In a 1959 essay on creativity and the creative process, Isaac Asimov invoked the specter of the Bright Idea Fairy – not as the “mischievous and dangerous sprite known for planting the seeds of faulty ideas” but as a necessary evil in an organization devoid of original thinking: “A person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance. Since he occurs only rarely, he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us. A person eccentric in one respect is often eccentric in others.” Asimov’s Bright Idea Fairy challenged the status quo, broke with convention, and was often seen as wholly unconventional. He was not, however, a source of frustration and confusion.
“It is only afterward that a new idea seems reasonable. To begin with, it usually seems unreasonable. It seems the height of unreason to suppose the earth was round instead of flat, or that it moved instead of the sun, or that objects required a force to stop them when in motion, instead of a force to keep them moving, and so on.”
Innovation and creativity tend to go hand-in-hand. We’ll say we want one, but don’t encourage the other, then wonder what went wrong. Too often, we stifle the creative minds around us to our own detriment, instead focusing on processes and standard procedures, establishing a climate that encourages groupthink over innovation. Why?
The challenge to most leaders comes in recognizing the outward signs of a creative mind, seeing the spirit of innovation for what it is rather than what it isn’t. In a high-tempo environment, a creative mind is more often than not perceived outwardly as lazy or apathetic. We see someone showing little interest in their duties, just slogging away miserably on the day-to-day tasks. We counsel, they bristle. We discipline, they rebel. We give them lackluster evaluations, they sigh in frustration. Everyone is unsatisfied.
True creativity is a very rare form of talent. It has to be cultivated; it has to be nurtured. It has to be allowed to flourish. When you recognize talent, shape it. Link it to other creative networks, encourage it to grow and mature. Challenge it, give it time to develop. Then reap the rewards.
We have creative talent within the rank and file, but what does it look like? How do you know when you’ve got creativity at your fingertips? The list below isn’t all inclusive, but collectively represents a good cross-section of the characteristics exhibited by creative thinkers. The operative term is “collectively.” Alone, these characteristics can be reflective of undermotivated and underperforming individuals. Together, however, they might just indicate the presence of untapped creative potential.
1. Wears boredom on their sleeve.
Every day is a proverbial “slog” – going through the motions, producing the minimum required output on the most mundane tasks. I’m not lazy, I’m bored. You haven’t challenged me.
2. Dislikes rules and processes.
Please stop signing me up for planning teams and study groups. Don’t schedule every minute of my day with meetings. By keeping me busy with minutiae and mindless process, you’re not getting what you can from me. You’re bleeding away the very creativity you want.
3. Thinks differently.
My mind is wired a little different than the average staff dolt. Plug me into the MDMP and I will come up with the course of action no one else sees. Most people see this as an aversion to consensus building and bristle when I’m around. Don’t call me “Clausewitz” and laugh at me. It isn’t funny. Accept that my mind works differently and leverage it to advantage.
4. Takes Risk.
I’m willing to take risk when others fear to tread. That’s not because I’m reckless, it’s because I trust my own ability to develop ideas that mitigate the risk and create opportunity that might otherwise prove elusive. Unlike a lot of others, I’m not afraid of risk. I embrace it.
5. Colors outside the lines.
I like to figure things out for myself. I throw away the instructions. I don’t like to be told to “stay in my lane” or “shut up and color.” Give me some leash and the end result will be worth it. My solution might not look like what you’re expecting, but it will have the advantage of being unique and original. And we just don’t have enough of that.
6. Makes mistakes.
I make mistakes. It’s not because I lack attention to detail, it’s because my mind is spinning with ideas and as I work to translate them into words and images, I don’t always get it right the first time. This is all part of the creative process. Trust me, once we get the big picture right, the little things will follow.
7. Works independently.
I do my best work alone or with a small team of people I trust. Not because I’m a loner or don’t work well with others, but because I need the intellectual time and space to generative creative ideas. Assigning extra people to help me – especially those wedded to process – only slows me down.
8. The Crazy Ivan.
I change my mind, sometimes frequently, often unexpectedly. You think I’m indecisive, but in fact I give myself the flexibility to change my mind as more information becomes available. I usually won’t lock myself into a single course of action but follow paths that provide options rather than fixed answers. The more junior you are, the less you will appreciate this. But when you’re wearing stars, you’ll want me close by your side.
9. Seems eccentric.
Actually, I’m not eccentric, I only seem that way. What you think is “zoning out” is really me having a creative epiphany. What you see as social indifference is actually an outward sign of my impatience with others incapable of thinking creatively. I don’t mean to finish your sentences; I just see your ideas faster than you can express them. Bear with me, I’m trying.
10. Big Ideas.
Yes, I generate some big ideas. I see big, I think big, I produce big. Where others see discrete tasks, I visualize the strategy that weaves them all together. Where some see individual initiatives, I envision broad programs with grand accomplishments. Harness that vision. Put it to work. Whatever you do, don’t stifle it, because we’ll be right back to the first item on this list.
Unleashing the creative mind – the Bright Idea Fairy – also carries with it a need to provide some structure. When Asimov spoke of cerebration, the process of setting free the creating thinkers, he stressed the need to assign fixed tasks (“short reports to write, or summaries of their conclusion, or brief answers to suggested problems”) and provide oversight (“I do not think that cerebration sessions can be left unguided. There must be someone in charge…”). Finally, almost as an afterthought, he noted that someone has to “herd the cats”:
“In the same way, a session-arbiter will have to sit there, stirring up the animals, asking the shrewd question, making the necessary comment, bringing them gently back to the point. Since the arbiter will not know which question is shrewd, which comment necessary, and what the point is, his will not be an easy job.”