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The Key to Assessing for Creative Potential

To assess for creative potential, think like a locksmith.

A locksmith's work involves matching keys to locks, and most locks can only be opened with specifically-matched keys. Likewise, when it comes to finding the key to "unlocking" creativity, we need to study the lock before we can cut the key.


Business and scholarly publications alike frequently mention the high priority CEOs place on employee creativity. The need for creative employees is a persistent theme from surveys of executive leaders (try skimming the results of this Google search).

Perhaps in response, some organizations try to embed the words "creativity" or "innovation" into their company values, their competency models, or the slogans they use to attract job candidates.

Too often, however, it's not much more than a slogan that lacks depth or definition. For example, take a look at how many different organizations claim innovation is "in their DNA." Apparently, the US Air Force, Accenture, TikTok, and Volvo all share some common genes.

On the one hand, this makes sense. "Creative" is a label any of us would be proud to wear, just like "competent," "athletic," or "attractive." They're labels that don't require explanation; we intuitively know what they mean as adjectives.

On the other hand, all four of those words are pretty hard to define precisely. They can all be relative (e.g., "she's more athletic than he is"), and they can be contextual (e.g., "he's a competent accountant and a lousy manager"). Creativity is at once something we all understand, and something that could mean totally different things in different contexts.

The ambiguity around the word "creativity" is subtle. It doesn't become apparent until we try to operationalize or measure it, like when we're trying to determine a job candidate's creative potential.


Some aspects of creativity are what researchers call "domain-general," which refers to the fundamental things that are true about all forms of creative work. Compared the average person, generally creative people…

  • Are more comfortable taking risks

  • Are more open to new or even conflicting points of view

  • Are less conforming to group norms

  • And above all, are motivated to do things differently

But beyond those fundamentals, a lot of creativity is domain-specific, which means certain traits or abilities apply differently to different kinds of creative work. For example, an attorney who crafts creative legal arguments uses different skills and abilities than a designer who invents new products, or a sales manager who discovers new ways to inspire her team members. It's not a matter of how creative they are; it's how they are creative.

It's not a matter of how creative they are; it's how they are creative.

Of course, an attorney, a designer, and a sales manager all have acquired different areas of expertise they use to do their jobs. But creativity researchers have determined the differences go beyond knowledge or experience.

The research shows us that people aren't usually equally strong at different creative tasks. Even among children who have not needed to specialize in one particular domain tend to perform differently on different creative tasks such as writing, generating scientific hypotheses, or creating visual art.

Later in life, we see people performing creatively in different domains having entirely different value systems or patterns of personality traits. People who work in science and research, for example, tend to strongly value power and competition, whereas those working in the arts tend to value altruism or universalism.

To assess beyond the fundamental domain-general aspects of creative potential (e.g., one's appetite for doing things differently), we need to specify what kind of creative work we're expecting candidates to perform. In other words, we need to study the lock of creative work before we can cut its key.

The complexity of today's jobs makes an exhaustive list of creative domains unrealistic and unhelpful. Instead, we can think about different factors or dimensions to describe how any given job requires someone to think creatively. Here are some questions to ask or factors to consider when specifying the kind of creative thinking a job requires:

  • What's the magnitude of creative thinking required in the job? Do employees radically transform the way things get done, or are they expected to make incremental improvements?

  • How social versus independent is the job? Do employees create mostly on their own, or do they work as part of a team?

  • Are employees solving problems that are presented to them, or are they expected to discover new problems others haven't yet noticed?

  • What kind of time pressures do employees face? Are they producing new ideas rapidly, or can they iterate and incubate on ideas over long periods of time?

  • Where in the creative process do employees work the most? Are they tasked with creating prototypes and proposals, or are they to focus on implementation and execution?

I've framed these questions as either/or choices, but in practice the answers are a matter of degree. More importantly, considering questions like these helps specify what creative performance looks like in any given job, which in turn tells us what a candidate needs to bring to that job in order to succeed.

If we are to answer the call of all those CEOs who want more creative employees, we have to consider both the domain-general and domain-specific aspects of candidates' creative potential. Even a skeleton key that can open multiple different locks won't work on all locks. Similarly, a one-size-fits-all approach to assessing for creativity works about as well as a company declaring that "innovation is in their DNA."


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