Creativity is overrated

Today’s creative workplaces work hard to obscure the uncreative labor that makes them run. While “creativity” is presented as the panacea for our overly cubicled society, this often leads to a narrow-minded focus on the stuff that dreams are made of — to the detriment of those keeping the company afloat.

Alas, our obsession shows no signs of stopping. In 2000, we read books promising that the “corporate winners of the next century” will be businesses that use “every scrap of creative talent they possess;” by 2013, we were breathlessly devouring articles about “12 weird things that tech companies do to encourage employee creativity;” and last year, we saw the launch of a perfume meant to inspire creativity itself.

But are we worshiping a false god? Much of what passes for “creative” in the workplace seems suspiciously surface-level (beanbag chairs at work, unlimited sushi lunches and the like.). Though it might change the floor plan of the office, it doesn’t seem to do much to change work, particularly from lower-level employees.

When employees actually sit down to their workstations (or tote a laptop to the conversation pit), are they really letting their imaginations run free? Or are they focusing on specific, concrete tasks necessary for the operation of the company? Usually it’s the latter: After all, someone has to debug code and manage spreadsheets. Smart managers and executives should recognize that no amount of creativity can replace the less glamorous (and sometimes rote) work it takes to make their companies function. Let’s start celebrating the non-creative, too.

Creativity is a serious investment

Take a look at some of the most incredibly “creative” products of our time and you’ll see that creativity isn’t so much a flash of lightning as it is a long, lonely trudge. Look at Pixar, whose films are consistently praised for their vision, humor and heart — not to mention their mind-blowing animation. But these clearly creative products take 4-7 years to complete, and the process is incredibly arduous, as each project must go from sketch, to storyboard, to modeling process, to layout process, to — you get the idea.

Smart managers and executives should recognize that no amount of creativity can replace the less glamorous (and sometimes rote) work it takes to make their companies function.

Almost any creative project has an incredible amount of training and effort behind it, no matter how instantaneous it may seem — from the master jazz musician improvising “in the moment” (something he couldn’t do without lifelong practice) to the radio show This American Life, which sounds like “friends swapping stories around a campfire” but takes months to bring each seemingly spontaneous conversation to life. This sort of time to create isn’t usually something that companies can afford to give their workers without significant investment. But investing in creatives is absolutely worth it, right? Not necessarily.

“Bohemians” don’t pay the bills

In an era where some companies are hiring splashy “internet kids” off of Reddit and Instagram, it has become trendy to consider “creativity” a credential in its own right. But the evidence simply doesn’t back this up. A study in Economic Geography found that workers’ education level, not their creativity, creates most of the productivity gains associated with the so-called “creative class.” “Bohemians” (as the researchers call creative people without a college education) actually contribute less than uncreative, but educated people on the whole. While exceptions clearly exist, it’s generally education, not creativity, that really makes the difference in performance.

Managers could have learned this lesson from the creatives themselves. The iconic author Haruki Murakami provides a great example of how important training is to the creative life. His memoir “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” is essentially one long extended metaphor comparing long-distance running to writing novels. He argues that for artists, “focus and endurance” are almost as important as talent — and far more achievable, “since they can be acquired and sharpened through training.” To Murakami, creativity is only a starting point — to bring his or her projects to fruition, the real creative needs training and an unstoppable work ethic.

The message is clear: Don’t let a potential hire’s impeccable Instagram profile overshadow his uninspired resume. For most jobs, employers need people who are qualified first and creative second, not the other way around. And be sure they’re willing to help implement their groundbreaking ideas with plenty of hard work.

Creativity requires control

Companies that want to encourage employee creativity over other useful qualities may face difficult trade-offs down the line. A study in the journal Accounting, Organizations and Society discovered that the more a company relies on employee creativity, the more control the company needs to exert over potential dysfunctional behavior. Otherwise, employees can become so focused on individual tasks that they lose sight of team and company goals. It’s no surprise that many companies limit “creativity” to beanbag chairs — dealing with hyper-focused creatives who aren’t meeting company deadlines is too much trouble.

The trick is ensuring that all employees — not just the exciting, colorful thinkers — are valued, celebrated for what they contribute to the company.

Even at Google — the guiding light of the creativity-in-the-workplace movement — certain much-revered creative practices have apparently become unsustainable. Remember their mythical policy that employees can spend 20 percent of their time (an entire workday per week!) on a self-directed project — a policy that led to the invention of Gmail? Former Google employee and current Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer tore down the curtain when she declared, “I’ve got to tell you the dirty little secret of Google’s 20% time. It’s really 120% time.”

In recent years, Google has reportedly been moving away from the 20 percent time idea altogether and prioritizing top-down innovation instead — projects approved by managers, etc. Some have argued that this attempt to control innovation will damage Google’s much-praised culture of rag-tag, free-floating creativity. It’s a difficult dance, the one between magic and matter. Uncontrolled creativity can result in employees losing sight of company goals; controlled creativity, you could argue, is no creativity at all.

None of this is to say creativity has no value in the workplace at all. Someone has to dream up the next Gmail, just like someone has to manage spreadsheets and answer phones. But creativity shouldn’t be thought of as the be-all end-all, a fast and poetic track to success.

Today, when hiring, smart companies should be looking for diversity not just in age, gender and race, but also personality types — creative versus non-creative, introverts versus extroverts, flights-of-fancy innovators versus boots-on-the-ground implementors. Take Slack Technologies: An interesting mix of artistic types (a co-founder with a philosophy degree, for example) and engineers has contributed to the success of the company and its ubiquitous collaborative work software.

The trick is ensuring that all employees — not just the exciting, colorful thinkers — are valued, celebrated for what they contribute to the company, its products and its culture. Why even draw the line between creative and non-creative? Surface effects shouldn’t be valued over work like engineering — arguably some of the most exciting and creative work that our age has produced. By focusing too much on creativity, managers could very well find themselves with a workplace full of creative sound and fury, implementing nothing.