Creativity at Work

Current definitions of creativity focus on the outcome, that is, an idea or product that is original as well as useful. However, early work in the area of creativity focused on the creative individual and creativity in the domains of art and science. Research during this early period was directed primarily at understanding major breakthroughs and paradigm shifts (also known as big C creativity). Current conceptualizations include minor creative acts involving incremental change and adaptation (known as little c creativity), suggesting that creativity can occur in almost any job. Models of creativity in organizations focus on individual antecedents of creativity, organizational or contextual factors that hinder or facilitate individual creativity, and the interaction within and between the two.

Individual Creativity

Early models of creativity focused on individual characteristics that facilitate creativity. Though different models may emphasize one element or set of elements, most agree on the key components that facilitate individual creativity: (a) cognitive processes, (b) domain-relevant knowledge and skills, (c) personality variables, and (d) motivational variables.

Cognitive Processes

Michael Mumford and his colleagues have identified several core cognitive processes that contribute to creative problem solving. Problem construction, or problem identification, is the first step in the creative problem-solving effort. Because problems that allow for creative solutions are ill defined, the problem-construction step is particularly important. Ill-defined problems, which are common in organizational settings, are those in which multiple goals and means of solving the problem are possible and multiple solutions exist that are possible and acceptable. This ambiguity facilitates creativity but also necessitates problem construction. The problem solver must first identify the important goals and information required to solve the problem, as well as any restrictions on the solution. Research on problem construction suggests that it is an effortful and time-consuming process and that engaging more actively in the problem-construction process results in more creative solutions.

After the problem has been defined, the problem solver must search for the information needed to solve the problem. This information may already be available to the problem solver, or it may need to be obtained from external sources. Once obtained, the problem solver must combine this information in new ways before a creative solution results. Research findings again indicate that the cognitive processes required for this step necessitate a large commitment of time and effort. In addition, the quantity and diversity of information available to the problem solver from this step may facilitate creativity, up to a point. Too much information, especially irrelevant information, will hinder creative performance.

A third core process that is necessary for creativity—and one of the most-researched cognitive processes—is idea generation, which is typically measured using divergent-thinking tests. In organizations, idea generation is often called brainstorming. Much of the empirical work on divergent thinking and brainstorming has focused on fluency, or the number of ideas, as the main way to evaluate idea generation. However, it is clear that just having a large quantity of ideas is not necessarily related to having good or creative ideas. Research has shown that providing instructions on the goals of the idea generation focuses the attention of the problem solver on that goal, resulting in different outcomes based on the instructions. Instructions to be creative, flexible, or original increase the creativity, flexibility, and originality of the ideas generated, respectively. Instructions to focus on one goal at a time lead to more solutions but ones that only solve for that goal, whereas instructions to solve for two conflicting goals result in fewer solutions but more complex ones that attempt to solve both issues presented. Instructions seem to provide a way to evaluate ideas and therefore determine whether the ideas generated match what is needed. However, very little research has explored the idea-evaluation process specifically.

Finally, later phases of creative problem solving necessitate cognitive processes that facilitate implementation planning and monitoring. This includes the generation of contingency plans for the implementation of the idea and the monitoring of the actual implementation to make changes as necessary. Although both implementation planning and monitoring are cognitive in nature, the actual implementation and carrying out the changes needed because of monitoring involves more social processes, and therefore they are typically viewed as innovation (the implementation of a creative idea).

Domain-Relevant Skills and Knowledge

Creativity cannot occur in a vacuum. Studies have shown that domain-relevant knowledge is required for the generation of novel and useful ideas. An individual must have a foundation on which to develop a creative idea. However, it has been suggested that a high degree of expertise may lead to habitual performance, thereby hindering creativity. In addition, diverse information may be beneficial for creativity because it helps to break the rigidity of thinking that can result from too much knowledge in any given area.

Therefore, the ideal level of knowledge required for creativity is believed to fall somewhere between the novice and expert levels.


Research in this area has investigated the relationship between personality variables and creative performance. Openness to experience, a component of the five-factor model, has been most consistently linked to creative performance across domains. Creative individuals are often described as independent, persistent, introverted, curious, self-confident, driven, impulsive, and tolerant of ambiguity. In addition, several personality variables have been linked to creative performance in one domain but not another. For example, a meta-analysis reviewing studies on personality and creativity revealed that creative scientists tend to be more conscientious and closed-minded relative to noncreative scientists and creative artists, whereas creative artists tend to be more emotionally unstable and reject groups norms relative to both creative and noncreative scientists.

Attitudinal variables have received limited attention in creativity research; however, research that does exist suggests that they are important. Studies have shown that individuals who have a preference for ideation, value new ideas, and delay premature closure are able to generate more creative ideas. Attitudes toward creativity may provide the motivational force to apply the cognitive processes needed for creative performance.


Theresa Amabile’s seminal work on the effect of motivation on creativity suggests that intrinsic motivation is critical for creative performance. Providing rewards may hinder creativity by creating an extrinsic as opposed to an intrinsic motivation. However, current research suggests that not all external rewards have a negative impact. External rewards may provide informational or controlling cues. Informational cues let the individual know what is important and improve performance, and therefore they increase intrinsic motivation. Controlling cues focus the attention of the individual on the external reward and evaluation, thereby contributing to extrinsic motivation.

 Organizational Creativity

Job and Team Characteristics

An important factor that distinguishes the study of creativity at work from other forms of creativity is the focus on context. Studies focusing on organizational factors suggest that complex jobs characterized by high levels of autonomy allow for more creativity. In addition, organizational creativity has more social and financial constraints than other environments in which creativity is studied. Because of the social and collaborative nature of creativity in organizations, group and leader effects have been the focus of research on creativity in this area.

Most teams in organizations comprise members with different expertise (i.e., cross-functional teams), which can both facilitate and hinder creativity. Research has suggested that teams that have a diversity of knowledge and skills but still share common goals are more creative. In addition, because information must be shared and the problem facing the team is ill defined (that is, there is no right or wrong solution), open communication that allows for disagreement and collaboration among group members is important. These factors point to the importance of team climate in facilitating creative performance. Teams and organizational climates that facilitate trust, open communication, risk taking, and support for creativity have been found to facilitate creative performance.


Organizational leaders play an important role in creating the climate of the work group and the organization. Numerous studies have found that leaders who are supportive, provide informational (nonjudgmental) feedback, and involve employees tend to facilitate creativity. Transformational leaders have been found to facilitate creativity more than transactional leaders. In addition, leaders, as boundary spanners and gate-keepers, provide resources and remove obstacles. Leaders may facilitate creativity by providing team members with the time and financial resources necessary for creative performance. Leaders may also facilitate smooth information exchange with other organizational units. Another important role provided by leaders (although not exclusively) is that of role modeling. Research suggests that observing a creative role model may allow an observer to learn creativity-relevant skills and strategies and model how they should be implemented. Finally, leaders may serve in the role of champion, supporting the efforts of both team members and other members of the organization.


Only limited empirical work has been conducted on the outcomes of creativity. Creativity and innovation typically serve as criteria of interest, not as predictors. Creativity has been linked to the implementation of innovative ideas and patents, to increased organizational flexibility and adaptability, and to organizational growth and increased profit. However, models of organizational creativity stress that much of the impact of creativity may not be realized in the short term and may actually hurt short-term performance. Specifically, factors that contribute to creativity may hurt day-to-day productivity. Not only do employees need to invest time and resources in the creative process, taking away from time and resources invested in current operations, but also the same factors that facilitate performance in routine tasks, such as structure, attention to detail, and conformity, can hinder creative performance.

Fostering Creativity

Understanding what contributes to creativity allows us to determine what organizational policies and practices to enact to foster it. Much of the empirical work on enhancing and fostering creativity has focused on training. How training is structured and what content is taught is based, in part, on the framework used to understand creativity. Creativity training that focuses on cognitive processes—most notably, divergent thinking and brainstorming—has been found to be successful. In addition, creativity training directed at the attitudinal and motivational aspects that contribute to creative performance or the social interaction patterns that facilitate creativity has shown promising results. A meta-analysis of more than 70 studies of creativity training found that creativity training as a whole is effective, and training focusing on cognitive processes produces the best and most consistent results.

Surveys of organizational practices indicate that companies are using selection systems to identify creative talent prior to hiring; however, research on the efficacy of such practices is lagging. Other recommendations include redesigning organizations and jobs to create more complex jobs in which employees have more autonomy and opportunity to show creative performance. Again, very little research has been conducted in this area. The use of rewards, either monetary or through performance appraisal, has also been suggested as a way to enhance creative performance. Rewards must be perceived as informational and not controlling in order to have the desired effect; however, the factors that contribute to the perception of rewards or performance appraisals as informational are not well delineated.

Organizational interventions designed to enhance creativity include improving the organizational culture and climate. Specifically, creating an environment that supports creativity by allowing for risk taking and openness and providing the resources necessary will foster creativity. Other organizational interventions include creating diverse, cross-functional teams and facilitating knowledge and information sharing through technologies such as knowledge management software. Virtual teams have been suggested as one way to facilitate creative performance because they may allow for greater diversity and acceptance of individuals from different backgrounds. Finally, leaders are viewed as an important facilitator of creativity at work. Finding or training an individual who can lead creative employees successfully will facilitate the creative performance of individuals and teams.


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