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.