Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Can Creativity Be Stored? Yes, and It Should Be

For those of us who are not creative, it is difficult to imagine how creative people work. Perhaps we get some ideas from learning techniques such as brainstorming, when a team gets together and talk about ideas, with a ban on critique and an emphasis on letting each idea feed subsequent ideas. That’s a nice image, but it is not at all how creative industries and individuals work. Have you ever thought how unfair it is that the person with the messiest office is often the most creative at your workplace? Actually it is not unfair, and it is not just your workplace.

The explanation for the messy creative person and the uncreative brainstorming session can be found in research by Poornika Ananth and Sarah Harvey published in Administrative Science Quarterly. They had a big study of creative individuals in theatre and architecture, and among their many findings two stood out. Creativity can be drawn from storage. Creativity can be stored.

A key insight is that people who have creativity as their main work do not work on a single project, but many, both in sequence and concurrently. They get ideas and inspiration, which fuel creative outputs, but often these do not fit their current project well enough. What to do with ideas and inspiration that do not fit? Think about them creatively, create symbols that make them concrete and memorable, and store them for later. Try to make the storage systematic enough that they are easy to retrieve later.

What to do with creative projects when no ideas and inspiration are coming? Go to the creativity storage and see what fits. Probably nothing fits exactly, but there will be pieces there that look almost right and can be cobbled together. Creative people, especially when working in creative industries, are good at their work exactly because they have a portfolio of stored creative inputs that they can use in their portfolio of creative projects.

It is interesting how this description of creativity fits a theory of culture known as “culture as a toolkit.” When people have and use culture as a toolkit, culture is partly in their memory and partly picked up from others. They can have many cultural elements, which are not necessarily consistent with each other, and they will draw from those cultural elements to solve problems they encounter. The individual with a large and diverse cultural toolkit is a lot like the creative individual – a large storage of ideas and inspiration, and great ability to solve problems.

Perhaps we should not be surprised? A lot of creativity is culturally judged, and some of it even creates culture. We learn from theatrical plays and from watching buildings, if they are creative. The creative individual who stores and retrieves ideas and inspiration also creates ideas and inspiration for us, and is doing society a great service.

As I finish writing this, I am looking at my office, which is disturbingly tidy for a professor. I still like to think of myself as creative, and maybe it helps that my brain is messier than my office. I do have good memory, though, and I maintain a portfolio of projects that I work for. There is hope for everyone once we understand the processes that lead to creativity.

Ananth, Poornika and Sarah Harvey. 2023. Ideas in the Space Between: Stockpiling and Processes for Managing Ideas in Developing a Creative Portfolio. Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.