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Big Ideas

The Top 5 Qualities of Productive Creatives (And How to Identify Them!)

Want to make ideas happen? Or hire someone who can? We shortlist the key traits for putting ideas into action, and tell you how to identify them.

A recent BusinessWeek article reported that, “According to a new survey of 1,500 chief executives conducted by IBM’s Institute for Business Value, CEOs identify ‘creativity’ as the most important leadership competency for the successful enterprise of the future.”

While the study’s results will come as no surprise to hard-working creative professionals, they do raise an important question: How do we identify – and hire for – the qualities that add up to creativity?  By our lights, the notion of “creativity” can’t be separated from the skills required for creative execution. So our analysis of the characteristics crucial to creativity focuses particularly on the skills that facilitate putting ideas into action.
Below, we outline five key qualities of particularly productive creatives, followed by some recommendations for how to uncover them in potential hires, co-workers, and collaborators.

1. Communication skills.

As Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Whether you’re leading a team, managing clients, or training a new hire, the ability to communicate clearly and concisely is an absolutely essential skill. We must all develop the capacity to efficiently manage our communication channels (email, Twitter, Facebook, etc), to rally people around our ideas, and to play well with others – our coworkers and our clients.

How to test for it:
One easy way to test this ability is by having a candidate explain a simple task. If you were hiring a Systems Administrator, for instance, you might ask something like, “Walk me through the process of setting up a web server.” It doesn’t have to be a hard question; the point is to get insight into their ability to communicate clearly.

2. Pro-activeness.

We tend to judge people based on their experience. This is, of course,  the whole basis of the resumé. Yet, while on-the-job experience is valuable, we must dig deeper. A better indicator of productive creativity is one’s willingness to act, to take the initiative to put an idea in motion. As we’ve written elsewhere on 99%, “Those who take initiative possess tenacity and a healthy degree of impatience with idleness.

How to test for it:
Inquire about past instances where the candidate was proactive. Have them explain how and why they started that club, magazine, or film series listed on their resumé. You can also get a glimpse into their future willingness to take initiative by asking questions like: “If I put you in charge of the company today, what would you do differently?” or “What are some things that you would change about the product (or sales process, or website, etc.) if you had the chance?”

3. Problem-solving.

“Thinking outside of the box” is really nothing more than creative problem solving – the ability to arrive at new solutions by looking beyond obvious or traditional approaches. As designer Michael Beirut taught us at the inaugural 99U Conference: “The problem contains the solution.” In this way, successful creatives don’t see problems as problems at all – they see them as opportunities.
How to test for it:
Aside from using Karl Duncker’s classic “candle task” to test problem-solving abilities, there are a few other options. When interviewing candidates for your creative team, don’t focus on leading questions. Instead, ask questions that emphasize shades of grey, and offer insight into the candidate’s thinking. For a Community Manager position, a good question might be, “How would you deal with an irate customer who won’t stop posting negative comments on message boards?”

4. Curiosity.

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” So said French philosopher Voltaire. As anyone who’s had a “Eureka!” moment knows, daring to ask a new question goes a long way toward finding the right solution. What’s more, a high level of curiosity – the hallmark of an inquiring mind – is typically indicative of other good qualities, such as inventiveness, resourcefulness, and fearlessness. It also tends to ward off boredom and apathy – sentiments that will poison any creative endeavor.

How to test for it:
When interviewing a potential hire, note how many unprompted questions they ask, and how much they’ve already learned about your company. You can also ask simple questions like, “Tell me about something outside of your area of expertise that you recently learned about?” or “What was the last book you read, and why?”

5. Risk-taking.

Being open to risk (and thus failure) is crucial. We can only truly learn and develop when we push ourselves outside of our comfort zones. According to choreographer Twyla Tharp, “If you only do what you know and do it very, very well, chances are that you won’t fail. You’ll just stagnate, and your work will get less and less interesting, and that’s failure by erosion.” For Tharp, inventor James Dyson, and innumerable others, failure is a badge of accomplishment because it means that you took a risk, that you tried something new.

How to test for it:

Chief executive of The Limited, Linda Heasley, likes to ask, “Give me an example of a situation where you think you took a risk or took a controversial point of view.” Or, for a sneakier approach, you can inquire if there’s anything the candidate regrets not doing at their previous job. As psychologist Daniel Gilbert points out in this article on risk, people usually regret the things they didn’t do, more than those they did. Thus, regret and risk-taking usually work (loosely) in inverse proportion to one another.

What Do You Hire For?

Any important characteristics that we missed? What’s key for you when you’re hiring a member of a creative team?

More Posts by Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (41)
  • Sudhakar Narra

    Five key
    qualities of particularly productive creatives, followed by some
    recommendations for how to uncover them in potential hires, co-workers, and

  • Seliverstov Dm

    just brilliant arcticle! thx a lot!

  • Daniel

    “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” -Robert F. Kennedy

  • bid_blog

    I can’t imagine a job or point in time where these wouldn’t be helpful individual attributes and/or characteristics. 

  • Tania Dakka

    I started actively using the term Productive Creatives for my readers back in October and was so surprised to see it here!  This phrase is great and applies across all areas of craft, work and hobby.  Thanks for the reinforcement!  Each skill listed here is a great asset for PCs!  Thanks for the profound post:)

  • borrelia burgdorferi

    Very significant article for us, I think the representation of this
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    Sadia Deedar

  • Peter Hext

    The number of people (and companies) unable or unwilling to embrace change, widen their operational scope or slightly refine their business plan in order to secure new opportunities to generate revenue astounds me.

    Creative stagnation, a lack of transformative ideas and corporate risk-aversion….avoid them, change them, or go out of business!

  • Web Design

    Pro-activeness is one part that I have but Problem Solving is something that I should fix

  • free sex search

    Interesting post.

  • Danielle Russell

    Phenomenal stuff. I work in IT at a large company and time and time again too many incentives get employees focusing more on beating the system than forming relationships with customers. Treating intelligent people like lab rats never gets results.

  • Lucyandvanessa
  • Alex Reid
  • SP

    Fantastic article. So well written and so practical. I will definitely use it if I’m ever interviewing people.


    Risk Taking! Great one I would not have an immediate answer for that one, but now I do! Thanks!

  • Mikaela

    We do a lot of interviews in our group, and the most powerful tool we’ve found for finding people who have these qualities is the “group interview.” We invite four to six candidates to come to the same interview (we warn them ahead of time). We don’t tell them which skills we are looking for so that they don’t go out of their way to demonstrate them.

    First we ask them an individual warm-up question, going around the room so that each candidate can answer individually. Then we ask them to address an issue together. The issues/problems are specific to our field: “What do you think are the four most important issues facing higher education today?” and “A new instructor has approached you to ask for tips on teaching effectively. What sorts of advice and information would you offer this person? As a group, decide on up to six things.” (In the future, I’ll adapt the questions so they’re a bit more like the ideas above.) We then let them discuss for about 12 minutes, going longer if they are still showing us a lot about themselves.

    Since we’ve started doing group interviews, our group has gotten so much stronger! I recommend it if you have the option.

  • Dimis Michaelides

    Very good, practical approach. Here’s an idea, under creative problem-solving.

    Look for different alternative solutions to a problem and then ask them which might be the best. Eg – You are a branch manager in a bank and a customer in line starts to shout aloud that “service in this bank is atrocious, I’ve been in line for half an hour” – please offer different strategies of dealing with this situation. Look for how MANY different strategies and different types of strategies the candidate will offer. This will test creative fluency and flexibility.

    Then ask. Which strategy would you select and why? Look for a quick decision backed by good reasoning. this will test judgment and logical thinking (which must always accompany creative thinking)

  • Bhadra

    In India, these are great reasons for getting yourself sacked. Trust me, have seen it all. Excellent stuff for the books and for self-employed.

  • Bryan

    I’m speechless as I always am when I come to 99u,

  • Jack OAT

    …In India, these are great reasons for getting yourself sacked….
    I have worked all over the U.S. and I have seen the same. The other issue is that, while this article paints a relatively rosy picture of how things ‘should’ be, the reality is that the creative types are undervalued, underpaid, and frequently misunderstood. And in a world of ‘specialists’, I see thousands of creative ‘Jack of All Trades’ types like myself scraping to get by rather than lauded, encouraged, and valued as we could be.

  • Susan Daniels

    Out of the 5 items listed, I get top scores on 2 – 5, but fail miserably with communication, number 1. It is so hard to get thoughts out of my head and into the blog or to explain things under pressure. Thanks for the opportunity to comment. Warmly, Susan.

  • Ram

    Some of these questions are really hard to answer off the cuff especially #5.
    Will be great if some readers share answers from their life, especially for people who find it hard to articulate their thoughts.

  • levia jack

    Very useful strategies!!! Bird Control

  • praveen rai

    nice article for business. web development

  • James

    Great article

  • hjanes

    We definitely look at personal goals and interest to see if they would be a good fit.

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