The Creative Process
We define creative processes as individuals’ engagement in behaviors and thought processes related to creativity (Drazin et al., 1999; Gilson & Shalley, 2004; Reiter-Palmon & Illies, 2004). Over the years, several models have been proposed regarding the creative process and its core elements (e.g., Busse & Mansfield, 1980; Finke et al., 1992; Mumford et al., 1991; Mumford et al., 2012; Sternberg, 1988). Although these models differ in the number and nature of elements included, scholars now generally agree that the core elements of the creative process include the following: (a) problem construction, (b) information search and encoding, and (c) idea generation (e.g., Gilson & Shalley, 2004; Reiter-Palmon & Illies, 2004; Zhang & Bartol, 2010). It is important to note that we focus on creativity rather than on innovation processes and do not include processes such as idea championing and idea implementation (Perry-Smith & Mannucci, 2017).
Problem construction is often considered to be the first step in the creative endeavor and is defined as the identification of the goals, restrictions, procedures, and information required to solve a problem (Mumford et al., 2012; Reiter-Palmon & Illies, 2004). Although the process of problem construction often occurs automatically, individuals may also choose to engage in this process in a more deliberate and effortful way. In the former, the problem is framed in concordance with individuals’ prior experiences and mental representations, whereas in the latter, the individual actively processes the situation at hand, in order to arrive at a more detailed and unique problem representation (Mumford et al., 1991; Reiter-Palmon & Illies, 2004).
Information search and encoding is defined as the process of connecting, integrating, and encoding information (Mumford et al., 1991; Reiter-Palmon & Illies, 2004). The way in which the problem is constructed can lead to the automatic activation of knowledge structures related to the problem (Mumford et al., 1994), where a more detailed problem construction will provide more cues and therefore will activate more problem-related knowledge (Reiter-Palmon & Illies, 2004). However, it is also possible to actively search for, encode, and combine information into new knowledge (Harms et al., 2020; Ward et al., 1997), which is considered to be effortful and cognitively demanding (e.g., Mumford et al., 1991; Ward et al., 1997).
Finally, idea generation is defined as the production of alternative solutions or outcomes, and the individual is assumed to move on to this stage of the creative process once information is available (Reiter-Palmon & Illies, 2004). Unsurprisingly, idea generation has received most research attention, given that this process is embedded in the definition of creative outcomes (Amabile, 1983; Ford, 1996; Woodman et al., 1993). In fact, it is common practice within creativity research to equate creative outcomes with the creative quality and quantity of ideas, products, and problem solutions of research participants that were assigned to an ideation task (e.g., brainstorming, Rickards, 1999; Stroebe et al., 2010; divergent-thinking, Guilford, 1967; Reiter-Palmon et al., 2019).
All stages of the creative process are considered important in generating creative outcomes. For example, several studies show the importance of explicit problem construction for the generation of original and feasible ideas (Redmond et al., 1993; Reiter-Palmon et al., 1997). Supporting the importance of information search and encoding, Hunter et al. (2008) showed that prompting individuals to use multiple knowledge structures (versus a single knowledge structure) before generating ideas led to solutions of higher quality and originality. Rietzschel et al. (2007) further found that activating certain knowledge structures in memory enhanced the generation of ideas related to that knowledge and their originality. Finally, research suggests that active and prolonged engagement in the idea generation process is positively related to creative outcomes. For example, sheer production is the best predictor of creative eminence (e.g., Simonton, 1997), and Ward (1994) found that ideas generated later on during the process were of higher originality than ideas generated during the beginning of the process (also see Lucas & Nordgren, 2020; Rietzschel et al., 2007). Taken together, prior research suggests that all stages of the creative process are important for creative outcomes.
However, problem construction, information search and encoding, and idea generation are considered conceptually distinct elements of the creative process, each with their own antecedents and outcomes (Mumford et al., 1991, 2012). This suggests that contextual variables might not only shape the decision whether individuals will engage in the creative process, but also how they will do so. Unfortunately, most studies to date have not taken this suggestion into account. More specifically, there are only a few studies that distinguish among specific elements of the creative process (Binnewies et al., 2007; Caniëls, 2019; Henker et al., 2015). Henker et al. (2015) and Caniëls (2019) both conducted confirmatory factor analyses showing that a three-factor model separating problem construction, information search and encoding, and idea generation as distinct constructs fitted the data better than alternative models in which some of the elements of the creative process were combined. Binnewies et al. (2007) disentangled the creative process and showed how personal initiative mainly boosted engagement in the beginning stages of the creative process. However, these works did not develop and test theory as to how and why employees choose to engage in specific elements of the creative process. In what follows, we argue that employees use sensemaking processes to determine which creative processes to engage in, and that both autonomy and leader creative expectations can lead to engagement in creative processes, albeit in a differential manner.
Sensemaking and the Creative Process: Diagnostic and Prognostic Framing
To uncover what drives individuals to engage in creative action, several scholars have adopted a sensemaking perspective (e.g., Drazin et al., 1999;Ford, 1996 ; Unsworth & Clegg, 2010). Building on the seminal work by Weick (1995), this perspective explains how employees make intentional decisions about whether to engage in creative behavior or in more routine and habitual behavior (Ford, 1996). Specifically, the sensemaking process involves individuals’ expectations regarding the appropriateness and the likely effectiveness of both creative and habitual behavioral options (Ford, 1996; Unsworth & Clegg, 2010). Given that creative action is more risky and resource intensive, habitual action is considered the default choice (Ford, 1996). When dispositional and situational factors signal that creative action is likely to lead to favorable personal consequences, however, employees become more likely to favor creative over habitual behavior (Yuan & Woodman, 2010).
Within the sensemaking perspective, it has remained unclear why individuals would choose to engage in one type of creative act (e.g., problem construction) over another (e.g., idea generation). To be able to predict the type of action that individuals will choose, it is important to note that sensemaking consists of two distinct elements: building mental models about situations or events, and subsequently articulating potential courses of action based on these mental models (e.g., Drazin et al., 1999; Foldy et al., 2008; Ford, 1996). Based on this, Foldy et al. (2008) proposed that during sensemaking, individuals develop two distinct types of frames: diagnostic frames, defined as the way in which the problem or situation is understood, and prognostic frames, defined as the way in which the appropriate course of action is understood.
These two frames are conceptually strongly related to distinct stages of the creative process. That is, problem construction and information search and encoding can be considered preparatory processes that serve as a foundation for idea generation, which can be seen as a production process generating alternative solutions (e.g., Montag et al., 2012; Reiter-Palmon & Illies, 2004). In the context of creative action, diagnostic framing is related to the preparation stages of creativity (i.e., understanding the situation through problem construction and information search), while prognostic framing involves the production stage of creativity (i.e., idea generation to arrive at possible and appropriate courses of action). The question then is: under which conditions do employees engage in diagnostic and/or in prognostic framing?
Autonomy and Creative Expectations as Predictors of Creative Process Engagement
The idea that autonomy is an important and positive predictor of employee creativity follows from the seminal work of Amabile and colleagues (Amabile, 1983; Amabile, 1997; Hennessey & Amabile, 1998). These authors have suggested that intrinsic motivation is essential for employee creativity and that one important determinant of intrinsic motivation is freedom or autonomy (Amabile et al., 1996; Shalley et al., 2004). This suggestion has been confirmed in empirical research. For example, in one recent meta-analysis (Liu et al., 2016), it was found that job autonomy was related to employee creativity (ρ = .32) and that this effect was at least partly mediated by intrinsic motivation.
Initially, it was also thought that external pressure and constraints would undermine intrinsic motivation and would therefore lead to lower creativity (see e.g., Amabile et al., 1996). However, research has shown that this is not necessarily the case and that external demands can sometimes even enhance employee creative performance. For example, one meta-analysis has shown that extrinsic rewards can enhance creativity when creative performance is explicitly required and rewarded (Byron & Khazanchi, 2012). Other work has clearly demonstrated that creative job demands (Unsworth et al., 2005) and leader creative expectations (Tierney & Farmer, 2004) are positively related to employee creativity. Thus, it appears that creativity may be enhanced not only by providing employees with freedom and autonomy, but also by providing demands and clear directions, as long as it is clearly specified that creativity is a desired outcome.
We should note that these findings are not necessarily contradictory. Indeed, it is possible to have high creative expectations of an employee and at the same time provide that employee with autonomy in how to fulfil these expectations. Yet, these findings do raise the question whether autonomy and creative expectations are interchangeable ways to stimulate creativity that have similar effects. We propose that this is not the case, but that autonomy and creative expectations relate to engagement in different creative processes.
Job Autonomy and Diagnostic Framing
Although individuals have an innate desire for sensemaking (Chater & Loewenstein, 2016), the extent to which they expend effort developing their diagnostic and prognostic frames is strongly dependent on the context. Diagnostic framing involves developing a mental model of a situation to reduce ambiguity and uncertainty (Foldy et al., 2008), and this process is influenced by others (Filstad, 2014; Maitlis, 2005; Weick, 1995). More specifically, in organizational contexts with a lot of policies, rules and procedures in place, individuals are likely to use these constraints as a lens through which they develop their diagnostic frame, as opposed to developing a more independent diagnostic frame (Madjar et al., 2011). In contrast, situations with high levels of job autonomy, defined as the extent to which a job allows freedom to schedule work, to select methods to perform tasks, and to make decisions at work (Hackman & Oldham, 1976; Morgeson & Humphrey, 2006), have less constraints in place that influence individuals’ idiosyncratic interpretation of situations, thereby giving room for individuals to develop their own diagnostic frames. Indeed, Ford (1996) suggested that individuals are likely to adopt mental models of situations that are commonly accepted in the organization over developing their own mental models, unless critical thinking is being stimulated in the organization. In line with this, Akgün et al. (2012) suggested that having job autonomy is crucial for effective sensemaking, since sensemaking involves questioning existing organizational routines and practices. Indeed, Filstad (2014) suggested that leaders can facilitate employees to develop their own alternative interpretations of their work situations by giving them the freedom to do so.
With high autonomy, individuals have leeway to identify their own goals, procedures, restrictions, and information required to resolve problems; that is, job autonomy allows individuals to actively engage in sensemaking. In contrast, low job autonomy will constrain the extent to which individuals can or has to define their own goals (i.e., what problem needs to be solved) and means (i.e., what procedures to use to resolve the problem) and will increase the likelihood that individuals will adopt diagnostic frames from others, such as their leader (Filstad, 2014; Shotter, 1993; Smerek, 2009). That is, leaders often are strongly involved in developing diagnostic frames or problem representations in the workplace (Maitlis, 2005; Shotter, 1993), and these frames are often passively accepted by subordinates (Filstad, 2014; Smerek, 2009). So individuals need to feel responsible or need to be encouraged to develop their own diagnostic frame (e.g., Akgün et al., 2012; Ford, 1996), and job autonomy is the contextual variable that has this effect (Akgün et al., 2012).
Job autonomy in general will give employees leeway as well as a sense of responsibility that will stimulate different proactive and creative behaviors. However, based on the above, we predict that autonomy will be related especially to activities that contribute to diagnostic framing. Thus, whereas autonomy will likely also relate to idea generation, we predict that the association between autonomy and problem construction and between autonomy and information search and encoding will be stronger:
Leader Creative Expectations and Prognostic Framing
Leader creative expectations refer to the extent to which employees perceive that their leader expects them to be creative in their job (Tierney & Farmer, 2004). Tierney and Farmer (2004) showed that these leader expectations shaped self-expectations to be creative, which in turn positively predicted employee creativity. Similarly, Carmeli and Schaubroeck (2007) found that perceived leader creative expectations was the most important determinant of self-expectations to be creative, which in turn was positively related to employees’ involvement in creative work (see also Unsworth & Clegg, 2010). It is therefore likely that leaders’ creative expectations are an important motivator for individuals to engage in the creative process.
The concept of leader creative expectations involves providing normative cues about expected actions. It therefore qualifies as an invitation for individuals to develop their own prognostic frames and generate alternative courses of action. As such, they communicate clearly to employees that creative action is appropriate and appreciated. However, the effect of leader creative expectations is not necessarily equally strong for all elements of the creative process. Specifically, leader creative expectations can be considered an extrinsic demand to be creative, and individuals learn which criteria of task performance need to be fulfilled to meet external demands (Eisenberger, 1992; Eisenberger & Rhoades, 2001). Although the processes of problem construction and information encoding may have a marked impact on creativity, they are less saliently and less directly related to creative outcomes than idea generation: without idea generation, there will be no creative outcome to begin with. Furthermore, many consider creativity to be synonymous with idea generation. It is therefore likely that leaders respond to outcomes of idea generation more strongly than to outcomes of problem construction and information search and that consequently it is mainly idea generation that is reinforced by leaders with high creative expectations (see also Unsworth, 2001).
In addition, Madjar et al. (2011) suggest that even in a company that values creativity, there may be social pressures in place such as a need for conformity that, although creative behavior is allowed, still implies a certain set of constraints to creative action. That is, constraints might be put on the type of tasks that allow creativity or the types of problems that individuals work on. Thus, although leader creative expectations put an explicit demand on generating ideas, this demand is less explicit on developing own problem representations and gathering additional information. Hence, even though employees need to engage in some problem construction and information search and encoding to be able to generate creative ideas (e.g., Mumford et al., 1991; Reiter-Palmon & Illies, 2004), these processes will be less affected by leader creative expectations than the process of idea generation. Therefore, we propose:
Outcomes of the Creative Process: Radical and Incremental Creativity
Research has generally concluded that engagement in any of the elements of the creative process is positively related to creative outcomes. Thus, studies found that problem construction (Redmond et al., 1993; Reiter-Palmon et al., 1997), information search and encoding (Hunter et al., 2008), and idea generation (e.g., Nijstad et al., 2010; Rietzschel et al., 2007) all contribute positively to employee creativity. Although these findings may suggest that each of the three elements of the creative process will be important to achieve creative outcomes, their respective impact may depend on the type of creativity that is involved. Research has long assumed that creativity is a unitary construct, but more recent research has established that it is important to distinguish minor from major creative contributions (e.g., Mumford & Gustafson, 1988; Unsworth, 2001). Specifically, following the ideas of Mumford and Gustafson (1988), Madjar et al. (2011) distinguished radical and incremental creativity. Radical creativity is defined as the production of ideas that differ substantially from existing practices, whereas incremental creativity is defined as the production of ideas that offer minor modification to existing practices. Although these types of creativity are different in scope, both are important for organizational survival (Gilson & Madjar, 2011).
Radical and incremental creativity have been linked to different dispositional and contextual antecedents (Gilson et al., 2012;Gilson & Madjar, 2011 ; Madjar et al., 2011), which suggest that they may result from distinct creative processes. Research has found that willingness to take risk, career commitment, resources for creativity, and intrinsic motivation were more strongly related to radical creativity, whereas organizational commitment, presence of creative co-workers, and extrinsic motivation were more strongly related to incremental creativity (Gilson & Madjar, 2011; Madjar et al., 2011). Importantly, radical creativity was more problem-driven, whereas incremental creativity was more solution-driven. Mumford and Gustafson (1988) further suggest that problem construction might be more important for creative ideas that represent major changes, in comparison to creative ideas that represent minor changes. Similarly, Unsworth (2001) suggested that the type of creative outcomes generated are in part a function of the extent to which the problem is already formulated before the individual starts the creative process. However, studies to date have not yet empirically examined how and whether specific elements of the creative process uniquely contribute to different types of creative outcomes.
Moreover, whether and to which degree individuals actively engage in problem construction and information search and encoding are considered fundamental for the idea generation process and the eventual generation of incremental or radical ideas. Specifically, it is suggested that idea generation draws from the knowledge and information that becomes available from these preparatory elements of the creative process (Mumford et al., 1991, 2012; Reiter-Palmon & Illies, 2004): Active problem construction and information search and encoding will lead to a broader and more diverse knowledge-base, which provides more opportunity for highly novel ideas (Reiter-Palmon & Illies, 2004). Radical creativity moves away from existing practices and, therefore, requires a broad and open problem space. It requires active problem construction and information search and encoding, because individuals cannot strongly rely on existing frameworks and structures to make sense of the situation at hand. Incremental creativity, in contrast, extends existing frameworks, by introducing minor modifications to current practices and products. Therefore, the problem space is more strongly predefined and constrained. Consequently, incremental creativity requires less problem construction and information search and encoding. Thus, we propose:
Finally, we propose that engagement in idea generation is important for both radical and incremental creativity. Idea generation is an integral part of the definition of both radical and incremental creativity (Madjar et al., 2011). Indeed, idea generation is the process through with output is produced, which may or may not be creative. However, if individuals fail to engage in idea generation, there will be no output to begin with, and therefore, no creative output either. Thus: