipulating market forces. Some airlines have found success through the exceptional service route.


Personality and Creativity

There is both good and bad news when looking at the scattered scientific literature on creativity. The first is that it is true that both “creatives” and psychotic mental patients share the ability to produce more unusual associations between words and ideas compared to that long but undistinguished group called normals. In the jargon this means creatives and certain mad people have common information processing patterns which could be seen as deficits.

They seem unable to inhibit irrelevant information from entering consciousness. They find whether they like it or not unrelated ideas become interconnected… and this is often bizarrely a very creative process. They also both have high resting levels of activation and tend to be oversensitive to stimuli. Hence they may demand a special environment in which they can feel comfortable.

The extant research on creativity and madness suggests persons genetically related to psychotics are often unusually and statistically improbably creative. Creative persons often suffer bouts of serious breakdown and psychopathology. And psychotics and creative achievers have strikingly similar ways of thinking.

But of course madness is neither necessary nor sufficient for creativity. Most mad people (psychotics) are far from creative. Most mad people (psychotics) are far from creative. And many highly creative people are more prone to neurosis rather than psychosis. Certainly many creative writers have been prone to depression; but few (with some notable exceptions) have ever been hospitalised.

A recent study comparing equivalent groups of creative and non-creative “normal” people brought to light the problems with managing creatives. The creatives were marginally more extraverted but much less conscientious. They were all less efficient, dependable, organised, responsible and thorough. In short they were lazy and self-indulgent… but they were creative by all accounts.

However the creatives certainly were artistic, curious and imaginative. They were marked for the unconventionality, introspective and unusual thought processes. But they were also distinctly neurotic. They tended to be self-pitying with brittle ego defences; they tended to be tense and prone to depression. People noted they were anxious and touchy. They certainly are impulsive and moody. Many seem overly concerned with their levels of adequacy. It maybe that neurosis is associated with creativity in “normal” populations and psychosis in abnormal populations. Certainly if one has been around talented “arty-fartys” for any time it is not difficult to notice rather high levels of neurosis. But once again it must be emphasised that not all neurotics are creative… one does need raw talent.




Now you know why advertising agencies have account managers. These are relatively normal people who intercede between the client and the creative. Put the latter two together and you may expect sparks and a quick end to the business.

Don’t be fooled at the interview. The creative person is not the marginally flamboyant figure in coloured bow tie. The charming person with a steady history both personal and professional is unlikely to be the real creative. Real creatives are likely to be pierced and have tattoos in places you never thought possible. Further their daily intake of legal and illegal substances would also probably make you shiver.

The charming person with a steady history both personal and professional is unlikely to be the real creative.

By definition the real creative is difficult to manage. They are cold, manipulative and uncaring and they do not easily work in teams. Frequently absent they often let you down. But some are clearly worth the investment and pain… but which. All however are difficult. After all they score on both neuroticism and psychoticism. How do you manage the anti-social, ego centric and unreliable? The answer is with difficulty. But if you really care about creativity you may have to.

But as any business person knows the hard bit is not coming up with the idea: it is much more about innovation. Taking the idea to market; getting people to accept and buy it; and then introduce it to the organisation.

About the Author

Adrian Furnham is an organisational and applied psychologist, management expert and Professor of Psychology at University College London. He has written over 700 scientific papers and 57 books. In addition to his academic roles, he is a consultant on organisational behaviour and management, writer and broadcaster.




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