Creativity: A Skill To Cultivate In The 21st Century

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As a learning and development professional in a tech field, you are affected every day by the demands of rapid change. To keep pace, workers at every level must be willing to adapt and learn continually. Alvin Toffler, futurist and author of the 1970 seminal book Future Shock, went so far as to say that being unable to learn, unlearn and relearn would be the 21st century equivalent of being illiterate.

To really understand what that means, let’s try this simple exercise. Go ahead and fold your arms. Now fold them the opposite way. Most people notice a big difference in comfort, and you could say that the latter is what change feels like. In the 20th century, you could fold your arms one way for your entire career. Today, we are asked to fold, unfold and refold in a new way many times throughout our careers.  

Someone who can change back and forth between arm positions might be considered flexible and adaptable. While this is critically important, it still might not be enough to bring job security in today’s fast-changing industries. To gain a competitive advantage individuals must regularly “go beyond the playbook”, often improvising with limited resources and being capable of inventing new arm positions that better suit new tasks. This is change at another level – the level of creativity and innovation.

Creativity is the ability to see new opportunities, to produce original ideas, to flexibly adapt to changing situations, and to apply one’s imagination to solve complex problems. While not everyone may have such a concrete definition, the fact remains that in report after report, creativity is shown to be rising in value among workplace skills. Most notably, the World Economic Forum published a report in 2016 showing that creativity had moved from a tenth place ranking in 2015 to the third most important work-related skill for 2020. And what is the most important skill for the workplace in 2020? Complex problem solving, a skill we would argue is enhanced by effective creative thinking.

We would also like to emphasize that this trend is not just a concern for leaders and management. According to The Report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, “Creativity, innovation, and flexibility… will be demanded of virtually everyone who is making a decent living, from graphic artists to assembly line workers, from insurance brokers to home builders.”¹

Improving creativity and creative-thinking skill has immense practical benefits for both individuals and organizations, for both the short and long term. Below we share some of the compelling reasons to develop creative capacity. Then, in the weeks ahead, we will explore how you can develop creativity in yourself and in others, pulling from fifty years of research that clearly shows that creativity is a skill that can be taught.

Seven reasons to cultivate creativity  

  1. Creativity drives innovation. Creative processes and people can come together to solve difficult problems and develop innovative solutions that meet the changing demands of clients and consumers.
  2. Creativity drives prosperity. Consider this example: three hundred firms were compared using measures for innovation. The most innovative firms enjoyed 30% greater market share.
  3. Creativity solves “VUCA” problems. You don’t always have a procedure manual for problems, especially those that are volatile, unpredictable, complex and ambiguous (VUCA). Problems of many shapes and sizes are made more manageable through creative problem solving techniques.
  4. Creativity tips the scales toward success. The best cognitive predictor for creative achievement is not intelligence but the ability to engage in divergent thinking, a skill that can be learned!
  5. Creativity increases employee engagement. Imagine a place where individuals feel motivated to do their best and regularly find meaning in their work – an organization that supports creativity and innovation makes that possible.
  6. Creativity makes you “future-proof”. While it is impossible to precisely predict the jobs of the future, organizations and people who continuously adapt – remember “unlearn, relearn” – can survive and thrive.
  7. Creativity promotes well-being and happiness. People who have the opportunity to express their creativity, and have more skills for solving problems, are more resilient in the face of change and more fulfilled in their daily lives. And they are physically healthier.

We hope this list raised your curiosity. There is much more to explore, and we firmly believe it is worth the time, money and effort to prioritize the development of creativity in your organization. It is also valuable to personally explore ways in which you might develop this widely accepted workplace and life skill. In the weeks ahead, look for topics that will inspire and prepare you to be a 21st century creative thinker and leader.  

¹National Center on Education and the Economy (2008). Tough Choices or Tough Times: The Report of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Additional Resources:

10 Reasons to Flex Your Creative Muscle”.

Creativity 101 Video Series from the International Center for Studies in Creativity

Creativity as a Life Skill Presentation at TedX Gramercy

The Creative Thinker’s Toolkit from the Great Courses

By Gerard Puccio, Ph.D., Chair and Professor, International Center for Studies in Creativity, Buffalo State and Pamela Szalay, M.S., Creativity Consultant at Imagine &.