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Evidence

Why Companies Are Terrible At Spotting Creative Ideas

Cognitive biases can keep us from assessing creativity with a clear mind. Here's how to get around them.

[Image via Shutterstock]

In business, a creative idea is only worth as much as the manager who can recognize it. Malcolm Gladwell once told the story of Xerox engineer Gary Starkweather, who conceived of a laser printer circa 1970 but was forbidden to pursue it by a boss. Starkweather developed a prototype in his spare time and forced the company to transfer him so he could finish it. He basically begged Xerox to let him work on an idea it should have been begging him to work on.

That story ended just fine for Xerox, but no doubt many other creative ideas stall in the conception phase for lack of encouragement. Truth is many managers face what might be called a creativity dilemma: their desire for novel ideas and creative workers is at odds with their need to provide practical order. The result of this dilemma, in many cases, is that an aversion to novelty rules the day.

Management scholar Jennifer Mueller of the University of San Diego has studied the failures of creative assessment and found hidden cognitive factors at its core. "There are situational variables that are very subtle and transitory that can shift your ability to determine what's creative," Mueller tells Co.Design. These seemingly random factors—such as a manager's mindset during an idea pitch—can bias people against creativity without them knowing it.

In one study, published in Psychological Science last year, Mueller and collaborators asked test participants to rate a creative product: a running shoe equipped with nanotechnology that improved its fit and reduced blistering. Some of the participants were put in the mindset of someone open to uncertainty (by being told there were many potential answers to a problem). Others were put in frame of mind that favored certainty (told that a problem needed a single, certain resolution).

These slight mental nudges had an outsized effect on assessments of creativity. Participants who'd been predisposed toward certainty rated the shoe as significantly less creative than those predisposed to tolerate uncertainty. They also responded more favorably to concepts of practicality on an implicit word association test. The researchers concluded that idea evaluators can harbor a "negative bias against creativity" they don't even realize exists.

In more recent work, set for publication in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Mueller and some different collaborators expanded the idea assessment scenario to include four ideas. Two were independently rated as creative, and two were not. The researchers wanted to see whether an evaluator's mindset influenced every idea heard, or only the ideas that were truly creative.

Before test participants rated the ideas, some were put in a "why" frame of mind, while others were put in a "how" frame of mind. The "why" mindset was supposed to establish the sort of broad, abstract thinking one might want during creative evaluation (known in psychological terms as a "high-level construal"). The "how" mindset was meant to evoke a narrow mentality locked onto practical details and logistics (a "low-level construal").

All the test participants felt the same way about the two non-creative ideas. These were seen as uninspiring no matter a person's frame of mind. But ratings of the creative ideas varied significantly based on which construal had been established earlier. Participants in the "why" mindset considered the ideas much more creative than those in "how" mindset. It was as if these hidden cognitive factors formed a secondary layer of assessment, once an initial creativity threshold was passed.

Mueller suspects that an abstract or "why" mindset may be a better psychological framework to consider novelty than, say, a narrow "how" mentality. "So the 'how' mindset focuses on the one Achilles heel of all creative ideas, which is the more novel the more uncertainty—the less you know about how feasible it is," she says. "That's what we think is driving down these assessments of creative ideas."

Recognizing which mindsets stifle idea assessment is the first step toward resolving the creativity dilemma. Managers prone to practicality can begin pitch meetings with a quick intervention that promotes a more abstract frame of mind. In Mueller's latest study, the "why" mindset was achieved simply by asking test participants to consider why people do a series of common activities: back up a computer, for instance, or drive a car. Might also ask why people use a laser printer, while you're at it.