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The Myths of Creativity: Book Review

October 8, 2013

Myths What do the words “creativity” and “innovation” mean to you?

Do you imagine a Back to the Future Christopher Lloyd character, bursting forth with spontaneous ideas? Or perhaps you think of a Steve Jobs, obsessing over every detail, a perfectionist who could be exceedingly hard on his employees. Or maybe you envisage a team crammed into a meeting room brainstorming ideas.

As much as creativity and innovation are the lifeblood of any company that aims to succeed in a competitive marketplace, they are not well understood, both in concept and in practice. Misunderstandings and myths surround how some of the world’s greatest inventors, past and present, derived products that often came to benefit society. And despite enough having been spoken and written on creativity and innovation, we’re collectively not that much further ahead in terms of clarity and understanding.

Fortunately, a new book helps move us forward in improving our appreciation of creativity and innovation. Meet David Burkus, assistant professor of management at the College of Business at Oral Roberts University. Burkus teaches creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship and organizational behavior. He also founded an online publication that examines leadership and innovation, and has spoken to a wide variety of audiences, from multinationals to the U.S. Academy. He holds a doctorate in strategic leadership from Regent University.

His new book The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas tackles 10 myths, each of which is based on a specific premise. Briefly, they are:

1. Eureka myth: inventions don’t come as a spark but gradually
2. Breed myth: creativity is not owned by only certain people
3. Originality myth: ideas are typically the result of building on previous ones
4. Expert myth: insight is frequently derived by those outside the “expert” circle
5. Incentive myth: creativity is not fostered by extrinsic incentives
6. Lone Creator myth: people collaborating is what drives creativity
7. Brainstorming myth: generating ideas quickly is not what creativity is about
8. Cohesive myth: the lack of tension and debate in organizations hinders creativity
9. Constraints myth: creative insight often requires constraints
10. Mousetrap myth: breakthrough ideas are rarely not celebrated initially

Rather than summarize each of Burkus’ myths I’ll highlight those sections that stand out with what I consider important messages for those working in organizations. I also note where the book is particularly strong, and also where I found it to be somewhat weaker.

Burkus launches into his book with a short chapter entitled The Creative Mythology. This is very worthwhile reading because it sets the stage for the subsequent 10 myths. He astutely notes, “Cultures develop myths when they can’t rely on existing knowledge to explain the world around them.” He points to the Greeks who created the muses as a way of obtaining and responding to the prayers of writers, engineers and musicians. The muses, he states, served as “creativity’s divine spark,” helping to inspire others, because the Greeks believed that creativity flowed from them.

This got me to some meta-thinking: who are today’s contemporary perceived muses? Warren Buffet, the late Steve Jobs, Bill Gates?

Two sentences at the conclusion of chapter one form the basis of the book and to which the reader will benefit by keeping them at the forefront while reading about the 10 myths. Burkus states: “Creativity is the starting point for all innovation, and most organizations rely on innovation to create a competitive advantage….to lead innovation efforts, we must have a better understanding of where creativity comes from and how to enhance the creativity of the people we lead.”

Amen to that.

Burkus occasionally goes off on short tangents, delving into studies and theories to support his myths. There’s nothing wrong with including such information, except that I found at times my eyes glazing over. What was much more powerful in emphasizing his key messages were his real world corporate examples. For instance, under the Eureka Myth he gives the most complete, succinct explanation of the 3M Post-it Note innovation that I’ve read. While many others have used this example in their writings, Burkus does it best. What is not well understood about the 3M story is that it took 12 years from an “inferior adhesive” to the actual Post-it Note’s mass marketing.

When he discusses the Breed Myth he uses the story of Wilbert (Bill) L. Gore, creator of Gore-Tex. Founded in 1958, W.L. Gore and Associates grew steadily to some 8,000 employees, with $3 billion in revenues by 2010. While the company’s products have been industry leaders over the years, Burkus points out that Gore’s organization structure is unique. Instead of a pyramidal design, Gore’s structure resembles that of a lattice: horizontal where employees are connected to one another. This has been instrumental in fostering creativity and producing innovative products.

Real life stories have more meaning and impact for the reader, and especially so when one writes on abstract topics such as creativity and innovation. Burkus includes a variety of other interesting stories, some familiar some not, in each of the myth chapters. For example, the Brainstorming Myth chapter has a great story on the brewing industry. And his final chapter on the Mousetrap Myth is excellent.

The book would have benefited from a short, concluding chapter to synthesize the author’s key messages. And perhaps to present an action agenda to foster creativity and innovation in organizations. This would be tantamount to a leadership call to action in a vitally important area which is especially lacking in Canadian business. To borrow from James Carville’s comment to President Clinton about the economy during his first presidential campaign, “It’s about innovation, stupid.”

Indeed.

Burkus has provided us with a thought-provoking book, one that everyone should read, not just those in management positions. Take a moment to check it out. Here’s a last word from Burkus, from the Mousetrap Myth:

“Of all the myths of creativity, the Mousetrap Myth is perhaps the most stifling to innovation because it doesn’t concern generating ideas. Rather it affects how ideas are implemented. It’s not enough for an organization to have creative people; it has to develop a culture that doesn’t reject ideas….Leaders need to get better at counteracting their own bias and recognizing potential innovations sooner. We don’t just need more great ideas; we need to spread the great ideas we already have.”



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Jim TaggartTake a moment to meet Jim.

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