Viewpoint

The nature of creativity.

Is it possible to measure a person's creative capability? Understanding the characteristics of creative people, can that be spread to others? Are creative people that way naturally? Some interesting findings over the last few years shed new light on these questions and present some stunning and controversial potential answers. We start with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a personality-defining instrument developed during World War II to help make the U.S. workforce more productive. By answering a series of questions, it establishes personality types by weighing an individual from four perspectives. Is the person:

  • Extroverted/introverted?
  • Intuitive/sensory (practical)?
  • Thinking/feeling?
  • Perceiving (open)/judging (closure-oriented)?
The result is a Myers-Briggs personality type that can be used to identify compatibility in team activities or other personal relationships. A subset of the MBTI, The Creativity Index (MBTI-CI), makes a correlation between certain of the MBTI personality traits (with heavy emphasis on intuition) to yield a yardstick for creativity specifically. In a landmark evaluation of the contribution of the creativity personality trait to business results, Greg Stevens, president, WinOvations Inc., Midland, Mich., a product development consultancy, and James Burley, professor of marketing and logistics, Central Michigan University, Mount Pleasant, Mich., collaborated to apply the MBTI-CI to individuals involved in product development efforts at a major global chemical manufacturing company. In the study, the profitability "track record" of 69 business-opportunity analysts in Europe and North America was compared with their MBTI Creativity Index measured after the fact. These analysts were challenged with making recommendations to businesses on which product development ideas to proceed on, and to follow a project through the initial phases of concept development, initial feasibility screening, and concept testing. All received similar corporate training in planned innovation opportunity analysis. Collectively the analysts evaluated 267 early-stage product development projects over a the 10-year period, mid-80s to mid-90s. The results of the Stevens/Burley study are very interesting. The opportunity analysts testing in the top third on the MBTI Creativity Index produced 11 times more profit per analyst than those that tested in the bottom third. Though the more productive group completed more projects, profits per project were 8.9 times higher for the group of analysts above the median MBTI-CI score compared to those below the median score. "Given the fact that the critical early stages of new product development often are managed by a single key analyst or leader, it seems reasonable to assume that this individual's personality could play a critical role in determining the ultimate success or failure of a new product development project," notes Stevens. "That's precisely what we wanted to evaluate." Furthermore, a measure created by Stevens/Burley, the Rainmaker Index, which focuses solely on intuition and thinking from the MBTI index, produced an even more powerful relationship between the creativity personality trait and profitability. Those in the top third on the Rainmaker Index created 95 times more profit than those in the bottom third, and 49.3 times more profit/project. Coincidentally, the top 20% of analysts on the Rainmaker Index generated 80% of the profits, which exceeded $200 million. Featuring the intuitive and thinking facets of the MBTI, the Rainmaker Index is designed to identify individuals with high levels of intuition and the thinking/cognitive power to apply learned business skills, as not all ideas are worthy of commercialization. In fact, articles by the Industrial Research Institute Inc., Washington, D.C., suggest only about one in 3,000 new product ideas becomes a viable commercial product. The potential implication of these results is significant. Could specific individuals be culled out and their profitability contribution actually be forecast? A corollary is, if we can identify and select creative people, can we train those who do not naturally express that trait to be creative? The answer provided by Burley and researchers at the University of Minnesota is a stunner: No -- at least not for the long haul. According to Burley, while brainstorming techniques and other creativity tools can give a temporary shot to a group's idea-generation capability, individual creativity in the final analysis is God given, that is to say, genetic. This thought specifically addresses the issue of nature/nurture as it relates to development of personality traits such as creativity, and the latest thinking is that genetics are the key determinant. To prove the point, Burley cites research from the University of Minnesota study of twins raised apart (MISTRA). Over the last 30 years the University of Minnesota has conducted extensive studies of more than 100 sets of identical (monozygotic) twins, separated on average within five months of birth, remaining apart for an average of about 30 years. These evaluations include studies of brain waves, physical attributes, up to 20 personality factors from the California Psychological Inventory, and more. "Statistical analysis of identical twins raised apart shows their adult personalities are as alike as those raised together, a flat minimum of 50% alike," cites Burley. This implies a zero contribution from the environment, sentiments echoed by Thomas Bouchard Jr., department of Psychology and Institute of Human Genetics, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, and one of the key MISTRA researchers. He writes: "Results (of personality tests on identical twins raised together and raised apart) reaffirm the now well-known finding that in adulthood the influence of shared environment is essentially zero for most personality traits. While these results still surprise some psychologists, they are now so commonplace that most behavior geneticists would be extremely surprised if results turned out otherwise." And, "the evidence for genetic influence on most psychological traits is sufficiently pervasive that it is no longer acceptable to assume that the preponderance of the reliable variance in any psychological trait is environmental in origin." The conclusion, then, is that personality, and thus creativity, is genetic. But is it familial? Again, the answer is "No, not necessarily!" How can this be? "The best explanation," says Burley, "is that creativity is an emergent trait, depending on a synergistic expression of multiple genes." For instance, if 100 genes expressing themselves in a specific way are responsible for making a human hand, and only 99 express themselves, it's not that a person will have a smaller hand, he may not have any hand at all. "All factors must be present and being expressed for lightning to strike," suggests Burley. These thoughts are remarkably similar to a theory of creativity proposed in a paper in 1957 by William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor and paraphrased here. "In most human skills and abilities," says Shockley, "the difference between the average and the best is not that great. In intelligence speed testing, the average is rated at 100, and the genius is rated 170, less than twice as high as the average. However in creative fields, such as writing, composing, and inventing, the best produce very much more than the average. The great composers are prolific, as are the great painters, as are the great inventors. A few people produce a great deal, the output per person drops very rapidly, and most of us produce nothing." To explain this phenomenon, Shockley uses the challenge of inventing the electric starter for automobiles. "It required knowledge of engines, motors, batteries, power distribution, let's say six different ideas have to be connected if there is any hope of solving the problem. A person who can relate six disjointed ideas has a chance to meet this challenge, but a person capable of combining only four cannot. So the output ratio is not six vs four, because the four-idea person may never solve the problem. In other words, if you have millions of pieces of information in your head and you can combine six at a time and another person can only combine four, the difference in output of the two people will be astronomical. So small differences in native abilities produce enormous differences in final output."
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