What if most creative breakthroughs come from ordinary people—not geniuses?

Things that are considered creative breakthroughs will be made by people whose names are never going to be known as famous individuals.
Things that are considered creative breakthroughs will be made by people whose names are never going to be known as famous individuals.
Image: Reuters/ Joe Penny
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The topic of creativity tends to conjure conversations about individual geniuses whose artistic or scientific contributions have rocked history—the Ludwig Van Beethovens, the Emily Dickinsons, or the George Washington Carvers of the world.

So it’s not surprising that scholars of creativity have largely focused on the factors that fuel extraordinarily creative people.

But who studies the ordinary people, who may not be geniuses but nonetheless contribute creative solutions in their personal and work lives all the time? In the short article In Pursuit of Everyday Creativity, Teresa Amabile argues that average folks deserve careful investigation, especially in the age of user innovation and crowdsourced problem-solving, when big ideas routinely come from the masses. The article appears in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Creative Behavior.

“We may see a sea change over the next decade or so, where more and more things that are considered creative breakthroughs will be made by people whose names are never going to be known as famous individuals,” says Amabile, a Baker Foundation professor and the Edsel Bryant Ford professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, Emerita, who has studied workplace creativity for more than 40 years. “Those breakthroughs will be made by collaborative groups of ‘ordinary people,’ by open innovation contests and other open innovation processes, by users of products and services who are engaging more and more in innovation, and just by ordinary people in their everyday work lives or their everyday lives in their communities and societies.”

Amabile’s paper cites research showing that innovative users are responsible for some 76% of scientific instruments and 60% of innovations in sports equipment. Amabile hastens to add that user innovation is nothing new; necessity has long been the mother of invention. (See, for example, economist Eric von Hippel’s paper The Dominant Role of Users in the Scientific Instrument Innovation Process, published in 1975.)

But the internet-enabled sharing economy continues to make it easier for users to share new ideas with companies, society, and each other. Large firms routinely host open innovation contests to solve problems big and small, and forums like Quora encourage citizens to share knowledge, both personal and professional.

“In Pursuit of Everyday Creativity” is a call for managers and researchers to consider the following question: When ordinary people undertake creative endeavors in their work or their non-work lives, what is the nature of their everyday psychological experiences, and how do those experiences affect creative outcomes?

“Attacking this question is fundamentally important for both the science and the practice of creativity,” she writes. “It seems increasingly likely that products and services resulting from the creative behavior of ordinary individuals may not only become more prevalent than those coming from experts or geniuses in particular domains, it may actually become the most important source of creative breakthroughs.”

A deeper dive into the “inner work lives” of everyday people

Amabile and several colleagues started to dig into that question during a broad study in which they researched the everyday work lives of 238 white-collar workers at seven companies. Each worker kept a daily diary over the course of the study, answering a series of separate questions about their moods, their motivations, and events that stood out to them on any given day. The researchers analyzed the data, totaling more than 12,000 daily diaries, looking for commonalities that influenced the workers’ “inner work lives,” defined by the researchers as “the confluence of perceptions, emotions, and motivations that individuals experience as they react to and make sense of the events of their workday. ”

Amabile and her team found that a sense of making progress on meaningful work was the single most important factor in igniting creativity, satisfaction, and productivity among employees—far more than factors like monetary compensation, praise, or camaraderie. The stark finding, which received a great deal of mainstream press, led to the 2011 book The Progress Principle—a guide for managers who want to provide catalysts for progress among their employees.

But the research also revealed a more meta result: Amabile realized the extent to which people volunteer their inner emotions and thought processes when describing external events, even when answering questions that did not explicitly request information about the respondents’ psychological states. The most open-ended question—“Briefly describe one event from today that stands out in your mind”—would often yield detailed descriptions of not only the event itself, but also the respondent’s internal response to the event.

“It was like they often couldn’t talk about the event without talking about how it made them feel and what it made them think,” Amabile says. “We found that people were having rich experiences of trying to figure out these events: Why did this thing happen today? How do I interpret this memo that came out of upper management today? What does that mean about how they view us in this department or on this team? How did it make me feel when this person stopped by and showed interest in my ideas and bounced some ideas off of me? It was like their little news bulletin was incomplete without telling us about that psychological impact. And that suggests to me that there’s something big here that needs to be investigated more.”

Amabile is hopeful that other researchers will begin to study the psychological processes of everyday people as they tackle creative endeavors in the course of their work lives.

“In order to fully understand creativity and what influences it, and in order to confidently prescribe ways in which individuals, organizations, and societies can enhance it, we must undertake studies of creative behavior—and the accompanying psychological states and environmental contexts—in situ, as it is happening,” she writes. “…this is only one of the many pathways that creativity studies should take in the coming years. But, I believe, it is one of the most important.”

This article was republished with permission of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, where it first appeared.