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Creativity for the Whole Career

By Derek Irvine

Recognize This! – Ongoing creativity requires a delicate balance of specialized and diverse knowledge, which can be supported through human-focused workplace practices.

It’s true that generations matter to organizations, but perhaps not in the way you might be thinking. Despite the intense focus on the Millennial generation in the news, workplace dynamics tend to be driven much more by age (namely, how long a given group of employees have been in the workforce) rather than a specific generational category per se.

Organizations can pay attention to some of those differences to help maximize human potential over the course of an employee’s entire working life. One aspect of that potential – creativity – is the subject of recent research that attempts to explain variations over time, providing insight to organizations on how to maximize creativity across generations and ultimately make work more human.

A recent post on Knowledge@HEC summarizes the findings by tracking the development of workers across their careers, alternatively developing specialized and diverse sets of knowledge, and the impact that has on creativity.

For employees that are new to the working world, there is often a sense of strong enthusiasm but minimal knowledge specialization that would help discriminate information that is novel versus what might simply be new to them.

As workers advance in their early careers (roughly 4-5 years according to the research), the development of knowledge specialization takes a front seat, building that framework and guiding how ideas can be developed and used. The research suggests that creativity steadily builds throughout this phase as deeper knowledge is acquired and a capacity for complexity is built.

Unfortunately, there is a potential downside to over-specialization through the mid-career years, in that it can contribute to a narrow focus and cognitive inflexibility (to quote the old saying, “to a hammer, everything is a nail”). Negative effects on creativity and motivation begin to emerge around year 10 or so, overshadowing the benefits of increasing depth.

At this stage, a balanced strategy is required to continue realizing human potential by introducing opportunities for diverse knowledge, which can encourage greater cognitive flexibility by cultivating interests in a broader range of areas. As the post summarizes, “The ability to generate new ideas is a matter of balance between specialized and diverse knowledge, and varying degrees of cognitive flexibility. The optimal amount of each changes over time and the balance must be readjusted accordingly.”

This is where the importance of human-centered organizational solutions come into play, to provide experiences that can balance those two types of knowledge development. On the front end, organizations can provide developmental experiences that are appropriate for early, mid, or late career employees that strike the right balance between specialized and diverse knowledge. Downstream, rewards and recognition can be provided that call out and reinforce contributions that align with the development of specialized or diverse knowledge, or perhaps even both depending on the employee. With a complete strategy, organizations are well positioned to realize the benefits of a creative and engaged workforce across generational groups.

How does your own organization help you to develop specialized and diverse knowledge?