Myths Of Creativity: My Interview With David Burkus

November 19, 2013

I’ve recommended the new book The Myths of Creativity by David Burkus, so I’m happy to also share with you the following interview with David:

How did you become interested in creativity?

I became interested in creativity and innovation as an offshoot of leadership. I started to research what characteristics the most innovative companies and teams shared and began to wonder what role, if any, leadership plays. As a result, I got exposed to a wealth of research about how creativity really happens – what really goes on inside the minds of creative people and teams – and found that most organizations practices weren’t lining up with what the research was saying about how to enhance creativity. I believe in evidence-based leadership, and leading creative teams is no different.

How did you identify your list of myths about creativity?

I began with an inkling of some of them. As you dig into the research, some of the myths become fairly easy to spot. But my experience was only anecdotal. So I surveyed middle managers, entrepreneurs and even senior executives and asked them questions about how creativity worked and what they thought made for an innovative company. From their answers, I found a collection of places where their responses didn’t line up with what evidence, as well as the example of renown innovators, was promoting. I decided to call this collection a set of myths because, like ancient myths, they were an experienced-based attempt to explain the mysterious. But between when they were written and now, research has made the creative process a LOT less mysterious. We don’t need these myths any more, and some of them can even hurt our innovation efforts,

As you talk to organizations about your myths, which one do they seem most interested in and why?

I end the book with a discussion of the “mousetrap myth.” The name is taken from the maxim, “If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door.” The truth is the opposite. Great ideas get rejected all the time. History is filled with metaphorical mousetraps that weren’t readily adopted. From companies inventing disruptive technologies and letting others capitalize on them, to great works of art and music not given initial credit for their greatness. This lead me to the conclusion that most companies don’t have a creativity problem – most don’t need more and better ideas. Most organizations have a recognition problem; they need to get better at finding the great ideas that are already inside their organization. We can all remember our ideas being rejected early on in our careers, but later when we became leaders, many of us forget that experience and take on the very bias the mousetrap myth exposes. Yes, we need more creativity…but we also need to get better at recognizing the creative ideas we already have.

Is there anything you left out of the book that you wish you could have included?

In some of the early drafts, I included a discussion about the link between creativity and dishonesty. We’re whole-heartedly pursuing creativity as if it’s the solution to all our problems, and it likely is. But creativity is often the cause of many of our problems. Creative people are more likely than average to be dishonest people. Swindlers and Criminals have to be incredibly creative just to keep up with their lies. This raises a much broader question: how do we raise up our standard of creativity in a way that promotes good and makes it harder to do evil? In truth, it’s a question I’m still grappling with.

View More: Burkus is the author of The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas. David is Assistant Professor of Management at the College of Business at Oral Roberts University, where he teaches courses on leadership, creativity, strategy, and organizational behavior. He is the founder and host LDRLB, a podcast tank that shares insights from research on leadership, innovation, and strategy. His work as been featured in Forbes, Fast Company, PsychologyToday, Inc, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, the Financial Times and the Harvard Business Review.


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Comments (4)

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  1. Keith Graham says:

    I sense that awareness of personality types is an essential key to becoming more creative. For example, I am an “imaginist’ with copy writing skills. The opposite side of the personality profile for me is the “analyst”. Therefore, I need analysts to help me be successful and that is the key area that I am focusing on developing. It is important for me to remember my greatest strength is my greatest weakness.

    Quite a while back I read “Borrowing Brilliance”, by David Kord Murray. It was an excellent recommendation from you and a tremendous benefit to me being more innovative.

    I appreciate the work you do.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Keith. Excellent observation. Thanks for reminding us that our greatest strengths can also be a weakness when overdone. Totally concur. Bret

  2. Beth Rickert says:

    I love the point about the link between creativity and dishonesty. There’s a reason we coined the term “con ARTIST.” Like any other learned skill or inborn gift, creativity is value-neutral… and can be employed for evil or for good, for self or for others.

    I also think a lot about how genuine creativity is messy. The process of innovation is muddy in the middle. Are leaders always tolerant of these middle stages of the creative process, and patient enough to endure all the pilot versions and rough drafts that must come before the final masterpiece? Or do they sacrifice creativity on the altar of productivity — inspiration on the altar of orderliness?

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome back, Beth! I hope you are well. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.