About 12 months ago, we set out to see if it was possible to do what was previously thought to
be impossible – to accurately predicting whether a person would be an effective creative
thinker at work. To our knowledge, there was not a single, scientifically validated process to
do this. We found that in the majority of cases, most companies were not using any method for
assessing creativity, despite claiming it to be a critical competency for staff to possess.
There were a couple of exceptions. In “creative industries,” such as advertising and design,
recruiters would typically look at a job applicant’s portfolio of past work to see how
creative they were. Of course, we all know people’s tendencies to stretch the truth. I used to
work at the advertising agency that came up with the idea for Earth Hour. And despite the fact
that only one person came up with the idea, I heard about many people from the agency claiming
that they were the one who gave birth to this idea and had put it in their portfolio.
In other industries, creative thinking is sometimes assessed by giving people a difficult
problem to solve and observing how they answer the problem. For example, Microsoft famously
asks job applicants how they would move Mount Fuji, and uses their answers as a test as to how
creative they are. However, this process has never been scientifically validated and is only
testing a small component of workplace creativity.
So we set ourselves the challenge of measuring the unmeasurable. We tested over 1,300 people,
from industries as diverse as advertising, engineering and insurance. We discovered that yes,
we could indeed predict a person’s ability to think creatively and work, and could do so
extremely accurately. It was all a matter of identifying the right variables to measure.
There are several components to creative thinking that we found that our test could predict.
These included a person’s ability to:
Generate new and effective solutions.
Collaborate well with others.
Sell and communicate ideas to others.
Think creatively under stressful situations.
Our test incorporated over 25 “predictors” – things that we knew were predictive of creative
performance as shown by leading researchers in the field. Here are some of the variables that
came out as the top predictors of creative performance in the workplace that you can use to
help your own predictive powers.
1. Openness to experience
There are hundreds of different personality traits, but we found that there was one trait in
particular that was most predictive of creative performance. This trait, called ‘Openness to
Experience’ is all about our inclination to seek out and appreciate new experiences. People
who score high on this trait tend to enjoy having a lot of variety in their life, have a high
level of curiosity, and use their imagination a lot. As a result, they perform significantly
more creatively at work.
If you want to try to foster this trait in yourself or in others, start by becoming
consciously aware of routines that you have in your life – it might be reading the same types
of magazines, gravitating towards the same types of movies or restaurants – and actively
encourage yourself to try something different. Being open to experiencing new activities, and
following through on this, will help improve your openness to experience and thus
significantly boost your creative performance.
2. Creative self-efficacy
Creative self-efficacy relates to a person’s confidence in their ability to think creatively.
A person’s creative confidence is important because it directly influences the motivation and
ability of a person to get stuck into creative problem-solving tasks. People who are high on
this dimension have a strong belief in their ability to generate creative ideas, will immerse
themselves in tasks that require creativity, and will seek to get the best ideas out of
themselves. Simply having this self belief has been shown to significantly increase a person’s
actual ability to think creatively.
If you currently do not see yourself as being an effective creative thinker, it is important
to recognise that this is merely a negative frame of mind that can be changed using positive
reinforcement. Research has consistently shown that creativity is malleable and our creative
potential can be manipulated using a variety of strategies. So next time you do something
creative, like solving a problem or participating in a brainstorm, make sure you acknowledge
this creativity, give yourself a pat on the back and nurture your creative confidence. By
reinforcing your creative triumphs, no matter how small, you will increase your awareness and
confidence of your creative potential.
Resilience is all about a person’s psychological ability to deal with stressful situations.
People who are high in resilience bounce back easily from disappointments and failures, and
can remain optimistic when things are not going their way. We found that people who showed
high levels of resilience were significantly more creative at work. This is because creativity
often involves experiencing failure, such as having ideas rejected and having implemented
ideas perform poorly. Being able to bounce back from rejections is critical to maintaining
creativity and enthusiasm.
Starting to see failure as going hand in hand with creativity can help with setting more
realistic expectations which will help boost resilience. In addition, reminding yourself that
rejections and failures are not personal should also help build up a level of resilience.
4. Confidence in intuition
Intuition is an effortless, quick, and automatic form of thinking (our “gut feel”) that we
rely on frequently to guide our actions. This is in contrast to analytical thinking which is
deliberate, unhurried and detail-oriented. People who have a lot of confidence in their
intuitive side tend to prefer this way of thinking over more analytical thinking and their
confidence in the accuracy of these intuitive decisions. Having this confidence in one’s
intuition can help immensely with creativity, as creative thought often involves tapping into
intuitive, “gut” thinking.
Confidence in intuition can be developed by gradually using and testing your intuitive
judgments in low risk circumstances, then using any successful intuition-based decisions as
encouragement for more important tasks. The next time you have an opportunity to make a low-
risk decision using your “gut feel” (when trying to answer a question on a game show or when
you’re asked a question you’re not too sure of, for example), ensure you make the decision
instantly then check to confirm the correct answer. More often than not, you will find that
your instinctive answers are correct. The next step is to start deploying these automatic
judgments at work when trying to solve problems or when brainstorming, and to consciously
acknowledge the benefits of your instinctive judgments when they pay off. This gradual
approach will ease you into a pattern of trusting your intuition and will help to develop your
5. Tolerance of ambiguity
Tolerance of Ambiguity relates to how people react to problem solving tasks where the
information provided is vague, incomplete or inconsistent, and where the solution and path to
get to the solution are not immediately clear. People who are very tolerant of ambiguities are
not bothered by problems that are perceived as open-ended or ambiguous as they tend to be
highly flexible and dynamic, and they enjoy the autonomy and creativity ill-defined tasks
require. Being open to ambiguity and feeling comfortable with these types of problems is key
to creative performance, as a large part of creative thinking involves being able to sit
comfortably with problems that have no obvious solution.
Changing the way you perceive unclear objectives is one way of becoming more comfortable with
ambiguity. Initially, you must challenge your automatic tendency to view vague instructions
negatively; instead, try to be neutral and open to ambiguities. The next step is to realise
that the more ambiguous your directives, the more scope you have to impose your personal touch
and talent on the brief. That is, ambiguous briefs give you much more opportunity to work
outside organisational constraints and norms, and to do things the way you think they should
be done. If you consistently approach ambiguous directives in this way – openly, positively
and confidently – your habit of perceiving ambiguity negatively will be replaced by a tendency
to view ambiguity as an opportunity for you to shine.
6. Cross application of experiences
Cross-application of experiences occurs when a person draws on experiences from seemingly
unrelated parts of their life to solve problems at work. People who demonstrate this behaviour
frequently apply knowledge and concepts from outside of the work environment to solve work-
The obvious solution to improve upon this area is to start deliberately applying knowledge and
experiences from outside of work to tasks requiring creative problem solving at work. A common
and effective strategy is to use analogy, that is, try to identify similarities in the problem
you are working on and a problem you’ve solved previously outside of work. Once similarities
have been extracted try to see if your previous solutions would also work in the problem you
are attempting to solve. You can also draw analogies using your knowledge of seemingly
irrelevant topics, such as history, politics or popular culture. The more similarities you can
identify between projects at work and your knowledge and experiences, the better you will
understand the problem you are faced with and the more likely you are to be able to solve it.
So what now?
The six points outlined above are some of the main findings to come out of our research, which
should hopefully give you and your team some direction for enhancing your own creativity.
There were also several other variables that were linked to creative performance in the
workplace, however, the above variables were some of the main ones.
You might also start to think about how you could incorporate these things into your
recruitment process when you are looking for new staff who will be great creative thinkers, or
alternatively, seek out a formal way of measuring these traits as they can be tricky to