How to Find the Creative Spark in Your Organization

Waiting for a flash of inspiration won't work, but neither does collaboration without goals. Take a few cues from business scholars—and a certain famous rock act.

Say the word “creativity,” and a certain image tends to appear in people’s minds—one that’s probably inaccurate. Culturally, we still romanticize the isolated genius working in a quiet room, waiting for that sudden flash of insight.

It’s more likely, though, for innovations to come deliberately, and in collaboration. That’s certainly true in the tech world, where giant steps in computing and the web came thanks to small groups toiling away at a problem. If you’re looking to change up how your association is rethinking meetings, membership, and new products, the solution won’t come from leaders alone. But it also won’t necessarily come from putting a group of people in a room and hoping for the best.

It’s a complex dynamic, and if you’re looking for one example of how this works in practice, consider carving out seven or so hours of your time to watch Get Back, the new documentary about the Beatles trying to write a batch of new songs in January 1969. The Beatles aren’t a prime example of how to make a creative partnership work, of course—by the end of the year, they’d have all gone their separate ways. But during the period covered by the documentary, the process is fascinating and instructive. They take germs of ideas and keep reworking them, together and alone, until they become finished songs. They invite collaborators. Though they often disagree—and even quit for a spell—they rarely shoot down each others’ ideas outright.

“The longtime friends and bandmates are barely talking, but they’re playing and singing and riffing off one another’s ideas,” author Jere Hester noted in a thoughtful piece on what the documentary can teach about creativity. Of course, you’re hoping for a better creative environment than “barely talking.” But it’s impressive how far you can get simply with a shared sense of mission.

Trying to resolve things too quickly is detrimental to innovation.

Harvard Business Review

If you need more of a business case for that assertion, a few authors recently tried to make it. In a Harvard Business Review piece titled “3 Common Fallacies About Creativity,” a trio of business executives and scholars poke a few holes in the lone-genius mentality of creating new ideas. What we think of as decisiveness in leaders can sometimes be counterproductive, they explain, because it cuts off other, potentially better solutions for the sake of immediacy.

“Trying to resolve things too quickly, especially for complex problems, is detrimental to innovation because you fall prey to premature closure,” they wrote. “Resistance to premature closure—a key aspect of creativity—is our ability to keep an open mind when we already have a potential solution.”

Collaboration can help ensure that organizations aren’t rushing new ideas. But not all collaborations are created equal. For one, they write, the most successful creative partnerships start with a “yes, and” mentality, with people who are there to help generate new ideas, not just torpedo everybody else’s. The authors also point to evidence that shows group collaboration—forcing everybody in a room to toss out ideas—is less effective than tasking everybody with generating ideas on their own and then hashing them out. And not necessarily at the same time: “Group discussions should be conducted asynchronously, where team members look at each other’s ideas and use them to refine and create new ideas,” they wrote.

No one system will make sense for every organization, but there’s a consistent message across any creative effort: Take your time, be inclusive, be open. Though it’s not as glamorous as a “eureka” moment, it’s a likelier path to meaningful solutions that last.

(Linda McCartney/Apple Corps./Disney+)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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