Skip to content

Cultivating the Four Kinds of Creativity

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Gabriella Rosen Kellerman and Martin E.P. Seligman for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Illustration Credit:  Daniel Creel

* * *

One island of stability in the sea of conversation about the future of work is the conviction that our jobs will become increasingly creative. The World Economic Forum, McKinsey, and nearly every major think tank seem aligned around this hypothesis, offering heaps of data to support it. The trend is not just about the delegation of rote tasks to automation; it’s also about the accelerating pace of change and the increasing complexity of business, which demand original responses to novel challenges far more frequently than ever before.

Many companies now include creativity as a core competency for employees at all levels—especially those on the front lines—and across all functions, from sales and marketing to accounting and operations to customer service. Individuals and talent managers must therefore get smart about what it takes to foster and manage this skill. Although the science of creativity is young compared with other areas of psychology and cognitive neuroscience, our growing understanding of it points to new directions for creative development. In this article we offer a typology that breaks creative thinking into four types: integration, or showing that two things that appear different are the same; splitting, or seeing how things that look the same are actually different or more usefully divided into parts; figure-ground reversal, or realizing that what is crucial is not in the foreground but in the background; and distal thinking, which involves imagining things that are very different from the here and now.

Most of us tend to think in just one of these four ways, and we benefit from knowing which one comes naturally to us. We can also learn to hone our creativity in the other dimensions. Managers need to understand both their own strengths and how to balance the types of thinking across their teams to execute creative projects. And organizations can use this typology to increase innovation across the workforce.


Integration may be local—stitching together a few concepts—or sweeping: a grand unifying theory.

The 17th-century mathematician Isaac Newton was a genius at integration. After coinventing calculus, itself enormously integrative, he happened upon the idea that would make him even more famous. The story does involve an apple, but it didn’t fall on his head. Instead, looking out a window one night, he noticed that a two-inch piece of fruit on the ground 20 feet from him occupied the same amount of visual space as did the faraway moon. He wondered not about the trick of perspective but whether the force drawing the apple to the ground was the same as what held the moon in orbit—an idea that gave rise to his inverse square law: that the gravitational attraction between two bodies is inversely proportional to the square of the distance separating them. Integration is often at the heart of scientific discovery.

It’s also a key form of corporate innovation today. Consider the Apple iPhone. Its designers’ success lay in recognizing that when tools such as cameras, phones, and music players are digitized, they are all capturing, storing, retrieving, and transmitting data in the same way, through semiconductors and liquid crystal displays; therefore, they could be combined in a single device—perhaps the most powerful tool now at our disposal. Four decades ago the phone hanging on your wall had nothing to do with the boom box sitting on your console or the camera filled with film you’d soon drop off for developing.

How does integrative creativity show up in everyday work? Let’s consider a hypothetical office-supply retailer, Capella Paper, that wants to attract more Millennial customers. Jerome, an email marketer, is an employee working on the problem. He finds several studies showing that professionals in their twenties and thirties are vocal advocates of preserving hybrid or remote working arrangements postpandemic. He hypothesizes that two groups Capella treats as distinct—Millennials and remote workers—may in fact align as buyers of office supplies. Jerome retrieves an analysis by his team on a spike in home-office purchases in the spring of 2020 and looks to see which email promotions—all targeting newly remote workers—were most successful in that period. He selects an old promotion offering free printer-toner refills with bulk paper purchases and makes a few tweaks for the new target demographic, resulting in a 35% higher click-through rate compared with the company’s average for Millennial customers.

* * *

Here is a direct link to the complete article.


Posted in

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll To Top