How many times have you heard it? “Tell me something I don’t know.” “Give me your best creative ideas.” “I want a concept that people will be talking about.”

It doesn’t matter if you’re inside an organization or sitting in an agency – there is a never-ending desire and need for differentiation. Whether it’s a company, product, or person, engaging and persuading stakeholders often involves thoughtful, clever marketing. The problem, though, is that creativity is both misunderstood and dropping in supply.

Although LinkedIn reported that “creative” was the most overused term in on-line profiles(Ceyhan, Simla, “Buzzwords 2011: Who’s been ‘creative’ and ‘effective’ this year?,” December 13, 2011), a survey released in 2010 by IBM of more than 1,500 CEOs from 60 countries and 33 industries emphasized that even “more than rigor, management discipline, integrity, or even vision—successfully navigating an increasing complex world will require creativity.” Creativity was cited by 60 percent of the CEOs as the most important attribute; integrity was next at 52 percent (2010 IBM Global CEO Study). With such a high premium placed on creativity, the CEOs in the survey signaled some concern because less than half of them “believe their enterprises are adequately prepared to handle a highly volatile, increasingly complex business environment.”

This may not be just a staffing problem. It may also mean that there are not enough creative thinkers to go around. Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that we may be heading for a creativity crisis. A review of nearly 300,000 creativity tests, also called Torrance scores, of children and adults collected over several decades showed that American creativity has been declining since 1990 (Attributed to Kyung-Hee Kim in P. Bronson and A. Merryman, The Creativity Crisis, Newsweek, July 19, 2010. These tests were based on the work of the late E. Paul Torrance, an educational psychologist best known for his research on creativity).

Yet, creativity is in the eye of the beholder. There’s more than one definition and more than one way that creativity can lead to a successful outcome. Still, we must ensure that our educational system emphasizes idea generation and problem-solving techniques in addition to the more traditional memorization and drills.

Recognizing the importance of creativity, some advertising and public relations agencies have elevated people into positions such as chief creative officer. You may have also seen the titles creative guru, creative ninja, or even head of creation (which may get an argument from, shall we say, a higher authority). That’s all fine but I have known a few who took their titles to mean that creativity was their personal domain and theirs alone. These individuals would go into seclusion so they could develop “the big idea.” Then, they presented their concepts as a fait accompli, like Athena bursting out of Zeus’s head fully armored and ready for battle. We want and need exceptional thinkers on our team, but they sometimes rail against process and fail to realize that there is, or should be, a team. Without good leadership from the “creative types,” the other human resources in the organization will be wasted and demoralized.

While meeting the business objective is the ultimate measure of success, it’s been known that the quest to be creative sometimes becomes the objective in itself. In the drive to knock the socks off of the client, or win an industry award, the true customer – the end-user – is forgotten. We need to spend more time orienting on the audience, reminding ourselves of the real prize. As King Arthur said when he rose to power, “I don’t think things ought to be done because you are able to do them. I think they should be done because you ought to do them” (White, T.H., The Once and Future King, p. 246).

As a fan of the Arthurian legends, I was taken aback by a comment made about his style of thinking toward the end of his life: “The old man had always been a dutiful thinker, never an inspired one” (White, T.H., The Once and Future King, p. 630). What was meant by this? Was it an insult? Was there an implication that dutiful thinking was inferior to creative thinking? The truth is we need both. A dutiful thinker is a habitual thinker, one who is always observing, searching for solutions, and attempting to anticipate the future. The creative spark is precious but dutiful thinking, steady and stepwise, is a virtue of its own. Sometimes we can get to the goal line in one play. More often, though, progress is made in important, incremental steps that ultimately add up to the win. As Merlin, Arthur’s mentor, told him, “…the only thing worth doing for the race is to increase its stock of ideas” (White, T.H., The Book of Merlyn, p. 11).

The creativity deficit could be reversed in short order if more people adopt the concept of marrying dutiful with inspired thinking. Getting ourselves and others to think a bit more and a bit more regularly is surely a lot easier than other New Year’s resolutions we’ve proclaimed and then later abandoned. It’s interesting to note, too, that habitual thinking is a form of mental exercise that, over a lifetime of consistent contemplation, changes our neurological patterns (R. E. Jung et al., “Biochemical Support for the ‘Threshold’ Theory of Creativity: A Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy Study,” Journal of Neuroscience 29:16 (2009): 5319–5325 | R. E. Jung et al., “Neuroanatomy of Creativity, Human Brain Mapping,” Journal of Neuroscience 31:3 (2010): 398–409).

More time thinking helps to remodel our brains so that we get better at thinking. If only weight loss and getting in better shape were this painless!