While creativity is highly valued in many industries and groups, the lack of understanding what creativity is, how it works, and how it can be fostered, leads frequently to expensive attempts that don’t produce significant results. Even more, there’s also a reinforcement of the “lone genius” myth: people that are celebrated as creative get hired — a mistake that rarely provides results beyond the surface, and more often it’s even harmful.
What happens when there’s an attempt to solve this with a “lone genius”? It creates a vicious circle that reduces the overall creativity of the individuals. It signals to everyone they are not creative enough, and it promotes the idea that only few people can be creative. It also removes agency from the people, as they then start relying on that “genius” to be creative, instead of feeling empowered.
Creative ideas flourish best in a shop which preserves some spirit of fun.
— Leo Burnett
The reason why freedom is the first element of creativity that gets strangled is because of rules. Rules are useful: in groups they allow effective coordination and collaboration, and help individuals to give structure to their work.
However, rules also deal very easily collateral damage in reducing independence. It’s very hard to strike a balance.
How to address this? We start by acknowledging that agency is one of the factors driving creativity. By empowering people to be able to make their own choices independently, we unlock the creative power of the individuals.
We need to create a context where our minds can be independent and free.
People will be more creative if you give them freedom to decide how to climb a particular mountain.
— Teresa Amabile (1998) How to kill creativity
This kind of freedom is the difference between following a narrow, one way street, and being in an open field with a compass. Being bound by the street means following it even if it turns and goes in an undesired direction. Following the compass instead means being able to decide — moment to moment — to go in a detour if it seem a better way to reach the desired destination.
The freedom we are referring here is not unhinged: there are still boundaries. It’s not about being free to do anything, it’s about being free to take the smartest decisions.
This article is part of the Creativity Fourteen series.
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