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Role of Domain Expertise in Creativity

By Tojin T. Eapen

Domain knowledge plays a crucial role in the creative process. It allows individuals to generate and identify feasible ideas, as shown by research conducted by Teresa Amabile(1983)Gary Magee (2005) and Rietzschel, Nijstad, and Stroebe (2007). This means that to come up with a practical idea for a complex artifact such as an aircraft wing, an individual should possess a certain level of familiarity with aircraft technology.

However, the role of domain knowledge in the creative process is not always clear cut. Individuals who possess high levels of domain knowledge may become fixated on "how things are" rather than "how things can be." This phenomenon is known as the Einstellung effect and was first identified by Tresselt and Leeds in 1953 in an article in The Journal of General Psyschology.

The Einstellung effect can lead to what is known as design fixation, where individuals become stuck on a particular design or solution and are unable to think of alternative ideas. This can be a major hindrance to the creative process and can prevent individuals from coming up with truly novel and innovative ideas.

Another related concept is functional fixedness, which refers to the tendency for individuals to think of objects only in terms of their typical functions. For example, someone may think of a hammer only as something that is used to drive nails, rather than as something that can be used in a variety of ways. This kind of fixed thinking can also hinder the creative process.

Finally, there is the curse of knowledge, which refers to the difficulty that individuals with high levels of domain knowledge may have in thinking outside of the box. Because they are so familiar with a particular topic, they may have a hard time imagining what it would be like to be unfamiliar with it. This can make it difficult for them to generate ideas that are truly creative and novel.

While domain knowledge is an important part of the creative process, it is not without its drawbacks. Individuals with high levels of domain knowledge may be limited by their fixation on "how things are" rather than "how things can be," leading to design fixation and functional fixedness. Additionally, the curse of knowledge can make it difficult for them to generate truly novel ideas. Despite these challenges, however, domain knowledge remains an important part of the creative process.

Shape of Domain Expertise

Furthermore, knowledge in unrelated or seemingly irrelevant domains may also aid in the creative process. This understanding leads to the popular notion that the profile of domain expertise may play a role in creativity. The concept of "T" shaped expertise suggests that individuals should possess deep domain knowledge as well as familiarity with a large number of domains, allowing them to collaborate with others effectively.

While domain knowledge is an important factor in the creative process, the profile of expertise may also play a role. "T" shaped individuals, with deep domain knowledge and a broad understanding of multiple disciplines, may be better equipped to generate novel and feasible ideas.

Tim Brown, the former CEO of IDEO, describes "T" shaped individuals as having "depth and breadth in their skills." According to Agnus Bannerman, in the context of advertising, "T" shaped individuals have been shown to be more successful than "I" shaped individuals, who possess deep knowledge of only one discipline.

Implications for Idea Mangement in Organizations

Domain profiles play a crucial role in hiring decisions. The possible existence of domain expertise profiles and profile shapes leads to several questions for organizations. For instance, what are the profile shapes that engender creativity? Are individuals with certain profile shapes more creative than others?

Another important question is how profile shapes relate to the number, novelty, feasibility, and overall quality of ideas. Research has shown that a diverse group of individuals with different backgrounds and expertise can generate more creative ideas than a homogeneous group. This is because different perspectives and experiences can provide unique insights and stimulate creative thinking.

Furthermore, it is worth considering how profile shapes change over time. As individuals gain more experience and knowledge in their field, their profile shape may evolve and become more complex. This process of learning and gaining expertise is known as domain information acquisition.

On the other hand, profile shapes may also change due to loss of knowledge and skills. For example, if an individual leaves their field of expertise for an extended period of time, they may lose some of their expertise and their profile shape may become less complex. This highlights the importance of continuous learning and development in maintaining domain expertise and a robust profile shape.

In conclusion, the existence of domain profiles and profile shapes raises important questions for organizations. By understanding the relationship between profile shapes and creativity, as well as the factors that influence the evolution of profile shapes over time, organizations can make more informed hiring decisions and support the development of expertise in their workforce.

To learn how leading Fortune Global 500 companies such as ABB, Bosch, Google, Samsung, and NetApp have used Innomantra's Functional Innovation Methodology to turbocharge their idea management process, schedule a meeting today at