Some time ago, I wrote an article inspired by a research paper that demonstrated that people seem to have a bias against creative ideas. This is probably the single biggest hindrance to your innovation initiative. It means that managers are unlikely to authorise the implementation of highly creative ideas. It implies that given a choice between highly creative ideas and moderately creative ideas, such as evaluating ideas from a brainstorm, moderately creative ideas are more likely to be selected for action. Sadly, I am seeing more and more evidence that this is very true.
For example, take a look at this article, about walking meetings, on the Wired web site. Nilofer Merchant argues that too much sitting is bad for us and recommends walking meetings not only for health purposes, but to get out of the office and to keep meetings short. It’s a creative idea, no doubt. If you scroll down to the comments, you will find that most of them are critical of her idea. However, when I checked, not one of the criticisms were “I tried a walking meeting. It did not work for me because…” Instead, they were abusive, provided excuses for being unable to do a walking meeting or simply rejected the idea out of hand.
This is sad, because a walking meeting is an idea that is ridiculously easy to try out and virtually risk free — unless your office is in the middle of a war zone. Yet, a surprising number of people found it easier to criticise this idea untried rather than test it and provide feedback!
In a similar vein, I have written and spoken about research that demonstrates that allowing people to criticise ideas during brainstorming actually results in more creative results than does prohibiting criticism during the idea generation process. A number of people have responded to this very critically, saying that the experimenters did not understand the creative problem solving process; that it is critical to prohibit criticism during idea generation; that allowing criticism during idea generation would cause confusion. Yet, when I have asked these people if they have actually tried out this approach (of allowing criticism during idea generation), they inevitably say they have not. The approach is apparently too appalling to test — even though it would be remarkably easy and risk free to test!
And it raises a worrying question. If the people who claim to be champions of creativity; the people who help their clients generate new ideas; the people who write blog posts about the importance of creativity are unwilling actually to try out a radical, but risk-free idea, what hope is there for more conservative businesses?
The Problem Is Change
It seems the real problem is that most people do not like change. And both ideas presented here are changes that affect fundamental actions that people have been doing the same way for long periods of time. Someone who has been working in an office environment for 20 years is very used to meetings happening in a predictable fashion. They know how to behave, how to take notes and how to surreptitiously send text messages to friends when meetings get boring. This is very comforting. So, changing this process is presumably so disturbing, that the change becomes abhorrent even when it is easily testable.
Likewise, people who have been facilitating the same structured brainstorming method for years find comfort in their methods. They know how their brainstorms will unravel, the challenges they are likely to face and how people are likely to respond to requests from the facilitator. Making any change in a reliable method is frightening. It adds an element of unpredictability to a highly predictable process. As a result, people find it frightening and therefore risky. It is easier to criticise the idea of criticism rather than try it, irrespective of how easy to test the idea may be.
What Can You Do?
Unfortunately, when people do seem to have a strong bias against creativity even when ideas are easily testable and involve no real risk, it is hard to know how you can overcome this bias. Nevertheless, I have a few suggestions.
Firstly, take ownership and responsibility for the idea yourself. No one else will. Set up your walking meeting. Invite a few people to try out a new way to generate ideas.
Secondly, test the idea. If it is a product idea, build a prototype. If it is a process idea, find a low-risk way to test and demonstrate it. If people can see that the idea works, and will not adversely affect them, they will become much more open to it.
Finally, address the emotional risks that people feel in addition to the financial risks that are usually addressed when evaluating an idea. A walking meeting has little financial cost or risk. But it makes people nervous. Address that. Make it clear that you are just trying out a new approach to meetings and that you want the participants’ feedback. If you listen to people’s concerns, you can address them and, if need be, comfort them. If people try a walking meeting and like it, they will become more open to it. Then you can expand on the idea, invite others to run walking meetings and slowly incorporate it into normal activity in your organisation.
Be Aware of the Fear of Creativity and Change
If you are a creative contributor to your organisation, it is important to be aware of this fear of creativity and change. Be aware that when people reject your ideas, it may not be because the idea is bad. Rather, it may be because the thought of implementing your idea and the change in routine scares people.
And here’s one last suggestion. If you do run brainstorms, an idea management software or a suggestion scheme and have a number of ideas to consider, instead of asking people to vote for the best idea (which is a mistake), ask them to vote on the idea they would least like to implement. My guess is that the ideas that get the most votes will be the most creative ideas!
-By Jeffrey Baumgartner