All children are creative.  But for most, creativity is repressed as a part of growing up.  We often think of creativity as an innate, indefinable gift that a person is born with or not, something that is not teachable.  Theresa Amabile, head of the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at Harvard, has dedicated her entire research program to creativity.  She makes it clear that all people are capable of producing creative work. But she adds that most aren’t anywhere near reaching their creative potential.

Corporations are starved for creativity.  Creativity in sales has never been more important.  With the new focus on bringing insights to clients, there is a premium on creativity.   Bringing products to clients is mundane compared to what it takes to bringing ideas.  Success, in the new world of selling, hinges on the ability of salespeople to not only know what clients need now, but what their next needs will be, and delivering the right solutions.

There are hundreds of definitions for creativity.  Creativity is hard to define—but it is very easy to recognize.  I like Wharton’s marketing professor Jerry Wind’s definition of creativity, “The ability to challenge the status quo and come up with new and better solutions and new perspectives.”  He makes it clear that being creative means breaking with the status quo to create a new dimension.

Yes, there are those that are born creative and stay creative.  There are the extremes such as Einstein, Picasso, and Jobs.  And there are also the 10% or so in the normal curve.  But far from being limited to this small group, creativity is in all of us waiting to be rekindled – and evidence shows that it can  be taught.

It has been my experience, and it is borne out by research, that the critical element of creative work is the environment that either supports or squelches it. Before looking at behaviors that support creativity, let’s consider the environment.  Unfortunately, most organizations, although they are hungry for creativity, undermine it.

In an IBM survey of 1,500 CEO’s from 60 companies in 33 countries, creativity was acknowledge as the most important organization-wide trait needed for navigating the business environment. Yet it is crushed again and again and again, often unwittingly.

Jennifer Mueller, professor at the University of San Diego, explains the creativity can be turned off or turned on, based on the environment.  Organizations create cultures that turn it off for a host of reasons.  Creative salespeople (creative ‘’types”) often don’t conform. They are seen as trouble.  They can be difficult to manage. Corporations often can’t tolerate failure, which is a part of the process.  They see the risk, cost, or the time it takes for creative work incompatible with their need for predictability and control. The problem though is that, without an environment that supports creativity, transitioning sales teams to the new selling is a long hard road.

It takes determination and daring to create an environment where creativity can flourish. Sales leadership, ideally at the highest level, must institute methods and patterns that fuel creativity.   But if it isn’t supported at the corporate level, each sales manager can coach and inspire creativity with his or her team. Jerry Wind looks at creativity as a muscle that can be developed and therefore taught.  For sales leaders who think creativity means chaos, the good news that research brings to us is that, far from having to abandon process and methodologies, creativity demands discipline. 

The latest thinking about creativity is it can’t be taught in the normal sense of adding knowledge.  It can, however, be tapped into.  Here are some proven strategies:

  • Work within parameters — Authors of Inside the Box, Goldenberg and Boyd reinforce how critical it is to work within parameters. A myth is that creativity is this immediate light bulb. But in fact, for most people to be creative, structure is the key.   Muller sites IDEO, the multinational design firm, as exemplary.  They begin the creative process with brainstorming (no censuring of ideas), but then shepherd it through a more structured route.  The initial session is called “deep dive”, and that session is very short.  Then they break the problem apart by assigning people specific pieces.  Then comes the focus session. Their process shows the interplay between chaos and focus.  One person is responsible for the structure.  They test the idea, or solution, and then tweak it. Muller says that, unlike the stereotype, creativity has to be tightly managed and fostered.
  • Manage talent — Make decisions about the roles where creativity is most important.  While some researchers suggest that certain positions don’t require creative people, I disagree.  Certainly, some roles demand more creativity than others.  You don’t want “creative accounting”, but that is different from not wanting a creative accountant.  Where creativity is essential, incentivize people to do things differently.
  • Have faith in team members/yourself — Kaufman, Director of Imagination Institute at Penn’s Positive Psychology Center, believes everyone is creative. But if organizations want creativity expressed, there must be a belief that team members are capable of being creative.  Sales leaders must support their team members with coaching and give them  process and tool, but also give them room to use their judgment to be creative.
  • Daydream — Kaufman also says it is very important to give team members time for constructive internal reflection, and even daydreaming. Yes, daydreaming! He has found that most businesses are not aware that mind-wandering seems to be essential to the creative process.  This gives workaholics a reason to smell the roses…
  • Take a walk — Stanford researchers show that walking boosts creative inspiration by 60%. Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are known for holding meetings on foot.
  • Allow time — Research discredits the myth that time pressure increases creativity.  Making time and giving space for creativity is challenging in todays world, but it is essential. Longer term thinking feeds creativity.  Levitin, author of  The Organized Mind, makes the case that  multitasking and Facebook, tweeting, and emailing throughout the day, sap creativity.  He too promotes daydreaming as a way to increase creativity.
  • Intersect ideas — Maeda, of Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, describes the need for what he calls “plasticity” as key to creativity by allowing the joining together of ideas not thought of as related. He uses Airbnb as a perfect example in that its creators recognized the excess capacity available in people’s homes and designed a scalable service to enable anyone to access that capacity in a peer-to-peer economy. They used two unrelated things and created a new connection.
  • Create a repetitive, discipline, routine — This may sound counter intuitive, but it captures all of the above thinking. Even creative writers such as Maya Angelou,  John Cheever, W.H. Auden and countless others, report their writing schedules are highly disciplined – for example 8:00 to 11:30 every day.  They think like artists, but they worked like accountants.
  • Encourage peer review — Assemble diverse teams to get broad thinking and use the IDEO methodology. Amabile shows that collaboration is more conducive to creativity than competition.
  • Identify the real problem — Questioning is more important than ever, but the questions must be the right questions to solve the right problem. Understanding the real problem is the most important part of the creative process.  As you think of ideas, keep asking “What else?

Research and experience tell us clearly that discipline is the key to creativity, and this includes building-in room for “the trouble maker” and carving out time to  daydream.