Creative Change By Jennifer Mueller - Canadian Government Executive
Bookshelf with Harvey SchachterCommunicationInnovationsLeadership
June 9, 2017

Creative Change By Jennifer Mueller

Innovation is prized and praised these days at work, even in government. We are supposed to relish creative change. But what if the reality is that humans instinctively reject such change?

Jennifer Mueller, a social psychologist at the University of San Diego who has focused on creativity, is making waves with her claim that our ability to recognize and to embrace creative solutions is dysfunctional. “The irony is that we are more likely to reject an idea because it is creative than to embrace it,” she writes in her new book, Creative Change.

In essence, we have a bias against creative change that is a hidden barrier to innovation. She says that “if you start to think of creative change as a psychological process requiring us to manage the uncertainty that comes when we disrupt our current thinking, then a new picture emerges. Maybe we love creativity, but we also hate it.”

She says the problem is that we have been offering rational arguments about the value of creativity without factoring in how our feelings of uncertainty colour our “rational” assessment. Imagine making a decision about whether or not to fund a promising new idea right after managing a colossal innovation failure. Or maybe to your minds it wasn’t a colossal failure – actually a success – but in Parliament the Opposition is attacking it with fiery arguments. That would certainly affect how you weigh the new idea before you. And so might the reverse: You or your department are hailed as innovation champions. She notes that if you don’t take those strong feelings into account when attempting your rational decision than it is unlikely to be a good one.

Add the element of risk and it’s even more complicated. Usually the risk is unknowable, so it is difficult to make an accurate assessment. One executive said his team just guessed, as if spinning a roulette wheel. Another decision maker said since creative ideas have a high failure any new one is placed in the extremely risky bucket. That, in turns, makes them likely to be rejected, he noted, a situation that may be all too common in government, where risk can be abhorred.

But it’s not just other people rejecting creative ideas. It’s much closer to home. “The person who rejects and dislikes creativity is you,” she stresses.

We challenge creative ideas – poking away at them, looking for holes. We want guarantees of economic or political success. We are a prisoner of the rational, analytical mindset that holds sway in our workplace. She calls it “how/best” thinking, focusing on the most feasible and appropriate option now. It’s intolerant towards uncertainty.

“Absent any other factors, a pure how/best mindset can undervalue the future potential of a creative idea relative to a practical one. As a result, decision makers who are in a how/best mindset will instinctively tend to reject new ideas in favour of maintaining the status quo,” she writes.

We aren’t really out to solve the problem even if we think we are. We are instead intent on evaluating the proposed solution, and to do that accurately we have to assume the idea being evaluated won’t change or improve. We cleverly think up unknown unknowns that could trip us up, issues the proponent of change has not planned for. We seize on the flaws in part because they protect us from the uncertainties ahead.

“For a person in a how/best mindset, solving the problem is not the ultimate goal. Instead the goal is evaluating the solution in question,” she says.

When evaluating, we assume the idea is static. But creative ideas will change, being improved as we deal in implementation with the challenges. It’s actually the proven and familiar ideas we would retrain that tend to be static. So we need to apply a different, more flexible mindset she calls “why/potential” thinking. It focuses on learning the future value of something. It’s more accepting of uncertainty.

Mueller describes how mindsets are often well-suited to address routines and how to improve them. For example, she cites getting to work on time, studying for a multiple-choice test, or using an existing process to implement a solution or product. She posits that the “how/best mindset” is useful where solutions are evident, if not yet applied. But, she says, this mindset is not suitable for the exploration of new, creative solutions. She writes that “there are also situations where efficiency concerns compete with novelty concerns.” “In these contexts, she writes, “the how/best mindset is especially tricky; it would seem to match the situation appropriately because efficiency does matter. But the situation also calls for novelty, and as a result, a pure how/best mindset is problematic because it inaccurately evaluates the novelty aspect of any idea in an overly negative manner.”

We often look to experts to help us evaluate creative ideas. But that can be a mistake. She recalls a time when she rejected a student’s creative idea instinctively, even though as an expert in creativity she should have been good at evaluating new ideas. That’s not uncommon: Her research suggests that there is a paradox of expertise, with experts struggling to evaluate novelty. As one example, a study found that medical journals rejected 12 of 14 of the most important breakthrough papers, not even bothering to send them to reviewers. Another study found that novel ideas have a higher likelihood of being rejected even if they were of high quality.

Ideas that experts like tend to strongly resemble the structure of existing ideas. So novel ideas can’t be so novel as to differ from the familiar structure. It also helps, as you might expect, if the expert likes the idea.

These are powerful psychological forces and so you must be alert to the bias against creativity within yourself. Then apply her five-step process:

  • Identify whether you are evaluating familiar ideas, creative ideas, or both: This tackles the tendency of experts to prefer the familiar. Get a panel of people to rate the ideas before you on whether they are incrementally creative or radically creative – and also the quality of the idea. The ones that involve little change from traditional practices can be evaluated normally, assessing risks in the “how/best” approach. The rest, particularly the high quality and highly creative ideas, require the next steps in her process.
  • Prepare to self-disrupt: That starts with assessing your emotional state since the evaluation is not just about the idea – it’s also about you and your potential bias. Take a break to notice what you are feeling and thinking. Are you worried, for example, about looking dumb if you go ahead with these untested ideas? She suggests priming yourself to be open-minded by thinking of an inventor you admire. That will nudge you unconsciously to think differently, perhaps even be quirky.
  • Accept the unknowable: Recognize that today’s metrics won’t predict the future if you adopt the option before you and the more people think about things they can’t control the worse they feel. If an idea is in an early stage she warns that metrics can be particularly misleading. Embrace the uncertainty. Go with your gut.
  • Shift from problem finding to problem solving: Don’t view problems as red flags. “If you really do want creativity, it’s best to accept that creative ideas may look pretty awful at first. But that doesn`t mean the ideas can’t improve,”` she says. Look at how to solve the issues raised by those red flags. See what the potential is.
  • Partner with your opposite: If you are why/potential person, pair yourself with a how/best person to complement your thinking, or vice-versa.

That’s about you. But the book also offers advice on the critical process of selling novel ideas to others. At a time when creativity is craved but also choked by this hidden bias, it could help you judge new ideas and push them forward.

About this author

Harvey Schachter

Harvey Schachter is a writer, specializing in management and business issues. He writes three weekly columns for the Globe and Mail and The Leader’s Bookshelf column for Canadian Government Executive, and a regular column and features for Kingston Life magazine. Harvey was editor of the 2004 book Memos to the Prime Minister: What Canada Can Be in the 21st Century. He was the ghostwriter on The Three Pillars of Public Management by Ole Ingstrup and Paul Crookall, and editor of Getting Clients, Keeping Clients by Dan Richards. A McGill commerce graduate, Harvey spent more than 15 years in a variety of positions at The Kingston Whig-Standard, including editor and planning and promotions manager. He won two National Newspaper Awards for his writing and a national Owl Award for a marketing program he created at the newspaper.

0 comments

There are no comments for this post yet.

Be the first to comment. Click here.

Bookshelf with Harvey Schachter
 
A few years back, consultants with ghSMART told us the biggest question we face is “who”: Picking staff is our most important decision, even more critical than “what” – the strategy we will employ. These days, in an era in which purpose is prized, “why” can often be the biggest question. But recently, best-selling author...
 
At work, we are often trying to satisfy a bundle of expectations, which can be boiled down to those expectations we place upon ourselves and those placed by others. In government, of course, those outer expectations can be powerful, handed down from the public, the minister, and our immediate boss. But we all react differently,...
 
We learned in grade school that one plus one equals two, but when we are faced with two choices in decision-making – and usually decisions end up framed around two possibilities — our approach might be described as one versus one equals one. We discard the lesser choice and move on with the better one....
 
Did your high school valedictorian go on to achieve greatness? High schools select their valedictorians because they show promise and exemplify the best the school has to offer. So it’s not unreasonable for us to expect them to achieve great things. Many achieve success in their future careers. But greatness tends to be rare. And...
 
Yogi Berra, Maurice (The Rocket) Richard, Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, and Derek Jeter. Five elite athletes who led championship teams. However, there’s a difference between them – a critical difference – that could be important to government executives seeking to be more effective at work. Three of those stars – Berra, Richard, and Russell –...
 
Radical candour sounds rather outré as a prescription for government executives. Careful caution is often the norm. But consultant Kim Scott believes candor is critical for relationships and internal organizational communications. And if that doesn’t convince you, her new book, Radical Candor, still has some terrific ideas to improve your weekly schedule of meetings and...
 
Innovation is prized and praised these days at work, even in government. We are supposed to relish creative change. But what if the reality is that humans instinctively reject such change? Jennifer Mueller, a social psychologist at the University of San Diego who has focused on creativity, is making waves with her claim that our...
 
Leading the Unleadable By Alan Willett Your team probably includes some difficult people. You may not have chosen them – they could have been inherited – but they are your responsibility, even if at times you don’t know what to do. Should you shunt them off onto a project? Chastise them in public? Ignore the...
 
If you want to learn from mistakes in how to handle an interview, you could take a lesson from Jimmy Carter, Henry Kissinger, Edward Kennedy, and Alexander Haig. The three public figures all had celebrated careers. But each also had one moment when they badly flubbed an interview. Jimmy Carter admitted to Playboy he had...
 
As understanding of social behaviour increases through intensified research, many government executives are learning about the art of nudging. Governments are establishing nudge units to encourage the citizenry to adopt desired behaviours and, less formally, ministries are trying other routes than laws and regulations to get results. Related posts: Where you sit is where you stand...
 
We curse meetings, but they are essential to today’s collaborative leadership approach. We may long to eliminate them – and no doubt some could be trimmed – but the bigger issue is to make the ones we have more effective. Richard Lent, a Boston-area consultant who has spent 25 years trying to improve his meetings,...
 
Government is replete with silos. Like the weather, everyone complains about them but nobody does much to change it. And if they try, they often find the silos sturdier than expected. That’s why Gillian Tett’s The Silo Effect is an interesting book for government executives. Primarily about business, it still includes government, which is rare...
 
Words, words, words. Blah, blah, blah. Our days – our work lives – are punctuated by a sea of words. We use words to communicate. We use words to not communicate. We use words to share our ideas, to propel our innovation. Think of a recent meeting and you’ll likely think of blah, blah, blah....
 
Government executives are writers. Maybe not like Margaret Atwood or Joseph Boyden, but they pound out words every day themselves on their keyboard, in emails, memos, and other missives. Unfortunately, a lot of what they write is crap—poorly composed, jammed with jargon, and designed in parts, perhaps large parts, to obfuscate in order to avoid...
 
Gladwell made Anders Ericsson famous—or, at least, his research work. A professor of psychology at Florida State University, Ericsson conducted the study of violinists that the best-selling journalist glamourized in his book Outliers, imprinting on our consciousness that 10,000 hours of practice will make you a master at whatever task you devote such attention to....
 
Every evening, Marshall Goldsmith pays an associate to call and ask a series of questions about his behaviour that day. As a high-profile executive coach, he knows how difficult it is for top leaders to cleanse themselves of destructive behaviours. He makes his clients accountable to the people around them in order to heighten the...
 
Let’s resume last month’s discussion on effective change initiatives with some popcorn. Specifically, an experiment some psychologists dreamed up in which they handed a soft drink and a free bucket of popcorn to everyone arriving at a suburban Chicago movie theatre in 2000 to catch a Mel Gibson flick. It may sound like a good...
 
David Dingwall is familiar to many government executives for his role in the Chrétien government where he held several cabinet posts, from public works to health. He later became a government executive himself, presiding over the Royal Canadian Mint, improving operations to the point the organization secured its first surplus in a number of years....
 
Are you an undermanager? We’ve all been warned not to overmanage – become a hen-pecking, micro-manager, obsessing about details, instead of delegating wisely. But consultant Bruce Tulgan believes the opposite, under-management, is epidemic. Indeed, he insists it’s hiding in plain sight, but we don’t notice. “It is so often what’s going wrong in so many...
 
A leader’s job is to illuminate the path ahead. It’s vital to keep employees engaged and aligned with end goals on every project you undertake. And that challenge might be made easier–illuminated for you–by presentations specialist Nancy Duarte, who developed former U.S. vice-president Al Gore’s powerful climate change slide show, and colleague Patti Sanchez in...
 
Ottawa’s Chris Bailey turned down a number of attractive job offers after university graduation in favour of something even more attractive: Figure out how to be productive. It was a personal Odyssey, as he tested the ideas peddled by productivity gurus to see what worked and what didn’t, and added his own twists. The result...
 
At the height of World War Two, a clever scheme was developed to disrupt the Nazi regime behind enemy lines in occupied territory without being detected. It involved a variety of obvious tactics such as slashing tires and draining fuel tanks but also included some unusual ideas to sabotage internal workplace processes. Those might seem...
 
Leadership BS By Jeffrey Pfeffer Harper Business, 259 pages, $36.99 If you think that much of what you read and hear from leadership gurus is BS, you have a supporter in Jeffrey Pfeffer. At first glance he’s an unlikely backer since he’s a leadership guru himself. But he’s a professor of organizational behaviour at the...
 
If you want to improve your management procedures, search Google. No, don’t put those words in the search engine’s magical white slot. Instead read Laszlo Bock’s Work Rules. The head of Google’s people function shares insights gleaned from the company’s rapid growth and its many experiments with different procedures, to see what works best. Of...
 
Mentoring can be one of the most critical – as well as challenging and rewarding – tasks we undertake in the workplace. Sometimes it’s formal. Sometimes it’s informal. But always, when effective, it’s important. Related posts: Leader as mentor: The power of experience How to cultivate a sponsor Coach or mentor: Which one do you need?...
 
In recent years, it has been customary for government – and government executives – to be looked down upon, while business has been exalted. Somebody who hasn’t succumbed is management guru Henry Mintzberg. Related posts: Valuing all credentials equally: What's in it for you? Networked Leadership: How Private Sector Leaders Are Investing Attracting Talent To the Public Sector by Embracing Technology...
 
Many studies have shown that women are socialized to fit in, not stand out. But fitting in can leave you a follower, forever. To advance at work, you need to be noticed. You need to stand out....
 
In 1994 psychiatrist Edward Hallowell coined the term “attention deficit trait” to describe a common problem he saw emerging in the workplace: The tendency to hop from task to task in a rush, without proper focus on what people were doing or should be doing....
 
Leaders motivate. They nudge and cajole staff into inspired work, wielding monetary incentives when required, at least in the private sector. Without motivation, employees might wither and certainly wouldn’t shine. That’s a basic premise of leadership and managerial thinking. And it’s dead wrong…...
 
When you think of creativity and innovation in government, John Lennon and Paul McCartney probably don’t spring to mind. Neither worked in government and, indeed, they were anti-establishment types who you can imagine sneering at “government bureaucrats.”...
 
You can’t appear for your important presentations in a black turtleneck and jeans like Steve Jobs did. And you don’t have alluring electronic gizmos to talk about. So suggesting you might learn from the presentation approach of the hallowed Apple pitchman might seem ludicrous....
 
We know feedback is good for us. We know it can help us improve. But receiving feedback can often be difficult. We tense up, even get irked or angry. Only part of the message, or perhaps none of it, slips through, as we slide into defensive mode. Related posts: Leader as mentor: The power of experience...
 
Leaders need to know how to inspire and manage, and have a solid understanding of the policy field in which they operate. But that’s not enough....
 
As I rush-rush-rush through the day, I occasionally remember the notion of “cool time” from a book published 12 years ago by Toronto time management consultant Steve Prentice....
 
Before a presentation, uncertainty and fear can lead us to try to include all the information required to answer all the questions recipients might have. There’s also a temptation to pack in as much detail as possible, to show the extent of our research, knowledge, and hard work in preparing....
 
Much has been written about decision-making in recent years, as we learn more about how the brain works and behavioural economists devise experiments to understand how we approach choice. But much of it could lead us astray… Related posts: Deliberating over decisions...
 
Elections can bring a change of government. They certainly bring a change in the face of government, as some ministers lose their re-election bid and others are shuffled by the returning prime minister. Related posts: Solution revolution in the public sector policy space Is professional development suffering from austerity? The benefits of an executive coach...
 
Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould warned that “the most erroneous stories are those we think we know best – and therefore never scrutinize or question.” He was referring to sacred cows, beliefs that don’t stand up to scrutiny and lead us astray if clung to zealously....
 
Governments monitor monetary inflation, and have kept it in check in recent years. But there’s another inflation, rampant, that isn’t monitored and walloping all of us: communications inflation. Technology allows us to connect – and communicate – in a host of ways not available to us just a few years ago, let alone a couple...
 
The dramatic clandestine rescues by Navy SEALs and their daring raid on Osama Bin Laden’s lair may make their work seem a world apart from that of government executives. But in their 2003 book Leadership Lessons of the Navy SEALs, advertising executive Jeff Cannon and his brother, Lt. Cmdr. Jon Cannon…...
 
If you can be a better leader through healthy living, the key to success in your job may lie in three words: Eat, move, sleep. Certainly Tom Rath believes they are important. And Rath, a Gallup researcher, has offered cogent advice before to government executives, in his writings on using their strengths at work and...
 
Finding mentors has been one of the holy grails of career progression, hammered into us by innumerable career consultants and the lessons of our own career. Yet now, someone is telling us to forget them. Related posts: The art of mentorship The benefits of an executive coach How Changemakers Get Things Done in Government: Intrapreneurship in Action...
 
Today, when emotional intelligence is treasured, Sherlock Holmes would seem like a poor role model for government executives. The man lived in his mind and seemed remote from humanity. He could get enmeshed in a drug stupor or sidetracked by some obscure experiment or offbeat intellectual interest. Definitely not the model for modern, progressive governance....
 
No. The word jars us. Just two letters, but it makes us decidedly uncomfortable. In the workplace, Yes is the golden word, the winning word, the expected word that garners plaudits....
 
Our days are a series of decisions, some minor, some medium, some major – and the occasional one humungous. It might seem daunting to think of your day in that fashion, since it’s obviously hard to get every decision right....
 
Presentations make the world go round, particularly in government. Unfortunately, too many of them are ineffective. Incomprehensible graphics, too much text, and garbled messages....
 
Your first instinct might be to deny it, but you are probably a salesperson. Most government executives are, even if the public service is seen as galaxies away from the grubby world of commerce and sales....
 
Getting subordinates to take responsibility in the appropriate situation can be a mind-boggling pursuit. Often we find ourselves lurching into frustrating tugs of war, where they take more responsibility than we want and then take absolutely no responsibility when we are hoping – and perhaps insisting – they do....
 
To improve your job performance and prepare for promotions, should you work on your strengths or weaknesses? What about your subordinates? In getting the best performance from them, should you prod them to enhance their strengths, or shore up or eliminate weaknesses?...
 
We seek success in our daily endeavours. But it’s often through failure that we can learn best....
 
We seek success in our daily endeavours. But it’s often through failure that we can learn best....
 
As the World Bank in the 1990s was preparing for a major transformation to mark its 50th anniversary, consultants Chris McGoff and Michael Doyle met to discuss the plan developed…...
 
Some title Some author
Some excerpt
A few years back, consultants with ghSMART told us the biggest question we face is “who”: Picking staff is our most important decision, even more critical than “what” – the strategy we will employ. These days, in an era in which purpose is prized, “why” can often be the biggest question. But recently, best-selling author...