CREATIVITY: KILLING OR CULTIVATING?

“When creativity is killed, an organization loses a potential competitive weapon: new ideas,” according to Professor Teresa Amabile (Johnson, 2011). Given the down economy and the competitive nature of the engineering consulting business and the ever-increasing demands being placed on public servants, who would kill creativity? After all, “In a world of forces that push toward the commodization of everything,” according to journalist Geoff Colvin, “creating something new and different is the only way to survive.”

Very few would intentionally kill creativity but many, acting individually or collectively, unintentionally do so. Whether intentional or unintentional, the result is the same. Creativity and all the good it represents, is dead or dying.

Benefits of Creativity

Creativity, when it thrives, yields many benefits for business, government, academic, and other entities, as shown in the following figure. 

Creativity: Killing or Cultivating?

Components of Creativity

As also illustrated in the figure, creativity results from the intersection of three components:

  • Varied expertise: This is the hard-earned, valuable, and largely-technical knowledge and skills typically present in engineering and other technically-oriented organizations whether they be private, public, or academic entities. Because of this expertise foundation, these organizations have the potential to proactively and creatively solve problems and pursue opportunities.

  • Motivation: The two motivation types are intrinsic and extrinsic, with the former being each individual’s passionate desire to make significant contributions and the later being “carrot” or “stick” external influences, originating mostly with employers.

  • Creative-thinking methods: These tools and techniques enable individuals and teams to supplement their already strong left-brain capabilities with powerful, but different right-brain capabilities resulting in a whole-brain approach to solving problems and pursuing opportunities. Creative-thinking methods seek to use all the available mental muscles.

The Employer Gathers the Cast and Sets the Stage

Back to the question of killing or cultivating creativity, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Clearly, those who lead and manage organizations influence the three creativity components. An organization’s expertise—its breadth and depth—reflects recruiting and retention philosophy, policies, and procedures. Considering motivation, the intrinsic type is a function of the kind of individuals brought into the organization while extrinsic motivation is determined largely by the organizational culture.

The availability of creative-thinking methods is determined largely by the employer because such tools and techniques are typically not included in the formal education of engineers, scientists, and similar professionals. Fortunately, many whole-brain methods are available and they can be easily taught to, learned by, and then applied by technical professionals (e.g., see Walesh 2011a, 2011b, 2011c, 2012).

Assume a business, government, academic, or other entity has assembled a great cast. Consider leadership and managerial practices that can then be used to motivate those personnel to perform brilliantly, including creatively (based in part, on Johnson, 2011).

  1. Conduct education and training to provide creative-thinking methods to personnel. Click here for a list of methods and a description of a workshop that teaches and uses them. Education and training can include many elements such as workshops, access to a library of books and articles, sharing of information about creative-innovative efforts within the organization, posting problems and opportunities on the internal website and inviting ideas, and supportive actions by organizational leaders. 

  2. Challenge individuals and teams by giving them major problems to solve or promising opportunities to exploit.

  3. Offer as much autonomy as possible concerning the means used to address the problems and opportunities.

  4. Provide adequate resources, mainly time and money.

  5. Celebrate in-process successes and tolerate set-backs.

The Cast Performs

Given the preceding three component models, the organization gathers the cast and sets the stage as a result of its recruiting and retention efforts, its supportive culture, its provision of creative-thinking methodologies, and the organization’s overall leadership and management efforts. Then the cast performs creatively to the benefit of individual performers, the organization, and those individuals and entities it serves.

Some Organizations Will Still Not Embrace Creativity

In some organizations – most likely consulting firms with their important billable time concerns – those who lead or manage may be wary of creativity initiatives. They fear that these movements will detract the troops, diminish billable time, and cause some personnel to advocate change.

Yes, when any of us learns to think differently we act differently. And, yes, there may be short-term costs. But, and this is a big “but,” the long-term return on that investment of disruption, occasional billable time hits, and change advocacy could be tremendous as suggested by the figure.

Ask yourself three questions:

  1. What tools and techniques are you heavily using today – can’t get along without them – that you didn’t know existed or that you did not need ten years ago? How about iPods, smart phones, GPSs, Googling, and iPads?

  2. How are the owners and members of those organizations “doing” today?

  3. Might there be equivalent creations in your business or agency?

Maybe you and your organization should at least experiment with a creativity initiative. Given the smart people you employ, you will never know what they might come up with! As noted by Samuel Bonasso (2007), "It is one of life's truths that you can't keep doing the same thing over and over --  behaving, functioning, and thinking in the same way -- and expect things to really change or be different."

In a Nutshell

Do the preceding to cultivate creativity in your business or government unit — then get out of the way! Great things will happen, first to your personnel; then to your clients, customers, and stakeholders; and finally to your organization. “We know where most of the creativity, the innovation, the stuff that drives productivity lies,” according to former GE Chairman, Jack Welch, “in the minds of those closest to the work.” Creativity lies within essentially all of us – we need catalysts to release it. You and your organization can be that catalyst.

Cited Sources:

Bonasso, S. G. 2007. "Inquiry, Discovery, Invention, and Innovation -- The Personal Experience of Technology Generation and Transfer in Engineering and Scientific Research," Leadership and Management in Engineering-ASCE, October 2007, pp. 141-150.

Johnson, S. (Editor) 2011. The Innovator’s Cookbook: Essentials for Inventing What Is Next, essay by Teresa M. Amabile, “How to Kill Creativity,” Riverhead Books, New York, NY.

Walesh, S. G. 2011a. “Enhancing Engineers’ Creativity and Innovation: Why and How,” 2nd Reunion Conference on Environmental Engineering, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI, August 3-5.

Walesh, S. G. 2011b. "Enhancing Engineers' Creativity and Innovation: A Whole-Brain Approach," Invited Kirlin Lecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, University of Maryland, October 12, 2011.

Walesh, S. G. 2011c, "Project Management and Creativity/Innovation," Portion of the graduate course Master of Leadership in Engineering, Civil Engineering School, Castilla LaMancha University, Ciudad Real, Spain, September 19-22, 2011.

Walesh, S.G. 2012. “Art for Engineers: Encouraging More Right-Mode Thinking,“ Leadership and Management in Engineering-ASCE, January 2012.

Closing Thoughts:

My thanks to Professor Richard McCuen, University of Maryland, for ideas on how to improve an earlier version of this page. 

If you would like to discuss any aspect of creativity/innovation, please call me at 219-242-1704 or contact me at stuwalesh@comcast.net.


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