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Cultivating Creativity for Competitive Advantage

There was the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. Now, supposedly, we’re in the Information Age. In reality, every age is ultimately about ideas. There would have been no progression from stone to bronze to iron without them. And the secret to success in any age is to get your work force to generate fresh ideas. The path to creativity isn’t obvious, however. In fact, it’s counterintuitive, say behavioral scientists.

For example, while information can spark innovation, being constantly bombarded with information, as is typical in modern business environments, tends to reduce creativity, according to Harvard Business Review contributing editor Paul Hemp.

Moreover, people who think they successfully process competing streams of information are deluding themselves, according to the results of a study conducted by Clifford Nass of Stanford University. Discussing the study on American University’s radio program Tech Tuesday, Nass explained that in three tests of memory, focus, and task juggling, self-identified multitaskers scored far worse than the control group.

“High multitaskers are perhaps what we call explorers rather than exploiters,” said Nass. “They get a kick out of getting more information in, rather than using the information they have.”

While information overload is bad for creativity, so is information deprivation. That may seem obvious, yet businesses often expect ideas to come from executives who lack firsthand information because they are several steps removed from the front lines, or they outsource aspects of the business and still expect ideas to come from the workers no longer carrying out those processes or services. Harvard Business School Professor Gary Pissano put it this way in a recent Harvard Business IdeaCast podcast: “Your ability to innovate the product depends on your ability to innovate the process,” but you need to work with the process for that to occur.

Similarly, to be a market leader, you can’t just ask customers what they want, says Robert Verganti, author of Design Driven Innovation. Doing so may yield incremental improvements, but game-changing innovation can only come from visionary insiders, he says. Customer feedback never yields an iPhone or Nintendo Wii, both of which revolutionized their sectors, he says.

Another important finding of behavioral studies is that nonfinancial rewards work better than monetary ones for creative tasks. Greater autonomy is an example of a nonfinancial reward, explained business writer Dan Pink in a presentation sponsored by the nonprofit group TED. An example is how companies like Google let employees spend time on their own projects, rather than just assignments, yielding ideas such as Gmail. 

Lastly, Professor Marten Scheffer, in his book Critical Transitions in Nature and Society, notes the importance of diversity and conflict in creative problem solving. Experiments have shown that groups with “devil’s advocates” consistently outperform groups of like-minded members. Yet, Scheffer writes, given the chance, “all groups who had devil’s advocates chose to eliminate them, hence eliminating their competitive advantage.”