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Four Creative Myths that Can Destroy Companies

Four Creative Myths that Can Destroy Companies

By: David Burkus, author of The Myths of Creativity (Jossey-Bass, 2013)

What causes us to be creative in one moment and void in the next? What makes someone more or less creative than his or her peers? Where do our flashes of creative insight come from, and how can we generate more of them?

In my book, The Myths of Creativity, I look at the latest research into how creative individuals and firms succeed and the creative myths that can stunt creative thinking, including the four myths that are outlined here. 

The Lone Creator Myth
What It Is:
The belief that creativity  is a solo performance and that the story of innovations can be told as the story of a single person working fervently on the new idea.

In the popular media, this myth sells. Magazines, newspapers and books are filled with stories of lone creative geniuses. These stories tend to ignore a truth behind all great innovations and creative works: those geniuses typically had teams.

How to Bust It: The most innovative companies  in the world understand the need for diversity and make sure that project teams have a rotating cast of new and old members. The teams connect, collaborate, disband and repeat. When individuals are given a chance to form teams around their diverse interests and their past experiences, the potential for creativity is unleashed.

Companies that Mastered the Myth: Continuum’s most significant innovation isn’t a new shoe or a different kind of floor mop. Instead, it’s the process the company has uncovered for creating the right project teams and continuously tweaking them to blend fresh insights and shared experiences.

The Expert Myth
What It Is:
The belief that long-standing experts are the best source of new, innovative solutions and that the best people for solving hard problems are always experts.

This myth explains lucrative consulting contracts and the exorbitant salaries of experts, despite their most productive years being long behind them. Research supports the idea that innovative new ideas most often come from people at the fringes.

How to Bust It: The most creative organizations seek to fill their rosters with a few folks from the fringes. Many do this through the hiring process, but others reach out to their customers and stakeholders for insights. The most creative people strive to become “T-shaped,” with a depth of knowledge in one field (like the vertical part of the letter “T”) and also a wide understanding of various fields (the horizontal part of the “T”). Their insights come when something on the fringes applies to their field, or something from their field can be moved to the fringes.

Companies that Mastered the Myth: Fuse Corps, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, actively partners with city and state governments to place entrepreneurs and mid-career professionals into fellowships as advisors to mayors and governors. The Fuse Corps fellows give a much needed innovation injection to governments in need.

The Cohesive Myth
What It Is:
The belief that the creative process requires total cohesion, with everyone on a project getting along, having fun, and always reaching consensus. This belief grew out of an old rule of brainstorming: suspend judgment. However, research implies that even when brainstorming, a little bit of productive conflict goes a long way toward more and better ideas.

How to Bust It: The most innovative companies cultivate productive, task-focused criticism when it comes to projects. Their people are trained to focus on providing constructive comments, but not pulling punches, and to respond positively when on the receiving end of criticism. The criticism stays focused on projects and process, but never on people.

Companies that Mastered the Myth: Animation powerhouse Pixar developed a process they call “plussing.” During film production, animators and directors invite folks from around the company to view the film in progress and offer criticisms.

Employees can shred the film apart but must always end their critique with a “plus” – a suggestion for improving the precise element they criticized. Those on the receiving end reserve the right to accept or reject the criticism. Regardless, directors still leave the room with ample ideas for improvement. 

The Mousetrap Myth
What It Is:
The belief that we’re good at spotting creative ideas and that great ideas and innovations are accepted the minute they’re presented to the outside world. We foolishly think “if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door.” The truth is that great ideas get rejected all the time. If you build a better mousetrap, the world will probably beat it down or ignore it.

How to Bust It: At the core of this myth is a hidden bias against creative ideas. We say we want innovative thinking but, for an idea to be creative, it has to be both new and useful. It turns out that we use the status quo (i.e. the old) for judging whether new ideas are useful. Thus we often can’t see the practicality of an untried idea because the frame of reference is based solely on tried ideas.

Companies that Mastered the Myth: Rhode Island-based Rite-Solutions set up an internal stock exchange for new ideas. Anyone in the company can post new ideas and all employees are given virtual currency to invest in these “stocks.” If an idea gets enough virtual investment, it becomes a real project. While this doesn’t eliminate the bias entirely, spreading the weight of decision- making out from one particular manager to multiple people increases the chances that people who aren’t as afflicted with a bias against a particular idea have the opportunity to share their input.

Author Bio:
David Burkus
is author of The Myths of Creativity ( Jossey-Bass, 2013). He is assistant professor of management at the College of Business at Oral Roberts University, where he teaches courses on creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship, and organizational behavior. He is the founder and editor of LDRLB, an online publication that shares insights from research on leadership, innovation, and strategy. David is a fellow of the Royal Society for the Arts and was named an “Expert-in-Residence” by Creative Oklahoma. He is an advisor to several start-ups, and serves as Chief Strategy Officer of Vast Learning Systems, a web-based creativity learning and assessment company.