You’ve heard that kids are naturally creative. Every 5-year old is an artist, we are told, and by the time they become adults, they can’t draw their way out of a paper bag. I guess people think of creativity as a talent—some people are born with it, and some people aren’t.
But it’s not true. Adults are very creative, they just aren’t always artistic. There’s a difference.
So what is creativity?
Creativity is problem solving that combines relevance and novelty. That’s it. A recipe with just two ingredients.
Relevance is a solution that fits the problem. It’s what happens when an idea works. It can be delivered on time, within budget, and without causing too much harm to society. It’s the practical side of creativity.
Novelty is a solution that’s clever. It’s what happens when an idea is unexpected, interesting, or even new. It’s the juicy side of creativity, the part that we associate with freedom, inspiration, and play.
Which is why we think that kids are creative—they excel at novelty. Ask a kid what a cardboard box could be, and he’ll tell you 20 different things, and he’s just getting started. But kids struggle with relevance. They don’t have the life experience to know what will work, they don’t understand what it will really take to get things done, and even if they did, they are not sure which things really matter and which ones add no value. In short they are excellent at half of the recipe for creativity. They look longingly at the creative solutions of adults because so often they work, they get built, they seem to matter.
Adults are masters of relevance. They live in a world where they pay a big price if their solutions don’t work. They know the value of time and money, and have learned to thrive inside constraints. The trouble is, their solutions are often not novel at all. They play it safe, deliver what’s expected, and their work often fails to inspire. Which is why they think they are not creative. Certainly not as creative as kids.
So what should we do about this?
If you lead or teach kids, encourage them to be novel. They’ll love it. And then guide them toward creative solutions that work by slowly building in constraints that lead to higher relevance. You might ask them, “How could we modify this if we had only 2 days to do it, or only $10, or using only 3 hands?”
If you lead or manage adults, you should encourage them to temporarily suspend relevance and start with novelty, just like the kids. This can be hard at first, especially if they have spent years delivering relevance as a form of job security. Usually the most novel ideas aren’t very relevant. That’s OK, just navigate toward relevance by gradually introducing constraints. You might ask, “Now look at this novel solution from the first-time customer’s perspective. What modifications might make it more relevant to their concerns?”
So creativity is not artistry, it’s problem solving that combines two ingredients: relevance and novelty. Adults and kids are both creative, they just start from different places. Maybe that’s why it’s so much fun when they get together and play.