Can Creativity Be Taught? Insights from Jacob Goldenberg and Others

by | Sep 29, 2014 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

Can creativity be taught? Here are insights from Professors Jacob Goldenberg, Rom Shrift and others on this seemingly elusive topic (from Knowledge@Wharton, August 27, 2014):

“I think there are individual differences in our propensity to be creative,” says Wharton marketing professor Rom Schrift, “but having said that, it’s like a muscle. If you train yourself, and there are different methods for doing this, you can become more creative. There are individual differences in people, but I would argue that it is also something that can be developed, and therefore, taught.”

Wharton marketing professor Jerry (Yoram) Wind has in fact taught a course in creativity at Wharton for years, and says that “in any population, basically the distribution of creativity follows the normal curve. At the absolute extreme you have Einstein and Picasso, and you don’t have to teach them — they are the geniuses. Nearly everyone else in the distribution, and the type of people you would deal with at leading universities and companies, can learn creativity.”

Does creativity need the right conditions to flourish? Jennifer Mueller, a management professor at the University of San Diego and former Wharton professor who has researched creativity, sees evidence that it does. “Every theorist that exists today on the planet will tell you creativity is an ability that ranges in the population, and I think in a given context, creativity can be shut off — or turned on, if the environment supports creativity.”

In whatever the sector or discipline — product development, exploitation of networks, music or education — creativity shares certain traits, experts say. Jacob Goldenberg, professor of marketing at the Arison School of Business at the IDC Herzliya in Israel, says creativity has more than 200 definitions in the literature. “However, if you ask people to grade ideas, the agreement is very high,” he notes. “This means that even if it is difficult to define creativity, it is easy to identify it. One of the reasons why it is difficult to define is the fact that creativity exists in many different domains.” Still, he says: “Most creative ideas share a common structure of being highly original and at the same time highly useful.”

In Inside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results, Goldenberg and co-author Drew Boyd make the case that all inventive solutions share certain common patterns. Working within parameters, rather than through free-associative brainstorming, leads to greater creativity, the book says. This method, called Systematic Inventive Thinking, has found application at Procter & Gamble and SAP, among others. “We shouldn’t confuse innovation and creativity,” Goldenberg says. “Creativity refers to the idea, not to the system [product, service, process, etc.] that was built around it. For example, online banking is a great innovation, but the idea [of using the Internet to replace the branch] was not creative. It was expected years before it was implemented.”

Similarly, he adds, “cell phone technology is one of the most innovative developments, but the need was defined years before, and we just waited for the technology. In my view, a creative idea that is still changing our lives is the concept of letting users develop the software they need on a platform [that a particular] firm sells: the apps concept. This means that consumers develop and determine the value of the smartphone and tablets.”

This example, Goldenberg says, fits one of the templates for creativity described in Inside the Box: “Where you subtract one of the resources” — such as engineers and marketers — “and replace them with a resource that exists inside a closure (box), in this case your consumers.”

Schrift has used a different template from Inside the Box in his classes: The idea of building a matrix of characteristics of two unrelated products, and creating new dependencies. Such examples, he says, include an air freshener that changes scent every 10 minutes (remixing the concepts of time and fragrance), or a gym with a fee that is structured to increase if you don’t work out enough (fitness and incentive). “A lot of the time, looking for a new dependency gives you a creative idea,” Schrift notes.