Business leaders say they want creativity and need real innovation in order to thrive. But according to startling research from management professor Jennifer Mueller, these same leaders chronically reject creative solutions, even as they profess commitment to innovation.
Mueller’s research reveals that it’s not just CEOs but educators, parents, and other social trendsetters who struggle to accept new and creative ideas. Mueller parses the tough questions these findings raise. Do we all have an inherent prejudice against creative ideas? Can we learn to outsmart this bias?
Creative Change combines analysis of the latest research with practical guidance on how to shift your mindset, and offers a wealth of counterintuitive recommendations to help you embrace the creative ideas you want.
“If we all crave creativity so much, why do we reject new ideas so often? Jen Mueller’s smart new book unravels this puzzle.” —Daniel H. Pink, New York Times–bestselling author of When and Drive
“Mueller, an accomplished scholar in the management field, has developed a well-formulated argument for creativity. Her ideas and research need to be available to academics, business practitioners, and, really, everyone.” —Library Journal
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Hidden Innovation Barrier
Within the first few months after starting my new position as an assistant professor at Wharton, I met with a group of vice presidents who worked for a large global company. For the sake of confidentiality, I'll refer to that business as Company Z.
The VPs had determined that their company was struggling with how to be more creative, and they asked me to present my perspective on why this might be the case. I was extremely excited about this meeting, in no small part because I knew the literature cold — backward and forward. So like any good academic, I presented a summary of the research about how hard it is to generate creative (novel and useful) ideas and then actually implement them.
I will never forget the look on the executives' faces after I finished my talk. I expected nodding heads, grunts of approval, or at least some expressions of curiosity.
What I saw instead in their eyes was confusion and disappointment. Finally, one executive looked at me with skepticism and said, "Yeah, but that isn't it."
Another executive was more patient with me. He explained in detail the problem Company Z was having with creativity, and it honestly had little to do with the material I had presented to the group. "I wouldn't say that we struggle with generating creative ideas, or that implementation is the problem," the executive explained. "We can buy our creativity. We buy companies with breakthrough products, but these products rarely get to the implementation phase — and not because we don't know how to efficiently bring a product to market. Our problem is that once we buy these companies and integrate them under our umbrella, over time, they aren't creative anymore. Their pipeline dwindles and so we sell them off. But suddenly, only a short time later, those same companies that were vanilla are now developing creative products again."
He concluded: "If you want to help us figure out how to be more creative, figure out how to solve this puzzle, because, as far as we are concerned, that is the billion-, no, trillion-dollar question."
After this comment, I was rendered speechless (which, I can tell you, is a rare situation for me). The executives didn't agree with my traditional academic account of why creativity was so uncommon — it just didn't mesh with what they were experiencing. But if generating creative ideas wasn't the bottleneck, and implementation concerns weren't relevant to their situation, what then was the problem? This company didn't appear to be resistant to change — they were investing billions of dollars in creative products. So why were they struggling?
I soon learned that Company Z was not unique. Other companies — large, small, and in between — were struggling to be creative as well. Executives called and asked me to provide their organizations with training on creative-idea generation. Senior managers would tell me that creativity was a strategic priority for the company, but that their employees just weren't coming up with creative solutions.
Time after time, I conducted these trainings only to discover that most of the participants had already received training on idea generation. I would hear story after story of how employees had developed terrific ideas — which management promptly ignored. One participant even showed me a large stack of white papers she had written to document her many ideas — now in the file drawer. When I asked her why the company rejected her ideas when corporate leaders told me they were desperate for more creativity, she told me something I found quite surprising. She said, "Executives here don't actually want creative ideas."
That didn't make sense to me. Why would top-level executives at the very companies that were hiring me to help them be more creative spend a ton of resources to cultivate internal creativity, only to reject their employees' creative ideas? At best, it seemed like a blatant waste of money and other resources. At worst, it seemed like the essence of hypocrisy. Maybe all this talk about creativity was just lip service? I thought back to my meeting with Company Z — there's no way those busy executives would waste their time listening to consultants and spending billions of dollars on new companies if they were just pretending to want creativity.
One thing was certain — executives wanted real solutions, and academics like me had spent decades identifying solutions. A quick search on the ABI Informs database (a database of business articles) shows that roughly 30,000 articles on creative idea generation — and 150,000 articles on implementation — have been published since the 1990s. Why, if we have all these solutions for how to generate and implement creative ideas, were companies still having a difficult time being creative?
If our best solutions weren't solving the problem, then maybe we needed to redefine the problem we were trying to solve. Was there an invisible third barrier to innovation beyond idea generation and implementation? If so, it must be so big that it could harm innovation, even in companies that were great at generating ideas and incredibly efficient at implementing them. Not only that, but it would have to be invisible to the decision makers whose job it was to innovate new solutions and convert opportunities into wins. So what was this invisible barrier?
As I pondered this question, I again considered the case of Company Z. Executives there told me that generating and implementing ideas was not the bottleneck they faced — they were certain of that. Instead, they believed that the companies they acquired became less creative over time. If this was indeed the case, then one possibility was that Company Z bought companies and then squelched their ability to generate creative ideas, perhaps due to loads of bureaucracy and paperwork. The problem with this logic was that Company Z was buying small companies that made medical devices, products that typically develop very slowly. From the time these companies were acquired to the time they were sold off, their products probably didn't change much at all.
I was on my own. I didn't have any answers, but I had a problem I was passionate about solving. I wanted to isolate this hidden barrier to innovation. And I had a hunch: maybe the executives at Company Z perceived the companies they had acquired differently over time not because the products had changed, but because the way executives evaluated the products had changed.
Were all of us operating using a false assumption? That is, we assume that any expert in a specific industry can accurately assess creative opportunity. We know that experts do a terrific job of evaluating products or processes that are familiar to them.
But what if creative ideas are so different from familiar and proven ideas that experts have a difficult time assessing them?
What if our fundamental assumptions about how we recognize and embrace creative opportunity are all wrong?
REVEALING OUR PARADOXICAL FEELINGS ABOUT CREATIVITY
How could familiar ideas and new ideas be different? To understand, consider the following problem. Imagine that you are in a room with two large urns (see Figure 1). The urns are opaque, so you can't see inside them. But you know the urn on the left contains fifty white marbles and fifty black marbles. The urn on the right also contains one hundred marbles, but the ratio of white to black marbles is unknown.
Here's the game: If you can draw a black marble in one pick, without looking, you win $100.
Which urn do you draw from?
One CEO told me that most of the decision-making team in his innovation group chose the urn on the left. In fact, when Daniel Ellsberg, formerly at the RAND Corporation, described thisproblem, he also found that most people chose the urn on the left. Chances are, you did too. Why?
Most people say that they chose the left urn because they felt this choice was a less-risky bet. But was it? The ratio of black to white marbles in the urn on the right was unknown, which means every ratio is as likely as any other. So the urn on the right could also have contained all black marbles, making your bet a sure thing. If you were to calculate the actual probability of drawing a black marble from the urn on the right, you might realize something surprising: the chance of picking a black marble from the urn on the right is 50 percent — exactly the same as picking a black marble from the urn on the left.
So if you chose the urn on the left simply because you thought it was a less-risky bet, then you didn't make your choice based on a rational problem-solving approach. Why then did you make this decision? Probably because you wanted to make your choice quickly, but also wanted to avoid uncertainty or a feeling of not knowing. Daniel Ellsberg identified an interesting paradox: even though both urns have the same probable payout, he found that people preferred the urn on the left because it allowed them to avoid ambiguity.
Amos Tversky, a professor of cognitive psychology at Stanford University, and Craig Fox, a professor of psychology at UCLA, found a fix to the Ellsberg paradox. If you evaluate each urn in the Ellsberg paradox problem separately, this ambiguity aversion goes away. It's only when you compare the two urns that you will become aware of ambiguity and so reject the uncertain option in favor of the seemingly more certain one. In other words, our aversion to ambiguity is not a given. Instead, it can come and go based on how we structure a problem.
In many ways, familiar ideas are like the urn on the left. We know a lot about them and how they operate, so we can calculate the risk of their functioning in the way we expect. But creative ideas are more like the urn on the right — we don't know a lot about them. That, however, is where the analogy ends. If you remember back to beginning algebra, you may recall a simple premise: If you have one known unknown in an equation, you can solve for X. If, however, you have two or more unknowns in a single equation, then calculating for X is impossible. And creative ideas tend to have many unknowns. We don't know exactly how creative ideas may benefit us in the future, or whether others will view us positively if we endorse them.
In the Ellsberg paradox, the uncertainty was knowable — you just had to take the time to do the mental math. Even this small amount of uncertainty feels pretty unsafe when compared to an easily knowable option. Now think how it might feel to encounter the kind of uncertainty you deal with when evaluating a creative idea where you can't know what you don't know.
Former U.S. secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld famously said, "There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don't know we don't know." You can calculate risk only when you have one known unknown. Creative ideas often involve many unknown unknowns. Interestingly, many innovation gurus will tell executives to calculate the risks or cost benefits associated with creative ideas. This made me wonder how people feel when confronted with the task of measuring something that is completely unknowable.
People often try to reduce uncertainty and find answers in unknowable situations. Think of the decision to get married. When you are contemplating marriage, would you run an equation to assess the risk of divorce? Would you calculate a number to determine if this person was a good match? If you said yes to these questions, you might be a budding social psychologist. But even with the terrific headway made in the last several decades, this field still can't figure out how to accurately predict whether a couple will divorce. Part of the problem is that there are so many unknowns. You don't know whether you might encounter financial difficulties during the course of your marriage, or if tragedy might strike, or whether your partner might fall in love with somebody else and decide to end the marriage on his or her own.
When you or someone you know is deciding whether or not to get married, you might raise these very concerns. You might ask, "How do I know this person is the one?" And then you would have received the barrage of useless advice everyone gives about what matters and what doesn't, only to realize that no one really knows the answer.
But you might notice your evaluation of your potential marriage partner shifting depending upon the advice you are given. One friend might say definitively, "When you know, you know. If you're even asking the question, this person is not the one." After you hear this, you might worry and think, Oh no, I'm making a mistake. But then you might ask another friend, who says, "You can't know, and everyone gets cold feet. It's going to be fine." This might make you feel calmer. Yet another friend might say, "Another person who is this great might never come along again." After hearing this, you might have a more optimistic outlook about your partner overall, even though you are still uncertain.
The point is this: how we frame our uncertainty can change the way we evaluate many different aspects of our lives — some quite important to our long-term success and happiness. So, why isn't this also true of how we evaluate creativity? I believe that it is.
Let's return to the example of the executives at Company Z and their decisions to buy or sell companies. When the executives decided to buy, they could have framed their uncertainty aroundthe decision as tolerable (e.g., "This company has great potential, and we can't yet know if it will be profitable"). When the executives decided to sell, they could have framed their uncertainty as intolerable (e.g., "If we don't know with at least some accuracy that this company will be profitable, that means it is a bad investment").
Could it be that our ability to embrace creative ideas is not a purely rational process of calculating the odds, but instead a psychological process of simply managing our feelings of uncertainty? After all, these pesky doubts and what-ifs could cloud our judgment when choosing to embrace a creative idea. But if we aren't careful, we can be seduced by an idea that could ultimately bankrupt us. Could the struggle that the experts go through in evaluating creative ideas constitute this hidden barrier to innovation? And, if so, how would this barrier play out in the actual process of innovating?
CREATIVE CHANGE — THE HIDDEN INNOVATION BARRIER
Rosabeth Moss Kanter, professor of business at Harvard Business School, describes innovation as a three-stage process that starts with idea generation, progresses to decision making, and culminates in idea implementation. In her view, this model describes how innovation happens in large, formal organizations where employees come up with ideas and managers then decide which ones to pursue toward implementation.
But if you were to make her model more general, informal, and more specific to creativity, as opposed to decisions to implement familiar ideas, you might say that the decision making stage can happen at many points in the innovation process. It can happen when you decide to use a specific creative idea of your own, or to convince others to use the idea. Both of these kinds of decisions could take place before any formal decision maker ever sets eyes on the idea.
Consider the opening sequence in the classic sci-fi film 2001: A Space Odyssey. A group of prehistoric, apelike hominids are shown hanging around with lower animals by a small watering hole in an otherwise barren desert landscape. They drink and eat and groom one another peacefully — until a rival group wants to drink at the pool. Members of the rival clan scream and jump around, threatening to attack. And so the original group slowly backs away.
The pattern continues, until one day — after the sudden arrival of a strange black monolith in the original clan's camp — one of the "cavemen" stares at a large bone for a long time. He looks at his own hand, and then back at the bone. He then picks up the bone and swings it around, smashing other bones to pieces. The next frame shows the caveman bashing the head of one of the docile ungulates they live in association with, and the members of the clan eating its meat. The next time the rival clan arrives to frighten away the original group from the watering hole, the caveman uses a large bone to smash the enemy. Other members of his clan quickly join the fray, also using bones as weapons to win back the pond.
This example shows how creativity, albeit violent, wins the day; or perhaps it shows why we believe creativity wins the day. We assume that generating the creative idea to use the bone as a weapon gave the clan a competitive advantage over its rivals. Not only that, using the bone in battle actually worked. The original clan was able to launch a coordinated attack using bones as weapons. So we believe that winning with creativity requires that we both generate ideas and then figure out a way to effectively implement them.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Creative Change"
Copyright © 2017 Jennifer Mueller.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Preface: The Seeds of Our Uncreative Destruction,
The Hidden Innovation Barrier,
Our Love-Hate Relationship with Creativity,
The Science Behind the Paradox,
Self-Disrupt: Overcome Your Own Bias against Creativity,
Overcome Others' Bias against Creativity,
Cultivating Creative Change in Your Organization,
Overcome the Bias against Creative Leadership,
Stop Generating Ideas and Start Making Impact,
About the Author,
Connect with HMH,