We revere and admire the great innovators, the people who have truly changed the world over the course of history. We often think of these people as geniuses or imagine they have some particular trait we can learn or hire for that will lead to unbridled creativity and priceless innovation. Well, the truth is, there is no single formula for innovation. It takes a lot of work, luck, and disparate events to combine in just the right way — supported by an organization-wide shared belief in innovation.

However, you can encourage the cornerstone of innovation: creativity.

A lack of creativity means you can only continue to improve the methods that are in place. This is linear thinking, which is unlikely to help you create transformations. Without creativity, you’ll have no new products or experiences to believe in and no new ideas to be potential game changers.

In order to develop experience-altering innovations, you need an environment where creativity thrives. You can cultivate this by understanding and taking advantage of the fundamental characteristics of creativity, which can be learned, implemented, and improved upon. By understanding the factors that drive creative thinking and ensuring the presence of a corporate mindset necessary to encourage creativity, you can let innovation thrive.

The relationship between intelligence and creativity

Are the great innovators and creators geniuses? Maybe. But if creating transformational innovations requires that we hire a bunch of Einsteins, we should simply give up now, because it is going to be nearly impossible to find those incredibly rare and gifted minds. However, there are ways to encourage average smart people to create innovations that can be just as transformative.

Let’s start by breaking creativity into two pieces to see if we can replicate the output of those brilliant minds. Creative potential is an individual’s ability to generate something new and novel. Creative achievement is their ability to follow through on the creative urge — to implement the innovation. Both are required for innovation; without the idea, you have nothing to implement, and without follow-through, you just have daydreams. The people we consider as great innovators likely have both abilities in spades, but we can create something similar by having multiple people with different abilities work together. This is why a pair of cofounders, each bringing a unique set of skills, can work well together and bring out the best in each other, leading to a successful company — and, in some instances, world-changing innovation.

It is imperative to match the right set of skills to the desired outcome. For instance, an individual who is a high achiever in an executional capacity (someone with high creative achievement skills) may not be successful if they are placed in a situation that requires creative potential. However, pairing this person with someone who has high creative potential may lead to better results. Unleashing creativity requires an understanding of people’s strengths, and you must staff innovation initiatives with a group of people whose skills encompass both creative potential and creative achievement.

An interesting study[i] showed a positive correlation between intelligence and creative potential. This means that a person who is more intelligent is likely to be more creative (and vice versa). This may be because creativity is a complex task that draws on the brain processes that are also related to IQ.

However, this correlation vanishes after a threshold (at an approximate IQ level of 120). After that point, how smart the person is has no clear link to their creativity. While an IQ of 120 is certainly high — considered by many experts as the cusp between high-average and superior — it is by no means near the genius-level IQs we often associate with brilliant innovators.

The study also showed that, although intelligence (up to the 120 IQ threshold) relates to creative potential, there is no evidence linking intelligence to creative achievement. This means that follow-through is possible across a wide range of intellectual ability and does not relate to intelligence at all.

In a practical setting, this suggests that, although creativity is a complex task, it can be unleashed within the normal range of intellectual prowess found within corporations. Your company likely has all the required elements to achieve any level of transformative innovation you desire, but they must be assembled effectively to cultivate creativity and exist in an environment where creativity is given the best chance of success.

The components of creativity

Every organization has its own methodology for encouraging creativity, and many of these methods are successful. However, there are some specific individual and environmental factors that drive creativity and are necessary to spur the process forward. Dr. Teresa Amabile, a long-time expert in creativity research, distilled creativity into the following four components:[ii]

  • Domain expertise
  • Personality traits conducive to creativity
  • Intrinsic motivation
  • A corporate culture that values creativity

Domain expertise

The domain you are attempting innovation in — from social networking to fabric softener — necessarily requires some level of expertise. This is why outsourcing or hiring a consultant or strategist to create your innovation often fails. To arrive at new ideas in a domain requires a core of knowledge about that domain; only a baseline of current knowledge can lead to new knowledge. Most great innovations in science, technology, art, medicine, or any other discipline are driven by people who have a strong understanding of their domain. If you don’t understand your domain, you are not likely to advance it or build the next generation of value.

Personality traits conducive to creativity

Creativity also requires a set of skills — intrinsic in certain people — that drive innovation, such as the following:

  • Independence
  • Risk taking
  • Self-discipline
  • A tolerance for ambiguity
  • An ability to view different perspectives
  • An openness to new experiences
  • An ability to synthesize information

These are traits that all innovators have in common. Many people within your company may possess these traits, but they may not be aware they have them and don’t consider themselves creative — unless they are put into an environment to create something new. Assessing these skills is essential if you are looking to reproduce and reconstitute the innovation process.

Intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic task motivation is a key component of creativity. Intrinsic motivationis the motivation to undertake a task or solve a problem because it is interesting, personally challenging, or satisfying. This contrasts with extrinsic motivation, where a task is undertaken for rewards, for evaluation, or as a requirement. As Dr. Amabile highlights, people are most creative when they feel motivated primarily by the enjoyment, satisfaction, and challenge of the work itself and their interest in it.

Monetary rewards are not a motivator of creativity. Money is an extrinsic motivator, and the promise of bonuses and rewards often makes people risk averse, inhibiting innovation.

Extrinsic motivation can undermine intrinsic motivation and should be absent if the desire is to spur creativity and drive innovation.

Corporate culture

Your corporate culture — the social environment of your organization — consists of the factors that surround the innovation activity, including intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. There are many organizational barriers preventing creativity, including criticism, organizational politics, and risk aversion.

Brainstorming doesn’t work

Now that we understand the components that enable creativity, we need to extract creative ideas from our teams so we can go out and develop market-leading breakthroughs. For most companies, an all-too-common approach is to find a few inventive people who are perceived to be smart thought leaders and high achievers and assign them to a small group to brainstorm creative ideas and potential breakthroughs. Most innovation initiatives, such as innovation sprints, involve a small group of thinkers like this assigned to develop new and creative solutions.

Although many of us can relate to this approach, it may not always help with innovation. In fact, it may impede the innovation process. The question we need to ask ourselves is how to maximize creative output. Should this be done using group brainstorming, as we have always done, or should we encourage innovation to be managed individually by the right set of people?

Group innovation

The literature and research on the subject does not support the fact that collaborative thinking (brainstorming) is superior to individual thinking in the development of higher-value creative output. Researchers at Yale University[iii] compared the productivity of brainstorming groups with individual thinking to determine the quantity and quality of creative ideas emanating from each technique. The researchers found that the number of ideas coming from the brainstorming groups was markedly fewer than those developed by individuals, both in terms of the grand total and the unique ideas produced. They concluded that people working individually are more effective at developing creative solutions than when brainstorming in a group, as group participation inhibits creative thinking. There are two primary reasons for this difference: In the brainstorming sessions, strong emphasis was placed on avoiding criticism, and more people tended to follow the same train of thought — what we call groupthink.

Since group brainstorming sessions will always be part of corporate life, it is important to understand the flaws that need to be fixed to maximize creative output. First, brainstorming sessions tend to focus on information that group participants have in common instead of bringing out unique expertise. Additionally, some participants are afraid of sharing ideas at the risk of appearing foolish. Others may coast because they don’t feel accountable. Some people may have social and cultural barriers preventing them from sharing ideas. Or they may simply be introverts who have great ideas but are unable to share them effectively in a group setting. Sometimes participants can’t express their thoughts because others monopolize the conversation. As we have all experienced, many of these brainstorming sessions are often dominated by the highest-paid people or vocal participants who most want to make their presence felt. Certainly, all of these factors create an unwelcome setting that discourages creative thinking.

Hybrid innovation

Most evidence, however, suggests that the best course of action to enhance creativity appears to be a hybrid model, where individuals are given space to do their own independent thinking, followed by an opportunity to collaborate, share developments, and refine ideas.

As Steven Johnson reports,[iv] a study at McGill University followed researchers in four different molecular biology laboratories to understand when and where breakthroughs happen. They found that most of the breakthroughs occurred during meetings where the researchers would informally share and discuss their work. Innovations did not happen when researchers worked solo in their labs; innovation and breakthroughs happened at conference tables. The group interaction helped researchers who worked independently to look at their research in a new light, and the sharing of ideas resulted in the creation of breakthroughs.

Another technique to unleash creativity is brainwriting. This technique allows for sharing of written ideas in groups and eliminates many of the flaws of brainstorming. Brainwriting often produces more and better ideas than brainstorming.[v]

Brainwriting takes away some of the negative effects of brainstorming. With this technique, individuals involved in a creative initiative write down their ideas and pass them on to colleagues for refinement or comment. The social and cultural barriers of brainstorming are reduced, and participants feel more empowered to share ideas, resulting in a more innovative set of ideas for consideration.

It’s all about the right team

Unleashing creativity is a complex function. It is dependent on the characteristics of people, their expertise in the problem they are trying to solve, their intelligence, the cultural environment, the rewards and motivation, and countless other factors (of which only a few are discussed in this paper). But creativity can thrive with the right set of people operating within the right environment. If a company’s goal is to become more innovative through the development of creative solutions, but the right people and circumstances aren’t in place, then no meaningful output can be generated.

Companies often tend to create an internal innovation unit and staff it with high performers, people who have done well in other disciplines, younger employees who haven’t yet been engulfed by the system, or workers perceived as independent thinkers. Or they reward people for doing excellent work on a project by placing them in an innovation center. This may not result in the outcomes they are hoping for. Your best bet is to identify domain experts who exhibit creative traits (including both divergent thinking — free association of ideas — and convergent thinking, which is more logical and structured) and are motivated by the task at hand (as opposed to promotion, status elevation, or other rewards). You should then provide a positive environment to support their efforts.

Adapted from The Innovation Biome, available on November 21st, 2017

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[i] Emanuel Jauk, Mathias Benedek, Beate Dunst, and Aljoscha C. Neubauer, “The Relationship between Intelligence and Creativity: New Support for the Threshold Hypothesis by Means of Empirical Breakpoint Detection,” Intelligence vol. 41 (July–August 2013): 212–221.

[ii] Teresa M. Amabile, Componential Theory of Creativity (Harvard Business School, 2012).

[iii] Donald W. Taylor, Paul C. Berry, and Clifford H. Block, “Does Group Participation When Using Brainstorming Facilitate or Inhibit Creative Thinking?” Administrative Science Quarterly vol. 3 (1958): 23–47.

[iv] Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (Riverhead Books, 2010).

[v] Paul B. Paulus and Huei-Chuan Yang, “Idea Generation in Groups: A Basis for Creativity in Organizations,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes vol. 82 (2000): 76–87.