Maria Konnikova, in her Scientific American article Why Are We So Afraid of Creativity? asks:

Don’t we live in a society that thrives on the idea of innovation and creative thought? The age of the entrepreneur, of the man of ideas, of Steve Jobs and the think different motto? We may say we value creativity, but in our heart of hearts, imagination can scare us.

Fear Favors The Devil You Know

The paradox of organizations, institutions, and individual decision makers  is that, while they state that creativity is an important goal, they often reject creative ideas. A 1995 Creativity Research study found that, while creativity is held as an important goal of education, teachers dislike students who show curiosity and creative thought.

Because we dislike uncertainty, we work hard to reduce it, often by making habitual, practical choices that protect the status quo. Imagination introduces risk in the form of untested “counterfactuals,” a recombination of elements in new ways that are frightening and potentially embarrassing, since there’s no guarantee of success.

Measuring Fear of Creativity

New research suggests that we may hold an unconscious bias against creative ideas. You may have read about the Implicit Association Test (IAT) in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink. It identifies discrepancies between consciously held beliefs and unconscious biases, testing for implicit bias toward any number of groups  by looking at reaction times for associations between positive and negative attributes and pictures of group representatives. The speed of categorization in each of these circumstances determines your implicit bias. To take the racial example, if you are faster to categorize when “European American” and “good” share a key and “African American” and “bad” share a key, it is taken as evidence of an implicit race bias.

While the IAT has shown a prevalence of unconscious biases in areas such as race, gender, sexual orientation, age, mental disease, and disability, it has now been expanded to creativity. In a series of studies, participants had to complete the same good-bad category pairing  with two words that expressed an attitude that was either practical (such as  functionalconstructive, or useful) or creative (novel, inventive, original). The result: even those people who had explicitly ranked creativity as high on their list of positive attributes showed an implicit bias against it relative to practicality under conditions of uncertainty.

They also rated an idea that had been pre-tested as creative as less creative than their more certain counterparts – exhibiting a failure to see creativity for what it was when directly faced with it.

The implications for business are clear. The implicit bias against creativity can cause a culture of fear to overtake an environment in which groundbreaking ideas are fostered. As Albert Einstein put it, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

Research by Beerman and colleagues published in the Journal of Positive Psychology suggests that curiosity is one of five strengths closely related to life satisfaction. The other four are gratitude, optimism, zest and the ability to love and be loved.  So how might one go about developing this strength?

The Harvard School of Creativity

The study of creativity at business schools is a relatively new phenomenon, dating back to the 1980s.  A Harvard Business School article by Julia Hanna called Getting Down to the Business of Creativity highlights the work of three professors in Harvard Business School’s Entrepreneurial Management unit who focus on the study of creativity. They agree that the romantic notion of creativity as a rare quality bestowed on a chosen few, has been debunked, and they show that it can be fostered organizationally.

“Creativity does have a reputation for being magical,” says Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile. “One myth is that it’s associated with the particular personality or genius of a person—and in fact, creativity does depend to some extent on the intelligence, expertise, talent, and experience of an individual. But it also depends on creative thinking as a skill that involves qualities such as the propensity to take risks and to turn a problem on its head to get a new perspective. That can be learned.”

Diversity: In her course Managing for Creativity, Amabile divides students into brainstorming groups to work on a problem. The groups are assembled to create maximum diversity in cultures, disciplines, and backgrounds—the intersection where creativity is most likely to occur, according to The Medici Effect, a book by Frans Johansson.

Motivation: Another driver of creativity is motivation.  “The desire to do something because you find it deeply satisfying and personally challenging inspires the highest levels of creativity, whether it’s in the arts, sciences, or business,” she says.  Amabile conducted a three-year study of 238 professionals from seven companies in the high-tech, consumer products, and chemicals industries. They asked the subjects who were working on projects requiring creative effort to fill out a daily electronic diary form that required numerical answers to questions about their work that day, as well as their emotions, motivation, and work environment. They were also asked to describe what they’d done that day and to include a brief description of one event at work that stood out in their minds.

Positive emotion: Amabile found that ‘inner work life’ directly influences creativity and other aspects of performance.” This reinforces previous laboratory studies that have demonstrated the causal relationship between emotion and creativity. Positive emotion is tied to higher creativity and negative feelings linked to lower motivation and creativity.  The diary findings also showed a positive carry-over effect in creativity and productivity one day and even two days after a worker reported being in a good mood.

How to Promote a Culture of Creativity

So what can managers and entrepreneurs do to promote a healthy, positive inner work life among employees? What Amabile and Kramer discovered was that people have their best days and do their best work when they are allowed to make progress. “Big breakthroughs are great, but we found that even incremental progress evokes a powerfully positive inner work life.”

Be in tune with your employees’ “inner work lives: Her research suggests that most managers are not in tune with the inner work lives of their employees; nor do they appreciate how pervasive the effects of inner work life can be on performance.” Fostering a positive inner work life  can be as easy as this:

  • Support employees’ progress in their work every day.
  • Set clear and meaningful goals for them.
  • Provide direct help, versus hindrance.
  • Offer adequate resources and time.
  • Respond to successes and failures by drawing on the experience as a learning opportunity, not just a moment to praise or reprimand.
  • Establish a culture where people are treated with respect.

Innovative Ventures Pay Off Big

Best Practice # 1: Changing the consumer mind set – In her new course, Leading Innovative Ventures, Harvard Business School professor Mary Tripsas introduces conceptual models to help students launch and creatively manage new businesses, stand-alone or within an established organization.

She notes that a truly novel product or service has repercussions beyond the narrowly defined product space. Suppliers, complementary producers, distribution channels, and consumers must often develop new capabilities, beliefs, and behaviors for the product to succeed.

The difficulties faced by a new company introducing innovation within an established industry are illustrated by  a company called Montague, which developed a folding bicycle with the look and feel of a traditional bike. The impediment was that most people conjure up an image of a small-wheeled, oddly shaped vehicle that they wouldn’t categorize as a ‘real’ bicycle.

Harry Montague, an avid cyclist, wanted a real bicycle that would fold—something to use for serious cycling that was sturdier than available folding models. He designed and built a prototype and discovered that others wanted to buy one.” His son David became interested in commercializing the innovation, and they cofounded the company in 1987. Today, Montague is the world’s leading producer of full-sized folding bicycles, and its products have proven durable enough to be air-dropped for use by paratroopers in the U.S. military.

 Best Practice # 2: Responding to changing market conditions – The ability to respond quickly to changing market conditions demands high levels of creativity. In Fujifilm: A Second Foundation, a case coauthored with Harvard Business School associate professor Giovanni Gavetti and Yaichi Aoshima of Hitotsubashi University, Tripsas presents the dilemma Fujifilm faced as its core film business vanished in age of digital technology.

Instead of focusing only on digital imaging, the obvious substitute for analog photography, Fuji branched out into new markets that exploit its specialty chemical expertise. The challenges to screen and prioritize the multitude of possible new applications, and to shift the mindset of an organization that has long held the identity of an ‘imaging’ company.

President and CEO Shigetaka Komori  restructured of the company in 2006. It meant letting go 5,000 employees and managing the transition to a more diversified product line based on the company’s proprietary technologies.

One application is the manufacture of protective film for flat panel displays from cellulose triacetate, the same material that is coated with chemicals to make analog film. Sales of materials for flat panel displays were $1.2 billion in 2006, with the market expected to double in size by 2009.

The company is also expanding into cosmetics and dietary supplements as the technology that prevents film from fading is also effective in skin care.

To implement the strategy, Fuji established a centralized R&D lab, increased its mergers and acquisitions of companies that had synergies with the company’s businesses, and formed a small venture capital fund for exploratory investments.

Komori also initiated a reorganization that created six new divisions within the company while simultaneously streamlining management and infrastructure at the corporate level. He held numerous meetings and discussions with small groups of middle managers about Fuji’s future direction, and asked each of the company’s top 1,000 employees to write a two-page memo identifying the opportunities and challenges for Fuji’s growth.

Tripsas says: “As a manager, you need to create a culture that will convince people to kick off the filters they’re used to applying and to think more broadly. “Ironically, while the emphasis in these types of transitions is frequently on developing the capabilities needed to attack new markets, it is the shift in the mindset of employees that can prove most difficult.”

Snap Principle of Fostering Creativity:

Be in tune with your employees’ “inner work lives. Promote a culture that embraces diversity, motivation, positive emotion and meaningful communication.