Despite numerous surveys and even the tax code providing the option “creative” when they ask participants to define their industry, this ostensibly innocuous categorization perpetuates an incorrect stereotype. The very idea that someone has a creative job or works in a creative industry is not only wrong but destructive.
Think for a moment what skills or tasks are included in the amorphous creative job. Without knowing it, most people’s understanding of someone working in a creative industry or field is similar to “artist.” But it’s not the same.
The definition of creativity outlined by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics is “the ability to produce something of value that did not exist before.” The definition goes on to say one could harness creativity to develop a product, design a blueprint, or write a script, and while the definition seems to be heading in the correct direction, the latter part makes a few assumptions, and therein lies the problem.
By this generally accepted definition, artists, photographers, cinematographers, designers, and floral arrangers make the creativity cut. And who doesn’t? Human resources, lawyers and accountants. But looking at this topic with fresh eyes, why not?
I can still remember the first time my attorney, wowed me with his rare ability to solve difficult problems. A new client required a Master Service Agreement (MSA) in order for me to continue using the contractors I previously hired. Without getting into the nitty-gritty, the document protects the client from liability from those very contractors. Instead of simply drafting a standard version of the contract, however, my lawyer suggested an alternate version.
His alternative was written in a way to emphasize protections for the contractors. I had worked with these contractors for a long time, and my attorney understood a legal document after years of trust could spoil a good working relationship. With indifference, I agreed. (This very idea was later confirmed by renown researcher and author Dan Ariely on my very podcast.)
At the time, I didn’t recognize the value he provided, or his elegant legal solution until contractors started returning what was legally a binding agreement, often within 24 hours. In one case, the contract came with an accompanying thank you note. My lawyer’s use of empathy and problem-solving, often associated with design thinking and creativity, had been applied to an industry viewed to be a non-creative field. Were his actions simply not creative or was he simply a creative stuck in the legal profession? No and no.
Lawyers, like designers, are certainly able to produce something of value that didn’t exist before. Just like human resource leaders or those developing educational programming and improving the value of life for their staff. Accountants are no different. But if we truly stick to the definition, something funny happens if we look at those in a recognized creative job.
If being a “creative” is to produce something of value that didn’t exist before, then Id’ argue some individuals who currently exist in the creative industry might actually be less creative than people in industries like HR or Accounting, traditionally considered un-creative. I’ll explain.
I know a good number of designers and photographers who aren’t nearly as creative as my attorney. At times they seem completely incapable of thinking of any original ideas, choosing to simply copy their counterparts. In this way, how we think of a creative job or creative industry truly begins to unravel. Does this mean they aren’t creative? No, but it does indicate the “creative” label we toss around carelessly is being misused.
Many years ago, I hired 515 Productions to help me promote an event my company sponsored called The Creativity Summit. We wandered the streets of downtown Des Moines, Iowa during the lunch rush to find out what workers in this risk-averse city—known for insurance and banking—thought it meant to be creative. We genuinely expected the answers to be fun, positive, and encouraging. Sadly, we were horrified by the actual responses.
The great majority of those we spoke to express their lack of creativity as if their brains simply didn’t work that way. Responses varied from those who didn’t believe they had a creative bone in their body to a law firm partner who truly believed allowing his staff to be creative might throw his company into anarchy and undermine their company productivity. “Creativity is valuable,” he said, “But not in a company atmosphere when stuff needs to get done.” Yes. He said that. On camera. He wasn’t kidding.
When I challenged these self-described non-creatives, a handful changed their tune. But when they finally admitted to creative ability, they too were hopelessly entrenched in a flawed understanding of what a true creative job looks like, making statements such as, “Well sure, I suppose, I paint from time to time,” or “Yes, I like to draw during my break!” They were convinced creativity or a creative job was tightly linked to artistic expression, and this fed a bigger misconception—that not having artistic ability means not having creative thoughts.
If individuals belong in their own creative job, creative industry, or creative class, then those who typically don’t fit receive full permission to opt-out of the creative process altogether. “If we believe creatives have something we don’t or we don’t share their creative genes, then we can rest in that comfortable excuse every time we’re called on to generate new ideas,” says David Burkus, author of The Myths of Creativity. He’s dead-on, and this fact has significant implications.
When consulting, many (dare I say all) of my best ideas come to me because I’m the only one who listens to the “non-creative” people. When I tell leaders this, most look at me blankly as if my efforts were some kind of pleasant creative charity. This is a problem and points to a scary conclusion: The best ideas in our companies and organizations are ignored because they don’t come from the “right” people. Consequently, a true creative culture goes unrealized, and companies continue their epic struggle to solve problems. Problems they already have answers to.
In his new book, How to Get To Great Ideas, author Dave Birss points to a Global Innovation Survey conducted by McKinsey, 94% of CEOs said they weren’t satisfied with their companies’ innovation performance. This is despite 84% of them acknowledging that it’s vital for growth. My belief is that their companies do not lack ideas—they lack the humility and desire to shut up and listen.
But it’s not too late to change this. If you are misattributed creative authority in a miscategorized creative job like a designer, photographer, or other artist, you can help. You have the undeserved respect and ear of those who are victims of the creative stigma. You can, and must, bring attention to the wildly creative movements beyond your artificially inflated creative industry by pointing to true creative ideas, like those from within my own attorney’s office.
We can make sure our company leadership is including a diverse cross-section of skill and background when attacking a specific challenge — perhaps even individuals from accounting or HR (gasp!). When those “non-creative” people do speak up (and they will) encourage them by listening intently and asking for more clarification.
Leaders, it’s not a matter of your staff learning how to be creative; it’s a matter of you being receptive to creativity from those whom you consider to be unlikely sources.
A version of this article originally appeared in Quartz on Nov. 6, 2018. You can read it here.