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Which should matter more to employers: experience or creativity?

For a great many years, I have been astounded that so many employers continue asking principally for experience even when recruiting in emerging sectors. How much of an economic drag on innovation is this, I keep wondering?

In recent years, with employers recognising superficially they need to understand and harness creativity, my itch to tackle a range of daft employer practice has become unbearable, forcing me to attempt my own creativity.

So this article first explores the idea of creativity versus experience, and then looks at how employers might assess and harness creativity in their workforce.

The discussion diagram: assessing people’s conversational content

The diagram below is intended to be purely conceptual, to support readers in their thinking, and to start some more effective dialogue on the subject. My hope is this leads to better understanding, and fewer employers flailing but failing: flailing around with the buzz words, but failing to make any real progress with the topic. Observationally, the buzz word phenomenon is actually very consistent: we’ve had the spike of interest, among employers, but now we need the steady, hard work to make real progress beyond the bleeding edge.

While in no way scientific in execution, this diagram is still empirical in observation; I feel it has enough correlation with real life to connect with and prompt a broader base of readers.

Maybe folks have already done the science, but it hasn’t reached public notice. That’s a subject for another day. But actually, being creative and germain to testing the point, how much do we need prior experience and knowledge to make sense of a subject, and also help or prompt others?

Enough caveats, let’s start the discussion.

Background: creative trends

More enlightened employers see various trends, and read the way the wind is blowing. Such employers value creativity, and see that self forming and self organising teams — flagged by the Teal movement — need folk who themselves are self organising, and able to self learn.

Employees or gig workers also need to have something of a Village attitude. They need due commitment to others they are working with, but still recognising that “global” gig economies mean work as we know it is becoming ever more transient, ever more diffracted, ever more hard to quantify and qualify in standard ways.

With accelerated learning rates, CVs become dated on a daily basis, and are becoming redundant in comparison to far more current, relevant and dynamic online output produced via social media. The currency of digital references and vouching is gaining year on year.

Corporates are shrinking, networks are growing.

There are many such trends to observe, but hopefully that’s enough scene setting for now.

Creativity relies on exploration and learning

Looking at the bottom right of the diagram, we see for discussion purposes that we sometimes face situations with No “Local Precedence”.

We usually have some choices when facing “the unknown”. Go and look up an answer, find someone who knows how to do it, or have a go ourselves.

These choices have differing elements of prior experience and creativity. If we can look up the answer, there are then some elements of experience logged on the internet. We then apply our own creativity, to an extent, in actioning the knowledge we find. Finding an expert may not involve any learning, we may just ask them to resolve the situation on our behalf, often using payment of some kind. No creativity or learning there.

But if the two “easy” options don’t work, we are then faced with having a go ourselves. We are then forced to be creative, since we have no other way of tackling the situation, as there is “no local precedence”.

In a world of high paced change, easy options are becoming marginally harder to find, despite the growth of the internet. New situations emerge all the time, and how well are members of the public equipped to deal with rapid change, for the majority on a par with death and taxation in many respects.

In the diagram, several groups I know are practicing Action Learning, meaning high exploratory participation levels and low structure, as noted by the CIA when talking about a need to evolve rapidly in “Complex Adaptive Systems”. Humans certainly count in that respect, and human teams even more so.

What do we learn when exploring?

Having done some exploring, we may sometimes take a step back, to try and see what happened, and whether we can apply this understanding in other situations.

Scientists will often call this step back to reflect “metacognition”, and this assessment process is a subject I will be exploring in more depth shortly.

But review is an important step to learning from our activities.

Very briefly, both Kolb and Deming highlighted that we have potential learning cycles and opportunities in our lives, which we can intersperse with actual activity to make both richer.

Peter Senge even identified a need to have Learning Organisations, which in some ways was also an early interest spike, and a forerunner to the current steadier but more widespread Teal movement.

It is recognised that a balance needs to be struck between action and reflection — avoiding both “paralysis by analysis” and perpetual “crisis management” — and one way to do this is to aim for speed in the action and learning cycle that Kolb and Deming identified.

What types of learning are effective?

The diagram shows several types of learning. Rote Learning has a high boredom factor, Forced Learning involves fear on some level. Perversely, Fear is likely to force learners to be creative in finding ways to avoid the fear, or indeed to avoid the learning. The diagram portrays negative emotions as detracting from being able to use either experience or creativity, and describes this as “emotional drag”.

Instinctively, learning is the process of making new meaning. This can involve taking previously understood concepts and either merging them or actually discarding them in favour of the newer meaning.

In the diagram, Making Sense is shown towards the lower right, since there has to be willingness to discard prior experience on some level, to create something new. Similarly, nearer the top left, Vigorous Disagreement is often caused because folk have key prior experience they are unable or unwilling to surrender. Add a level of stubborn Inflexibility, or Fear for position or reputation, and opportunities to find new meaning diminish substantially.

It has also been recognised that a learning “dysfunction” may not be a bad thing, if we can finally leave the one-size-fits -all factory education system behind us. Richard Branson is a well know dyslexic, but clearly enormously creative. Many successful entrepreneurs leave great Universities such as Stanford before finishing the course, seeing the relevance to them as limited. Einstein himself lambasted the school system as being counter productive.

In the diagram, Poor Memory shows up as detracting from performance, under current systems, and certainly inhibits Rote Learning. Creativity is almost forced when memory doesn’t prompt, but many employers Fear failure, and don’t understand that higher failure rates and creativity so often go hand in hand. This aspect of creativity is a really big problem and concern for employers.

Where can employers assess and harness creativity?

It may be we have to revisit our thinking when using the term “reinventing the wheel”.

Many entrepreneurs recognise that the right vehicle can sometimes be in the wrong hands, and that one person’s poison is another person’s meat. Hence people buying companies from one another at nominal cost.

Meaning, if it really is all about execution, there actually can be a reason for reinventing a wheel, through finding or creating better ways to execute on a business idea that struggles with another owner.

We need creativity not just in dreaming up ideas but also in working out how to get real results from them, so as to deliver value to customers and shareholders alike.

Most employers get that as the big picture, the what is needed and why. But they don’t get the detailed how, how do they achieve those goals, and how do they help their teams achieve those goals.

In the diagram, we can see certain points that suggest:

1. Brainstorming is a creative exercise where we suspend judgement temporarily in favour of ideas from our group

2. Collaboration can involve ceding individual previous experience in favour of compromise, better more rounded working practice

3. Making Sense is a key step for an individual to be able to learn and then apply that learning on subsequent occasions

4. Active Publishing on social media allows better visibility of both thinking and output. Publishing itself — of original content — always involves creative thinking

5. In social media discussion, do folk exhibit what we can call Generative Conversation — #GenCon for short — continually moving towards better places for folk seeking certain objectives and goals

It’s obvious this will all vary on a person by person basis.

And there will be other activities that we can plot on our diagram, and which we can assess on a person by person basis, given we are all different.

Employers might also like to note the emergence on Facebook of groups exhibiting collaborative behaviours, and making tentative but actual steps forwards on real life projects.

How Can Employers Find & Harness Creativity?

So in conclusion, here are some suggestions for employers:

  1. Look for evidence in workers that they can work collaboratively
  2. Look to see if folk are publishing actively and thoughtfully on social media
  3. Assess whether the balance is right between action and reflection
  4. See if there is a discernible learning curve in their online traces
  5. Remember that ideation also needs an assessment and filtering process
  6. A learning dysfunction might also mean higher levels of creativity
  7. Conversely, memory and image on their own may not mean ideas are actually applied with any level of success
  8. Setting potential workers or partners a creative test can show their true capabilities
  9. Self learning is becoming much easier with the internet: millennials will bring this challenge to the work place in a big way, and employers better be ready for it
  10. Self learning also means more diversity. The days of recognisable and standard qualifications are numbered, so other means of assessment are urgently needed. Our global Education Systems face the most massive challenge in this respect, and employers may need to cast their reliance on University education aside.
  11. Personal issues and emotions will increasingly impact on effective performance. Employers may need to take more factors into account when working with folk, including whether time needs to be contiguous or can be asynchronous.
  12. Arguments and disagreement are often worth exploring, to find out what the key factors are behind the perceived issues.
  13. In an innovative and fast changing world, only creativity has answers for situations we have never seen before. If we can avoid blame for “sub optimal” solutions, learn from the creative process using project review — the most under- and unused of corporate practice — and simply repeat the cycle to get better performance as and when we need it, then we keep creative teams on board and functioning at near to peak levels.
  14. Worker motivation — overlap of agendas — is key to getting involvement in creative problem solving; both employee and employer then benefit from activity levels.

A final conclusion.

It has to be at least worth asking the question: is this job that I need doing, and that I need extra resource for, ALL about experience? Or does it increasingly need creative problem solvers, who may not at first seem to have all the right credentials, but could have all the right attitudes and resourcefulness? Could they not only grow into the job, but might they also grow beyond the job, taking the company with them?

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