What Does the 'Creativity Crisis' Mean for Innovation?
Creativity would seem to be at the heart of entrepreneurship and innovation. But does a reported decline in the creativity of young people carry implications for the startup community?
A recent Newsweek article titled "The Creativity Crisis" reported that creativity among children -- measured by a 90-minute test -- has been declining since 1980. "The potential consequences are sweeping," the story reported. "The necessity of human ingenuity is undisputed. A recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the No. 1 ‘leadership competency' of the future."
This troubling news might naturally lead to concerns about declining creativity's impact on entrepreneurship and business startups. But a sampling of entrepreneurial authorities suggests there's little fallout related to this particular metric, given that a variety of other factors also contribute to innovation.
The creativity equation
"Is [creativity] part of the equation? Yes, it is," says Charles Hofer, a professor at Kennesaw State University's Coles College of Business. "But I don't think it's particularly crucial to entrepreneurship."
For one thing, the concept of creativity doesn't exist in a vacuum when it comes to starting and nurturing a new business. That's as much a matter of following through as it is cooking up one brainstorm after the other.
"There's no shortage of creative ideas in a given day," says Gregg Fairbrothers, a founding director of Dartmouth College's Entrepreneurial Network. "But it's doing all the hard work to execute the idea that really matters."
Hofer takes the issue of execution a step further by citing research indicating that some great companies didn't specifically derive from an initial burst of insight or creativity.
"Less than 20 percent of them started with an idea other than the one that made them great," he says. "It was only when they were up and running did they discover that ‘aha' moment."
Learning creativity through experience
Creativity also shouldn't override the value of experience in identifying and carrying through an idea for an actual working business. And, adds Hofer, experience can come in a variety of forms.
"You can leverage years of experience working in business development, just so long as the experience is relevant," he says. "Experience can also mean a kid with 10 years of experience working with a computer or the Internet."
Others note that the very nature of being an entrepreneur mandates a different level of creativity and resourcefulness not necessarily shared by larger businesses. As Angelo Mastrangelo, an adjunct assistant professor of management at Binghamton University, points out, larger companies don't have to be excessively creative to grow.
"Small companies have always been the innovators," he says. "If you're big, where's the incentive to change? They have no skin in the game." In other words, entrepreneurship by its very nature demands creative thinking on the fly. But is creativity something that can be learned through experience?
David Greenberg, founder of Parliament Tutors, a New York City-based tutoring and test prep company, thinks so. He notes that a challenging economy has not only funneled people into entrepreneurial roles, it's also encouraged fresh thinking among many who may have never thought of themselves as particularly innovative.
"Today, adversity is mostly affecting recent college grads. When I graduated college in 2009 with an economics degree from NYU, like many of my counterparts, I was unable to secure a job," says Greenberg. "When companies stopped hiring, many of their potential employees -- including myself -- were forced to consider alternatives. Adversity creates flexibility, and that flexibility fosters creativity."
The standardization of innovation
However, others say there are occasional but real signs of a lack of genuinely creative ideas -- although that may be as much an issue of securing funding as it is possessing an innate sense of innovation.
"An entire generation of entrepreneurs has been rewarded for trying to jump on the buzzword bandwagon and then through the venture capital hoops," says Stever Robbins, an adjunct lecturer at Babson College. "More and more, I hear entrepreneurs going to the same VC-run boot camps to learn ‘the way entrepreneurship works.' Standardizing by its very nature is designed to drive out deviation. And what is creativity, but deviation from the norm?"
Even if young children are experiencing a decline in creative juices, entrepreneurial experts note that it's always possible to regain creative mojo later in life -- ideally, through instruction where would-be entrepreneurs learn by actually experiencing the challenge of confronting a problem and sorting through options to address it.
"Creativity can very much be learned -- primarily in ours and other programs, through experiential learning," says Dartmouth's Fairbrothers. "But it's important not to overvalue that singular creative moment."
Jeff Wuorio is a veteran freelance writer and author based in southern Maine. He writes about small-business management, marketing and technology issues.