What Is Creativity?

Where do the new ideas come from—the ones that change industries and societies? In a lecture at Yale SOM, Prof. Richard Foster explains what creativity is—and isn’t—and describes the kinds of traits, knowledge, and ways of thinking that lead to the moment of creative insight.

In an age defined by technological innovations, creativity is prized. But as virtues go, it’s hard to pin down. In one moment, there’s a blank page; in the next, there’s an idea. What happened in between? Perhaps more importantly, what happened before—what are the kinds of traits, knowledge, and ways of thinking that lead to the moment of creative insight?

An entire industry has grown up focused on unlocking the mysteries of creativity. Both scholarly and popular books proliferate; universities have created courses aimed at breaking creativity into “a set of tools for generating new ideas”; and consultants, often working under the tag of “design thinking,” teach everyone from doctors to engineers how to unlock their creative selves and innovate.

The idea of humans as uniquely creative animals goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. Aristotle considered creativity to be a gift from the gods, something that resulted not during rational thought but when one was “bereft of his senses.” As society has become more scientific, so has its conception of creativity. Researchers use the latest imaging technology to analyze exactly what happens in our brains during the creative process.

Richard Foster, a lecturer in management at Yale SOM and emeritus director of McKinsey & Company, has made a study of creativity, both its history and the process itself. He differentiates creativity both from innovation and discovery, which often are used as synonyms. Only creativity, he says, is about making something new, rather than merely applying or discovering something new. “Creative solutions are insightful, they’re novel, they’re simple, they’re elegant, and they’re generative,” he says. “When you find one creative idea, more often than not it triggers other ideas in the same fashion.”

A key to being creative, as Foster sees it, is the ability to find associations between different fields of knowledge, especially ones that appear radically different at first. The process is iterative rather than linear and requires people with curiosity, energy, and the openness to see connections where others cannot. “New solutions are often the combination of two or more existing concepts. If you had a videotape store and combine it with Amazon and Priority Mail, you get Netflix,” he says. “It’s all about constructing associative networks of ideas. That’s what you’re doing when you’re creating a business. A business is not one idea; it’s many, many ideas.”

Lecturer in Management