How To Become More Creative and Why it Matters

By Giovanni Corazza

Whether you’re a business leader searching for talent, a job seeker looking for your next gig or a parent committed to educating your child for success, you’re in the midst of a new industrial revolution. It’s a world where information is a commodity – we have nearly all the known facts (and a lot of speculation) at our fingertips, anytime, anywhere. While this information is not necessarily knowledge, advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence are already integrating location, context and content to turn it into a much more intelligent experience than we’ve ever had before. In a society where success and human value have long been based on possessing knowledge and expertise, we find ourselves in new territory where these qualities will no longer be sharp differentiators.

Why Creativity Counts

What will be the great distinguishing ability as we enter the age of artificial intelligence? It will be creativity, our ability to imagine and ideate starting from the common layer of shared data. While machines will be able to slice, dice, parse and integrate our information and serve it up to us in ways that meet our needs at any moment in time, the main role of human beings will be to use that intelligence to generate new ideas that are both innovative and useful. Only human beings can imagine new futures and embed these visions with emotional content, hope, and human values. Therefore, we must develop everyone’s creative abilities, treating the subject as a required discipline, rather than as an option reserved for geniuses.

Though the idea of a discipline of creativity might seem like an oxymoron, it is a scientifically proven reality. The good news is that, while we all start at different levels, everyone has the capacity for creativity and we can use specific techniques to assess and improve creative skills. In fact, building creative capacity is one of the most important things we can do for our children, our teams and ourselves.

The Marconi Institute for Creativity (MIC), founded in 2011 as a joint initiative of the Fondazione Guglielmo Maroni and the University of Bologna, pursues the mission of establishing the science of creative thinking and moving it into research and education environments. Marconi Society Board Member and University of Bologna Professor Giovanni Corazza is at the forefront of this work and shares what MIC has learned.

The Science of Creative Thinking

Creative thinking is the multi-dimensional set of components that leads an individual or group to generate new ideas that have value. Creative achievement is the generation of these original ideas and their implementation into reality.

Not just any ideas will do. According to Corazza, “Creativity is defined as a potential for originality and effectiveness. You need to generate ideas, which are not only novel but also authentic and, in a sense, surprising. Not everything that is novel and surprising is useful, so you need to couple that with effectiveness. We speak of “potential” because no one can objectively assess originality and effectiveness: there are many examples in the history of technology, science, and art of ideas that were discarded at first but then turned into paradigm shifts.”

The science of creative thinking is complex and multi-disciplinary. It builds upon anthropology to understand the origin of this unique human behavior across our evolution. It uses cognitive psychology to model the creative thinking process and to measure related traits and abilities, neuroscience to understand the neuronal networks behind creative cognition, and bio-engineering technology to test and establish the links between brain and body states that help us identify creative thinking. There are also fundamental philosophical questions related to human creativity and the meaning of our existence.

Through experimental activities designed to reveal the fundamentals of the science of creative thinking, we have identified the top three traits and capabilities of highly creative thinkers.

Personality Traits: Openness

The most important personality trait for creativity is openness, or the ease with which people allow new and additional information into their thought processes, without requiring a-priori justification. Highly creative thinkers see alternatives by thinking about existing information in new ways or by introducing completely new ideas into the thought process to come up with different ways to look at or solve a problem. Openness is the door to the source of potential originality.

Openness is a personality trait, which means it is relatively stable, and both individuals and teams can measure it through personality profilers such as the Ten Item Personality Measure (TIPI). However, the goal is dynamic improvement, rather than a static metric. People and groups can increase operational openness in several ways, such as creating multi-disciplinary teams with diverse skills and characteristics, or by using classic brainstorming sessions that bring seemingly strange or irrelevant information into the processes, forcing people to open their minds to the unexpected.

On the individual side there are thinking tools that we can use to cultivate openness on our own. These tools are called Divergent Modifiers (DM) and than can be applied to any piece of information to transform it into an unexpected element.

Cognitive Abilities: Convergent and Divergent Thinking

Creativity is also about how you think. There are two fundamental thinking modalities:

  • Convergent thinking – given a set of inputs, convergent thinking finds the best single answer or consequence for the inputs.
  • Divergent thinking – given a set of inputs, divergent thinking finds, or imagines all possible consequences for those inputs; there is no fixed number of answers.

Highly creative thinkers move nimbly back and forth between convergent and divergent thinking to develop a handful of possible strategies. These people are able to use divergent thinking to generate a range of innovative ideas and then bring in convergent thinking to analyze and sort these ideas in order to identify those with the most value.

As with openness, there are exercises to build individual and team capacity in both types of thinking, as well as the ability to move flexibly between the two. A simple example is to generate unusual uses for common objects and to select the most adaptive use in different scenarios. All of this is based on an understanding of the overall creative thinking process, both from a cognitive and an emotional point of view.

Emotional and Motivational Abilities: Persistence and Self-Efficacy

Generating new ideas is risky and bringing them to fruition is even riskier. Disruptive innovations meet with a lot of resistance. The moment an innovator presents new ideas to the world, his or her reputation is at risk. Adding a new idea to the status quo often means subtracting something else that is no longer valid once the new idea is accepted. Those ideas that are subtracted have their own experts and gatekeepers who typically doubt new innovations that run contrary to the order they have created. In order to be successful, highly creative thinkers must believe in their ideas and persistently pursue them with passion.

Guglielmo Marconi was a great example of this. The physicists of his time proved that it was mathematically impossible to transmit radio waves across the Atlantic Ocean. Marconi’s intuition was different, though – he followed that intuition and proved that it was indeed possible. No one knew about the ionosphere at the time. Since mathematical proof always comes after intuition, it is particularly important for highly creative people to be able and willing to strongly defend their ideas and bring them into reality. They also need a high degree of emotional intelligence to anticipate what others will say about their ideas and to find effective ways to persuade.

“As a creative thinker, you are the entrepreneur of your ideas,” says Corazza. “You take the risk of representing a concept to the outside world, which the world has never seen before, and you have to expect resistance. You have to invest resources and fight for it. You have to believe in yourself and in your ideas.”

The history of our culture shows that genius has always been tightly coupled with self-efficacy and persistence. Developing these characteristics should be one of the primary goals of our educational systems.

Democratizing Creativity

Since we all have the capacity for creative thinking, which will potentially be the most important, differentiator for people who are both successful and happy in the future, we must make creative thinking the norm, rather than the exception. Creativity can no longer be the exclusive domain of geniuses – it must become our common bond for human dignity. Here are some takeaways to pursue in order to increase creative thinking for yourself and for society overall:

  • Actively brainstorm: Plan for a weekly time slot dedicated to generating alternative ideas, focusing your attention on any topic of your interest.
  • Empower schools: Advocate for schools at all levels to teach and foster creativity by balancing critical and creative thinking and adding specific courses to traditional educational programs.
  • Use the power of the network: Leverage the tools provided by information and communication technology to enhance your creativity, while side-stepping the associated traps. Benefit from the facilitators of creativity, such as easy networking and idea sharing, and avoid the inhibitors of creativity, including reduced attention spans, and superficiality of judgment. 1

Creative thinking brings enjoyment and happiness to everyday life. It is the best way to keep discovering and inventing at any age. The time and the tools are here to enable everyone to take full advantage of the generative powers of our minds.

  1. On the Impact of ICT Over the Creative Process in Humans by G. E. Corazza and S. Agnoli