Merge's Blog

What lies at the root of innovation and creativity?

In his ground-breaking 1990 paper, Carnegie Mellon psychologist John Hayes explores the question “What cognitive factors lead to creativity?” and uncovers convincing evidence on two points:

  1. Years of preparation are essential for creative productivity in many fields.
  2. Goal setting is the critical element in many creative acts.

Frequent blog readers have seen me discourse on many occasions about the importance of goal-setting (Want to achieve your goals? The answer lies in performance measurement, Setting goals? To build confidence, go smaller and sooner and Begin with the end in mind – a leadership lesson from the Cheshire cat), but in today’s post I want to focus on the first point – the importance of preparation.

In his paper, Hayes summarizes the research that establishes that preparation is one of the most important conditions of creativity. Some interesting snippets –

  • Out of 500 works by 76 of the world’s most accomplished music composers, 497 were created after at least ten years in their careers. And the three that were composed earlier were in years 8 and 9!
  • Looking at the notable works of 191 painters, all of them were created in year 7 or later.
  • Of 66 prominent poets, 55 of the 66 produced notable works after at least ten years in their careers, and the remaining 11 at least five years into their careers.
  • Chess players require about ten years of preparation before they reach the level of grand master.

The point: composers, painters, poets and chess players need a significant period of time to acquire sufficient knowledge and skills to perform in their fields at world class levels.

Is there a parallel that we can draw to your work environment from the world of composers, painters, poets and chess players?  I would say yes!  If you want to foster an environment of creativity and innovation in your teams, then you need to be patient, and encourage your people to try and try again.  Patience and practice are what will lead to success.

Thoughts?  Agree or disagree?  Please share your perspectives.

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