The International Manager’s Creativity Formula 1/2

Kevyn Yong, Dean of ESSEC Asia-Pacific, Professor of Management and entrepreneurship expert, shares research into how creativity differs across cultures and provides a framework for how managers working internationally can boost creativity and innovation.    

Behind the culture stereotype

Culture shapes how people view themselves, how they experience relationships with those around them, and how they perceive the outside world. But does it also impact their ability to be creative and devise new and valuable objects, ideas and solutions?

Many have argued that some cultures are naturally more conducive to creativity. Findings have suggested, for example, that Anglo-Saxon cultures, with their emphasis on uniqueness and independence, promote the highest levels of creativity; while on the opposite end of the spectrum, Far Eastern and Confucian Asian cultures, with their emphasis on conformity and interdependence, have been shown to inhibit creativity.

This perspective, however, fails to explain how countries with cultures that would theoretically inhibit creativity have built some of the world’s most innovative businesses: The Forbes list of “The 100 Most Innovative Companies” features firms from 20 different countries, including Indonesia (Unilever Indonesia – #6), China (Baidu – #11), Thailand (CP ALL – #17), and Japan (Rakuten – #19). Michael Morris and Kwok Leung offer the alternative explanation – and one that my research supports – that different social normative expectations of valued work outcomes account for why there are perceived differences in creativity across cultures. In other words, it’s not that cultures are more or less creative, but rather that each culture values certain aspects of creativity over others and therefore achieves creativity in different ways and for different reasons.

Since creativity is a source of competitive advantage for organizations across a wide variety of countries, and for a growing number of multinational corporations, it’s critical that these organizations be able to foster creativity in a variety of cultural contexts. To help international managers respond to this challenge, the social normative perspective offers a simple formula. Dean Keith Simonton and Shing-Shiang Ting proposed the following formula: creativity = novelty x usefulness.

Creative differences: novelty or usefulness

The social norms perspective on culture and creativity proposes that each culture places a different emphasis on novelty relative to usefulness. Accordingly, creativity in organizations is a social construct comprising sensemaking processes and outcomes in accordance with what is normatively valued by the culture within which an organization is situated. Thus, cultural differences in creativity can be explained in terms of social normative expectations of either novelty-seeking activities or usefulness-seeking activities. In other words, it is not that some cultures are inherently less creative but that there are social normative expectations to engage in usefulness-seeking activities that results in lower creative performance.

Anglo Saxon cultures tend to place a great deal of importance on novelty, or the extent to which an idea is new or different when compared to existing ideas. Their creativity icons are Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, or Elon Musk – individuals who paved their own way to success by creating businesses that changed existing paradigms.

Their stories reflect the social norms of Anglo Saxon cultures: they tend to be highly individualistic, relish uncertainty, low in power distance, masculine and culturally loose, traits that tend to imprint a cognitive style emphasizing divergent and flexible thinking and a discovery approach to problem-solving. Thus, these norms favour the generation of a variety of alternative solutions, facilitating novelty.

East Asian cultures, on the other hand, tend to place greater importance on usefulness, or the extent to which an idea is an appropriate response to a problem. Their creativity icons include Sim Wong Hoo, Robin Li and Jack Ma.

Social norms in East Asian cultures – collectivistic, uncertainty avoidance, power distance, feminine and culturally tight – imprint a cognitive style that emphasizes convergent thinking and closure, facilitating idea selection and structure. Thus, these norms favour usefulness.

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However, a creative solution should be both novel and useful. By analysing these ‘creative differences’ between cultures, my research collaborators and I are currently developing a theory on how managers might effectively enhance creativity across different cultures.

Read Part 2 of Prof. Kevyn Yong’s article.

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