In his landmark “talk” at the TED Global conference in 2009, the social commentator and business analyst Dan Pink categorically remarked, “there is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.” Modern creative businesses engage in a number of strategies to achieve their creative results. In fact, when examining just three articles by some highly- respected publications in the business world, one comes across twenty-nine separate individual practices with suggestions as far-ranging (and sometimes contradictory) as, “do not compel creativity” and “compare yourself to the best” (Cashman; Hanekorn; Inc. Staff). Here the authors offer insight from a wide range of creative leaders from food products such as General Mills, the publishing house Berrett-Koehler, and talent-hunters like Sandoz. Businesses such as these employ time-honored, traditional, extrinsic motivators, typically in the form of performance bonuses and values propositions. The environments these businesses operate within vary greatly in range from standard (familiar) hierarchical models to more heterarchical models such as “Open Innovation” (OI) (Popa, Soto-Acosta and Martinez-Conesa 135).
In this work, I will argue that it is not only the case that these businesses are engaging inconsistent models but that there is a way to scientifically improve the creative process as it relates to new product design. The paper will address this process by first identifying three critical claims that support this argument. First, I will argue that creativity is a definable set of specific brain processes. This will revolve around a selection of studies from the fields of neuroscience and psychology that prove there are patterns in the noise identified in functional magnetic resonance imaging machines (fMRIs). Second, I contend that certain work environments are demonstrably more creatively effective than others. Finally, I will show that there are specific leadership methods that improve creative output. These final two claims will be examined both observationally via field studies and ethnographic analyses, and experimentally with lab studies designed to explore specific effects of specific environments. Finally, I plan to make an effective case for an environment that rewards, trains, and values the people responsible for design with the hope that it will yield more innovative results than those that engage in none, or only some small combination of the three.
In order for any objective recommendation to occur, it must first be established that creativity is not an “intangible skill” but rather something highly specific that can be maximized. If it is to be claimed to be maximizing a quantity, it must be qualified as quantitative in the first place. For this argument to hold, there must be some semblance of evidence for a structured, repeatable pattern in brain activity when engaged in specific creative exercises. Early research in the field suggested this not to be the case, but only in the sense that “creative thinking does not appear to critically depend on any single mental process or brain region” (Dietrich 822). In this meta-analysis of a number of neuroimaging studies, Dietrich and Kanso determined that if creativity were definable, it is certainly more complex than a mere “location” within the various cortices and thought centers within the brain. If anything, it likely relied upon the interplay between different areas of the brain.
In a follow-up to this study, Beaty et al. sought to run yet another meta-analysis of a series of studies to follow up on this important question. Here, the outlines of clear shapes began to take form. Namely, they noted that it is wrong to consider individual positions within our brains as homes of thought but rather that the interaction between various networks within the brain was a better model for understanding the phenomenon of creativity. They note that the work since the 2010 Dietrich study “suggests that creative thought involves cooperation of the default and control networks” and that this is an interesting distinction as the researchers also point out that these two networks “may also show less cooperation in some situations” (Beaty et al. 94). The underlying roadmap to creativity is not entirely clear, though as many scientists and philosophers have noted over the years, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Quite the contrary, the pieces seem to point to something structured and potentially enormously complex. Whether it is so complex to be beyond the realm of human understanding is for future researchers to unpack.
One interesting line of reasoning was taken up in a recent study by a team of researchers in China who were looking to identify whether different brain morphologies tended toward any specific behavioral changes. To keep the study as controlled as possible, the researchers focused on middle children. A minor point of confusion here centers around China’s “one-child policy,” legislation that is primarily designed for the Han ethnic majority and has outright exemptions for several ethnic minorities (Moore). This particular urban center in Conqing is home to many migrant workers and so provides a consistent stream of diverse potential test-cases (sixty-four individuals in the case of this study). In examining different shapes and sizes of various specific regions of the brain, the researchers were able to determine that “the amygdala and the hippocampus were linked to traits of challenge and risk-taking, whereas the OFC (orbital frontal cortex) was linked to imagination” (Xia et al. 185). Here we are given a very specific morphological study that indicates that the diagram of a human’s physical constitution can affect their mental abilities and attitudes toward certain stimuli. Previous studies in related areas have focused on the effects of injuries on various brain systems, while this is a novel look at healthy brain variations having marked effects on imaginative thinking, among other behavioral conditions. The physical, tangible nature of consciousness is becoming firmly established with studies of this nature.
So far in this paper, I have demonstrated that while humans have limited understanding of the quantifiability of creativity within our brains, there is certainly strong reason to believe it is both definable and discoverable. There is much to be said about understanding an enormously complex system (the weather patterns, for instance) on a variety of scales. Humans may be able to predict with limited accuracy what the clouds and rain will do within a specific period of time (with decaying levels of accuracy as meteorologists project further from the present moment), but they cannot know what individual rain drops will do, much less when they will form. With a powerful enough computer, however, there is no reason to think they could not track these movements with uncanny precision. It is not a matter of truth but a matter of having the technique and skill to discover it. Neuroscience and psychology are in a place where their abilities to track behavioral patterns and some individual interactions (raindrops) are approaching an uncanny level of accuracy, pointing to something strictly quantifiable relative to creativity. If this is the case, humans can employ specific strategies in a variety of fields that include (but are not limited to) creative product design. If there are prime movers that initiate creative action, then identifying what those prime movers are is paramount to success.
Some of those movers have been at least partially identified on a direct observational level. In a study by Seibert, Courtright, and Yang, the researchers were able to identify the effects of psychological empowerment on a workforce. This paper rolls out in two phases, initially by indicating what specific practices result in a testable feeling of improved psychological empowerment before then analyzing what affects this empowerment creates. The results of this meta-analysis are that psychological empowerment is “positively associated with a broad range of employee outcomes, including job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and (critical to the argument relative to this paper) task and contextual performance” (Seibert, Courtright, and Yang 981). The specific antecedent conditions to psychological empowerment cited as most effective in the study include “extensive use of training, open information sharing, decentralization, participative decision-making, and contingent compensation” (Seibert, Courtright, and Yang 995). Far from a large list explored by multiple business leaders in the introduction to my paper, the researchers are careful to caution against “empowerment interventions” as they can and do lead to catastrophic failure if not couched in very careful strategies. Later, I will present a management strategy (Authentic Leadership) that helps shape this otherwise abstract concept of empowerment and carefully places it within a range that is relevant to this context. In short, empowerment cannot be the salve that is applied to all wounds to make every business (creatively-dependent or otherwise) take on a healthy creative hue. In many businesses, individual policies are applied like software upgrades, with the expectation that merely providing the beneficial framework is enough to see the result. Coming to the realization that policies are created merely to make the leader’s job easier (versus the employees’ jobs easier) can be jarring. Authentic Leadership will address the importance of the honest connection between intent and action in promoting psychological empowerment.
A powerful reactive agent against empowerment is “employee strain and turnover intentions,” (Seibert, Courtright, and Yang 981) which is supported in a related study on Open Innovation (OI). OI has been shown to be effective but within a very specific paradigm – namely by working with the resources and people already available (rather than out-sourcing and hiring “better talent”). This study reinforces the importance of specific empowerment metrics detailed above but in the context of innovation. Specifically, “open communication, decentralization, and high job autonomy are core factors in fostering innovativeness” (Popa, Soto-Acosta and Martinez-Conesa 136). The OI architecture is designed to give individual employees a freedom of movement considered antithetical to modern management practices. In our present data-driven world, managers are encouraged to take a very close look at every single aspect of the business, right up to supply orders for office supplies to how much time should their subordinates should be allowed to sit at their desks. A radical departure from that is an embrace of autonomy that allows, as the researchers above suggest, the employee to choose how and who they speak to, and when and if they should even come into the office that day. This intrinsic motivator – the power to be in total control of one’s one work day – is at the heart of what is studied, and the results seem to speak for themselves. People like to be free from restrictions and they tend to perform better when they are.
In a related paper in accordance with this, Christina Blanka highlights a unique player within organizations known as an “intrapreneur.” These individuals function much like an entrepreneur but within the parameters set by the company. Embracing the entrepreneurial spirit within the confines of an organization is most effective when “top management’s vision of innovativeness and employees’ entrepreneurial initiatives are both necessary to realize intrapreneurship” (Blanka 33). The intrapreneurial approach represents the crux of the autonomous model by establishing some foundational rules that cover the basics of professionalism (e.g. do not steal your co-worker’s ideas) and then allowing the intrapreneurs search every nook and cranny of any design problem for a weakness. Modern professional sports have a similar approach, and the innovation witnessed has led to rule changes to accommodate the sudden major advantage someone has independently developed. In the case of business, there are similar rule changes designed to mitigate the effects of one entity dominating an entire market or series of markets. While the interpretation of these rules may leave the layperson wanting, they have been enforced on telecoms companies, software designers, and media companies alike.
However, like the conclusions mentioned earlier in isolating creativity quantifiably within the brain, I also have a slight wrinkle in isolating what specific strategies lead to further innovative behavior among employees. Specifically, some strategies have limited effectiveness or, worse still, negative effects if committed to in isolation. In a 2011 study – that has followed a series of related experiments – Burroughs and colleagues studied the effects of two very specific forms of creative coaching – incentives and training. The experiments involved a group of student engineers designing a specific product for a specific customer, with two independent judges determining how well the students addressed all the concerns the product needed to meet. Students were divided into four distinct groups such that 1) they received creative thinking training, 2) they received a monetary incentive for scoring highest, 3) they received both creative training and an incentive, and 4) they received no creative training or incentive (Burroughs et al. 58-60). The results suggested an interesting set of relationships. The lowest performing group was given training without a reward. The addition of a reward dramatically increased their score (to easily the highest-performing group). However, giving a reward without training actually caused a decrease in performance (Burroughs et al. 60). The implications for a selective approach toward increasing innovation by policy are important. Any one strategy on its own can have marginal or even negative effects, however, if taken within a specific set of strategies, there is a developing picture for objectively improving innovation in the workplace.
So far, I have established that studies into creativity in the brain are promising for quantitative analysis of specific brain processes and that certain work environments are better suited for creative design (among other industries). A third lens with which to view the problem of what business does (versus what science knows) is that of leadership itself. In our last sequence of papers, I discussed abstract policies and their individual effects. Now, I am going to look at the importance of inter-personal dynamics and how this critical piece can cause the entire house of cards to fall if not addressed in a serious fashion. One does not need to look very hard to find historical instances of well-funded, well-trained, and well-positioned groups utterly failing due to poor leadership. In order to argue for specific leadership strategies (that is, the set of behaviors leaders themselves engage in), I will look at some analyses involving personal interaction, sub-textual communication, and team-building. With this set of studies, it will be established that there are very specific leadership methods that improve creative output.
For the category of personal interaction, I will take a close look at a paper by James Dulebohn and his colleagues that which seeks to explore the efficacy of the theory known as “Leader-Member Exchange” (LMX). In this paper, LMX is clearly defined and it states that, “leaders vary their interactions across followers and, in doing so, determine their relationships with followers” (Dulebohn et al. 1716). As it relates to this paper’s purposeful intention of impacting creativity in business, the paper has an important finding, namely that “leader variables explained the most variance in LMX quality” (Dulebohn et al. 1715) and “much of what is involved in developing strong LMX relationships lies in the immediate purview of leaders” (Dulebohn et al. 1744). While some other factors such as the personalities of the subordinates surely had an effect on the quality of interaction with the leader, ultimately the leader’s behavior had the greatest impact on improving worker engagement. This, for all practical purposes, is an encouraging discovery. That so much can be impacted by a single person is of course a rather difficult position for a person to find one’s self in, but, it also limits the variables creative businesses must juggle if they are to have a truly transformative effect on their employees’ quality of work. Putting considerable effort into developing leaders and providing said leaders with the framework and support to have meaningful interaction are foundational pieces to improving creative output.
A related line of inquiry involves a concept known as “Authentic Leadership” (AL) and how it can improve an employee’s ability to perform well. AL is defined in a study by Rego et al. “as a pattern of leader behavior that draws upon and promotes both positive psychological capacities and a positive ethical climate” (429). This study sought to look at the principles covered within AL and apply them to the literature on both creativity and a metric of mental state known as Psychological Capital (PsyCap). An argument for leading ethically and inspirationally is often limited to lead roles in Hollywood films, with modern business leaders choosing for a much more numerically-driven “results or nothing” style of management. Here is an important counter as “the study empirically validates theoretical arguments that suggest integrating authentic leadership and psychological capital in research and indicates that both may foster employees’ creativity…” (Rego et al. 429) As the paper before necessitated the importance of the leaders’ behaviors, this provides a specific set of leadership behaviors already incorporated into a stronger theory to reinforce the idea. It is becoming clear that leaders have an important role to play in the success of their employees’ work. The ethical component of AL is critical as it requires members of senior staff to do more than merely apply a set of principles but to understand why they are applying those principles. It does not take much imagination to see how this can be advantageous. A simple “open-door policy” becomes problematic if the leader frequently does not have time to listen, or limits employee questions in either number or time. If the leader also lacks receptiveness towards all ideas, then it might as well be referred to as an “open-window policy” where ideas are tossed out if they do not fit the leaders’ tastes. By including an ethical framework, we have the opportunity to openly and honestly discuss all ideas and to help deal with much more nuanced scenarios that inevitably arise. The effectiveness of leaders that engage ethically within the AL framework is demonstrated powerfully in this study.
To temper this excitement into very specific methods of increasing creative output, I have another example on the importance of embracing nuance in the argument. A recent study on the impact of top management teams tossed aside leadership theories and chose instead to focus on the “demographic characteristics, leadership style, and contextual factors” of top management teams (Sperber and Linder 285). This study further reinforces the idea that the correct formula for objectively improving the innovativeness of a company is not a universal set of individual characteristics but a careful matrix that, depending on the task or environment involved, will not look exactly the same for any two situations. On the contrary, this paper highlights the diversity of specific approaches which are possible and, “there are many different constellations leading to firm innovativeness” (Sperber and Linder 310). As I argued earlier in this paper, there are clearly patterns in the noise that suggest a consistency to maximizing creative potential, but it cannot be expected to be simple enough for us to understand. As the physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says in the opening dedication to his book, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, “the universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.” (deGrasse Tyson) Yet humans chip away at the paint covering the vast wall of ideas, picking off pieces of the mystery along the way.
Perhaps the greatest gift that science and the methods it employs has added to our civilization is in it’s ability to unravel increasingly complex ideas once thought impossible to decipher. The veritable cornucopia of possibilities present within this argument are surely quite diverse at least in part because humans not only look at the most complex organ in the known natural world (the human brain), but also at how individual brains interact with other individual brains. These relationships are enormously complex and a sound argument against my analysis in that they are simply too complex to ever be satisfactorily explained by any known method of science. This argument is contemporarily valid, yet it faces a history of ever-shrinking gaps in our knowledge on a wide variety of subject matter. That there are also a substantially larger number of people examining the remaining gaps weakens it still. At different points throughout history, humans believed the world to be flat, that powered manned flight was impossible, and that space travel was simply too costly. Through a variety of innovations in both research and application we have smashed these barriers to technological progress despite the protests of cynics. With the continued development of advanced computation, algorithmic complexity science, as well as the application of artificial intelligence, we are speeding towards a less and less uncertain future. Any science of analytics seeks to gain from the advanced processing and intuitive power being applied to the world’s most interesting questions and will only be given exponentially more potent firepower.
This paper has systematically moved toward an argument for specific, targeted actions to maximize creativity in a business environment. Given the relative youth and limitations of the present science involved, humans are shining but a small flashlight on a vast behavioral structure. Yet the clear definitions and foundations reveal the thin silhouette of a supported structure. Creativity is a definable neurological concept dependent on brain morphology and physical processes within. Certain business environments maximize this creative process while others have no effect or, worse still, negative effects. Leadership is proven to have an effect on the commitment and innovation of those within these environments. Given these factors, I can conclude that while there is not a universal rule book that can be developed from existing research, there is certainly a set of principles that can be. This set of principles can categorically improve new product design effectiveness and possibly add to the legacy of humanity as it moves to tackle a more diverse set of problems in an increasingly complex global society.
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