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Report 103

Your newsletter on applied creativity, imagination, ideas and innovation in business.

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Wednesday 19 October 2011
Issue 197

Hello and welcome to another issue of Report 103, your twice-monthly (or thereabouts) newsletter on creativity, imagination, ideas and innovation in business.

As always, if you have news about creativity, imagination, ideas, or innovation please feel free to forward it to me for potential inclusion in Report103. Your comments and feedback are also always welcome.



You like creative ideas, do you not? I expect if you were to ask your colleagues, you would find that they like creative ideas as well. At least they would say they do. After all, it’s expected of you all, isn’t it? In fact, most people say that they like creative ideas and believe it to be true.

But the truth is: in spite of what they say, most people DO NOT like creative ideas.

This has been demonstrated in 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. They have found 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 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.


Over the years that I have been writing Report 103 (and recently, people have told me this newsletter was the first of its kind – so I guess that means it’s been a while!), I have read so much about creativity and innovation that it is rare that something truly captures my attention as new and important. This research is a rare example. As the researchers themselves noted:

“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



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Gregg Fraley recently wrote a thoughtful blog post that, among other things, addressed a controversial point in my anticonventional thinking papers recently published here and elsewhere. I believe debate in innovation is important! So I have reprinted the post, with Gregg’s permission, below.



By Gregg Fraley

I really have to say something about this notion that brainstorming / idea generation / ideation can be made into an efficient process. I’ve read a couple of interesting pieces on this lately, this idea it can be made more efficient, so you only get “good” ideas. If only it were so…

I’ll grant you that sometimes the questions posed for an “idea campaign” are too generalized and therefore rake in a lot of useless ideas.

I’ll also grant you that converging on a few good ideas when you have thousands to wade through is a challenge.

I totally understand why an organization would be seeking a more efficient way to arrive at a nice small batch of really good ideas.

The bad news is, Idea Generation is Not Efficient.

And you don’t want it to be. Here’s why:

  1. Putting limits, breaks, guard rails, and tightly framing what kind of ideas you want leads to incremental ideas. It will get you a smaller list. And, the list you’ll get will be exactly what you asked for — ideas within a defined frame — nearly always incremental ideas. Breakthrough ideas are often the best solutions to a particular challenges. Your tight frame will almost guarantee you Won’t Get Them. Academic research backs this assertion up — if you lead folks down a mental garden path, they will walk/think your way.

  2. Research shows that quantity of ideas leads to quality ideas. Osborn said it first, and many academics have studied and verified this. Even if you have a very focused idea generation question or “platform” the mind tends to progress through three stages: a.) first thoughts are usually obvious, mediocre ideas that have already been thought of, b.) the second stage gets you slightly better ideas that are starting to be interesting but are still mostly incremental, and c.) finally! truly different innovative out-of-frame or breakthrough ideas. It takes time (not a one day thing), effort, and a lot thinking and dreaming to get to that third stage. In my view, there is no way around this. I’ve heard people try to jump to this third stage by asking only for out-of-the-box or “anti-conventional” ideas. Good luck. The brain, usually, can’t jump straight to third base, it needs to be “scaffolded” to get there. There is dangerous shock treatment (not the electrical kind) which might short circuit the process — more on that below.

  3. Divergence and Convergence at the same time is brain inefficient. Imagination and analysis aren’t the same headset. If you frame what you want precisely and explain to your resource group you are only looking for ideas that fit, here’s what happens. Your resource group will be editing their thoughts, and throwing away ideas or avoiding “off topic” paths of thinking. Or, worse yet, some will hit the mental wall immediately and not be able to think of one thing. It’s hard to be truly divergent in your thinking when you are constantly editing your thinking. This is stepping on the brakes and the gas at the same time. Part of the value of allowing all ideas is it gets people into a divergent flow, and you simply have to accept the early stage thinking. Some of those thrown away ideas and mental paths might be gems — but you’ll never know will you? That’s corporate IP thrown in the toilet, money flushed down the drain, for the sake of efficiency.

So what’s the solution? It’s not one thing. But here are a few ideas:

  • Better, more provocative, idea generation questions — that walk the line between being too constrictive and too open-ended. It’s a fine art doing this — hire an experienced facilitator.

  • You can allow for a great deal of open-ended divergence within a small group — to create those better idea generation questions. Then, use a slightly more restrictive, but still provocative question for the broader group.

  • A good Idea Management System is also helpful for post idea generation idea sorting, ranking, and filtering — use one. Consider also forming a convergence team that starts sorting concurrent to the real time/virtual session.

  • Surprising and strategic stimuli for idea generation that shock the mind to a faster path to that third stage. This is, possibly, the only magic bullet for efficiency. Finding the right stimulus (that allows for unique conceptual or trend-based mash-ups) is a process in and of itself, and a time consuming one. And, it works best with experienced idea generators, people who practice often. Newbies or once-a-year-ideators will be surprised too, but won’t be able to do anything with it.

The solutions I suggest will be more efficient than an idea campaign/suggestion box free-for-all, but you’ll still get lots of ideas.

And that’s exactly what you want.

About Gregg Fraley

Gregg Fraley is a principal at Kiln Ideas, Ltd ( a firm igniting innovation through trend intelligence. He's the author of Jack's Notebook, a business novel about creative problem solving) and he's a prominent blogger in the innovation space ( As a consultant Gregg does a great deal of hands-on facilitation of idea generation, which adds a dose of reality to this discussion.



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A problem with the structured innovation initiatives that many companies like to launch is that the focus is on big events such as a day-long facilitated ideation workshop, an ideas campaign using an idea management software or similar. These events focus on major issues, such as solving specific high-level problems or achieving big goals. If the event is well run, a lot of effort is put into defining the issue, formulating an innovation challenge and inspiring people to generate creative ideas as solutions.

This is great. But in day to day work, the entire element of creativity is often gone. Problems are solved using procedures. Goals achieved through standard processes. Sure-fire solutions are preferred over creative ideas that require experimentation and might fail. Anything new has to go through several approval committees and must be discussed to death in a series of meetings before it can be developed.

Creativity Should Be Applied All the Time

If innovation is truly important to your business, you want an environment in which people are applying creative thinking to all kinds of problems, challenges and goals; and not just the big challenges of the occasional special initiative.

Indeed, by encouraging applied creativity on all kinds of tasks, your company benefits in three big ways: firstly, you get your employees in the habit of thinking creatively all the time and not just occasionally. Creative minds need exercise. If they are being pushed to think all the time, they will perform better for big initiatives. Secondly, continuous applied creativity means that innovation happens more frequently and more naturally as good ideas are implemented and generate value. Thirdly, an environment in which people are using creative thinking on all kinds of tasks is very much like a “culture of innovation”, something which many firms are striving to achieve.

Applying Creativity

Unfortunately, getting people to apply creativity on all kinds of tasks on a day to day basis is much easier said than done. It requires that people learn to take a new approach to problem solving, become more willing to experiment with ideas and learn to be comfortable sharing crazy ideas with colleagues. Managers, meanwhile, need to allow their subordinates to spend more time thinking, reward mistakes and accept experimentation with new ideas in full knowledge that many of those experiments with fail (although there will be much to learn from those failures).

Regular, applied creativity starts by teaching people to take a new approach to problem solving at all levels. For example, if the sales manager wants to increase the number of leads that turn into sales, she should not start looking for solutions in Google, the latest how-to sell better book or by copying the competition. Rather, she should look into her own creative mind and generate ideas. Better still, she should bring together a small diverse team to collaborate to generate and develop creative ideas. These can initially be tested through role-play and later in actual use with prospective customers. Sure, some of the approaches may not succeed. But some of them will and there is only one way to find out which approaches will be most successful: experimentation in the field.

And if you are worried about how prospective customers will respond to creative experimentation by your salespeople, consider this: I have heard people complain about rude salespeople, boring salespeople and overly aggressive salespeople. But I have never heard anyone complain about overly creative salespeople. Quite the contrary, a unique sales pitch ensures that the person giving it is remembered. A really creative pitch is likely to be talked about for a long time afterwards.

In fact, creative thinking and innovation can be applied to all aspects of your business – and should be. It requires time and changing of habits. But the pay-off is enormous.

Happy thinking!

Jeffrey Baumgartner


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Report 103 is edited by Jeffrey Baumgartner and is published on a monthly basis.

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