Research shows that there is a difference between people who are creative and people who aren’t. However, the good news is that creativity is something that can be learned and improved on. All you need is a little awareness of key ingredients necessary to develop processes, habits and a culture that fosters creativity.

We know creativity when we see it. Or do we?

Let’s start, not with a definition of creativity, but with different examples of what we associate, or more specifically don’t typically associate, with it.

Let’s consider for example Milliken, a textile manufacturer, that has an employee idea program that generates hundreds of ideas per employee. In their Denmark facility, these ideas translated into looms that operate at two to three times the speed they were designed to operate and produce weaves the manufacturer once believed were impossible with their loom.

Here’s another example that will stretch what we typically associate with creativity even further. Steve Prefontaine, was an American middle and long-distance runner that finished 4th at the Olympic 5,000 meter race in ‘72. 4th may not sound super remarkable, but the way Steve ran that race and Steve’s style of running every time he raced inspired several movies and many runners for decades to come.

Steve Prefontaine #1005 of the United States leads Lasse Viren of Finland #228 and Emiel Puttemans of Belgium #61 during the Men's 5,000 metres event at the XX Summer Olympic Games on 10 September 1972 at the Olympic Stadium in Munich, Germany.(Photo by Tony Duffy/Getty Images)
Steve Prefontaine #1005 of the United States leads Lasse Viren of Finland #228 and Emiel Puttemans of Belgium #61 during the Men’s 5,000 metres event at the XX Summer Olympic Games on 10 September 1972 at the Olympic Stadium in Munich, Germany.(Photo by Tony Duffy/Getty Images)

To understand why he was so inspirational, you need to understand a little bit about the 5,000 meter race. It’s a hugely tactical race. The runner that leads too early almost never wins. Most often it comes down to the runner who still has a strong kick at the end of the race. Steve did not have a strong kick. Steve was what the running community calls a “front runner”. He would take the lead early and hope to cause enough suffering that no one had a kick left at the end. At the elite level, everyone knows each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Everyone knew what Steve was going to do. And yet he executed his plan with such meticulous attention to detail and so much guts and hard work, that not only did he often win (during his career, Prefontaine won 120 of the 153 races he ran), but he inspired everyone who watched and many generations afterwards. It was this attention to every detail applied over years of preparation that was a work of art. Leveraging his craft to make something special with each race.

“Some people create with words, or with music, or with a brush and paints. I like to make something beautiful when I run. I like to make people stop and say, ‘I’ve never seen anyone run like that before.’ It’s more than just a race, it’s style. It’s doing something better than everyone else. It’s being creative.” ~ Steve Prefontaine

I like these two examples of creativity because I think it more closely reflects what most of us do in our professional careers. For many of us, art and creativity is in how we accomplish our goals – not in producing a beautiful piece of architecture or a breakthrough physics theory. In the professional world, it’s often the details that matter and applying your craft to identifying and solving problems.

Most Important: Problem Finding vs. Problem Solving

With respect to creativity, some of the best research comes from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

One of his first studies involved grade four students that were given four minutes to write a paragraph based on an image of a man sitting in an airplane seat as a starting point.


What they found was that they could roughly bucket the writers into two camps. Those that focused on the stimulus (picture of a man sitting in an airplane) and those that viewed the stimulus as a starting point, but felt much less constrained by it. Here’s an example from each camp.

Example 1: Mr. Smith is on his way home from a successful business trip. He is very happy and he is thinking about his wonderful family and how glad he will be to see them again. He can picture it, about an hour from now, his plane landing at the airport and Mrs. Smith and their three children all there welcoming him home again.

Example 2: This man is flying back from Reno where he has won a divorce from his wife. He couldn’t stand to live with her anymore, he told the judge, because she wore so much cold cream on her face at night that her head would skid across the pillow. He’s now contemplating a new skid-proof face cream.

The second camp introduced new themes, had unexpected endings, and were funny or playful in some way. The first camp focused on the given problem – writing a paragraph about a man sitting in an airplane. The second camp seemed to introduce other problems to solve in the task. Perhaps, “How do I make this funny or surprising or entertaining?”. For Mihaly, this was the beginning of researching problem finding vs. problem solving. And it turns out it’s incredibly important to the creative process.

Mihaly ran a different experiment at the Art Institute of Chicago related to this. In this case, artists were given an hour to make a composition with a set of objects and paint it. At the end of the study, judges evaluated their work for creativity. Again, there were two camps. With the first, they quickly settled on a composition and within 10-15 minutes, judges could ascertain what the finished painting would look like. The other camp spent much longer working on the composition and sometimes it would be 45-50 min into painting before you could determine what the painting would look like. The first camps paintings were beautiful and were described as maybe applying more “craft”. The second camps paintings were also beautiful and were described as being more creative and more surprising. The second camp spent much more time contemplating alternative approaches and potential “problems” they could solve with the task before proceeding. This camp was classified as “Problem Finders”, and they share the following characteristics:

  • Increased willingness to switch direction when new approaches suggested themselves
  • They were open to reformulating problems as they experimented with different perspectives
  • They were slow to judge their work as absolutely finished
  • They were able to evaluate critically the probability that improvements were achievable

Artists who rated high in these areas were judged to be exceptionally creative, and follow-up studies of their work eighteen years later demonstrated that they achieved a higher degree of professional success than their less creative colleagues. Another study, this one of artists and scientists, compared those who were critically acclaimed with others who were professionally merely competent. This study found that the former spent more time and energy on problem finding.

Another study (this one isn’t Mihaly) focused on creativity and free-association. In this case, subjects were shown a card that was blue and asked what word was the first thing that came to their mind. The most common answers were along the lines of ocean, water, sky, or naming another color. Those were the typical answers. Less typical answers, like Jazz, come up far less frequently.

Interestingly, you can increase the likelihood of coming up with something different with one little trick. And that’s exposing yourself to something that isn’t congruent or what you’d expect just before starting the exercise.

What researchers did in this instance was pair up the subject with an accomplice to the study. They both were given a question with a simple obvious right answer. However, the accomplice would answer the question quite emphatically incorrectly. This simple act increased the likelihood that the subject would come up with a more creative association when shown a card with the color blue. This moment of being shaken out of what would be a normal sequence of expected events makes us slow down and consider the problem or statement more deeply. This is called disfluency.

Manufacturing Creativity

Problem finding is critical to coming up with good ideas. Spend more time coming up with the problem you’re trying to solve and all the context associated with it than you do on coming up with the solution. The solution will follow easily if you spend more time on this step.

The next step is to give yourself and others time to think about the problem (or coming up with new problems) and solution alone. This is important. Brainstorming research has shown that when you try to come up with ideas as a group – you get less ideas and less creative ideas. This is because:

  • We anchor. We get stuck on the first idea that gets blurted out;
  • It’s easier to get stuck in confirmation bias;
  • Extroverts dominate and introverts (who tend to be creative get shut out);
  • We defer to HIPPO; etc.

Don’t come up with ideas in a traditional brainstorming session. This step comes later. First, let people come up with ideas on their own and have a way for capturing those ideas.

Once you’ve done that, then it’s time to share. Now you can brainstorm and show the ideas and group them into themes and discuss and debate them. This is another myth about brainstorming: that you should withhold criticism and debate. Constraint and criticism actually fuels further creativity. “Oh, so that won’t work, but what if we did this instead?”. This is the dialogue that can help combine ideas, build on them, and improve them.

After you’ve done this, you may have new insights into the problem. Add this context and give people time to once again digest this and work on their own. Then come back together.

Basic Creativity Process

This is the process that leads to creative solutions that produces good results.

Friends & Enemies of Creativity

Finally, be mindful of these different elements when it comes to creativity. To the extent that you can create and environment or culture that includes more friends than enemies, you’ll do more to help foster creativity within your work, team and organization.