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People Think Creative Ideas Are Like Vomit.
Here's a surprising fact for you. Most people do not like creative ideas and can even compare them to vomit. Really.
Recent research by Jennifer S. Mueller of the University of Pennsylvania, Shimul Melwani of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Jack A. Goncalo of Cornell University has shown that people are afraid of creative ideas and in situations of uncertainty, will associate them with words like “vomit”, “poison” and “agony”!
Their paper is fascinating. I would go so far as to say that this is the most significant finding in innovation research I have come across in some time and demands that people in charge of creativity programmes take note. This research implies that no matter how much effort you put into designing an effective ideation process for generating ideas, the most creative ideas are the ones most likely to be rejected in favour of what the researchers term “practical” ideas, what we would probably refer to as “incremental improvement” ideas. Most importantly, because people are not aware that they are doing this, a simple demand that people promote “creative ideas” is unlikely to be effective.
Why Do People Have Negative Feelings About Creative Ideas?
Why do people have negative feelings about creative ideas? According to the researchers: “...when endorsing a novel idea, people can experience failure, perceptions of risk, social rejection when expressing the idea to others , and uncertainty about when their idea will reach completion. Uncertainty is an aversive state which people feel a strong motivation to diminish and avoid. Hence, people can also have negative associations with novelty; an attribute at the heart of what makes ideas creative in the first place.”
Failure, risk and social rejection are strong feelings at any time. If people are worried about their jobs, stressed over long hours or wondering how they will be able to manage the children, their jobs and the upcoming business trip, it is hardly surprising that any action that could lead to failure, risk and social rejection would be considered synonymous with “agony”!
Uncertainty Makes Creative Ideas Less Pleasant
One of the most striking points this research demonstrates is that in times of uncertainty, people like creative ideas even less than in times of greater certainty. However, the past few years of economic turmoil have been times of great uncertainty in a corporate world that has already spent decades scaring employees through change: downsizing, mergers, new technologies and more. As employees become more uncertain about their futures in any given workplace, they will only become increasingly anti-creativity. And that is deadly for your innovation process.
One thing this research does not consider is self-censorship. Before anyone suggests an idea in a brainstorming session, submits it to an idea management system or proposes it to her manager, she needs to make a decision in her own mind whether to voice the idea or keep it to herself. The logical assumption from the research would be that people probably do censor their ideas for creativity, in spite of any instructions they may receive otherwise. After all, if someone finds an idea to be highly unpleasant, the last thing she will want to do is to share it!
This fact alone will have serious consequences for any innovation initiative. Sure, you can tell people to share creative ideas, but you might as well be telling them to share revolting ideas!
What Can You Do?
The big question raised by this research is what can you do to make creative ideas more attractive in the eyes of your colleagues? The research does not really look into solutions – although one hopes it will encourage further research in this area. So, we can only make educated guesses based on logic and observation.
That said, the paper does point out one element of uncertainty in people’s minds. That is that in most idea generation sessions, the aim is to identify a single best idea that is to be implemented. This implies that any idea an individual suggests is likely to be rejected. This causes uncertainty and discomfort. On the other hand, informing people that multiple ideas will be implemented reduces uncertainty which will make them feel less negatively towards creative ideas.
Clearly, the first thing you should do with your next idea generation session is make it clear that multiple ideas may be selected and developed. Moreover, ideas that are not implemented immediately, but which show promise, will be reviewed from time to time for potential implementation in the future.
And indeed, why limit yourself to implementing a single idea? Surely multiple ideas will bring better results and make participants in the initiative more positive about creativity.
In addition, reducing the fear of creativity requires that you reduce the perceived risk associated with creativity: failure and social rejection. It is probably no coincidence that firms like Apple and Google, where the leaders are truly enthusiastic about creative ideas (and not just using the word “innovation” in PowerPoint presentations), have the most success with creativity. Likewise, innovative start-ups, led by creative founders, often boast highly creative teams in their early years. In other words, if your CEO does not simply trumpet the importance of innovation, but goes out on a limb herself with creative ideas, it will doubtless make people below her feel less frightened of creative ideas.
Creating an environment where having your idea rejected is a positive thing would doubtless be great. But this is more easily said than done. Other actions associated with a culture of innovation are likewise likely to make people more comfortable with creative ideas.
Completely separate research has shown that distancing people from the problem results in a higher level of creativity (see http://www.jpb.com/report103/archive.php?issue_no=20090915). Perhaps this is connected. You may not like creative ideas when they affect your working environment, but they may not be so bad in other people’s environments!
Indeed, a classic creative challenge I like to use in idea generation is to change perspective from your company to your main competitor’s company. For instance, “what might your competitor do today that would keep you awake at night with worry?” or “What is the most threatening new product idea your competitors might put on the market?”.
By associating the ideas with the competition, I believe it will make people more open about sharing highly creative ideas as well as selecting the most scary or threatening ideas at the end of the suession. But this is supposition and would need to be tested further.
As the researchers remark: “In addition, our results suggest that if people have difficulty gaining acceptance for creative ideas especially when more practical and unoriginal options are readily available, the field of creativity may need to shift its current focus from identifying how to generate more creative ideas to identifying how to help innovative institutions recognize and accept creativity.”
Clearly, if you are involved in the idea generation and development side of an innovation program, you need to think very carefully about the implications of this paper and what it means for your program. I’ve outlined some steps here. But I would also love to hear your thoughts, experiences and ideas. Contact me using the form here – or use one of the social media points listed below. I would really love to hear from you.
One Last Thought
Here’s one final quote from the paper to leave you thinking:
“...scholars have long been puzzled by the finding that organizations, scientific institutions, and decisions-makers routinely reject creative ideas even when espousing creativity as an important goal. Similarly, research documents that teachers dislike students who exhibit curiosity and creative thinking even though teachers acknowledge creativity as an important educational goal.”
Mueller, Jennifer S.; Melwani, Shimul; and Goncalo, Jack A., "The Bias
Against Creativity: Why People Desire But Reject Creative Ideas" (2011).
Articles & Chapters. Paper 450.
You can also read the Cornell University press release on this paper at http://news.cornell.edu/stories/Aug11/ILRCreativityBias.html
j p b . c o m