We all know what creative genius looks like: a young man working feverishly to produce a stunning new artistic breakthrough (Pablo Picasso) or write groundbreaking code (Mark Zuckerberg). But, says University of Chicago economist David Galenson, that stereotype gets the nature of creativity fundamentally wrong – and it’s an expensive mistake for businesses. “I don’t go out and measure the cost of the errors people make on the basis of this belief,” he says, “but it could be significant.”
What corporate leaders (and others) too often miss, he says, is that there are two different kinds of creativity. The first – which he calls “conceptual” or “theoretical” – is obvious to almost anyone. A young person has a blazing insight that shakes up the field and is lavishly rewarded (think of former presidential advisor Larry Summers, who was awarded tenure at Harvard at 28). The second kind, however, is harder to spot: “What they overlook is a less dramatic form of creativity – it’s gradual, and there’s never a eureka moment.” But that doesn’t mean it’s less important; he cites Virginia Woolf and Paul Cezanne as examples of what he calls “experimental” or “empirical” creativity, which requires time to develop and evolve.
If an organization only rewards conceptual creativity, it’s missing out on some major insights, says Galenson. “When you’re trying to solve a problem, you don’t know in advance whether a conceptualist or an experimentalist is better equipped to solve it,” he says. “Disciplines become sterile if you just have theorists, refining problems in a finer and finer way. You need empiricists to bring in new observations…Periodically you need an empiricist to say the evidence doesn’t fit your theories.”
It can feel like a professional risk for managers to support employees who are experimentalists and therefore take longer to develop their creative output. “In our society,” says Galenson, “once you’re famous, you’re always famous. If a dean gives tenure to somebody great who never does anything again,” no one will criticize her. But with experimentalists, who haven’t yet delivered in such an obvious way, “you need to stick your neck out.”
So how can organizations recognize and foster this untapped pool of talent? Galenson has three suggestions:
Bring both types of thinkers to the table. It’s a lot easier for conceptualists and experimentalists to work with their own kind, says Galenson. But it’s not always best for the organization: “Conceptual and experimental people don’t get along with each other but when they’re fighting each other, that’s the most productive thing.”
Reward mid-career innovation. “If I were in charge of some chunk of money from the government,” says Galenson, “I’d give prizes or mid-career grants.” He cites the example of the Turner Prize, which goes to a promising under-50 British artist – but neglects experimental thinkers, who often bloom professionally later in life. “You should have grants for people only over 50,” as well, he says.
Nurture experimental thinking – the right way. If you want to stay creative, psychologists often say, you should work on something new and completely different. That’s great advice for theoretical thinkers, says Galenson: “For a conceptual person, working on the same problem is not likely to contribute anything new, and they’re likely to be stuck in a rut.” But it’s exactly wrong for experimentalists: you “want to keep using the same techniques because you’ll examine things better and better” over time.
How does your organization recognize and reward creativity? And how do you keep innovating in your own career?
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.