David Burkus: An interview by Bob Morris

Posted on: January 22nd, 2014 by bobmorris

BurkusDavid Burkus is the author of The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas. David is Assistant Professor of Management at the College of Business at Oral Roberts University, where he teaches courses on leadership, creativity, strategy, and organizational behavior. He is the founder and host LDRLB, a podcast tank that shares insights from research on leadership, innovation, and strategy. His work as been featured in Forbes, Fast Company, PsychologyToday, Inc, Bloomberg Businessweek, Financial Times, and the Harvard Business Review.

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Morris: Before discussing The Myths of Creativity, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Burkus: Identifying a single person is difficult, as I’m constantly seeking out and refining a collection of personal influences. I can easily identify how it all began, however. When I was an undergraduate student, I took a course on public relations with the late Dr. Johnny Mac Allen. It was he who really got me into reading a wide variety of personal and professional literature and set me on a course of voracious reading that continues.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Burkus: One of Dr. Allen’s best suggestions was to have a “board of directors” for personal and professional growth instead of focusing on only one or two individuals for guidance or mentorship. I find that to be incredibly valuable because it provides a diversity of perspectives. As such, I am constantly choosing and refining who serves on the board. In truth, many folks don’t even know they have that big of an influence on me…they just know I seem to pepper them with questions from time to time.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Burkus: I began my undergraduate career as an English/writing major. I wanted to be a novelist and poet. However, after I took a few courses in business and organizational psychology I got hooked. As I continued on to graduate studies in organizational psychology, I felt like there was this vast world of evidence-based principles for guiding people and organizations, principles that were largely ignored by practitioners…and for good reason. Science is hard to read if you’re not a scientist and the goal of many researchers is to write for other researchers, not practitioners. I felt like there was I niche I could serve using my interests and training in storytelling to make stories out of the science I was trained to read. That’s the path I am on now, and I am loving it.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Burkus: My day job is as a college professor, so formal education is a sort of union card that one must obtain before being allowed in. However, outside of campus, I find that formal education is a necessary but insufficient qualification. The world doesn’t care what you know (as proven by pieces of paper); it cares what [begin italics] contributions [end italics] you are making. My formal education allowed me to contribute more than I otherwise could…but I sometimes feel there are lots of people with an extensive formal education who really don’t contribute much of genuine value.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

Burkus: I love this quote. I work with my undergraduate students at length to help them discover what unique contributions they can make to the world. At that age especially, I think so many are still following down a path prescribed for them by formal education. But the challenge of that path is that it is general, not specific to them. So figuring out their specific role is something they should probably do before leaving that path to write their own.

This is probably what Ralph Waldo Emerson had in mind when suggesting, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

Morris: From Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Burkus: Totally agree. I’d couple that with a quote from G.K. Chesterton: “It isn’t that they can’t see the solution; it’s that they can’t see the problem.” Many of our problems stem from solutions to past problems. Clearly the line of thinking that led to that solution can’t be used to recognize the new problem and solve it.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Burkus: This one hits me hard. One of the questions I’m constantly asking myself is, “Do I need to be doing this?” We get so used to taking on more work and are really inept at pruning work that doesn’t serve our goals anymore. But pruning is important. By eliminating useless activities we divert more focus to the useful ones.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Burkus: I’m betting my career on it! We’re hard-wired to receive information in stories. Despite years of formal education that molds us into logical thinkers, we are still emotionally drawn to information presented in the form of stories. I believe that’s what explains the great impact in the business world by those great leaders most important as well. We need empirical, evidence-based research on how best to lead…but if it’s not presented in a story, we’ll probably never truly appreciate it.

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the greatest need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

Burkus: I think it couples quite nicely with your previous question. A traditional MBA program is extremely quant-heavy. We’re teaching students to crunch numbers and make decisions on data alone. This is hugely important and largely the best way to make decisions. However, when we ask those students to become leaders, we’re asking them to take the decisions they’ve made and tell a story to those entrusted to them…and they’re largely unable to do it.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to The Myths of Creativity. When and why did you decide to write it?

Burkus: When I was finishing my graduate studies, my last few research projects were around creativity and innovation. I was learning about the wealth of data suggesting what makes individuals and companies more creative and finding a disconnect when talking about these implications with my friends. So I surveyed a range of senior leaders, middle managers, and individual contributors to see if that disconnect held true across the board. In short, I found several areas where our perceptions of the creative process differed from what many people thought. Hence, we’d been telling ourselves myths that didn’t align with research.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Burkus: There’s a chapter in the book about the Originality Myth. Simply put, most groundbreaking innovations aren’t as original as we assume. All ideas are formed from combining older ideas. I was sort of familiar with this concept but, until writing the book, I had no idea how deeply it ran. Literally THE method of creating new ideas is primarily combining and transforming older ideas. They are the raw material from which new ideas are built.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Burkus: All writing is really just re-writing. And we had a decent amount of it. Originally, I’d actually identified twelve myths based on my research but, over time, we reduced them to ten. Two seemed so closely related that they we combined into a single chapter…and one of the myths wasn’t so much a misconception as a warning. Creativity is also more likely to result in dishonest behavior. This is an interesting finding, and one many people aren’t familiar with, but it’s not exactly as counter-intuitive as the other myths.

Morris: In your opinion, to what extent can there be an environment in an elementary school within which children’s natural curiosity is most likely to thrive?

Burkus: I think any environment that inspires trial and discovery over rote memorization will naturally develop more curious students.

Morris: In fact, in your opinion, why does creative thinking suffer from malnutrition (if not suppression) in so many elementary schools?

Burkus: Paul Torrance, one of the fathers of creativity, suggested that it declines rapidly in grade four. I’m not sure what about the fourth grade curriculum triggers that but I do believe that the aim of public school education is to pour already known information into our students. The students who receive the best grades are those who are quickest to memorize and regurgitate. That’s not exactly a nutritious formula for inspiring creativity.

Morris: Albert Einstein once observed, “If you can’t explain your idea to a six year-old child, you really don’t understand it.” Your response?

Burkus: I’d be more interested in meeting the six-year old.

Morris: As I indicate in my review of the book for various Amazon websites, there are dozens of passages throughout your narrative that caught my eye. For those who have not as yet read the book, please suggest what you view as [begin italics] the most important point [end italics] or [begin italics] key take-away [end italics] in each of several passages.

First, Teresa Amabile’s “Componential” Model of Four Influences on Innovation (Pages 6-11)

Burkus: Amabile’s model gives us an idea for where creative ideas come from and how we can shape our environment to have more of them. We don’t need to sit under apple trees to have creative insights, we just need to get to work…and work properly.

Morris: The Ten Myths of Innovation (11-14)

Burkus: The stories we tell ourselves affect how we see the world, and many of those stories aren’t painting an accurate picture. With respect to creativity and innovation, there are ten “explanations” we’ve told ourselves that don’t really explain reality.

Morris: The Incubation Effect (23-24)

Burkus: Work hard but take time to rest or think about a different problem. Our minds are wired such that time off can actually enhance creative output upon our return.

Morris: Thomas Edison (106-110, 116-117)

Burkus: Edison didn’t actually invent the light bulb, but he did refine it to be commercially viable. Edison’s greatest invention was Menlo Park, a workshop of about 15 engineers who collaborated on various projects and, as a result, established an innovation “factory.” Personally, the lesson of Edison is to stop working alone and start plugging yourself into a team of people who will collaborate and make you and everyone else much more productive.

Morris: Use of Conflict to Enhance Innovation (14-152)

Burkus: We may think that the most creative teams are the most cohesive, but many of the most innovative companies build conflict into their creative process. At Pixar, a film-in-progress is regularly – and rigorously — screened and criticized in order to improve it. That criticism makes the end result stronger, but only so long as the conflict and criticism are task-focused and don’t become petty, personal squabbles.

Morris: Benefits of Constraints on Innovation (160, 164-166)

Burkus: Constraints actually help us define our problem better and, once arriving at a full understanding of the given problem, we’re more likely to arrive at a viable solution. Creativity not only loves constraints; it [begin italics] thrives [end italics] on them.

Morris: Which of the myths is most difficult to overcome? Why?

Burkus: I end the book with a discussion about the “mousetrap” myth. Taken from the phrase “If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door.” It’s a catchy phrase but it’s total rubbish. Great ideas get rejected all the time. Xerox invented the personal computer and practically gave it away to Apple. Kodak invented the digital camera, but failed to develop the very invention that led to its bankruptcy. It took decades after the discovery of germs before doctors agreed to wash their hands in between examining patients.

For an idea to be creative, it has to be novel and useful. But too often we rely on the old measures of usefulness on ideas that are novel, and by definition depart from the status quo. Especially in times of uncertainty, we cling to the status quo. This is a hard myth to overcome because we think we’re great at recognizing great ideas. But the reason great ideas get rejected stems from an internal bias that many of us don’t even recognize.

Morris: In your opinion, how can the generation of better ideas within a workforce help to increase the percentage of actively and productively engaged employees, currently (on average) less than 30%?

Burkus: I’m not exactly sure we need the generation of better ideas in a workforce. Actually, I think that we do but unless we address and counteract the bias against great ideas we discussed, then the number of ideas we generate won’t matter much. We really do need more great ideas. That is a given. However, we need to get better at giving all ideas a shot in the service of finding the great ones.

Many of the most creative companies on the planet schedule time for their employees to explore the ideas they have in the service of finding viable new products or process improvements. A suggestion box hung in the break room just isn’t sufficient now and probably never was, especially when you consider the bias against creative ideas we all suffer from. Ideas need time to develop, morph, and strengthen before they can truly be judged as viable or not. We need to increase the time for that within the development process.

Morris: What are the major sources for strengthening your ideas?

Burkus: Other ideas. I’m constantly looking for new inputs into my own thinking to generate more ideas…but when I have an idea I try to look for others doing something similar, but perhaps in a different field. There are more than seven billion people in the world, so it’s highly unlikely that you’re the first one to try something. I try to find those who have tried out ideas before me and learn from their experiences. My father used to tell me that experience is the best teacher, and even better when it’s someone else’s experience.

Morris: To what extent do these sources differ from those during your childhood years? Please explain.

Burkus: I think in childhood we have a very segmented view of the world, again driven by the regimentation of formal education. There are math concepts and language concepts; social studies concepts and science concepts. Very rarely do those concepts merge in our childhood years…but in the world at large everything is a giant blend. All of these concepts inform and strengthen each other. When I was a child looking to understand one field, I doubt I would have considered others. Now, I look for insights wherever they may be and try to see what can cross the chasm.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read The Myths of Creativity and is now determined to establish or strengthen a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive by generating more and better ideas throughout the given enterprise. Where to begin?

Burkus: Stop killing ideas too soon. In addition to succumbing to our bias too soon, when we kill ideas in their infancy we send subtle messages about how welcome new ideas are. If we want a culture of creativity we have to first build a culture in which everyone’s voice is heard and considered. Ed Catmull at Pixar is famous for this. So much so that there are stories that circulate about him listening to and then implementing ideas in films that were suggested by a janitor. Creativity isn’t limited to a certain class of people or type of employee; it can come from anyone. Unless we’re willing to recognize that, it won’t come from anyone.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in The Myths of Creativity, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Burkus: There’s a tendency as a small company becomes bigger to eschew new ideas. Companies grow based on the success of their old ideas…but every idea has a life cycle. The challenge is balancing when to implement new ideas with when to rely less on old ideas. Every industry is different with regard to timing; but every industry is has once dominant companies that didn’t time their new ideas properly. Small businesses get big by leveraging opportunities that big companies either don’t see or reject. Rapid-growth companies need to avoid making the same mistake.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Burkus: Where do we go from here? And the answer is that we’re not done yet. These myths are REALLY prevalent because their imbedded into stories that need to spread. Mine isn’t the first attempt to tell the truth in a story, and it won’t be the last. But these true stories need to spread more. I need your help as well as help from those who read your reviews and interviews. Let’s all help these ideas to spread, whether by checking out the book or simply emailing this interview on to those you know who would be receptive to this message.

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David cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His website link

The Myths of Creativity link

LDRLB website link

TWITTER link

FACEBOOK link

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