There are no “creative” industries

Creative? Yes, but not necessarily more so than a lawyer.
Creative? Yes, but not necessarily more so than a lawyer.
Image: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
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Fellow “creatives”—our classification needs to go. Numerous surveys and even the tax code provide the option “creative” when they ask participants to define their industry, but this ostensibly innocuous categorization perpetuates an incorrect stereotype, and that stereotype is destructive.

Think for a moment what skills, tasks, or jobs are included in the amorphous “creative” category. Without knowing it, most people’s understanding of someone working in a creative field is similar to “artist.” But are they the same?

The definition of creativity outlined by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics is “the ability to produce something of value that did not exist before. You could harness creativity to design a product, make a blueprint, or write a script, for example” and while the first part of this definition seems to be heading in the correct direction, the latter part makes a few assumptions, and therein lies the problem.

By this definition, artists, photographers, cinematographers, designers, and floral arrangers make the creativity cut. Human resources pros and lawyers don’t. But why not?

I can still remember the first time my attorney, for instance, wowed me with his creative prowess. My new client required a Master Service Agreement (MSA) in order to work with the contractors I’d hired (the document protects the client from liability). Instead of simply drafting a standard version of the contract, however, my lawyer suggested an alternate version, which was written in a way to emphasize protections for the contractors. I had worked with these contractors for a long time, and my attorney understood a legal document after years of trust could spoil a good working relationship. With indifference, I agreed.

I didn’t understand the value he provided, or how creative his solution was, until contractors started returning this binding agreement, often within 24 hours (and in one case with an accompanying thank you note). My lawyer’s use of problem-solving, empathy, and foresight, which are often associated with design thinking and creative problem solving, had been applied to an industry viewed to be a non-creative field.

Are lawyers not able to produce something of value that didn’t exist before? How about human resource leaders, or those focused on developing educational programming and improving the value of life for their staffs? Are they not creative? Of course they are. In fact, if being a “creative” is to produce something of value that didn’t exist before, then some individuals who currently benefit from the “creative” label are even less so than people in these industries that haven’t been traditionally considered creative.

I know a good number of designers and photographers who aren’t nearly as creative as my attorney. At times they seem incapable of thinking of any original ideas, choosing to simply copy their counterparts. Does this mean they aren’t creative? No, but it does indicate the “creative” label we toss around carelessly is being misused.

Many years ago, a friend of mine and I wandered the streets of downtown Des Moines, Iowa during the lunch rush to find out what workers in this city—known for insurance and banking—thought it meant to be creative. The interviews were for an event we were putting on, and we were genuinely expecting the answers to be fun, positive, and encouraging. We were horrified by the actual responses.

Almost everyone we engaged said they weren’t creative, as if their brains simply didn’t work that way. Responses varied from those who didn’t believe they had a creative bone in their bodies to a law firm partner who actually believed allowing his staff to be creative might throw his company into chaos and undermine goals. “Creativity is valuable,” he said, “But not in a company atmosphere when stuff needs to get done.” Oh Yes. He said that. On camera.

When I challenged the assumptions of these self-described non-creatives, some changed their tune. But when they finally admitted to creative ability, they too were hopelessly entrenched in a flawed understanding of what human creativity looks like, making statements such as, “Well sure, I suppose, I paint from time to time,” or “Yes, I like to draw during my break!” They had bought into a lie. They were certain that creativity or the “creative” label was only found in artistic expression, and this fed a bigger misconception—that not having artistic ability means not having creative thoughts.

If creatives belong in their own industry or class then those who typically don’t fit receive full permission to opt-out of the creative process altogether. This has significant implications.

Many of my best ideas come to me because I simply listen to “non-creative” people. When I tell leaders this, they just look at me blankly. The best ideas in our companies and organizations are ignored because they don’t come from the “right” people. A true diverse expression of creativity thus goes unrealized, and companies struggle to solve ideas they already have the answers to.

In a Global Innovation Survey conducted by McKinsey, 94% of CEOs said they were not satisfied with their companies’ innovation performance despite 84% of them acknowledging that it’s vital for growth. My guess is that it’s not that their companies lack ideas—it’s that they lack the humility and desire to shut up and listen.

But it’s not too late to change this. As misattributed creative authorities, designers, photographers, and other artists have the undeserved respect and ear of those who are victims of the creative stigma. We can, and must, bring attention to the wildly creative movements beyond our own artificial “creative” circle by pointing to true creative ideas, like those from within my own attorney’s office.

Make sure you or your company leadership is including a diverse cross section of skill and background when you need help with a challenge, and yes, perhaps even individuals from accounting or human resources (gasp!). When those “non-creative” people do speak up (and they will) encourage them by listening intently and asking for more clarification. It’s not a matter of others learning how to be creative; it’s a matter of you being receptive to creativity from those whom you may consider to be unlikely sources.