Is it possible to accurately predict if a person will be an effective creative thinker at work? After conducting rigorous tests, one Australian innovation firm says definitely yes.

About 12 months ago, we set out to see if it was possible to do what was previously thought to be impossible – to accurately predicting whether a person would be an effective creative thinker at work. To our knowledge, there was not a single, scientifically validated process to do this. We found that in the majority of cases, most companies were not using any method for assessing creativity, despite claiming it to be a critical competency for staff to possess.

There were a couple of exceptions. In “creative industries,” such as advertising and design, recruiters would typically look at a job applicant’s portfolio of past work to see how creative they were. Of course, we all know people’s tendencies to stretch the truth. I used to work at the advertising agency that came up with the idea for Earth Hour. And despite the fact that only one person came up with the idea, I heard about many people from the agency claiming that they were the one who gave birth to this idea and had put it in their portfolio.

In other industries, creative thinking is sometimes assessed by giving people a difficult problem to solve and observing how they answer the problem. For example, Microsoft famously asks job applicants how they would move Mount Fuji, and uses their answers as a test as to how creative they are. However, this process has never been scientifically validated and is only testing a small component of workplace creativity.

So we set ourselves the challenge of measuring the unmeasurable. We tested over 1,300 people, from industries as diverse as advertising, engineering and insurance. We discovered that yes, we could indeed predict a person’s ability to think creatively and work, and could do so extremely accurately. It was all a matter of identifying the right variables to measure.

There are several components to creative thinking that we found that our test could predict. These included a person’s ability to:

  • Generate new and effective solutions.
  • Collaborate well with others.
  • Sell and communicate ideas to others.
  • Think creatively under stressful situations.

Our test incorporated over 25 “predictors” – things that we knew were predictive of creative performance as shown by leading researchers in the field. Here are some of the variables that came out as the top predictors of creative performance in the workplace that you can use to help your own predictive powers.

1. Openness to experience

There are hundreds of different personality traits, but we found that there was one trait in particular that was most predictive of creative performance. This trait, called ‘Openness to Experience’ is all about our inclination to seek out and appreciate new experiences. People who score high on this trait tend to enjoy having a lot of variety in their life, have a high level of curiosity, and use their imagination a lot. As a result, they perform significantly more creatively at work.

If you want to try to foster this trait in yourself or in others, start by becoming consciously aware of routines that you have in your life – it might be reading the same types of magazines, gravitating towards the same types of movies or restaurants – and actively encourage yourself to try something different. Being open to experiencing new activities, and following through on this, will help improve your openness to experience and thus significantly boost your creative performance.

2. Creative self-efficacy

Creative self-efficacy relates to a person’s confidence in their ability to think creatively. A person’s creative confidence is important because it directly influences the motivation and ability of a person to get stuck into creative problem-solving tasks. People who are high on this dimension have a strong belief in their ability to generate creative ideas, will immerse themselves in tasks that require creativity, and will seek to get the best ideas out of themselves. Simply having this self belief has been shown to significantly increase a person’s actual ability to think creatively.

If you currently do not see yourself as being an effective creative thinker, it is important to recognise that this is merely a negative frame of mind that can be changed using positive reinforcement. Research has consistently shown that creativity is malleable and our creative potential can be manipulated using a variety of strategies. So next time you do something creative, like solving a problem or participating in a brainstorm, make sure you acknowledge this creativity, give yourself a pat on the back and nurture your creative confidence. By reinforcing your creative triumphs, no matter how small, you will increase your awareness and confidence of your creative potential.

3. Resilience

Resilience is all about a person’s psychological ability to deal with stressful situations. People who are high in resilience bounce back easily from disappointments and failures, and can remain optimistic when things are not going their way. We found that people who showed high levels of resilience were significantly more creative at work. This is because creativity often involves experiencing failure, such as having ideas rejected and having implemented ideas perform poorly. Being able to bounce back from rejections is critical to maintaining creativity and enthusiasm.

Starting to see failure as going hand in hand with creativity can help with setting more realistic expectations which will help boost resilience. In addition, reminding yourself that rejections and failures are not personal should also help build up a level of resilience.

4. Confidence in intuition

Intuition is an effortless, quick, and automatic form of thinking (our “gut feel”) that we rely on frequently to guide our actions. This is in contrast to analytical thinking which is deliberate, unhurried and detail-oriented. People who have a lot of confidence in their intuitive side tend to prefer this way of thinking over more analytical thinking and their confidence in the accuracy of these intuitive decisions. Having this confidence in one’s intuition can help immensely with creativity, as creative thought often involves tapping into intuitive, “gut” thinking.

Confidence in intuition can be developed by gradually using and testing your intuitive judgments in low risk circumstances, then using any successful intuition-based decisions as encouragement for more important tasks. The next time you have an opportunity to make a low-risk decision using your “gut feel” (when trying to answer a question on a game show or when you’re asked a question you’re not too sure of, for example), ensure you make the decision instantly then check to confirm the correct answer. More often than not, you will find that your instinctive answers are correct. The next step is to start deploying these automatic judgments at work when trying to solve problems or when brainstorming, and to consciously acknowledge the benefits of your instinctive judgments when they pay off. This gradual approach will ease you into a pattern of trusting your intuition and will help to develop your creative aptitude.

5. Tolerance of ambiguity

Tolerance of Ambiguity relates to how people react to problem solving tasks where the information provided is vague, incomplete or inconsistent, and where the solution and path to get to the solution are not immediately clear. People who are very tolerant of ambiguities are not bothered by problems that are perceived as open-ended or ambiguous as they tend to be highly flexible and dynamic, and they enjoy the autonomy and creativity ill-defined tasks require. Being open to ambiguity and feeling comfortable with these types of problems is key to creative performance, as a large part of creative thinking involves being able to sit comfortably with problems that have no obvious solution.

Changing the way you perceive unclear objectives is one way of becoming more comfortable with ambiguity. Initially, you must challenge your automatic tendency to view vague instructions negatively; instead, try to be neutral and open to ambiguities. The next step is to realise that the more ambiguous your directives, the more scope you have to impose your personal touch and talent on the brief. That is, ambiguous briefs give you much more opportunity to work outside organisational constraints and norms, and to do things the way you think they should be done. If you consistently approach ambiguous directives in this way – openly, positively and confidently – your habit of perceiving ambiguity negatively will be replaced by a tendency to view ambiguity as an opportunity for you to shine.

6. Cross application of experiences

Cross-application of experiences occurs when a person draws on experiences from seemingly unrelated parts of their life to solve problems at work. People who demonstrate this behaviour frequently apply knowledge and concepts from outside of the work environment to solve work-related problems.

The obvious solution to improve upon this area is to start deliberately applying knowledge and experiences from outside of work to tasks requiring creative problem solving at work. A common and effective strategy is to use analogy, that is, try to identify similarities in the problem you are working on and a problem you’ve solved previously outside of work. Once similarities have been extracted try to see if your previous solutions would also work in the problem you are attempting to solve. You can also draw analogies using your knowledge of seemingly irrelevant topics, such as history, politics or popular culture. The more similarities you can identify between projects at work and your knowledge and experiences, the better you will understand the problem you are faced with and the more likely you are to be able to solve it.

So what now?

The six points outlined above are some of the main findings to come out of our research, which should hopefully give you and your team some direction for enhancing your own creativity. There were also several other variables that were linked to creative performance in the workplace, however, the above variables were some of the main ones.

You might also start to think about how you could incorporate these things into your recruitment process when you are looking for new staff who will be great creative thinkers, or alternatively, seek out a formal way of measuring these traits as they can be tricky to assess.

Dr. Amantha Imber is the founder of Inventium, an international creativity and innovation company. She is author of “The Creativity Formula: 50 scientifically proven creativity boosters for work and for life.” She has a doctorate in organisational psychology; she brings a scientific yet highly practical approach to creative thinking and innovation. Inventium’s tools and techniques have been tested in real world and lab studies. They are based on scientific theories that have been proven to significantly enhance creative thinking and innovation.