Creativity in Science and Engineering, Part 3

Managing Creativity

Based on the personality traits identified with creativity in the last post, it seems that managing creativity is going to be difficult. However, there is some hope. I have less direct experience in the world of science, but in engineering, it is basically impossible for a lone genius to do all the work himself. Everything is team based these days. I work on a team, not a large one, but nonetheless it takes a lot of different skills to bring a medical product to market.

This explains part of the reason why Charlton was complaining that science education selects for people with high conscientiousness and agreeableness. You just plain have to be able to work with people to get anything done today. However, this also has the effect of changing the distribution of personality traits you find amongst scientists and engineers. I don't know whether this works by just adding more agreeable scientists or preventing the less agreeable scientists from completing their PhDs. I wonder whether those who find that they don't like the direct of modern science end up in engineering of some sort [that is what happened to me].

A further important point is that the discussion of the traits associated with creativity are ceteris paribus. And on average. Turning to my favorite example for this series, my mad scientist team member is pretty rare in my organization. He has the classic profile of creativity sketched here: independent, obsessive about his work, willing to insist he is right in the face of criticism, and rather eccentric. He also has 22 patents, and hundreds of ideas that weren't worth enough money to patent, or are trade secret. Yet, in an organization known for innovative products, there are only a handful of people like him.

That kind of personality is hard to put to a given task. So, basically we don't. The task of running a project and bringing a project to market falls to slightly less creative individuals who are better at getting things done. Thinking in terms of distributions, you match the engineer or scientist to the task at hand. More diligent and less creative individuals [and I mean less relatively, not absolutely] typically end up in direct manufacturing support roles. You need people with higher C in that position, because getting all the details right and getting them done on time is critical there. But you don't necessarily need that person thinking about the 10-year plan. More creative, less diligent individuals can then be tasked with development work. Less paperwork, more rapid innovation. The most creative simply generate ideas, and don't do any paperwork except that required to file patents and whatnot.

But even this is still speaking in terms of ceteris paribus. Even on a given team, you find a spread of traits, such that some team members will be more or less conscientious or creative. The trick is making sure the team is compatible, which would be a whole 'nother post.

Standler's essay on creativity identifies true creativity as a solitary activity, and there is definitely some truth to that. But, that essay is also written from the point of view of identifying only epochal, ground breaking work as truly creative. It certainly is, but tending to think in terms of distributions, the lesser work that I see going on at my job still qualifies as creative, it is just less earth-shattering. Each team member has their own bits of creativity to add to the project, which could in some ways be seen as the art of combining little bursts of individual creativity into a useful whole. I don't agree with Standler that this is a different kind of research, but I rather see it as a lesser variety of the same thing.

Other good points Standler makes about managing creativity is that the creative work is inherently wasteful and difficult to predict. You end up with a lot of ideas that don't make the cut. This is totally normal, the trick is to be good enough at generating ideas that some of them work. If we think of the distribution of engineers, the most creative ones generate the most ideas, but have the most bad ones too. The least creative engineers have fewer creative ideas, but have to make them work every time, because failure means products that are not made right. Those most creative engineers are usually not on a schedule, and as you move through the distribution, the expectations of meeting a schedule increase. This is all for the best, given the people involved.

Really, one of the best things to help creativity occur is to match the person to the task, and then get out of the way. Speaking of "managing" creativity seems to imply that you can shepherd the process, but in my experience that does not seem to be the case. The best results seem to come from finding the right people and turning them loose.

See Part 1 and Part 2