Take Advantage of America's Diminishing Creativity

Last Updated Mar 31, 2011 1:27 PM EDT

America is producing fewer creative kids and adults, the latest gut-blow to the country's worldwide competitiveness. As a business manager, this is both a threat and an opportunity for you.

First, the numbers from Kyung Hee Kim of the College of William & Mary, who analyzed creativity-test scores for almost 300,000 adults and children:

  • Americans' scores on measures of idea quality fell 3.7% from 1990 to 2008.
  • Scores fell 7% on idea quantity during the same period.
The social scientists can't explain the drop, but Kim, who calls the falling measures signnificant, thinks it has a lot to do with kids hooked on electronic entertainment instead of writing the next great American novel. I suspect the real problem has more to do with the priorities of our educational system. But that's a conversation for another day. We are becoming a less creative people, and that means we will be less capable to solve big problems, develop breakthrough products and create wonderful works of art.

So companies that can up their creativity quotient stand to benefit. This has always been true of course, but in the future -- should this trend persist in the US -- creativity will give organizations that have it a decided competitive advantage in world markets.

How does a company promote creativity? And more importantly, how can it foster collaborative creativity? Two years ago Harvard Business Review wrote what I thought was a groundbreaking look at how Pixar, Steve Jobs' house of animation, fosters creativity within its walls. Here are three tips from that piece:

  • Place the creative authority for product development in the hands of the project leaders, not corporate executives.
  • Build a culture and processes that encourage people to share their work-in-progress and support each other as peers.
  • Break down organizational units, hierarchies and fiefdoms that divide disciplines.
At the end of the day, exercising creativity is about taking risk. But in many organizations, taking risk is something to be avoided. So to build a creative team, your role as a manager is "not to prevent risk but to build the capability to recover when failures occur," according to Ed Catmull, a company co-founder and author of the HBR piece.

How creative is your organization? What do you do to foster innovation?

(Photo by Flickr user karola riegler photography, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.