Pavan Soni

At a time when "creativity" has become the essential buzzword in the corporate and academic world alike, the real discourse is about the "culture" of creativity. The great products and services that we see, or the ideas that solve our problems are often the manifestations of a culture of creative problem solving honed arduously and protected fiercely by organizations. If people form culture, apart from the leadership, the real question then is,

It is the question I posed to Douglas Solomon, the former Chief Technology Strategist of the world's leading design firm "Ideo". In response, Douglas quipped "we do both", which is to say that "we hire creative people to make our existing employees creative." Well, that is only half the answer, or, in fact, the less interesting part of the answer. The more interesting one should address the question "how do you spot whether somebody is creative?" That's what I focus in this article.

"do you hire creative people, or do you make your people (read employees) creative?"

In most organizations, recruitment has become a routine function, to an extent that firms even dare to outsource recruitment, something I find bizarre. If culture is what defines your company, and employees foster and represent the culture, how can you leave your company's identity to somebody else? How can you look at cost-cutting at the expense of ushering an identity crisis? However, coming back to the question at hand, "how do you recognize whether someone is indeed creative?" What types of question do you pose, or what do you read in a resume or the body language to ascertain if someone has a grain of creativity?

Before I reveal what Douglas told, I must offer a working definition of "creativity". Creativity is an ability to generate useful and novel ideas, which is, to come up with non-obvious and practical suggestions. It is different from day-dreaming, for most such dreams lack utility, and is not even just about common sense, as it mostly isn't novel. Hence one could deem it as a skill that, of course, like any other skill can be honed and sharpened.

So this is what Douglas offered. He said that we look at two attributes. One is that the job applicant should be a 'T-Shaped Personality', and second is that the person should have 'Multiple-Affinities'. Let me explain each in sequence. A "T-Shaped Personality" is someone who has a depth in a subject matter, as depicted by the stem of the T. At the same time, the person has an ability to appreciate and connect with a broad array of subject matters, which is represented by the bar of the "T". The subject matter knowledge, which must be way above average of that present in the organization, represents a valuable asset to the firm.

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At the same time, the ability to connect across wider disciplines helps the company in question knit the employees' ability together to produce a useful outcome. This attribute supports the employee from being an "island" of excellence, but rather a "peninsula" well connected to the rest of the organization. A thorough look at the resume and some sharp subject-matter questions can help tease this one out.

Honing multiple-affinities or multiple affiliations is about the ability to keep oneself meaningfully engaged in various productive engagements, which are over and above those demanded by the work or the organisation. These may include serious hobbies, passions, ongoing experiments, continued formal or informal education, and several other productive activities. Some candidates are teaching over the weekends, attending dance classes, learning classical dance, learning or teaching cooking, being an active member of cycling club, gardening on a regular basis, contributing to the open source community, and the ilk. The point here is that one should avoid limiting oneself to just the work related chores, or just the family.

One can easily slip into limiting the entire life, and hence its utility to just about the employment, or personal relationships, and this is outrightly bad for creativity. Firstly, it doesn't offer many avenues to learn new stuff, and hence to expand the mind, and secondly, one's success and failure get tightly associated with very few things. Systematically honing multiple-affiliations help building anti-fragility, and hence an ability to overcome Black Swan events (The black swan theory or theory of black swan events is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight - Nassim Taleb)

So my submission to you is that if you are interested in creativity and honing a culture thereof follow these steps

• Develop expertise in a chosen area;
• Engage yourself in multiple areas to get a working knowledge
• Cultivate multiple channels of learning in your life

Be one such person, and look for similar T-Shaped and Multiple-Affinity people