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4 Things Leaders Get Wrong About Creativity

Design theory and branding professor Natalie Nixon says the reason we don't see more creativity in business is that most leaders don't have any idea what it is.
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Natalie Nixon is determined to bring more creativity to business. But that's an uphill battle--especially considering that most business leaders don't really know what creativity is, she says.

Nixon, the director of the strategic design MBA program at Philadelphia University, visited the Inc. offices recently to chat about creativity, strategic design--and how entrepreneurs can learn from jazz musicians. Below are edited highlights from our discussion, as Nixon explains the four things that leaders botch when it comes to creativity.

Creativity is a practice. It requires structure.

I love the modern dancer Twyla Tharp. In her book The Creative Habit, she demystifies creativity.

There actually is not a lot that's sexy or froufrou about creativity. The reason we don't see more creativity in business is that people don't really understand what creativity is.

The best way to explain creativity is that it's a chaordic system. That's a term coined by Dee Hock, the former CEO of Visa. A chaord really combines elements of chaos and order. It's a brilliant way of explaining creativity. Creativity requires structure. We need that structure so we know what we can rebound off of.

Think of jazz musicians. They know music theory, they practice religiously, they know chord progressions. They have moments in which they share in a cathartic way with other people, but there's a lot that goes on backstage that's very disciplined and requires a lot of rigor.

What do we get wrong about creativity? We think it's, "Do what you feel like," when actually, it's a practice that has to be embedded into the culture of the organization. There has to be a deliberate, distinctive choice to allow people to bring that creativity to work.

Natalie Nixon, director of the strategic design MBA program at Philadelphia University

Your people are already creative--just not at work.

What if the leadership of an organization really encouraged people to employ the creative practice that they are using in their outside of work? People might think it's unrelated, but it's not. What if we really encouraged people to share, to ask, "How do you do that?" Perhaps there are some best practices we can build on from the creative work that you do in the kitchen or that you do on weekends. Even if you think it's frilly.

If we unpack that, if we analyze what's behind getting good at baking or knitting or dance, we'll find a system behind it that can be relevant and helpful, and that can be embedded into the work.

Creativity is uncomfortable.

Jerry Hirshberg, founder of Nissan's first U.S. design studio, came up with a whole principle of creative abrasion. He found that the more interesting insights happen when you actually allow people with really diverse backgrounds, skill sets, and aptitudes to come together.

We think of friction as bad. But friction is energy. If we can channel that energy and suspend judgment, we can make progress.

Creativity isn't learned. It's uncovered.

We're a bit more hardwired to be creative than we might give ourselves credit for.

Nursery school kids are very creative. They ask a lot questions. They prototype. They're not afraid to work with one cluster of people and then move and work with another cluster of people. They embrace the creative abrasion. There's a lot in us that is attuned to creativity. Unfortunately, in our more traditional educational systems, that creativity gets drummed out of us.

Last updated: Jul 7, 2014

KIMBERLY WEISUL | Staff Writer | Inc.com Editor-at-Large

Kimberly Weisul is editor-at-large at Inc. and co-founder of One Thing New, the digital media startup that is rebooting women's content. She was previously a senior editor at BusinessWeek.




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