Creativity — talent or skill?

THE debate on whether artificial intelligence (AI) will replace human jobs or not is heating up. While the World Economic Forum (WEF) predicts that five million jobs will be lost by 2020 because of automation, other experts prognosticate that more jobs will be created than destroyed.

But we can’t deny that AI is indeed shaping the future of jobs — from office to factory work. Then what career and life skills are needed to cope with the changing profile of the labor market in the age of AI.

Findings of a study by the employer-led Partnership for 21st Century Learning describe the foundation skills for worker success as the 4Cs: collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity. As I’ve written about the importance of collaboration, communication, and critical thinking in past articles, we will focus on the oft-misunderstood last component — creativity. The WEF listed creativity as the third “skill your child needs for the jobs of the future” in 2020, with complex problem solving and critical thinking as first and second, respectively.

What is creativity exactly? defines it as “the use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work.” This is where our misconception stems from — that creativity is associated with artistry. That’s why the Philippines has always been branded as probably one of the most creative countries in the world. Our country produces the best singers, dancers, painters, web designers, and animators. That’s why we associate creativity with talent — that it’s innate or natural to a person and can be developed.

But is creativity a talent that’s inborn or it’s a skill, as WEF calls it, that can be learned, practiced, and become an expert of? Part of the problem is how creativity is defined by many. But actually, creativity is the use of imagination and original ideas to solve problems.

In the recent creativity workshops we ran for organizations, a simple exercise we conducted was to ask the audience, in three minutes, to list down as many “ways on how to attract voters to he precinct,” taking off from the recent barangay elections. The longest list would get a prize.

On the average, each participant listed twenty ideas. But interestingly, the first 5 to 10 ideas were the things anyone would normally suggest, like provide free food, free wi-fi, comfortable seats, nice toilets, and so on — those that are relevant to the problem at hand. In workplace brainstorming sessions, we tend to give the most relevant ideas that will address a problem.

As the list reached 10 ideas, each participant showed a slowing down of ideas until it bottomed out. This was the point when each participant looked blankly at nowhere for a lack of ideas. Then, with a light bulb moment at the bottom, the participants started to write ‘crazy’ and ‘stupid’ ideas like ‘get some models to attract voters,’ ‘put some live band music in the precinct,’ and so on until they added 10 more ‘crazy’ ideas. These next 10 ideas are the original and novel ideas — those that are ‘out-of-the-box and innovative.

This exercise brought out two important lessons to participants. Firstly, creativity is a process — one that goes through the generation of relevant ideas first then goes through a wave of novel ideas. Secondly, creativity is a capability that can be learned and a skill that can be developed, given the right conditions, like motivation or incentive. In the exercise, the participants were motivated and incentive to list as many ideas to solve the problem of attracting voters to the precinct because there’s a prize.

Since creativity is a skill, its one that we can practice and develop through exposure to solving problems may it be in everyday life and the workplace. If we want employees to be creative in brainstorming sessions, we provide the conditions of ‘incentive’ and ‘no idea is stupid’ so that they generate novel and original ideas that can potentially solve problems.

What’s unique about Filipinos is that we innately possess the creative talent, but we manifest this in artistry and as evidenced by the novel ideas during the workshops. There is huge potential for Filipinos to develop creativity into a skill that can be applied in many areas such as in putting up tech start-ups or proposing novel ideas to address societal issues.

What is sorely missing and fast declining among Filipinos is critical thinking — an important skill alongside creativity, both needed to solve problems. In fact, the Filipino people are cited as the third “most ignorant” regarding their nation’s key issues in The Perils of Perception 2017 study. I’ve written previously that this is due to the declining critical thinking skill, brought about by the age-old rote learning pedagogy in schools and widespread social media use.

We as a nation are naturally creative, we just need to enhance it to become a worthy skill. But alongside, there’s an urgent need to develop critical thinking as well.

Reynaldo C. Lugtu, Jr. is President & CEO of Hungry Workhorse Consultancy Inc, a digital and culture transformation firm. He is the Chairman of the ICT Committee of the Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines (FINEX). He teaches strategic management in the MBA Program of De La Salle University. He is also an Adjunct Faculty of the Asian Institute of Management.