Creative Thinking vs. Critical Thinking: Which is More Important?

In the process of brainstorming a solution to a problem, it is undeniable that both critical thinking and creativity are necessary and complementary.  In many ways, creative thinking can be considered divergent thinking.  It is the process by which we generate new ideas, imagine possibilities, and find relationships among seemingly unrelated concepts.  Therefore, Critical Thinking would be the convergent process where we narrow down which of those new ideas will work best given realistic constraints and resources.

It is no surprise that research has established a positive correlation between critical thinking and creativity (between .25 and .30) and the combination of critical thinking and creative thinking is considered “good thinking.”

However, it is possible to have stronger skills in one style of thinking over another.  So, if you could only choose one, which would you choose?  Would you rather be known as a critical thinker or a creative thinker?  Better yet, if you had to hire a new employee, which would you choose:

  • The Critical Thinker who scores extremely well in critical thinking assessments, but lacks the creativity to generate new ideas and productively brainstorm, or
  • The Creative Thinker who is know for her originality and flexibility, but lacks the ability to reason and analyze which ideas will be successful/well-received.

Which do you feel would be easier to train?  Which skill is more important for overall success?

Which employee would you hire?

Editor’s Note: Breanne Harris is the Solutions Architect for Pearson TalentLens.  She works with customers to design selection and development plans that incorporate critical thinking assessments and training.  She has a Master’s degree in Organizational Psychology and has experience in recruiting, training, and HR consulting.  She is the chief blogger for Critical Thinkers and occasionally posts at ThinkWatson.  Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter for more of her thoughts.

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16 responses to “Creative Thinking vs. Critical Thinking: Which is More Important?”

  1. chadfife

    I think it depends a lot on if the new employee can execute on his/her creative thinking. I see “creative” individuals who often can’t back it up by bringing their ideas to life. Their projects aren’t innovative; they don’t streamline their processes; they don’t make a big impact on new product development. But I think it’s harder to think critically. People let the pressure of group dynamics (or the media) get to them and they let go of the independent thinking spirit and intellectual curiosity that we all have as kids. Both skills are really needed at different times. I think each of us is probably born to be great at one and personality plays a role. Here’s a great article on the US Army trying to teach both: http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/milreview/allen.pdf

  2. Scott Filgo

    Honestly, and this is cheating a little, if I couldn’t identify a candidate with at least mid range capability in both of these traits, I’d wait until I did.

    Having said that, I am certain that you can improve critical thinking with training, practice, and feedback. But I have yet to see an individual who lacks creative thinking (including the boldness to risk failure and censure) ever evolve into a truly creative thinker, no matter what techniques were used to awaken his or her potential talent. Best I have ever seen is developing a sense of tolerance in an uncreative for the ideas and contributions of the creatives.

    I think both traits CAN be necessary for success, it just depends on the job. But in any field requiring decision making and problem solving, both ARE essential for success.

  3. Breanne

    I actually posted this question on a few LinkedIn groups and there were some pretty great discussions. One that stuck with me was the music analogy. A critical thinker could learn musical theory, scales, and basics of composition and make a good (but maybe not great) song. Someone who is creative may have an idea of a great song but without the practical skills could not compose the idea into sheet music. The implementation component seems to be key. The critical thinker is key to put an idea into practice.

  4. Ron

    To me, it depends on the position and circumstance. If you’re hiring an accountant, then I’d go for the critical thinker. If it’s marketing or PR I might go for the creative thinker if I have confidence that the rest of the team can handle implementations.

  5. Eric

    It seems to me that teaching decision making skills would be easier than teaching creativity. Other than helping someone learn to be open to possibilities and throw out any idea that comes to mind, how do you even teach creativity?

  6. chadfife

    The music example is good. Another analogy is starting a business. Creative people often see opportunities in the market because they focus on the gaps and intersections of a market (where needs aren’t being met). They’re wired to create. Others find it more interesting to take an idea and build an infrastructure to support its growth. However, I think both require some level of critical thinking (as CT doesn’t just mean you’re “good with details” and organizing/planning). I think the creative entrepreneur has to still be good at recognizing assumptions, spotting trends in data, and evaluating arguments or they won’t pick the right idea/opportunity to pursue.

  7. mkwagner

    If you ask a group of 4-yr-olds who can sing or draw, they would all answer in the affirmative to both. As children we all are naturally creative and express that creativity in any number of ingenius ways. It is later in life that we begin to declare ourselves and each other uncreative. It is possible to reawaken the creative energy in most anyone. But it takes nurturing effort and time, things not in great supply in most corporate environments.
    As for hiring someone who is stronger in creative thinking vs. critical thinking skills, it would depend on the needs of my team. Which of the two skills am I in most need of at the time? I want a team that has a balance of strong creative and critical thinkers that are working together to develop exceptional products and services to meet our customers needs.

  8. Rick Phelps

    The one phrase that applies to all great questions is “It depends.” So this time, I am offering a different definition for creative thinker, which it turn changes the conversation. If creativity involves the areas of “inspiration, origination, and application” then that’s my pick. In convergent thinking, more conceptual thinking is often able to make the connections between disparate ideas resulting in potentially new insights. Ned Herrmann, Brain Dominance model, places CT in the upper left, intuitive thinking on the right side. I would propose even in the subconscious. The ultimate style is Integral Thinking, which is a combination of both. To Scott’s earlier point, wait to hire the right person.

  9. Lee

    I love a good conversation. Starting with having only one choice between the creative and critical thinkers, I will go with the creative. If the person doing the hiring is asking this question then I am guessing that person is a critical thinker and could benefit from adding a creative thinker to the team.

    Based on the previous conversations I can also agree with the wait for the right person who has a balance of both traits. 99% of the time it is a risk hiring someone new because you just don’t know how they will preform until given a chance. The plus side is given the right leadership whole brain thinking and be encouraged for employee development.

  10. Bob Maksimchuk

    Along the lines of @chadfife and @Rick Phelps, it depends on the role people are playing. A creative thinker can be the visionary to launch you down a new exciting path. But the critical thinker can point out the potholes on that path that mighe throw you into a ditch. The other two roles that are needed are the Strategist who can take the creative idea and develop a strategy and plan to proceed with and the Implementer who will actually get “real work” done. Such a foursome can make quite a team.

  11. Elaine Brown

    I read a great book on this exact thing called “Emergenetics” it goes into detail on how some people are wired to be right brain thinkers and others left and how we can with practice retrain our brain receptors on how to tap into that other side. Very interesting read.

  12. Courtney Kish

    Well obviously the most valuable person would be balanced in their ability to think critically and creatively. But I don’t feel that one extreme would be any better than the other. The quality that the extremist would have to possess is an open mind and a desire to learn about and even utilize the ideas of another extreme. But saying an extremest in any way is open minded is pretty much an oxymoron in its self. But that is only when talking extremes, most people are simply more developed in one end of the spectrum. These people providing that they are open-minded can be taught to focus on the development of the opposing underdeveloped method of thinking. When we apply the concept of balance to every aspect of our lives we learn the importance of it.

  13. James

    I tend to think criticaly that an employee should be based more on the practical side rather than the theoretical side of it. But the big question here would be what has the employee gained out of his course. Taking economics and statistics it requires of me to think criticaly before handling in any problem.

  14. omwami

    The best choice to employ is the creative thinker since that is a more complicated skill to instill in a person.

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