Understanding The Creative Process Within Organizations

Bram van der Lecq
Written by Bram van der Lecq June 27, 2018

“Our organization is very creative and innovative.” Nowadays almost every organization has a statement like this on its website or in job ads. Being creative and innovative sounds interesting—and rather mystical. But what do they mean? To be honest, most organizations that say they are innovative appear rather dull in real life.

Most of the time, people are too busy, or not stimulated, to be creative. Or, as I experienced working for a big corporate, some only use their creativity to reach targets with less effort. Even if this means the initial goal of the target is not reached, and they end up benefiting only themselves and not the organization.

My curiosity on this subject became the starting point of a research project on creativity in organizations. Something I learned quickly was the relationship between emotions and creativity. That’s why I wrote my last blog about emotions in organizations. I will now, hopefully, reveal a bit more about creativity in organizations.

Based on the scientific discourse on creativity, I’d like to start with good news. Everybody can be creative! I’ll explain this by using multiple scientific sources and examples. These all connect to one of the many layers of creativity. These are the neurological, the psychological and the sociological. The last is most relevant when looking at creativity in organizations. However, just as with emotions in organizations, some basic knowledge will definitely help your understanding.

To be honest, most organizations that say they are innovative appear rather dull in real life.
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The Neurological perspective

Fuster, a neuroscientist who specialized in the way the brain organizes and reorganizes knowledge and memories, drew from the reputable psychologist Donald Hebb’s theory (1949) to come up with two important principles for the creation of new ideas.

The first is “Cells that fire together wire together”. It would be too complicated to go into depth on how this process works, however I can give you an example of how it works. I will predict your answer to a simple question in which I theoretically have a 0.00000000001% chance of guessing the right one.

  • First an easy one; Name a mouse that stands on two feet.

Did you figure it out? If you turn your head you can read the right answer; ǝsnoɯ ʎʞɔᴉɯ

  • Now name a duck that stands on two feet.

My guess is that you chose this guy!

Did I get it right? Perhaps not every one of you chose that specific duck. However all ducks in the world walk on two feet, so even if only one of you gave this answer, I dare to say I beat the odds.

How did this work? Chances are your brain already organized a group of neurons in which all Disney figures were stored and connected. So when the Micky Mouse neuron was triggered by the first question, the neurons connected to it were triggered as well, making the Donald Duck neuron come to mind quicker.

I will predict your answer to a simple question in which I theoretically have a 0.00000000001% chance of guessing the right one.
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Why all of this is important is explained by the second principle Fuster found; No one is able to have new ideas. You are only able to make new combinations of two or more existing pieces of knowledge.

Let me explain; Think of the word ‘blue’, it might also trigger thoughts of water, sky, the blue car your parents had or one of unlimited other associations. It might even trigger you to think of the colour red, which might trigger its own associations in ways similar to those that blue did.

Now try to picture a blue tree. You probably never thought about this combination before but still your brain is able to combine these two pieces of knowledge into a ‘new’ idea—by using the neurons associated with blue and those associated with a tree, and eventually creating a new combination of the two. And if you fire that idea often enough, it will eventually wire together.

The same thing probably happened with the questions I asked you earlier, somewhere in your brain there is now possibly a new connection between “a mouse that stands on two feet” and “Micky Mouse” I told you everyone could be creative!

The psychological perspective; The stages of eureka!

We all know the feeling of having an idea that solves a problem you had for ages, and when, all out of a sudden, the answer pops up from nowhere. However this process isn’t as spontaneous as you might think. It probably took a lot of neurons to fire, reorganize and wire together before you came up with this brilliant idea.

But why exactly did this idea emerge? Nine decades ago, Wallas identified four stages in the creative process which are still used today, and which shed light on that question;

  • Preparation; During this stage one is consciously looking for data, information, and related ideas. And determining what exactly is the problem tto be solved. (Gathering more pieces of knowledge so that you can make more connections later on.)
  • Incubation; There is no conscious mental work on the problem during this stage. You can be focused on other things, or even at rest. During this, the unconscious brain is working relentlessly, forming associative trains and new combinations.
  • Illumination; All of the work done during the unconscious stage works up to this stage, and the brilliant idea emerges. If you were living in a cartoon, then there would be a giant light bulb above your head at this stage.
  • Verification: Not all insights are good ideas. During this stage the idea is evaluated, refined and developed in order to make sure it solves the problem as stated during the preparation stage.

The Sociological perspective; Creativity and organizations

Finally, we are now at the place we wanted to be—creativity in organizations. The previous perspectives on creativity all focus on the creativity of (and even within) the individual. This may lead you to believe that creativity is a product of an individual. Styhre & Sundgren gathered many definitions from social scientists such as Csikzentmihalyi and Ford to come up with a totally new perspective on creativity.

This social perspective suggested that creativity is within an organization and not just within the individuals working there. This is where it gets almost philosophical. If creativity is in an organization and not just in creative individuals, it suggests that organizations have influence on creativity.

Let me clarify; yes, organizations still need individuals for their creative insights. However these individuals don’t have to be creative by nature. Their creativity can be positively or negatively influenced by external (social) factors.

Those social factors can have influence on the process in many ways but you can think of barriers like employees who are scared to share their brilliant ideas in a general meeting, or are not allowed to share those ideas because it is not their job.

Understanding the creative process within organizations.
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Or in a positive way, sharing ideas between colleagues leads to gaining knowledge and therefore more possible combinations. This can eventually lead to a better solution to the problem.

So creativity is….?

“Rather complex and highly subjective”, would be the easy answer. However when looking at the scientific discourse it would be more reasonable to say:

Creativity is the process of creating a new idea by combining two or more existing pieces of knowledge. It is a process that takes time, undergoing constant internal and external evaluation, and is merely perceived as creative when the social context judges it as such.

In my next blog, I will delve further into how social context (like organizations) can influence the creative process. I will present the findings of my research at Buurtzorg, Decathlon, and Handelsbanken and will use information of my previous blogs to help explain how certain (social) factors influence your creativity, and that of the organization!

What duck did you think of? Did I get it right? Or do you have any feedback, personal examples or questions, please leave a reaction in the comments and I’d be happy to respond!

Written by Bram van der Lecq
Bram van der Lecq
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