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A handbook (and an interview) on creativity


Globalization and the rapid pace of technological change have made creativity and innovation important factors of success for many companies. But how can a company become more creative? What can leaders do? And how do you lead creative teams? The new Handbook of Research on Leadership and Creativity, edited by Sven Hemlin of GRI, and Michael D. Mumford, Professor at the University of Oklahoma, USA, collects the cutting edge science in the field. In this interview, Sven Hemlin, talks about what creativity really is and how we all can learn to become more creative.

For two decades, Sven Hemlin, has explored the world of creativity and innovation. In several books, including the new Handbook of Research on Leadership and Creativity, he describes how different environments in workplaces either hinders or facilitates creativity.

First, what is creativity?

- It is a result of a process that has brought about something new and useful. Useful is a key word here. This is the established definition in research, but of course, there are many others.

Useful as in a new product? Is it defined in economic terms then?

- No, not necessarily, but often it is understood as, for example, a new drug for cancer. But a piece of novel music can be described as useful if it brings enjoyment to listeners. And a piece of art that is appreciated can also be described as useful.

The economy constantly puts pressure on companies to develop new products and novel technical solutions
In recent years the word creativity has gained importance in public debate. It almost feels as though creativity is the most highly valued skill these days. Why?

- This is partly due to the rapid pace of technological change. This creates preconditions for increased communication and greater access to knowledge, and this benefits creativity. Technology also creates opportunities that weren't there before. For example, these days, everybody can have their own music recording studio in their home. Then there is globalization and the fact that people travel more today. More interpersonal relations, communication between people and the sharing of knowledge and ideas contributes to creativity. Another factor is the economy that constantly puts pressure on companies to develop new products and novel technical solutions. In the past two decades, innovation, has become a keyword for almost all companies. In Sweden, for example, a government agency, Vinnova, was set up to support innovation in firms.

So innovation has really become more important?

- Yes, and this is true for the public sector as well.

What is the difference between creativity and innovation?

- The creative result is just the first part of an innovation process. In order to have an innovation, the creative result must be turned into a product that can be sold on a market. Creativity is necessary for innovation, but it is not enough.

You have studied how outside factors hinders of facilitates creativity in groups, mainly groups of researchers. So what are important factors for groups to become creative and innovative?

- One important part is the psycho-social climate in the group. It is about making the members of the group feel enjoyment, and safe to express all kinds of opinions. And there should be mutual respect. But there must also be a certain tension in the group. There should be a trading of different opinions - not conformity of ideas. There is something called the principle of heterogeneity that says that there should be functional differences in knowledge. A group where everybody thinks alike, is not a creative group.

So it is differences in knowledge we are talking about?

- Right! Other differences such as gender and ethnicity do not matter, even though it might be nice on a personal level that not everybody is alike. But for innovations, it is the knowledge that matters. So the leader that composes the group really has a big responsibility to make sure there are these functional differences in knowledge. Also, the leader must have expertise in at least one of the areas of work. Creativity is a cognitive activity and the leader must be able to give intellectual support, but also emotional. Simple rewards, such as making sure there are coffee and snacks, and to regularly give praise and recognition to achievements have proven to be essential for fostering creativity. And the recognition should be directed to individuals, not to whole groups.

One important factor for creativity is extensive knowledge, and this is something you can influence yourself

What factors are damaging to creativity?

- A highly corrective climate where no one dares to take risks, groups where there are serious personal conflicts and a leadership that does not care about the working climate - these are things that hinder creative output.

So this is the case for groups. What about individuals - can one learn to be more creative or is creativity innate and unchangeable?

- It is absolutely possible to become more creative. One important factor for creativity is extensive knowledge, and this is something you can influence yourself. Extensive knowledge means both a deep and wide scope of knowledge. If you see creativity as a cognitive problem-solving skill, extensive knowledge allows you to make more connections. And in this sense information technology is important since it gives access to much knowledge. I don't know for sure about artists, but if you look at for example Picasso or van Gogh, they had extensive knowledge and formal training. For example, Picasso, was an exceptional sketch artist. Extensive knowledge allows you to go beyond the knowledge and create something new.

What about motivation?

- Sure, creativity comes easier for someone with high inner motivation such as interest and passion. For some time there was this idea that if you gave creative researchers more money and awards and other such outer motivations, they would become less creative since they would only work for the money, not for the passion. But this has proven to be wrong. More money can actually make someone a little more creative.

But can higher pay create inner motivation?

- No, inner motivation must exist first. Then money can be used to add a little creativity.

Can you increase inner motivation?

- Hard question. If there is no interest or passion, to begin with, it seems hard. Some inner interest is probably necessary. On the other hand, one must sometimes overcome some inner resistance to discover passion. For example, a child might think she doesn't like hockey or chess. But once she tries it she might discover that it is actually fun.

Further reading

More information on Handbook of Research on Leadership and Creativity

More information about Sven Hemlin