Creativity: Innate Capability or Learnable Skill?

Photo by Andy Mangold

Photo by Andy Mangold

Bouncing from brainstorm to brainstorm as we often do in this line of work, I am constantly struck by how many people are convinced that they just don’t have the “creativity gene”. The belief that “some have it, others don’t” is pervasive. Likewise, the number of locked door, can’t-leave-until-we’ve-got-an-idea “brainstorms” is disturbing.

In truth, it makes sense. It’s common knowledge that creativity is, in essence, taught out of us once we start school – “Here’s how you do this...” And when we are put on the spot and told to exercise our creative powers on-demand, we tend to perform poorly. This “suggestion box” approach to creative thinking compels a person to suppress any creative capacity because of the mere suggestion of scrutiny by a higher-up, albeit an invisible one.

Our experience in this space has told us that, while some are in fact more prolific creative thinkers than others, everyone has the capacity to be creative if it is elicited in the right way.  The technique for doing so can be especially helpful when managing a group brainstorm, and will help everybody in the room contribute (an unfortunately rare thing).

Top 3 tips for fostering creativity:

  1. Create a safe environment – Yes, there is such a thing as a bad idea, but they get worked out of a properly run brainstorm (by group selection, a discussion topic for another day) without anyone needing to say that the idea was a dud.  So, establish some rules prohibiting bashing one another’s ideas.  Furthermore, bad ideas can stimulate new, better ideas; so ensure you don’t get rid of them too early!
  2. Provide a clear taskStart with a task that is broad enough to allow people to go in a variety of different (and unforeseen) directions.  If the problem statement suggests a desired solution, you are constraining the group’s creativity before you even begin.  Resist solving before you create new possibilities, otherwise you won’t get anywhere new.
  3. Build on each other’s ideas – If you like it or if you don’t, what is it about the idea that you do or don’t like?  Take the pieces that stuck out to you and play with them, turn them on their heads, and put them back together.  What did you end up with?  A new idea?!?  Well, look at that.

Remember, a new idea doesn’t have to be 100% new.  It can be a new twist on an old idea – new shape, new color, new industry or market… they all qualify.  So don’t sweat pure originality so much.  Borrow from each other or from things you see and experience in the world, and let creativity come and go as it pleases.  You’ll be much more creative and much happier with these pursuits.

So, what’s your take?  Is creativity learnable?  If so, how do you elicit it in yourself, or in others?