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.

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.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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  • Navid Sakhai

    The Creative Dilemma is a very complex issue but you have just said enough for a basic explanation of the matter. After accepting the fact that there are several solution to one problem and approaching the matters at hand with a "why" perspective in mind, the senior manager have to deal with more creative blocks which even might be embedded deep into the organization's culture. But still those approaches should be enough for improving the creative decision making processes.

  • Thank you for this wonderful article. It articulates what I've witnessed first hand in the creativity workshops I've taught across North America. The creative dilemma I believe is also experienced depending on one's natural thinking style -- more right or more left. In most non-creative organizations many managers/upper level executives tend to be more left, or process, structured based and therefore are less receptive even threatened by any suggestion of disruption -- and yet that can be the very thing that is needed for the life or very survival of a company or brand.

  • MajorDiarrhea

    Kudos on an interesting article. This has been a bit of a mystery to me for a long time; I thought it was just the natural way of things for conservatism to seep into every fiber of ever larger businesses, once their grand new idea is old hat. I thought it was a reaction of fear against changing "what works." Kind of like the stasis of tradition. In this case I like being wrong and it is far better knowing how and why. Knowing that, perhaps businesses can make attempts to avoid the issue from happening.

    Google seems to have figured out how to maintain the youthful vigor of a startup despite... well, size and profits aren't the issue as I had once thought. Google isn't just an advertising and search engine company, they have become an ISP, they're pushing ahead the technology for self driving cars, and most recently a company to figure out human immortality.

  • martyneumeier

    I've never heard the terms "high-level construal" and "low-level construal," but of course mindsets matter when judging new ideas. Anyone who has proposed a creative solution in a corporate setting (even at a company like Apple) knows that safety often trumps risk-taking.

    What can you do? Be patient. Understand that to support a new idea, decision-makers have to take the same journey as the creators—only without specialized skills or any actual experience working on the project. Tell a story, make a model, test it with audiences, gather support wherever you can. Appreciate the miracle you're trying to make happen. That's the job.

  • Gutted

    Creativity never dies. The faith that you can give great ideas or content to a company does. Eventually we learn to channel our creativity into other arenas. We struggle to find another job and give only what is asked of us because we fear reprisal. Creatives are a dime a dozen in a down economy. We can get a millennial just like you as an intern or a freelance at half the cost. They use those actual words. They say it to the entire team. They give you plans and revise content so it is destined to fail. When they do you don't get in trouble because it was their idea. No one gets in trouble. Eventually metrics and rational debate don't matter. You see the bottom line start to suffer. It hurts when managers apologize at every turn and tell you to start looking elsewhere because they can't get anything done themselves. We go on to something new. We abandon those ideas, concepts and fully completed projects. We were slots that had to be filled because standard business practices dictated those positions must exist. The highest in the organization praise you only for what entertains them on social media. What you did matters to the customers. You inspired or helped them. At least you have that. Yet you'll never met the goals they hired you to accomplish. You never could have. Because they never really wanted them done at all. They didn't know what they wanted. So you go and innovate elsewhere.

  • Dan Lewis

    Why are there photos of an inkjet printer and ink in the article when there is no mention of inkjet printing.

  • Paul

    First, thank you Dan for asking.

    Our work is too many times just ignored or yelled to hell.

    I appreciate very much that, first, you notice, second, you ask.

    We can be proud to light this confusing choice right now :

    For productive/effective strategy. -simple as that- We have spent a lot of time talking about that during the numerous meeting about this article before we published. We finally ask a survey from an external company to approve or not this choice. The feed back was very interesting but numbers were worth it : (just the result concerned here) 1) • illustrations directly related to the article : 32% approval (including photo of Xerox laser printer, photo of Jennifer Mueller naked, photo of Jennifer Mueller dressed casual, photos of Gary Starkweather naked, photos of Gary Starkweather suited with a bow tie and photo of some frustrated creative peoples) 2) • illustrations related indirectly but relevant : 42% approval (including photo of printers, psychology scientist and forms) 3) • illustrations not related but attractive as full or thumbnail viewing : 17% approval (including photo of cats, photo of boobs without nipples visible, beauty selfie taking photo on bathroomwith extra contextual contents) 4) • illustrations not related, not attractive but exciting curiosity : 7% approval (including photo of your mum, photo of strange food, photo of x-ray animals and photos of random wtf) 5) • no illustrations/no answers : 3% approval. BUT :
    The Marketing senior manager was really clear : "we don't have to spend more money on copyrighted materials. "The creative department director was clear : "i don't have time to spend on this ***** anymore."
    So ... the solution was clear : Shutterstock! .

    I hope it helps you understand our point of view.

    More interesting facts about the survey ?
    • the total sum is 101%, much more than we expect, we are very happy with this result, because the choices were singles, no multiple choices were accepted in the filling form.
    • only three people were asked to fill the survey form
    • the "photo of your mum" is an inside joke here, it's actually a photo of an indian guy whose family name is 'Yoormum'

  • Victor Bergonzoli

    Thank you for this very good article.

    The key challenge is that having innovative employees does
    not always mean that companies themselves are

    Because big corporations have a tendency to focus more on
    the next or past quarterly report, many managers tend not to take too many
    risks and fear for their jobs, thus killing innovation and risk- taking at its

    This is why many new products deemed “cool” and “innovative”
    come from smaller players.