Skip to main content
monday morning manager

If you build a better mousetrap, the world will come to your door. Usually, the builder of that proverbial mousetrap is a lone genius, working apart from others, and the breakthrough idea likely will float out in a sudden, eureka moment. Better mousetraps are more likely to come if the inventor lacks constraints – and has monetary incentives. If the inventor needs extra help, he or she should enlist experts.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Those seductively appealing statements about innovation are six of 10 myths that David Burkus, an assistant professor of management at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., identified during his doctoral studies and has now shared in a provocative book, The Myths of Creativity.

He stressed that buried in each myth is some element of truth. But mostly, those beliefs are wrong, and lead us astray, persuading people they can't be creative because innovation must come from people unlike them working in different circumstances. "You are more creative than you realize. You just need to rewrite the myths," he said.

Here's how:

1. The eureka myth

New ideas, we have been led to believe, come in a flash of insight. Take Isaac Newton, who figured out gravity when an apple fell from a tree. But Mr. Burkus contends that creative insights actually result from hard work on a problem. The answers incubate in our subconscious, as we connect disparate notions. The discovery might seem to come suddenly, but it's the product of a long, internal process.

2. The rare-breed myth

Creativity is assumed to belong to only a few people. That rare breed of individuals are labelled as "creatives," and the rest of us are assumed not to be creative. But he said the evidence suggests the opposite: There is no naturally creative breed. Organizations therefore must nurture creativity in all their employees.

3. The originality myth

Creative ideas are assumed to be original to their creator – the product of one person, or one company. But history shows ideas usually develop through the work of more than one person, as when Henry Ford developed the automobile assembly line from the production process of meat-packing plants. Often other people are working on the same idea because it is built on a foundation more than one person can piece together. The day Alexander Graham Bell filed his patent for the telephone, Mr. Burkus notes, another inventor, Elisha Gray, filed a patent for a similar device. "If you look at all great ideas, they come from someone else's ideas," Mr. Burkus said in an interview.

4. The expert myth

We usually believe that problems can be solved by expertise. But complicated problems are usually solved by people with less expertise – an outsider's perspective. He noted that in physics, the majority of Nobel prizes come from researchers in their 20s rather than older, more experienced scientists. He's not against expertise, but said it's best to be expert in one area and knowledgeable in a lot of other areas you can use.

5. The incentive myth

It's widely believed that incentives, monetary or otherwise, can increase the motivation of employees, including those tackling innovation. But that has been proven wrong, repeatedly. Innovation must come from within. Organizations have to direct their innovation into areas their people want to delve.

6. The lone creator myth

We assume great innovations come from lone individuals but he argues that's just history rewritten. Invariably, creativity is a team effort (even Edison worked with others) and leaders must figure out how to build effective creative teams.

7. The brainstorming myth

Put some people in a room, and creative ideas will be unearthed, we tend to think. But Mr. Burkus argues that throwing ideas around is not enough to produce consistently creative breakthroughs. "Creativity is a process. You must do research. Then you can brainstorm. Then you must converge on the best idea. Then you must test it. Then you must get it to the marketplace," he said.

8. The cohesive myth

If creativity requires teams, then the expectation is that those teams must be cohesive, with everyone working happily together. But cohesiveness can actually hinder innovative thinking, as people hold back on challenging ideas for fear it will disrupt the group process. "Creativity loves conflict as long as it's task-focused, not personal," he said.

9. The constraints myth

We assume companies that give their innovative people unlimited resources will be the most effective in finding new approaches. But many companies find it's better to apply limits to their innovators, since trying to get around those limitations can inspire innovative thinking.

10. The mousetrap myth

No, the world will not beat a path to the inventor of the better mousetrap. "History is full of ideas that were tried elsewhere first or presented to the public and rejected," he said. To drive innovation, you have to figure out how to overcome the vacuum you might face after developing the breakthrough.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter