The impressionist’s approach to business creativity

Lessons on the competitive advantages of creativity can be seen from Google to Monet. Author Chad Cooper takes a scientific approach to how knowledge and experiences fuel creativity.

The impressionist era of painting arose as a deviation from the accepted, classical techniques — a creative explosion that spread through the power of unique perspectives. When Monet painted, he shared his personality through brushstrokes, and his interpretation of color and structure was his alone. There will only be one Monet; originality leaves no opportunities for competition. Today, this period offers useful insights on the economic advantages of creativity. As the world fights to determine the cheapest or fastest manufacturing source, a powerful movement spreads with the realization that unique creativity like Monet’s is timeless; and even in an instantaneous world, originality will always endure.

For the first time, the United Nations has distributed, this year, a study titled Creativity, Culture, and Economic Development to help bring awareness to a global economic shift. The report opens by stating clearly that there is “an economic aspect to creativity, observable in the way it contributes to entrepreneurship, fosters innovation, enhances productivity and promotes economic growth.”

Accompanying this trend are the undeniable, long-term advantages that creative industries hold. Businesses rich in intellectual capital are not only fortified from competitors, but economically, they are drastically more efficient. For instance, Google achieves a market capitalization of roughly $180 billion with 20,000 employees, while McDonalds requires 390,000 employees to reach a market cap of $60 billion. These numbers represent the heart of this trend with a simple fact - it is much easier to make a hamburger than it is to make a Google.

Creativity and innovation should now top the agenda for success in the global economy. Slowly we have accepted that we cannot compete on the cost of manufacturing with countries overseas, thereby leading us to begin building an alternate nucleus for the future workforce. Trends in the marketplace reflect that the future for many businesses in this country will be in intellectual property, and as MIT economist Lester Thurow points out, “It is going to be the big fighting issue.” As employers switch the qualitative focus of their search for new applicants, how will we begin mining the creative fuel for the economic landscape of the 21st century? I believe we cannot begin without attempting to understand this new force we know so little about.

Teresa Amabile, Head of the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at the Harvard Business School, and holder of a Ph.D. in psychology, studies the topics of creativity and innovation extensively. Her definition of creativity is broken down into three main components: knowledge, creative thinking and motivation.

creativity model

This diagram above was taken from a thorough report commissioned in 2005 by the National Center on Education and the Economy. On the title page it reads, The Sources of Innovation and Creativity, for the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce –- a message from the trend to all that are listening, saying “it’s well underway.”

By accepted definition, creativity involves the formulation of original ideas. But how original is the creative process? What source and methodology form brilliant creations? While I cannot deny the role genetics has on the internal structure of our brains, predisposing people to have certain strengths and weaknesses, learning also largely effects the development of our creativity.

Eric Kandel, winner of the Nobel Prize in physiology, greatly advanced the field of neuroscience through research on how learning effects neuron function in the brain. He states that, “each mental function in the brain – from the simplest reflex to the most creative acts in language, music, and art — is carried out by specialized neural circuits in different regions of the brain.” During his research he found repeated evidence that “a creature’s environment and learning alter the effectiveness of the preexisting pathways,” and that the “strength — the long-term effectiveness of synaptic (neuronal) connections — is regulated by experience.” In other words, the structure and functioning of our brains, especially creatively, are built mainly from our experiences.

Every person shares the same tools for absorbing our exposure to the world. Our senses allow us to capture and manipulate the pieces of the world we are most interested in. When we find something that we admire, like a remarkable place, we make sure to remember it, and for good reason. There are unique people, places, and experiences everywhere, and they act as our sole source of creative inspiration. As experiences embed these impressions on our minds, it is transformed into our everyday thoughts, actions and expressions. The success of humans relative to other mammals can largely be attributed to this evolved propensity for learning. In efficiently remembering large quantities of information, we can later use it to excel at reasoning through problems.

The significant effect our personal experiences have leaves our lives to be just as impressionist in execution as Monet’s work. An interesting illustration that stems originally from John Locke: if we were all paintings, at birth we could be pictured as a blank canvas, and then sixty years later we would be an elaborate landscape with many characters and points of interest. The amazing diversity seen throughout the world stems from the effect experience has on our personality, with each person’s composition being completely unique and painted largely with choice.

Over time, our perspective becomes more unique and more intricate as our library of knowledge grows. Although we constantly change, we can never start over. For that reason, it is understandable that great quotes are usually a mix of many insights heard through conversations with very different people. And great stories can only be formed after being in some way a part of them. A perspective in general can be considered a combination of those ideas we relate to and free from those we don’t.

In a continuous flow, knowledge and inspiration come from all that we have seen, or heard, or read. With that collection, each person possesses the unique creative freedom to piece together their world how they choose. It then becomes possible that there are no completely original inventions at all, just creative reformations of experience. For instance, the wheel wasn’t designed to create movement; it replicated movement previously seen in the environment — just like a rock down a hill. For that reason, I believe the creative process begins with an awareness of useful patterns in our experience, used later to piece together existing concepts in new ways - a novel connection of multiple, complimentary experiences.

Creativity sets us apart individually, and together as a nation we can use it to provide incomparable advantages. Due to the complexity of our world, we encounter problems with elusive answers. When planted in its native context, a problem can seem to have a very limited set of answers. And if it is only ever examined natively, the solutions we come up with will be consistently unsurprising. Creative thinking involves pulling a problem out into the open, leaving the confines of its troublesome past behind. That same one-dimensional problem scenario is then exposed to all the stored, potential solutions we have within the grasp of our memory.

A new problem, or social issue, forces us to we scan our memory for the answer that fits best. Creativity plays the role of the connection orchestrator, pulling a useful file from the memory shelves and placing the part we need within the grasp of our reasoning. Presented with a selection of choices, our level of creative dexterity determines how precisely problem and answer will match.

To picture creative impressionism at work, look at how many innovations began with an advance in one field, applied to a completely new one. During the enlightenment era, the work of Emerson, Thoreau, Kant, and others produced ideas such as self-reliance and natural rights, which later inspired a group of innovative leaders. These works were eventually woven into the basis for the government of the United States of America, but would the work of the founding fathers be as progressive if they didn’t have diverse interests that included enlightenment ideals? Amazingly, there would be no Declaration of Independence without the combined efforts of numerous great thinkers creatively, and cohesively, adapted to the problems of a new nation.

Decades ago, the economic demands of this country dictated an education system to prepare a highly specialized, and largely technical workforce. Globally, the requirements of the workforce continue to drift away from those of the past. Seemingly attached to the previous generation, classrooms continue to teach memorization and analysis, while employers seek more and more creative problem solvers. Emphasized repeatedly by the United Nations, “creativity, knowledge and access to information are increasingly recognized as powerful engines driving economic growth and promoting development in a globalizing world.” Global economic change brings with it an agenda that requires the workforce to think just as broadly.

Now more than ever, the accepted practices of any field need to be constantly challenged. Responsibility rests on the innovators; the ones who will use their creative inspiration to advance industries that have functioned the same way for too long. And in order to be prepared for opportunities, innovators must continue to be diligent students, using a diverse knowledge of many disciplines to their advantage. As the demands of the economy change, the education system and the overall learning environment must adapt to a new set of priorities. In the book Creativity in Education & Training, Arthur Cropley studied numerous educational programs and provides the following review:

Conventional education systems often hinder the development of skills, attitudes and motives necessary for production of novelty. Among other things, they frequently perpetuate the idea that there is always a single best answer to every problem and that this can readily be ascertained by correct application of set techniques and conventional logic that need to be learnt and then reapplied over and over again

The future workforce will need to be trained under a framework that will elevate creativity, later used for building valuable intellectual capital. An eclectic knowledge base fuels creativity, yet today the classroom remains standardized around the perspective of a single textbook. How can we expect prolonged economic progress when the future workforce will stagnate within such a narrow, one-dimensional learning environment?

A famous visionary once said, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education,” and Mark Twain is not the only one who wonders why the classroom leaves us so unprepared for the world outside of it.

Chad Cooper is the founder of The Novel Era website, a collection of essays about creativity, business, marketing, art and society.