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Can Creativity Be Taught? Part One: Asking the right question

It’s no secret that companies in every industry in every part of the world are scrambling to find new and better ways of doing business. Innovation has emerged as the 21st century Darwinian competitive edge for survival. It’s no longer enough for companies to work smarter or more efficiently; fierce global competition, rapidly changing technology and more demanding customers are forcing organizations to re-adapt and re-invent virtually everything they do, what they offer and how they operate.

The global economic slump only makes this need for innovation more critical, as companies are forced to do more with fewer resources, attempting to survive the string of unforeseen challenges they are facing, while preparing to take advantage of new opportunities when they eventually surface.

One of the most significant revelations companies will experience on their road to organizational transformation is that realization that while innovation is indeed the driving force in business today— behind the scenes, it’s creativity that drives it.

Once this epiphany has occurred it inevitably leads organizations to ask the simple yet paradoxical question, “Can creativity be taught?”

These two terms, “creativity” and “innovation” are often used interchangeably. However it is important to make a distinction if we are to answer these critical questions. While the various definitions of these two words could fill a volume in themselves, for our purposes we will say that creativity means simply “generating new ideas and concepts, or making connections between ideas where none previously existed.” Innovation is a more involved process, meaning “when a creative idea is transformed into a new way of doing something.” Innovation represents an incremental, evolutionary, or revolutionary change in thinking, products, services or process that generally delivers increased value.

So is it possible for ordinary individuals and teams throughout their organization to be taught how to think creatively? Can they learn how to think outside the proverbial box to solve challenges in new and unexpected ways never before imagined? Is there a “secret formula” for creative genius that can be copied, disseminated throughout the organization, and successfully applied by novices with untested creative prowess?

This question about whether or not creativity can be taught often leads to polarizing discussions. According to a recent on-line survey we conducted, 47% of respondents believed creativity can indeed be taught, 29% thought it is “somewhat” possible for people to improve their creative abilities, and 24% felt you’ve either got it, or you don’t.

Strong and diverse points of view were expressed with comments such as… “Everyone has inherent creativity, but it is often destroyed or suppressed by the education process;” “Not everyone is going to be a Picasso, Shakespeare, Vidal Sassoon or Andrew Lloyd Webber;” and “No it cannot be taught. It must be unleashed.”

When we distill the four most commonly expressed viewpoints on the subject, they are:

  • All People are innately creative; so it’s not about teaching creativity, but rather finding ways to help unleash, unlock or inspire it.
  • All people are creative, but in different ways. You can only help them improve in the areas in which they're naturally creative.
  • Some people are naturally creative; others are not. But you can teach people how to be more creative.
  • Only some people are creative, and you can't teach it. You either have it, or you don’t.

The lack of consensus on the subject is most likely attributed to the fact that even in the modern business world, creativity (and the creative process itself) is still shrouded in the myth, mystique, misunderstanding and media hype. It also doesn’t help that creativity is considered a notoriously subjective process— a process not easily qualified or quantified by standardized metrics. For all of its allure, creativity is still perceived by most as something magical or mysterious, a special innate talent possessed by a lucky few, blessed with the right DNA. Creativity must be a “gift from the gods.”

A better question to ask

Fortunately for those companies with a strong desire and commitment to develop an innovation-driven culture, there is a more productive (and less polarizing) question they can ask to gain clarity on the subject: “Can our people be taught to think more creatively?”

Consider the difference between “Can creativity be taught?” and “Can our people be taught to think more creatively?”

The beauty of reframing the original question in this new way is that it allows greater discernment in the distinction between the words creativity ( generally thought of as the innate talent or ability to create or perform original works) and creative thinking (the ability to make new connections between ideas or concepts). Perhaps not everyone possesses the natural ability to create or perform a work of art; but surely everyone possesses the ability to make new mental connections if taught effective processes and techniques for doing so.

So no matter how conventional a person’s imagination or creative sensibilities might appear, it stands to reason that in a non-judgmental, supportive environment, with the right structure, training, and proven tools and techniques to engage the mind in new and different ways, a person can be taught to solve challenges by making creative connections they haven’t imagined previously.

Every milestone in innovation begins as a new insight or creative connection in the mind. But businesses don’t need Picassos; they need more creative thinkers. And millions of them are just waiting to be shown the way.