C-Suite Advisory

Creative Competency: Why to Make It Everyone’s Priority for Your Business

How often have you heard people mutter, “Oh, I’m not a creative type”? Perhaps you’ve thought this yourself. This is a falsehood because to be human is be hardwired to be creative. To be a phenomenal lawyer, manager, doctor, engineer, or plumber requires immense amounts of creativity. Creativity is the nonnegotiable ingredient in developing the most amazing tech app, healing the sick, and leading dynamic enterprises. Yet our educational system teaches out creativity, and our boardrooms reference it as an afterthought. No wonder so many people who are pursuing innovation fail to actually innovate.

People throw around the word innovation all the time; sometimes we end up talking around each other without getting to the real definition. What do we mean by innovation? Innovation is invention converted into financial, social, and cultural value. And the engine for innovation is creativity. That means that if we truly want to innovate, then we must design systems, processes, and experiences in our work environments that allow us to be creative. Taking the leap to build an organization-wide creative capacity is the single best way continually innovate.

Creativity is not a mystical, magical process only accessible to a few—namely, artists, musicians, actors, and novelists. But, like innovation, people struggle with understanding what exactly creativity is. I define creativity as the ability to toggle between wonder and rigor in order to solve problems and deliver novel value. Wonder is our capacity to exercise awe, pause, dream, and ask audacious blue-sky-thinking questions. Rigor is our capacity to exercise discipline and deep skills, to pay attention to detail, and to spend time on task for mastery. Both are necessary for creativity to thrive. In our age of augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and rapidly evolving technologies, a hybrid approach to creativity that incorporates wonder and analytical rigor is absolutely vital to business success.

The best way to navigate complexity is through creativity. Applying creativity simplifies complex problem-solving by juxtaposing and recombining previously unexplored ideas. Creativity leaps are the only way to solve the complex problems of our time and to innovate for the future. Since creativity itself is a complex system, the most effective tactical means to achieve creativity are the open-ended creative techniques of inquiry, improvisation, and intuition.

Inquiry is rooted in curiosity, which results from an information gap. You want to know more about something that you currently don’t understand. Inquiry is the practice of honing your ability to frame and reframe questions, to use questions as a way of thinking through and processing. Inquiry is the root of wisdom and the precursor to empathy.

Improvisation is about building on ideas with minimal constraints. There is freedom to experiment, but there are also rules and fluid structures that help you to correct course and embrace mistakes. It is a deeply observant and adaptive process. Examples of great improvisation show up in jazz, rap, comedy, sales pitches, and scientific experimentation.

Intuition is the universal visceral, internal wisdom that allows for unconscious pattern recognition and insights for decision-making. Harriet Tubman, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs are examples of famous innovators and leaders who relied on and valued their intuition, coupling it with their rational intellect to make decisions.

So, how can you stress the importance of creativity as a core competency throughout your organization and encourage everyone—yourself included—to invest in becoming more creative? Here are a few practices and tactics to get you started:

Seek out opportunities for lateral thinking. Lateral thinking is the ability to learn from sectors and practices both adjacent to you and far away from the way you typically do business. For example, if you are a tech firm, you might explore theatrical productions to learn about project management. Lateral thinking opens possibilities for new landmarks and new benchmarks, while expanding your awareness of trends outside your industry that you should be paying attention to.

Welcome inquiry and build trust by leading with questions. To admit that you do not know something requires humility, self-awareness, and—in these times—courage. When you put yourself out there to reveal that you have a question or an uncertainty, the environment must be primed for trust. When a leader asks questions, employees feel the courage to share not only what is on their mind, but also what’s in their imagination.

Get comfortable with working together through chaos. Collaboration doesn’t come from a bunch of meetings. True collaboration and creative synergy come through our ability to improvise with one another—especially when work is messy or messed up. By openly stating and owning whatever is going wrong, team members will build their capacity to adapt, learn, grow, and respect each other’s ideas.

Dare to listen to your gut—and heart. In business, it often takes courage to stand up for your intuition in the face of data and rationale. But in a world of ambiguity and uncertainty, where wicked problems are everywhere, trusting your intuition is necessary. In fact, intuition is often how you make the leap from observation to plausible explanation. As internal a process as it is, intuition consistently requires us to pay deep attention to the world around us. Be brave and welcome your employees to join you in bridging gaps by having conversations across disciplines and boundaries.


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Natalie Nixon
Natalie Nixon is president of Figure 8 Thinking, a consulting firm that emboldens organizations to apply creativity for transformative business results. A global speaker and regular contributor to Inc. on creativity and the future of work, she is also the editor of Strategic Design Thinking: Innovation in Products, Services, Experiences, and Beyond. She holds a PhD in Design Management from the University of Westminster in London and a BA in Anthropology and Africana Studies from Vassar College, and lives in her hometown of Philadelphia. Her new book is The Creativity Leap: Unleash Curiosity, Improvisation, and Intuition at Work (Berrett-Koehler; June 2020). Natalie Nixon is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow her on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.