The Top 5 Qualities of Productive Creatives (And How to Identify Them!)

A recent BusinessWeek article reported that, “According to a new survey of 1,500 chief executives conducted by IBM’s Institute for Business Value, CEOs identify ‘creativity’ as the most important leadership competency for the successful enterprise of the future.”

While the study’s results will come as no surprise to hard-working creative professionals, they do raise an important question: How do we identify – and hire for – the qualities that add up to creativity?  By our lights, the notion of “creativity” can’t be separated from the skills required for creative execution. So our analysis of the characteristics crucial to creativity focuses particularly on the skills that facilitate putting ideas into action.
 
Below, we outline five key qualities of particularly productive creatives, followed by some recommendations for how to uncover them in potential hires, co-workers, and collaborators.

1. Communication skills.

As Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Whether you’re leading a team, managing clients, or training a new hire, the ability to communicate clearly and concisely is an absolutely essential skill. We must all develop the capacity to efficiently manage our communication channels (email, Twitter, Facebook, etc), to rally people around our ideas, and to play well with others – our coworkers and our clients.

How to test for it:
One easy way to test this ability is by having a candidate explain a simple task. If you were hiring a Systems Administrator, for instance, you might ask something like, “Walk me through the process of setting up a web server.” It doesn’t have to be a hard question; the point is to get insight into their ability to communicate clearly.

2. Pro-activeness.

We tend to judge people based on their experience. This is, of course,  the whole basis of the resumé. Yet, while on-the-job experience is valuable, we must dig deeper. A better indicator of productive creativity is one’s willingness to act, to take the initiative to put an idea in motion. As we’ve written elsewhere on 99%, “Those who take initiative possess tenacity and a healthy degree of impatience with idleness.

How to test for it:
Inquire about past instances where the candidate was proactive. Have them explain how and why they started that club, magazine, or film series listed on their resumé. You can also get a glimpse into their future willingness to take initiative by asking questions like: “If I put you in charge of the company today, what would you do differently?” or “What are some things that you would change about the product (or sales process, or website, etc.) if you had the chance?”

3. Problem-solving.

“Thinking outside of the box” is really nothing more than creative problem solving – the ability to arrive at new solutions by looking beyond obvious or traditional approaches. As designer Michael Beirut taught us at the inaugural 99U Conference: “The problem contains the solution.” In this way, successful creatives don’t see problems as problems at all – they see them as opportunities.
 
How to test for it:
Aside from using Karl Duncker’s classic “candle task” to test problem-solving abilities, there are a few other options. When interviewing candidates for your creative team, don’t focus on leading questions. Instead, ask questions that emphasize shades of grey, and offer insight into the candidate’s thinking. For a Community Manager position, a good question might be, “How would you deal with an irate customer who won’t stop posting negative comments on message boards?”

4. Curiosity.

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” So said French philosopher Voltaire. As anyone who’s had a “Eureka!” moment knows, daring to ask a new question goes a long way toward finding the right solution. What’s more, a high level of curiosity – the hallmark of an inquiring mind – is typically indicative of other good qualities, such as inventiveness, resourcefulness, and fearlessness. It also tends to ward off boredom and apathy – sentiments that will poison any creative endeavor.

How to test for it:
When interviewing a potential hire, note how many unprompted questions they ask, and how much they’ve already learned about your company. You can also ask simple questions like, “Tell me about something outside of your area of expertise that you recently learned about?” or “What was the last book you read, and why?”

5. Risk-taking.

Being open to risk (and thus failure) is crucial. We can only truly learn and develop when we push ourselves outside of our comfort zones. According to choreographer Twyla Tharp, “If you only do what you know and do it very, very well, chances are that you won’t fail. You’ll just stagnate, and your work will get less and less interesting, and that’s failure by erosion.” For Tharp, inventor James Dyson, and innumerable others, failure is a badge of accomplishment because it means that you took a risk, that you tried something new.

How to test for it:

Chief executive of The Limited, Linda Heasley, likes to ask, “Give me an example of a situation where you think you took a risk or took a controversial point of view.” Or, for a sneakier approach, you can inquire if there’s anything the candidate regrets not doing at their previous job. As psychologist Daniel Gilbert points out in this article on risk, people usually regret the things they didn’t do, more than those they did. Thus, regret and risk-taking usually work (loosely) in inverse proportion to one another.


What Do You Hire For?

Any important characteristics that we missed? What’s key for you when you’re hiring a member of a creative team?

More insights on: Hiring, Risk-Taking

Jocelyn K. Glei

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As Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei leads the 99U in its mission to provide the “missing curriculum” on making ideas happen. She oversees the Webby Award-winning 99u.com website, curates the popular 99U Conference, and is the editor of the 99U books, Manage Your Day-to-Day and Maximize Your Potential.
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