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Is Creativity the Number 1 Skill for the 21st Century?

Mark Batey Ph.D.Working Creativity

Creativity is the essential skillset for the future

Posted Feb 07, 2011

Against a backdrop of uncertainty, economic turmoil and unprecedented change a new picture is emerging of the skills and traits for success (and perhaps even simply survival) in the modern era. At the heart of this essential skillset for the future lies... creativity.

A raft of recent research studies demonstrates that creativity is vital from the shopfloor to the boardroom and at the level of the individual to the organization as a whole. What is more... our economic fortunes at a societal level probably rest on creativity too.

Below are 7 (magnificent!) themes and some research studies that convinced me. I wonder if they will convince you of the cruciality of creativity too.

1 - Creativity and innovation are the number 1 strategic priorities for organizations the world over

The Boston Consulting Group has been running an annual strategy survey for the last 8 years. For 7 out of 8 years creativity and innovation have been the top ranked strategic imperative. Hardly suprising - it is innovation and creativity that enable the development of new ways of working that ensure profitability.

2 - Creativity is part of all our day jobs

Many researchers would agree that creativity is concerned with producing ideas that are original and useful in order to solve problems and exploit opportunities. When we consider creativity to be part of everyday problem-solving - we can see why the 2009 NESTA Everyday Innovation survey proposed that creativity was an integral part of modern work. Not just for Chief Executives or arch-strategists, but for all of us. We can all find original and useful ways of solving the problems we encounter. In some industries and sectors, it may not be so much that 'we can', but rather that 'we must'.

3 - Organizational profitability rests on individual creativity

Academic researchers have begun to converge on the opinion that:

"Considerable evidence now suggests that employee creativity can make a substantial contribution to an organization's growth and competitiveness" (Baer & Oldham, 2006).

Further in an article in The Economist it was suggested that the biggest challenge facing organizations is identifying and developing individuals with "brainpower (both natural and trained) and especially the ability to think creatively" (Frymire, 2006).

4 - Creative teams perform better and are more efficient

In a research study of creative teams in industry, Gilson, Mathieu, Shalley and Ruddy (2005) found that teams that were more creative scored higher on objective measures of performance and were also found to work more effectively within budgets.

Further, the studies that have examined High Performing Teams (Katzenbach & Smith, 2003), have found that these teams are characterised by their willingness to think creativity and find innovative solutions to problems.

5 - Creative organisations are more profitable

First, creative companies harness the creativity within the organization to improve or invent new products, processes and services. As indicated in the report:

"We assume that 50% of our revenue in 5 years' time must come from sources that do not exist today. That is why we innovate."

In the same Ernst & Young report it was found that highly successful companies realise that:

"the ability to manage, organise, cultivate and nurture creative thinking is directly linked to growth and achievement."

Further, the report highlighted that "Innovation 'for the sake of it' is often essential, but the speed at which a fast-growth company moves forward will depend on its ability to connect creativity to profit."

In a recent study of 190 Agile companies, Bottani (2010) found that their flexibility and speed of reaction were strongly dependent on creativity. Similar results have been found in a study of agile companies by BTM where agile firms were prepared to innovate and experiment with creative approaches to emerging technologies, work practices, product or service concepts and customer segments or product markets.

Similarly, within the research frameworks that have examined the characteristics of High Performing companies, creativity features strongly. The Accenture Institute of High Performance (2003-2010) found that High Performing organisations created powerful strategies, encouraged deep insight, originality and the engagement of creativity across all employees. Lastly, these companies invested disproportionally in recruiting and developing people.

6. Creative Leadership is fundamental

The previous studies have shown that creativity is vital for individuals, teams and organizations. Little wonder then that in aglobal survey of 1500 CEO's, IBM found that creativity was considered to be the number 1 leadership trait for the future:

"more than rigor, management discipline, integrity or even vision - successfully navigating an increasingly complex world will require creativity."

Why? Leaders will need to be creative (solve problems in new and useful ways) to stay abreast of rapid change. Further, they will need to orchestrate and encourage creativity across all the levels for which creativity is important. They will need to identify and develop creativity in individuals, build and nurture creativity in teams and set the culture and align processes to promulgate creativity throughout the whole organisation.

But it doesn't stop there...

7. Successful economies and societies will need to be creative

From an organisational perspective we can see why we must demand creativity from individuals, teams and the firm. However, according to the 2010 Winning Ingredients report from Standard Chartered... successful economies will need to utilise cash, commodities and creativity. The report concluded that:

"Creativity may be the most powerful of all the resources to be rich in. With vast numbers of people entering the workforce, huge improvements in productivity, and continued globalisation, the rewards for innovation and creativity will become even greater."

Given that for much of the western world we have exhausted our supplies of cash and commodities, creativity may be all we have left.

So there we have it. 7 themes that demonstrate that creativity is the number 1 skill for the 21st Century.

The question is...

Are you developing your creativity to prepare for the modern world of work?

Does the team you work in create and innovate?

Is your organization prepared for the uncertainty of the future - is creativity top of the agenda?

Mark Batey CPsychol. PhD

is a Creativity Specialist at Manchester Business School, UK

For more insight and discussion... Join the Psychology of Creativity LinkedIn group

References (unless embedded as links in the blog)

  • Baer, M., & Oldham, G. R. (2006). The curvilinear relation between experienced creative time pressure and creativity: Moderating effects of openness to experience and support for creativity. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91, 963-970.

  • Frymire, B. (2006, October 7). The search for talent; Business and society. The Economist, 8498, 11.

  • Gilson, L. L., Mathieu, J. E., Shalley, C. E. & Ruddy, T. M. (2005). Creativity and standardization: Complementary or conflicting drivers of team effectiveness? Academy of Management journal, 48, 521-531.

  • Katzenbach, J. R., & Smith, D. K. (2003). The wisdom of teams: Creating the high performance organizations. New York: Collins Business.

  • Bottani, E. (2010). Profile and enablers of agile companies: an empirical investigation. International Journal of Production Economics, 125(2), 251-261.

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