Should We Leave Creativity to the Professionals?

Monday’s post on whether brainstorming is a waste of time provoked an excellent debate in the comments.

In this post I want to highlight one of the threads in the discussion, as it touched upon a fundamental question about creativity — is it something we all have, which should be encouraged in everyone, or is ‘serious’ creativity best left to experienced professionals?

Here’s a slightly edited excerpt of the relevant comments:

#19 | Michael Plishka | 1/26/2009 at 11:42 am

… Bottom line: we want ALL our people to contribute in some way to idea generation and our creative cultures. Traditional team brainstorming isn’t the way to do this.

#21 | Rasmus | 1/26/2009 at 1:22 pm

…brainstorming is an awesome tool. In my experience though, corporate pen pushers aren’t very good at it. They should leave creative methods to creative people.

#23 | Tony | 1/26/2009 at 1:40 pm

I think Rasmus nailed it with, “In my experience though, corporate pen pushers aren’t very good at it.” Let the creatives do the creative work, that’s what we’re getting paid for.

I think my general dislike of brainstorms is that most of them are set up to be inclusive of everyone at the earliest stages of idea creation, and a lot of those people shouldn’t really be there, not because they’re not creative, but because they’re not creative when put on the spot in front of an audience.

#25 | Michael Plishka | 1/26/2009 at 2:01 pm

@rasmus and tony and a few others,

Don’t you think there’s a problem with:

” Let the creatives do the creative work, that’s what we’re getting paid for.” and

” a lot of those people shouldn’t really be there, not because they’re not creative, but because they’re not creative when put on the spot in front of an audience.” ?

1. I’m paying EVERYONE to be creative! Humans are creative by nature, if they weren’t we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I want all of my team to be a rockin’ innovative powerhouse and that means they need to be firing on all cylinders as humans. This leads to:

2. We are content with losing creative input because someone can’t deal effectively with the social pressures of brainstorming?!? !

I really can’t believe people are willing to kick creative input/people to the side?!?

#27 | Tony | 1/26/2009 at 2:14 pm


I don’t disagree that everyone is creative, and that their input is valid. However, we don’t hold big meetings to discuss how we’re going to do the accounting whenever something new comes up where everyone is invited to pitch new ideas, generally we let the accountants handle it because that’s what they’re good at. This isn’t by any means a claim that people can only do what they’re hired to do, but I don’t think the brainstorm as run in most organizations is the way to bring in outside input to the creative process. It tends to lead to the dreaded “creativity by committee” as the creative process morphs into a democracy, which it is surely not in its most natural state.

#31 | Michael Plishka | 1/26/2009 at 4:26 pm

back @Tony,

Now we’re talkin’!!! 🙂

Thanks to Michael, Rasmus and Tony for raising this important question — and debating it in gentlemanly fashion.

(You might also like to check out Michael’s post Five (weak) reasons for continuing to use team brainstormings.)

What Do You Think?

Is creativity something we all have naturally, or is it a skill developed by practice?

In the workplace, should we involve everyone in the creative process or ‘Let the creatives do the creative work’?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

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Responses to this Post


  1. Well, yes, everyone is creative and some have developed their creative antenna more than others. I wouldn’t say throw out brainstorming, or exclude certain people. I’d look at ways to facilitate brainstorming that allows everyone to contribute according to her style.
    Great topic – brainstorming’s effectiveness, that is.

  2. I think it’s a mistake to assume that everyone is creative. Sure, everyone has a little bit of creativity in them, but that’s not the same as having the creative skillset needed to work in a creative profession.

    I believe creativity is a skill like any other. It requires training, hard work, polishing over time and a certain amount of natural talent, to turn basic creativity into an actual trade. What I don’t believe, is that everyone has the same aptitude for working this way. Just like most people aren’t math experts, even if they can do their own taxes. Most of us wouldn’t hire a plumber to cook a meal and a chef to fix the toilet. Just like we wouldn’t ask our accountant to design our next website.

    It is from this perspective, I say that forcing brainstorming and other creative tools on people, for whom this particular way of thinking doesn’t come naturally is a bad idea. But that it’s equally wrong to rule out brainstorming as a tool altogether.

  3. I could extract my own tooth if i really wanted to. I could build my own house too. Or kill my own food. But I choose to let people who know more about these things do them for me. As a professional copywriter, i find it amazing how many people think they can do my job. it’s funny.

  4. Coming from a youngster’s perspective, creativity is something that they can’t teach you in college, but sometimes, if you’re lucky, practice and application can help you develop it.

    I’m not saying that all people who think they may be creative actually are, I’m just saying that you have to be able to put your money where your mouth is. Creativity is all about having great ideas, so if you have a great idea, speak up! Sometimes the creative types need to be surrounded by the uncreative in order to get the confidence they need to get their juices flowing.

    Either way, sometimes uncreative people can have really great ideas. There’s no right or wrong answer, in my opinion, to whether or not brainstorming sessions should be opened up to everyone. I think the results can vary from case to case. Even so, sometimes the uncreative can offer up some insight on how well the idea could actually work when applied.

    Great discussion!

  5. @Jim Mitchem, I don’t think that the point is that everyone can do your job but that some people – who are not professional writers – can. Or if not do the job, at least have something to offer that your work might benefit from. With the arrival of the web, it’s a lot more common for people to work cross-discipline and I find that some of the best (and admittedly some of the worst) creative work is being done by people who aren’t from jobs we traditionally think of as “creative.”

  6. From my position inside a creative department I see all to often that everyone out side the department believes they can do what I do (I’m an art director for the record.) As much as I know it makes me sound mean or stuck up, it’s because of the “everyone is creative” line of thought. I don’t disagree that everyone is creative, but not everyone is creative enough to do what we in the Creative Dept. do on a daily basis.
    To Jim’s point: I cook, that doesn’t mean I could open an restaurant. I play the drums, that doesn’t mean I could go on tour. I do my own taxes, but that sure as hell doesn’t mean I’m qualified to do them for my company. I think we need to, as we do with almost every other sector of business, draw a line between being able to do something and being able to do it for a living.
    As for brainstorming, I think there are better ways to include people in the discussion and process than sitting every one down in a room and letting them show off their creativity. As a Creative, i dread those meetings because when a bad idea takes hold, I’m the one who’s stuck with it.

  7. I think a good brainstorm can only be effective is the contributors are :

    – Self motivated to contribute in the idea generation
    – Have some sort of link with the subject. Either personal of professional
    – Are aware of the basic ‘rules’ of brainstorming

    Then the success of a brainstorm depends highly on the ability of the ‘chairperson’ to direct the brainstorm and make sure everybody feels comfortable and is inspired.

    I’m confident that anybody could be a valuable contributor to a brainstorm, but it is important that it is lead by an inspiring creative professional to bring out the best of people.

  8. Art by committee is not pretty. Collaboration can open whole new worlds. So like a lot of things it depends.

    In any field, the culture surrounding you determines true creativity and innovation. BBC brought themselves back from the brink by changing their internal culture to one that accepts creative ideas from all the ranks instead of restricting it to high level meetings (Rosabeth Moss Kantor’s book Confidence ). It made a huge difference. Shows like The Office came from that change in culture.

    Personally, I have bumped up against rule followers who just cannot do anything but. Very firmly vested in the status quo. So to ask them to brainstorm something that might actually change their seat at the game… ooh, not gonna get innovation there.

  9. Honestly, I don’t even consider myself ‘creative’ at all. I am a copywriter, and have worked both inside and outside of ad agencies. Other than college, my only qualifications for doing my job is life experiences that help me to ‘connect’ to a wide range of people – which I do for money for my clients. I’ve written short stories. I’ve written poetry. And yes, I’ve written advertising that has won national awards. But the most creative thing I’ve ever done in my life is donate my DNA to my daugters because they’re about as ‘original’ as anything I could ever do on my own.

    Oh, and without the help of people who are far removed from the ‘creative’ types, I would not be able to do my job. Ironically, the most important thing I do in my job is get the information right. When that’s right, and approved, a client has a hard time saying ‘no’ to the proposed creative solution. In my experience, I mean. Finally, I work best pretty much alone – no brainstorming sessions in big conference rooms for me. Just give me a legal pad and a pen, or a keyboard, and I’ll write anything. Well.

  10. I tend to follow this line of thinking: “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” There is a tendency to take what may have been a brilliant idea, and water it down so that everyone has a hand in it. This does not produce the results you’re looking for.

    If you really want to have creative input from everyone, present them with the problem or situation. Ask them to go think on it awhile, brainstorm it independently, and have them submit their answers anonymously. This takes the social pressure off, reduces the chances of watered down ideas, and allows everyone to be heard.

    Personally, while I may come up with good ideas, in a group setting I am more inclined to listen than to participate. Even if some people feel pressure, I would feel the desire to learn from others, rather than put out ideas that may not be embraced by the group.

    Thanks for these thought-provoking posts!


  11. @Tony – I’d just like to say that I like a little creativity when it comes to accounting, especially around tax time, but that’s beside the point.

    Isn’t creativity something other than artistic expression? Creating a beautiful piece of artwork is a type of creative expression, however my dictionary describes the verb to create as:

    “to cause to come into being, as something unique that would not naturally evolve or that is not made by ordinary processes.”

    The ability to think of different systems for processing the paperwork in order to save the company money, and the ability to reinvent the company’s position in the marketplace, and the ability to take the status quo and see past it – aren’t these all examples of creativity.

    I think our school systems teaches us to not be creative, to not think independently. We are taught to take in info and spit it out – there’s nothing creative about that. However, people can learn to be creative, to “think outside the box” (although I hate that expression, and if I were being creative at the moment, I would come up with a different trite expression to insert here).

  12. I suggest looking at any of the press releases on this page:

    and/or read this blog:

    Or read the Paula Deen story:

    I also want to share two quotes:

    “When people ask me where I get my ideas, I laugh. How strange – we’re so busy looking out, to find ways and means, we forget to look in…All that is most original lies waiting for us to summon it forth. And yet we know it is not as easy as that….Embarrassment, self-consciousness, remembered criticisms, can stifle the average person so that less and less in his lifetime can he open himself out.”
    Ray Bradbury-Author

    “Individual creativity is very intimate and personal. So, it’s important to learn how to listen to your own instincts, to listen to your inner voice-or find your inner voice-so that your self-expression becomes authentic and grounded and not simply a function of what you think people want to hear,what’s fashionable or what you think you should do as a life-long task…. Creativity is very much about being intimate with yourself, but also a number of things that, frankly, are difficult, if not sometimes impossible, to articulate.”
    John Kao -Innovator, Artist, Author of ”Innovation Nation”

    Creativity is inherent in the human person.

    Those who have honed their abilities to capitalize on this trait are the creative specialists. The one’s that go a step further, risk and implement these ideas are innovators (and I’m not talking innovating only on a corporate level; ref: Matthew E. May’s blog above).

    I think the problem is that we, the specialists, have created this aura around being creative, that we are the custodians of the muse. I believe we are crippling our collective creativity by thinking in this way.

    I don’t say this flippantly, but people are creative and innovative every day both at home and at work (and unfortunately often less at work!)

    @Jim Cook is right on!

    People use creativity to deal with failing health, broken products, shortage of funds, broken relationships, getting food, entertainment, and myriads of other things. People lack the knowledge, skills, money and fortitude to commercialize their creativity, but is it absent? Never.

    Mark says, “the success of a brainstorm depends highly on the ability of the ‘chairperson’ to direct the brainstorm and make sure everybody feels comfortable and is inspired.”

    Unfortunately, I don’t believe any person can *make* every individual in a group brainstorming feel comfortable and/or inspired. And besides, the goal of brainstorming is idea generation and preferably good idea generation. (I’m avoiding discussing idea selection which often gets lumped into brainstorming only to brainstorming’s detriment)

    There *are* ways of leveraging the creativity of others- of those who aren’t specialists per se, but who with minimum knowledge of a situation can provide magnificent insights if not outright solutions, but it’s not necessarily in the context of regular team brainstormings.

    BTW, I’m not advocating the elimination of brainstorms per se. Bouncing ideas off others, seeing what others have done is a good thing. But humans have motivations, fears, dreams. All this comes into play when doing traditional brainstormings and without addressing these needs even seasoned specialists can be less fruitful in brainstorming sessions. Please read the first three pages of this paper to see some scientific insights into brainstorming:

    So, to wrap up this mini-tome, ultimately, what I’m advocating is using alternate techniques that “virtualize” brainstorming which minimizes participant issues and therefore maximizes creative output from all people involved.

    I mean, c’mon! We’re all creative types, right? Why have we dogmatized some method that’s 70 years old as being cutting edge? Why are we not willing to explore and entertain other more efficient methods for coming up with ideas?

    I think if we do, we’ll find the results will surprise us!

  13. @ Kimberlee RIGHT ON-great ideas and input!

  14. Mark,

    Creativity is the ability to create something that wasn’t there before. We’ve all got that.

    Is all creative action artistic, innovative, inspired, or even original? No, of course not. But it’s pretty closed-minded to think that the only people in a company who are creative are the “creatives.” That’s only the creative folks who wanted to spend their days working in that way.

    As to natural: Some people are given a head start at birth. Some people work really hard and develop their creativity.

    Having said that: I’m not a fan of regular brainstorming, but I am a fan of open communication, and sometimes a brainstorming session can be good for that.

    So can a comment box. Or an email address for great ideas coming in from other departments, as long as the creatives are open to reading and considering the ideas.

    Let creatives do their work, just as engineers (etc.) expect to be allowed to do their own. But be open to the fact that cool ideas sometimes come from folks who have brilliant thought at midnight, folks who don’t see creativity as their daily drudgery.



  15. @Kelly – You said it perfectly. “I’m not a fan of regular brainstorming, but I am a fan of open communication…”

    I think that’s a point most of us Creatives (or at least myself) fail to make when we say “Leave the creativity to the Creatives.” Most good creative professionals I know won’t turn down ideas from any source. Our fear of brainstorms (or at least mine) is the dreaded creativity by committee, which is usually not so much creative as it is a popularity contest. (This is esp. true if “the boss” is involved and you have a team that is too afraid to say no to “the boss”, even if the idea is a stinker.)

  16. I have always enjoyed the creative process as a solo venture. I love to immerse myself in it, play with it, go to the other side of the table and approach it from another angle…..on my own. Only THEN, do I feel comfortable in making it available for observation, scrutiny and/or approval. Only then, can I enjoy and appreciate the group creative process.

    But I believe that ‘creativity by committee’ only works when you have a group of very well-rounded individuals with ‘can-do’ attitudes.

    If an Account Executive, Creative Team, Project Manager and Production Manager can sit down…appreciate, understand, build on and accept one another’s ideas, perspectives and parameters…and CREATIVELY conceptualize the client’s message on budget and on time…you have Nirvana.

    Or rather, you’re half way there. In execution, when each individual concentrates their efforts on their own expertise, and it all comes together, you have creative bliss.

  17. Thanks everyone for another great discussion. People keep telling me how good the comments section is at Lateral Action, we really appreciate the thought (and passion 🙂 ) you put into the debates.

    Roll on Monday…