Welcome to the 21st Century: The Perfect Storm for Creativity
by Gerard Puccio, Ph.D.
Chair & Professor
International Center for Studies in Creativity
Written December 1, 2010
I have been in the field of creativity studies for more than a quarter of a century and have never seen a better time to be in the business of helping others develop their creativity, Creative Problem Solving, and creative leadership skills. Yet with opportunity comes risk. There has never been a more important time for creativity because we are in a state of perpetual change that has brought on crisis for many, and opportunity for those with creative foresight, skill and attitude. Creativity is in demand, because life in the 21st century demands it.
It is all too easy to say that change is ubiquitous in the 21st century. I have read countless books and journal articles that begin by stating that we live in times of rampant change, but what does this really mean? I’ll give you a few specific examples that helped me to truly grasp the concept of exponential change.
Product life cycles have become shorter and shorter. There was a day, many decades ago, when you could work literally on the same product for an entire career. Today manufactured products undergo fundamental redesign every 5 to 10 years, and the life cycle in the area of technology is much shorter with products being subjected to redesign every 6 to 12 months. That new computer, television or digital book reader you just bought is already old.
The days of permanent jobs has given way to the need to adapt quickly to changing job conditions and employment opportunities. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that today’s school age children will, on average, change jobs more than 11 times between the age of 18 and 42. To this I would add that it is becoming increasingly more difficult to anticipate precisely what entirely new jobs will be found 10 to 20 years in the future.
Each successive generation experiences a larger number of life-altering changes. Imagine if you were born 2,000 years ago. It would have been possible for you to live your life in a way that would have required no, to little, adjustment based on changes in society. That is certainly not true of the modern day generation. Just look around you to see how the adaption and advancement of computer technology, the ubiquitous availability of information through the internet, the rise of social networking, advances in medicine and medical practices, the use of nanotechnology, the wide use of in-home and hand held video game devices, the availability of digital music and books, and advances in modern telecommunications have fundamentally redefined the very nature of our lives.
So what exactly is the ‘perfect storm’ for creativity? Let me explain. In the face of the exponential increase in change described above, many educational experts have argued that our educational system must do more to promote creativity as a skill in young people. My bookshelf and digital folder are beginning to fill up with books, documents and reports that all make the same point. For individuals to be successful professionally, indeed for a society to prosper, in the 21st century, greater attention must be given to developing higher-order thinking skills. And chief among these skills is creativity. For example, the book 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times refers to a skill-set called “Learning and Innovation Skills” which includes: critical thinking and problem solving, communications and collaboration, and creativity and innovation. According the authors of the book Touch Choices or Tough Times “What it will take to hold on to our standard of living – high skills combined with creativity and a hunger for education.” These same authors suggest that “the best employers the world over will be looking for the most competent, most creative, and most innovative people on the face of the earth and will be willing to pay them top dollar for their services.” In the book The Global Achievement Gap the author lists as his seventh survival skill “Curiosity and Imagination.” As this author argued:
It’s not enough to just be trained in the techniques of how to ask questions – as lawyers and MBAs often are, for example. Employees must also know how to use analytical skills in such ways that are often more “out-of-the-box” than in the past, come up with creative solutions to problems, and be able to design products and services that stand out from the competition.
To the above examples I add one more. A recent global study undertaken by IBM concluded that creativity is now considered to be the number one leadership skill for the next five years. As this report indicates, “CEOs now realize that creativity trumps other leadership characteristics. Creative leaders are comfortable with ambiguity and experimentation. To connect with and inspire a new generation, they lead and interact in entirely new ways.” In our own book, Creative Leadership: Skills that Drive Change, we have argued that in times of chaos and change, creative problem solving must be considered a core leadership.
I could share many more examples of books and reports that come to the exact same conclusion – creative thinking is an indispensable 21st century professional skill. And we at the International Center for Studies in Creativity would go further and note that creativity and creative thinking are not only important professionally but have become essential life skills.
A perfect storm is a situation in which a rare combination of factors brings about a drastic or dire situation. What makes the present situation with respect to creativity so dire? For starters, the fact that the structure and assessment procedures used in schools do not promote creative thinking, and, one might argue, actively discourages it. While organizations’ survival in the 21st century economy requires imagination and divergent thinking, our educational system seems to be mainly focused on memorization, routine, and single-right answer thinking. As the authors of Tough Choices or Tough Times suggested:
Our schools, on the whole, are hostile to ideas. Too often, our tests ask students to come up with the one right answer, and the curriculum, pegged to the tests, penalizes the creative student rather than rewarding him or her for the unexpected but thoughtful – or even brilliant – response.
If our educational system is not producing creative thinkers surely modern-day organizations, those that most desire this skill, have the wherewithal to promote this important ability among its employees. Not so. And so we have another circumstance that helps to form the perfect storm. A recent report on workforce readiness found from their study that, like the other books and reports referred to above, creativity and innovation were considered to be among the most crucial workplace skills. However, when asked whether they were prepared to deliver training programs to new entrants to develop these important skills, over two-thirds of the respondents indicated that their organizations had no such programs in place.
And here we have the conditions for a perfect storm. Success in the 21st century depends on creative-thinking skills, yet both our educational systems and our organizations are not well equipped to promote this skill among students and employees, respectively.
So, what might be done to successfully navigate through this storm? Here is a range of ideas that might just help:
1. In general. The United States is fortunate to have some of the world’s leading creativity thinkers, scholars and programs. The field of creativity studies has accumulated a large body of knowledge in regard to programs, strategies and practices that have been proven effective at raising creative talent. More needs to be done to disseminate and implement the insights garnered through these various creativity sources.
2. In society. Our government, both federal and state, would be wise to highlight the importance of creativity, form a vision that articulates a future in which America recaptures its innovative spirit, and puts into place policies, practices and laws that actively promote creativity and innovation. To further a national creativity and innovation agenda, establish a National Office for Creativity and Innovation.
3. In schools. Include creativity courses and curricula in both teacher preparation and educational leadership programs. Implement projects and other forms of assessment that measure student creativity. Moreover, reward schools that develop 21st century skills in their students.
4. In Higher Education. Create minors in creativity, such as our own here at the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State, so that all undergraduate students might complement their major area of study and make themselves more marketable by developing creative-thinking skills. Adopt a ‘creativity across the curriculum’ program by embedding creativity and creative-problem solving based projects in courses from a variety of disciplines.
5. In families. Provide parenting courses that instruct adults on the most effective methods for promoting creative thinking in the household.
Of course the above ideas will take dedicated resources and time, but I would strongly urge that efforts to promote creativity and innovation must not be viewed as expenditures, but as an investment – an important investment in our collective future.
Casner-Lotto, J., RosenblumE., & Wright, M. (2009). The ill-prepared U.S. workforce: Exploring the challenges of employer-provided workforce readiness training. New York: The Conference Board.
IBM (2010). Capitalising on complexity: Insights from the global chief executive officer (CEO) study. Portsmouth: UK: IBM United Kingdom Limited.
National Center on Education and the Economy (2008). Tough choices or tough times: The report on the new commission on the skills of the American workforce. San Francisco: Wiley.
Puccio, G. J., Mance, M., & Murdock, M. C. (2011). Creative leadership: Skills that drive change. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications.
Trilling, B., Fadel, C. (2009). 21st Century skills: Learning for life in our times. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Wagner, T. (2008). The global achievement gap: Why even the best schools don’t teach the new survival skills our children need – and what we can do about it. New York: New York. Basic Books.