The Role of Attention for Creativity

The relationship between attention and innovation is complex. As we know, managing your attention well falls within the EI domains of self-awareness and self-regulation.

But to better understand how attention plays a role in innovation, let’s first look at the stages of creativity.

First, you’ve got to recognize that there is a creative challenge. The research on innovation in business shows there are two approaches: exploitation and exploration. In exploitation the creative challenge is to find new ways to make the most of the products you’ve got. In exploration you look widely to see what else you could do that is new and different. Leaders need to know when to explore, when to exploit – and how. And that starts with the simple awareness of what you are doing.

Then there’s taking on a creative challenge. Highly creative people immerse themselves in everything they can learn about that challenge – and range far more widely than most others. That’s because a creative insight means putting together original elements in a fresh, useful way – and you never know where those pieces will come from.

This wide immersion requires an open awareness, a form of attention that lets the mind wander freely. Mind wandering, which has a bad reputation, is actually a crucial stage in creativity. It lets us come up with those precious new combinations of different elements, the one that will pay off in a creative insight.

But once you have the creative insight, you need to put it to use, to make it real. This is where many innovative people fail: they come up with terrific ideas, but do not know how to actualize them. Very often this means getting other people on board, whether a team, a start-up or seed money people.

Mobilizing the help you need to actualize the insight requires another EI skill set – social intelligence, or empathy and relationship skills. Competencies here include understanding how other people think so you can put things in ways they understand, and other persuasion skills; collaboration and teamwork.

If you look at the entire creative cycle, from recognizing the challenge to launching, it draws on every EI domain.

Learn more about attention and creativity in my new book FOCUS: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, and in my interview with Teresa Amabile in Leadership: A Master Class.


Daniel Goleman’s new book FOCUS: The Hidden Driver of Excellence and CD Cultivating Focus: Techniques for Excellence are now available.

His more recent books are The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights and Leadership: The Power of Emotional Intelligence – Selected Writings (More Than Sound).

Leadership: A Master Class is Goleman’s comprehensive video series that examines the best practices of top-performing executives.