managemnet company strategy managemanet A Deeper Understanding of Creativity at Work

A Deeper Understanding of Creativity at Work

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ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.

Fears about robots taking over our jobs ebb and flow over time, but with the recent rise of AI tools like DALL·E, which can scrape the internet to create some not bad art and design work, and Chat GPT, which can mimic human writing and even pass medical, bar and business school exams, now everyone seems to be worried. But today’s guests argue that there are a few things artificial intelligence can’t yet replicate, chief among them, human creativity. And they have some advice for how to better cultivate it, in yourself, your team, and your organization.

Gabriella Rosen Kellerman is a physician and chief product officer and chief innovation officer at BetterUp, and Martin Seligman is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. They’re co-authors of the new book, Tomorrowmind, and the HBR article, “Cultivating the Four Kinds of Creativity”. Welcome to both of you.


GABRIELLA ROSEN KELLERMAN: Great to be here, Alison.

ALISON BEARD: Gabriella, let’s start with you. Just for context, why is creativity such an important way for us to set ourselves apart, not just from robots but also from our peers and competitors?

GABRIELLA ROSEN KELLERMAN: So the robot part’s a little bit important to start with. We are seeing the less creative, more rote parts of our job taken over by automation. And that, in our view, is probably a good thing. It means our jobs become more interesting and more human. And part of the overarching climate that this is happening within is changing so rapidly and at such a global scale that the challenges we’re facing are very different than in previous eras. They’re novel, it’s not the same thing recurring in different forms.

They’re unpredictable, they’re uncertain. And so it requires inherently a creative and novel approach because it’s a new problem. Those of us who can rise to the opportunity to see those challenges as times to shine as creatives, as times to put forward our ideas and lean into that native creativity, will thrive in this environment. And part of our work and our hope is to empower people to identify as creatives and to build that muscle.

ALISON BEARD: And Marty, you and Gabriella are both psychologists. What role does creativity play in mental health? Why are these issues that you two think about?

MARTIN SELIGMAN: Well, mental health increasingly depends on creative solutions to personal problems as well as problems at work. And in order for us to be creative in our lives, we need to know something more about what creativity actually is. And the literature on creativity is not very helpful. It basically has told us that creativity is divergent thinking.

I think that’s true, but what Gabriella and I have been after is what kinds of divergent thinking are there? Can you identify the kinds, and then for the problems you have, in your own life, at your corporation, or in what I do, which is science, what kind of creativity, what kind of divergent thinking is going to work best with the problems you’re looking at?

ALISON BEARD: Yeah, and I think that’s useful because we so often think of creative jobs as the people who are in the art department or the editorial department. You think about brainstorming meetings, innovation. But the idea is that you can be creative and you should be creative in any kind of job, right?

GABRIELLA ROSEN KELLERMAN: Yeah, that’s correct. And particularly at the edges of the business, which is often customer service or the front lines of receiving and exchanging paperwork, there’s really important signals happening and really important opportunities to formulate creative solutions to these challenges, which then become opportunities. So the businesses that will succeed are the ones where those folks at the edges are empowered, are creative, and where there’s a fast and easy way of transmitting their innovations to the rest of the business.

ALISON BEARD: So Marty, if we’re going to break down just divergent thinking into more specific kinds of creativity, just quickly walk me through the four types that you’ve outlined.

MARTIN SELIGMAN: If we look at the history of science, there are four huge moves that people make for creative solutions in science. The first is integration, and that’s seeing that things that look very different are really the same. The second is the reverse of that. That’s splitting, and seeing that something that is claimed to be the same is really very different. The third kind, the kind I use most in my life, is figure-ground reversal. And that says that the solution to the problem is not going to be found in the foreground, it’s going to be found in background premises that are wrong. And the fourth kind is distal thinking, and that’s the ability to think about things that are very different from the here and now: different in time, different in space and different in culture.

ALISON BEARD: And I’d love to drill down into how all these different types actually show up in the workplace. So give me an example of integration.

GABRIELLA ROSEN KELLERMAN: So a very famous example of integration from the last couple decades is the iPhone. So originally, maybe 40 years ago, you had some sort of music player on a console, you had a phone hanging on the wall, you had a camera with film that would be dropped off at the drugstore to be developed. Over time, those were all digitized.

And then the integration victory was realizing that once those things were digitized, the acts of storing and processing and then accessing the data through each of those was analogous and could be therefore combined into a single device. And now many of us sitting next to us right now have a phone that’s also a camera and a music player. Lots of integrative thinking victories had to happen to get there, and engineering that followed suit in terms of integrating common systems for these very different use cases.

Marketing is a great example. There’s often marketing challenges where we’re trying to solve for a particular use case or persona of a customer, and we realize that there’s an analogy to what we would’ve thought of as a very different persona, but actually the needs are common. And so the solutions that worked in one arena can then be brought over and applicable and sometimes even more successful for that second persona. We see it in sales, in marketing, really across the board, across the functions.

ALISON BEARD: Okay. Marty, what about splitting? What’s a real world example of that?

MARTIN SELIGMAN: Well, splitting is seeing that things that look like they’re the same are really different. In science, the great precedent for splitting is the table of the elements. Earth, air, fire, and water, those were the Greek elements. And we now have, at last count, 119 splits for that. In medicine it’s been very important to take syndromes that look like they’re the same, in smallpox, for example, small poxes on the face and fever, to divide that into the kind of smallpox that kills you, variola major, and the kind of smallpox that just produces the symptoms but is not deadly. And that’s been crucial to understanding smallpox.

GABRIELLA ROSEN KELLERMAN: I would guess that splitting is one of the creative acts that we are most used to doing at work. Whenever we see product differentiation, so a broad product line that started as one thing and then starts to differentiate into different streams of business, that’s theoretically an act of splitting. It depends, for our definition, depends how that came to be. But if you’re fine-tuning it to different audiences and you’re realizing there’s inherently different value propositions for a single product, that is an act of splitting. And that can happen, by the way, in an R&D team or it can happen in a product marketing team. It can happen with a frontline salesperson who realizes that there’s a different way to position that product. It can also happen on the contracting side. So there’s really a lot of different parts of the value chain within the business where that splitting insight can arise and even be enacted.

ALISON BEARD: Okay. Figure-ground reversal is up next. That strikes me as something that’s quite strategic. Marty, could you give us an example?

MARTIN SELIGMAN: I think the most important discovery in neuroscience of my lifetime was a remarkable figure-ground reversal. Like many people who are interested in what brain circuits light up when you’re doing a specific task, like listening to this podcast for example, how do you find out? Well, there are a thousand studies of the following form to ask what part of the brain lights up when you’re doing an external task. We put people into the donut and we give them a lecture to listen to, anagrams to solve, external problems. But we also run a control group, because you have to contrast it to something. So we ask people, “Oh, just lie there and don’t do anything.”

Well, what showed up was a huge reversal. And that is, if you look at what lights up when you’re listening to this podcast, it’s very noisy. You have to be a really good statistician to pull out what’s going on. But if you look at what lights up when I ask you just to lie there and don’t do anything, it is so regular that we call it the default circuit. And it turns out to be the very same circuit that lights up if I ask you to plan for the future. So it turns out that the creativity circuit, the imagination circuit, was discovered by looking not at what we do when we’re focused on a task, but what we do when we lie there and are asked not to do anything. 50% of the time, you’re planning for the future.

ALISON BEARD: That’s very meta. You learned something about creativity by using figure-ground reversal, which is a type of creativity.

GABRIELLA ROSEN KELLERMAN: We also see figure-ground reversal in industry. These are stories you’ll hear of some sort of tool that was built for internal purposes and then it became the successful product. Slack is a great example of this. Stewart Butterfield started the company Tiny Speck, a video game company, and the engineers developed this messaging system for their own purposes to communicate across the company. It became so successful as a messaging app that of course today we know Slack as a messaging company, and a very successful one at that, rather than as a video game company.

MARTIN SELIGMAN: And let me just add one thing to that, if I may. One of my favorite examples is GPS. And the way GPS came about was in 1958, I think, the Russians launched Sputnik into space and American military wanted to track where it was. And so to do that, they had to look at two different places on earth and zoom in on Sputnik. By doing it to two different places, you could get both the speed and where it was. And then people said, well, how about if we reversed this and we wanted to know where Alison was on earth right now? Well, we’d need two different satellites out in space looking at Alison. And so GPS was a profound figure-ground reversal.

ALISON BEARD: And now we can’t imagine living without it. That’s pretty extraordinary. So finally Gabriella, let’s talk about distal thinking. Is this the kind of creativity that we think about when we’re talking about innovation and entrepreneurship and invention?

GABRIELLA ROSEN KELLERMAN: It’s the kind of thinking we imagine with the lone creative genius who’s able to think of these futures so different from what we have today that it takes a moment just to wrap our head around the words they’re using and the vision they’re painting. That is a type of divergent thinking that is unique to some of us.

ALISON BEARD: And so how do people bridge that gap between the present and the future in a way that others can’t? How do they make other people see what they see?

GABRIELLA ROSEN KELLERMAN:  There’s lots of examples over the last hundred years of innovators who were ahead of the market. And subsequently their distal ideas became very successful, but they saw very little of the monetary success because they were too far ahead of it. So we proposed two different strategies to bridge the gap between the distal invention and market which is not yet ready for it. The first one is by accelerating market maturity, doing this through promotions, partnership and focus launches.

So an example of this would be PayPal. When PayPal first came to be, people may recall that the primary use case, or one of the primary use cases was eBay. People weren’t using digital payments broadly, but it was very common to do so on the site eBay. PayPal and eBay formed a strategic partnership and eBay even acquired PayPal. Eventually, PayPal became a broader-based offering with lots more applications as the market caught up. But that was a really successful incubation for PayPal during that 10-15 year period.

The second strategy is what we call backwards innovation. So this is where you have intermediary kind of stepping stone products between where we are today and where you’re trying to get people. Self-driving cars offer a good look at this, where there is technology that would let people take their hands off the wheel more than they’re willing to do today. But the cars that we use, for lots of reasons, don’t have that in place. And one of those reasons is simply consumer readiness.

And so there are these intermediary products that are helping us along the way. Tesla’s a great example of this and they have language for different modalities of hands-off driving that help people get more comfortable with this ultimate vision they have, which still feels funny to us today, of not actually having our hands on the wheel and getting from one place to another.

MARTIN SELIGMAN: I think of distal thinking as particular genius. I’m a verbal thinker, but when I try to understand DNA and Francis Crick’s discovery of the double helix, this notion of a self-replicating double helix is so difficult for me to wrap my mind around. Einstein was a visual thinker. His ability to conceive of time in a visual way is what gave us both special relativity and general relativity. So for me, distal thinking differs from person to person and there are some people who are geniuses at it.

ALISON BEARD: We’ve talked about these hugely successful products and companies and inventions, but part of your premise is that all of us, the non-geniuses, can cultivate all of these types of creativity if it doesn’t come to us naturally?

GABRIELLA ROSEN KELLERMAN: We believe that we can cultivate creativity. There are methods for how to build these different muscles. There’s going to be types within the four that feel more native to some of us than others. And gaining self-awareness of our creative strengths is part of the exercise that we’re proposing, so that we can work on those areas where we’re less strong, but also surround ourselves with thinkers who are complementary so that at the team level, at the organizational level, we’re responding to creative opportunities as robustly as possible.

ALISON BEARD: You talk in the book about creativity hygiene, things that we should all do all the time to boost our muscles, as you say. So what are some of those daily habits that you’d like us to adopt?

GABRIELLA ROSEN KELLERMAN: The idea of creativity hygiene is analogous to sleep hygiene, with the notion that sleep, like creativity, is something we want to be able to do readily, but involves non-conscious processes. And therefore surrounding ourselves with behavioral techniques and contextual cues that will optimize for that is the right approach rather than, for example, telling ourselves, just be creative or just go to sleep. Our brains just don’t quite work like that.

For creativity, we’re proposing a few different threads of “hygiene,” by which we really just mean behavioral shifts. One of them is all about seeking novelty. So how do we feed that default mode network that Marty was talking about with the most rich, divergent materials so that when we are in those acts of association that happen in these very creative parts of our minds, they’re drawing from the richest soil possible?

So things like branching out socially, breaking up our routine, taking a different route to and from work, browsing broadly, whether that’s literally in a bookstore or online. Another important thread of creativity hygiene is dialing in incubation period. Incubation is the period in between really focused work on a particular problem. We’re working on it, but in the background of our conscious minds, and we know that there are activities that interfere with high-quality incubation.

So busy work, messaging, meetings, lots of things that we spend our days at work doing, they interfere with high quality incubation. What’s best for incubation of creative problems is doing just enough. So tasks that require a minimal amount of conscious attention, but still some. You don’t want to just be lying in bed. But taking a walk, gardening, showering, all of these things that you’re sort of on autopilot. This is what leads to the richest daydreaming, the richest incubation and then will result in richer output.

MARTIN SELIGMAN: I’m a great advocate of daydreaming and dreaming. One very interesting property of the default circuit is there seems to be a temporal pattern all day long in which you listen to what I’m saying for about 90 seconds, and then you go inward, the default circuit turns on, and you do roughly what we call daydreaming. But what daydreaming does, it breaks the barriers of time and space and it juxtaposes scenarios that don’t occur in reality.

And the same thing seems to happen in dreaming. So interestingly, all day long our external circuits are turned on, those go for about 90 seconds. And then we daydream, we integrate what we’ve just heard in the last 90 seconds in the external world with what our current concerns are and what our future looks like. So I’m all for encouraging people to daydream and to dream and to take lessons from that.

ALISON BEARD: For a lot of jobs, creativity sometimes feels like something that you have to do on top of your daily rote work, and it might not even be welcomed. So what advice do you have for people in that situation?

GABRIELLA ROSEN KELLERMAN: Part of the work of improving our creative abilities is understanding what do we mean by creativity, and debunking the myth of, again, this lone creative genius with the distal vision. We’re all doing creative things every day, and so understanding what those are and what those look like is part of the first step in building creative self-efficacy.

So for someone who’s feeling burdened by creativity or maybe daunted in the way that you’re describing, Alison, they probably have a low self-belief in their own creative abilities. Creativity, for those who have a higher self-belief, is something that we feel it’s easy for us to access. We’re confident that we can come up with some ideas. Creative self-efficacy is built very effectively through support and observation from influential others.

ALISON BEARD: What can managers do to cultivate different types of creativity on their teams?

GABRIELLA ROSEN KELLERMAN: Managers have a really critical role to play here in building the creative self-efficacy of the individuals on their teams, first and foremost. Managers have a huge influence on whether the people on their teams see themselves as creative and successfully so. It’s important to notice the little things, so little innovations in process, in structure, in response to a customer complaint. Notice them, recognize them, call them out. As you build the creative self-efficacy of the individuals on your team, you increase the quality of the creative output that you’ll see from those individuals.

It’s also important for managers to hold the bar of what is the realm of the possible. So the group that we form in a team will quickly create norms around how big do we want to think about this problem? And if we don’t think big enough about the problem to begin with, then we’re sort of already sunk before we’ve left the gate. So how do you position teams with individuals within them in particular who can broaden that realm, who can lift the ceiling on what people think is acceptable to be introducing into the conversation? So that before we start narrowing and picking a solution, we have the broadest set of ideas on the table to begin with.

ALISON BEARD: What about at the organization level? How can corporate leaders foster a more creative culture that emphasizes and enhances these different types of creativity?

GABRIELLA ROSEN KELLERMAN: Two things. The first is treating everyone as creative. A lot of leadership competency structures today include creativity as part of what they expect out of everyone in the organization. Democratizing that idea, setting that broad expectation, it already goes a huge way toward establishing this idea that everyone has that capability. Everyone can and should and is expected to nurture it within the organization.

The second is all about psychological safety and risk-taking. So cultures that are great at creativity and innovation are able to celebrate risk-taking even when the risk “fails,” even when the innovation is not a success. If it was arrived in the right ways, with great solid thinking and processes, celebrate it. Let everyone know that there’s good that comes from all kinds of innovation and that the outcome isn’t necessarily going to determine how your efforts were judged. Risk-taking is one of the capabilities that’s important in general for success in this world of work. And leaders set a really strong tone around that just by how they respond when people at lower levels of the organization put themselves out there.

ALISON BEARD: Before we go, I want to talk about some of the other essential human skills that you talk about in your book which seem to complement creativity. Marty, you mentioned one of them before, which is perspection. So tell me about that, the research you’ve done on it and how you see it show up in the workplace.

MARTIN SELIGMAN: Well, I think it’s very important to be effectively future-minded. Future-mindedness consists of the range of scenarios that you can generate and your ability to choose among them. So for example, in our work in the United States Army, we were interested in the fact that people gravitate to the most catastrophic interpretation when things go wrong. And so we have an exercise called putting it in perspective in which we ask people first when something goes wrong.

And I’ll give you a military example. You’ve been out on a night march and one member of your troop at midnight hasn’t shown up. Your catastrophic thought is, he’s dead and I am really in trouble. So we have people first to lay out the most catastrophic thinking. Then we have people lay out the best possible consequence. Maybe the batteries are dead in his radio and he’ll be here in five minutes. And then we have people, having contrasted the best to the worst, to talk about the most realistic and to plan for it. The most realistic here is something has gone wrong, he may be injured, and what we need to do is retrace our steps and find him. Putting things in perspective is a great tool for effective future-mindedness.

ALISON BEARD: And what about connection? That’s another chapter in the book that you talk about, and surely that is important to work and creativity, particularly when you’re trying to surround yourself with people who have different types of creative modes than you.

GABRIELLA ROSEN KELLERMAN: Yeah. So every model of wellbeing includes relationships and connection as a pillar of our psychological wellbeing. In the modern workplace, there’s so many barriers to connection because we’re separated in space, because we’re really strangers and we’re in these teams that are constituting and reconstituting over and over again. And yet we still need each other as much as ever for our wellbeing, and for our creative work to be successful, it relies on collaboration.

And now more than ever, companies are focused not on customer satisfaction, not even on customer experience, but customer delight. The bar just keeps getting higher for this level of connection that we’re expected to achieve with our customers, which again comes back to connection. And so for our purposes, the task is how do we overcome these barriers in order to build authentic deep connection and trust and to do so quickly? Because of course, the pace of work today is so fast and we feel this sense of time famine. There’s not enough time in the day. We call this rapid rapport and we introduce a number of techniques for quick trust building across difference.

ALISON BEARD: Thank you both for being here today. I really appreciate it.

GABRIELLA ROSEN KELLERMAN: Thanks so much, Alison.

MARTIN SELIGMAN: Thanks so much.

ALISON BEARD: That’s Gabriella Rosen Kellerman, a physician and executive at BetterUp, and Martin Seligman, psychologist and professor at the University of Pennsylvania. They’re coauthors of the new book Tomorrowmind and the HBR article, “Cultivating the Four Kinds of Creativity.”

We have more episodes and more podcasts to help you manage your team, your organization, and your career. Find them at or search HBR in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.

This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Our audio product manager is Ian Fox. And Hannah Bates is our audio production assistant. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Alison Beard.

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