Whatever you call it--creativity, innovation, or creative problem-solving--being able to test assumptions, see alternatives, and come up with unique solutions to life's challenges is a key to success, and perhaps even happiness.

But is creativity something you must be born with, or can it be developed? And can anything be done to hard-wire creativity into our kids, employees, companies, communities, and ourselves?

Research says the answer is yes.

A joint study conducted by Northwestern University in the United States and INSEAD in France took 108 people and paired them up into teams of two.  Each of the 54 teams was asked to negotiate the sale of a fictitious gas station.  In each team, one person played the role of the buyer and one was the seller.  Prior to the experiment, the researchers told the buyers that they needed to purchase the gas station from their partner, but that they could only spend up to a specific amount, and no more.  Sellers were told they needed to sell their gas station but they couldn't accept anything lower than a specified amount

The buyers and sellers remained unaware that they were set-up--the maximum purchase price given to the buyers was less than the lowest amount the sellers were told they could accept.  Therefore, because the sale price was the single and only issue presented to the teams for negotiation, there was a huge barrier inherent in the scenario that could quickly produce a stalemate.

But the researchers also provided a potential way out.  They gave people some additional information to create the possibility that the pairs might find some shared interests during their negotiation.  The buyers, for example, were told in advance that they would need to hire managers to run their stations once they purchased them.  And the sellers were told that they needed to acquire enough money for two-year sailboat trips, while also needing to ensure employment upon returning from these extended vacations.  No one was told to use this information; participants thought it was simply additional context.

The research found that the people who had lived abroad in another country and culture the longest had the most successful negotiations--they reached deals where shared interests were included in the solutions. For example, sellers provided discounts below their assumed price limits in exchange for guarantees that they would receive jobs at the gas stations after returning from their sailing trips--which also satisfied the buyers' needs for managers to run those stations.

Cross-cultural advantage

So why are people who have straddled two different cultures in their lives more creative?

One simple way to better understand what's going on is by taking a look at something most all of us know about: table manners.  If you're from Japan, for example, you know that making a slurping noise when drinking soup directly out of a bowl is perfectly acceptable, whereas in the U.S. that would be considered pretty rude.  If you're from Russia, you know it's polite to leave a little food on your plate at the end of the meal to signify that your host's hospitality was abundant and plentiful; in the U.S., it's generally considered impolite not to finish what's on your plate.  In India, people generally eat food using their right hands (because historically they do their "business" with their left), whereas in most other countries it doesn't matter what hand you use. 

These are just small examples of various cultural differences that become second nature based on where we've lived.  And the list could go on regarding the various meanings and appropriateness of behavior for everything from public displays of affection, to how you greet business colleagues, to how you shop.

The research study I just shared is detailed in my first book, Leapfrogging, which I wrote while spending a year living in Paris. I experienced the challenges and benefits of cross-culture living first hand, including plopping my two daughters into French public school when they didn't speak a word of French. They weren't exactly happy about it at the time, but they thank me for the life-changing experience today.

The 1 thing that really makes a difference

My conclusion from this research and my own anecdotal year abroad is this:  People who have spent extended periods of time within different cultures are usually forced to reconcile conflicting values, norms, and behaviors.  Their experience, in turn, leads them to be more flexible in their thinking, helps them make associations and connections between things that most others don't see, and gives them a natural aptitude for looking at the underlying reasons for why things work the way they do.

When we've lived in another culture, the notions of "the right way" versus "the wrong way" begin to break down. We can gain acceptance of other people and perspectives that are different from our own. We see connections and patterns that we would never have seen otherwise.  Our underlying mindsets shift in how we think about and approach problems and opportunities. In short, we lose rigidity. We grow more mentally limber. We become wired to find solutions that others might never imagine.

Lessons without borders

In today's world rife with fierce debates about globalization, nationalism, prejudice, and profiling, we need creative problem solving more than ever before.  While not everyone can move themselves or their families abroad, anyone can take advantage of the lessons from this research, whether you're a parent, employer, teacher, or just want to boost your personal capacity for creativity. 

Anyone can try out new things, which is exactly what builds creative muscle memory. Eat in a new ethnic restaurant. Travel locally. Learn another language. Spend an afternoon in a new neighborhood. Read a book, see a movie, or listen to music from a different country or culture.

Above all, continually strive to bring the unfamiliar into your familiar world to understand and appreciate other people. Increasing your aptitude for creative problem solving in this way just might make your own world - and everyone else's - a better place.

What do you do to experience and embrace the unfamiliar?  What impact does it have? Click "Write a Comment" and share you own ideas and experience.