Why We Have a Creative Skills Gap

One reason why I wrote “Fostering Creativity in Self and the Organization” and “Designing Creative High Power Teams and Organizations” is that we are suffering from a Creative Skills Gap.

What is it and why do have it?


The Context
Attaining competitive advantage requires that an organization pursue the low cost producer position in a market or focus on differentiation by offering a superior value proposition to the customer. Most successful firms today focus on the latter. They offer high value products at above average prices, which their clients are willing to pay. Apple’s iPhone is great example of this strategy.

Value can be bundled into a product or service in a number of ways including but not limited to quality, aesthetics, functionality, and flexibility. Attaining these goals demands more from a an organization’s talent.  It demands higher levels of creative expression.

Herein lies the problem.

The Problem
The problem is that we are not giving young people enough opportunities to exercise their creative abilities while at university, nor are we training them to master their creative skills once they enter places of employment.

In short, there is a skills gap…

The Traditional Skills Gap is usually framed as the inability of firms to fill vacant positions despite high unemployment in the economy.  It often pertains to industries such as IT or aerospace that rely heavily on a knowledge of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

The Creative Skills Gap is something altogether different:

“The Creative Skills Gap is the gap between the creative skills of a workforce and the need to produce innovative new products and services on a continuous basis.”

There are 5 principle reasons why we have a Creative Skills Gap (TM).

1. Lack of Definition
Most leaders and managers have no idea of what creative expression is and therefore do not know how to encourage it.  This is a huge problem.  Many assume creativity is “brainstorming.”  It is not!  Creativity comes in many forms, which should be recognized.  In my books, I focus on improvising, designing, experimenting (or tinkering) and developing aesthetic awareness.  This list is by no means exhaustive.

2. Lack of Preparation
Most people are afraid to create (or admit to their own creative expression). The main reason is a fear of judgment, both by themselves and by others. A majority of leaders and managers do not understand the psychological obstacles most people have regarding their creative abilities. Indeed, they may even suffer from the same fears. Consequently they have no plan for for dealing with this issue. It is important to address this problem head on.

Another issue is that universities also do not offer enough opportunities, esp. business schools, for students to exercise their creativity. In my opinion, creativity, in all its forms, should be taught in school. We also need to structure more classes with methods driven by guided discovery, problem-solving and design.  For example, why should students learn physics by reading about the discoveries of the great thinkers?  They should be designing their own experiments to test theories of universe.  We should help them to discover what is known rather than spoon feed it to them.

In short, we need to provide greater opportunities for students to exercise their creative muscles, learn by tinkering, and engage in creative behaviors.

3. Poor or Mixed Messages
Most organizations send mixed messages to their employees. Organizations use buzzwords like “innovation” and “cutting edge” yet have no idea what this entails. True innovation may be disruptive. There is thus a disconnect between “espoused theory” and “theory in practice.” What they say and what they do are in conflict. Disruptive innovation requires taking risks and the culture needs to support it.

4. Poor Incentives
Many leaders and managers invite innovation yet trap employees in systems that do not support risk taking or action learning. Annual reviews coupled to financial incentives often do recognize creative behaviors (not surprising, since many managers do not know what it is.  See #1).  They may even be penalized for taking risks! Risk taking will result in a higher rate of failures along with the successes and learning that takes place. Very conservative organizations tend to discourage this type of behavior.

5. Poor Vision
Finally, most leaders and managers have no idea of what a truly creative organization looks like. I call these organizations Poietic Organizations. What are their characteristics? What are their goals? How do they transform themselves over time?  How are employees treated? What do their incentive systems look like?

You can’t make progress toward something you can’t see or imagine.

The Creative Skills Gap is a real problem for most organizations.  Responsibility for improving the situation and closing the gap rests both with universities and our organizations.

Copyright Eric W. Stein. 2014. All rights reserved.  The Creative Skills Gap (TM) is a trademark of Eric W. Stein.

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