Why Your Most Creative Ideas Get Shot Down, and How to Fix It

“We’ve explained why everyone feels the paranoia or the dread when someone says, ‘Think outside the box.’ You know they really mean, ‘Get in your little box and don’t disturb us.’”

David Burkus is an award-winning podcaster and author of Under New Management: How Leading Organizations Are Upending Business as Usual. He recently sat down with Jennifer Mueller, a social psychologist who has served on the faculty of many top business schools, including the Wharton School, Yale School of Management, and NYU’s Stern School of Business. They discussed why we secretly resist creativity, how to effectively pitch your next Big Idea, and more groundbreaking insights from Jennifer’s new book, Creative Change: Why We Resist It . . . How We Can Embrace It.

Jennifer: I wanted to write about resistance to creativity, so I started to interview people. I will always remember talking to this one manager, and I asked him, “What role does creativity play in your everyday work?” This guys was in pharma, and he was managing a group of scientists that were making new drugs, and he said to me, “Creativity? I’m not an artist. I have to make sure that these drugs will save patients’ lives. I can’t afford to make mistakes and waste money.”

I backpedaled and said, “Oh, so creativity doesn’t really play a role in your everyday life,” to which he responded, “You know, I take offense to that. I have to be creative. If I’m not pushed to the boundaries of what we know, people could die.”

David: This is the same person, right?

Jennifer: Right, this is just a manager in an organization who was really struggling with creativity and what it means to his work. If you ask people if they love creativity, they’ll say “Oh, it’s not relevant to me, but it’s a fine thing,” or, “Of course I love it!” This idea that people would say, “Ah, creativity is stupid. I hate it,” that’s just not something people would admit to. [But] I suspected that people did have both positive and negative feelings about creativity, but that the negatives were a bit more complicated, more hidden than the positive. And I wanted to test that.

“We’ve explained why everyone feels the paranoia or the dread when someone says, ‘Think outside the box.’ You know they really mean, ‘Get in your little box and don’t disturb us.’”

So, I called this grad student I was working with at the time, and she had a fabulous idea: to use the implicit attitude test. It’s a reaction time test, where you have a bunch of words that are synonyms for creativity, and [you pair them with] a bunch of words that are synonyms for good or bad. We had words like peace and heaven for good, and words like vomit and rotten for bad.

We randomly assigned some undergraduates to write an essay on one of two points. The first point was for every problem, there’s one best solution. The second essay was for every problem, there are multiple solutions.

When people wrote about multiple solutions, they explicitly said they loved creativity. [On the implicit attitude test], they associated creativity with heaven and love as we expected. But when students wrote the essay that there’s one best solution, they also said they loved creativity, but the [implicit attitude] test showed they paired the word “creativity” more with words like vomit and rotten.

We started to recognize that people might not be aware of their negativity about creativity. And there’s something about our mindsets that shifts our response to creativity. Generally, the “one best solution” mindset is the mindset we teach our students and executives about how to make decisions. We’ve shown that this mindset is literally something you can evoke by giving somebody a manager role. If something is good, it has great metrics, and if something is bad, it has metrics that aren’t so good. The great irony is that creative ideas don’t have great metrics. Metrics are a really noisy indicator for new ideas. [So] we’re evoking this bias against creativity, the very thing that, in many cases, [we] want.

David: So much of management and leadership literature was based on a time that didn’t really need that much creativity. Everybody had a routine task to do every day, and managing it was easy because metrics were easy. We built the business school curriculum off of that, and now we live in a different world.

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Jennifer: We do. What you get is the MBA saying, “Creativity, that’s what the artists do. Managers don’t do creativity.” Or you can buy it: “I can get an employee who’s creative.”

You want to make accurate decisions, and you want to justify them if they fail. [So you want] to know something about an idea that helps you determine if it’s great. That means that when you see a creative idea, it can’t be great by definition, because you just don’t know enough about it.

David: Blind faith that we can recognize the value of an idea through a spreadsheet is misplaced faith. I love what you just said: by putting someone in a manager hat, we suddenly make it way easier for them to reject new ideas. It reminds me of that followup study of yours.

Jennifer: That was a wild study. We got a hold of all of a company’s proprietary ideas before they had been implemented, and had these ideas rated by customers and managers. We found the ideas the managers believed were really creative were the ideas that other people didn’t think were so creative. Further, the managers chose the less creative ideas even though everybody believed they would be less profitable. They chose the feasible and familiar ideas, ideas that lacked creativity.

Creative ideas are less easy to implement because the idea requires a different skill set of people to make it, or it’s not necessarily available in-house. The decision makers are making choices like the path of least resistance, to choose ideas that are easily and cheaply implementable. It turned out in that case, the customers didn’t want any of those ideas. They wanted new products.

David: I tend to believe that as soon as somebody enters the manager role, especially a senior leadership role, their number one priority is just not to get fired from their sweet gig. Now they’ve got money, they’ve got the company car or special parking space. A lot of it is just, “I don’t want to invest in that risky idea because I don’t want to get fired.”

“Sometimes, our creative ideas are difficult to get. The reason people don’t like them is they don’t understand exactly what they mean.”

Jennifer: I think there’s a lot of that, so new equals error in that way of thinking.

The people with the power to allocate resources feel responsible. So one way to see it is that managers are just self-serving. Another way to see it is they actually want to make good decisions and do the right thing.

David: This would explain why, if you’re responsible for taking care of these people, for seeing the organization through this period of uncertainty, you’re more likely to grip onto things that you can prove with the spreadsheets that we taught you to use in business school.

Jennifer: I think that happens in a lot of organizations because managers have not been trained [to handle creativity]. Experts haven’t been trained how to manage their feelings of confusion when novelty hits their plate.

David: In some cases, their expertise leads them to judge new ideas against very similar things that already didn’t work, and not appreciate the subtleties.

Jennifer: The other side of it is this mindset [of], “I have to have the best solution” which makes it so that you can’t see value in the new. It does help you make decisions when you have normal kinds of change. It’s not totally bogus, it’s just counter-productive when you want creativity.

David: I think we’ve explained why everyone feels the paranoia or the dread when someone says, “Think outside the box.” You know they really mean, “Get in your little box and don’t disturb us.” But one of the most common reactions I got after my TEDx talk, Why Great Ideas Get Rejected was: “OK, cool… how do we solve it?” What I love about Creative Change is it [offers] a couple of mental shifts that need to happen and even a framework so if you’re in this type of role, here’s how you can make it more likely that you’ll stumble upon a creative idea and then have success with it.

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Jennifer: You’ve probably seen that IBM study where they asked 1500 executives, “What’s the key skill you need to succeed?” They said creativity is the number one skill. That’s all great, but over 50% of these executives said they struggled with disrupting the way they think, tolerating uncertainty, and moving the organization in a new direction that might disrupt the old. [But that] was the way they defined creativity.

David: I also want talk about FAB. Can we dive a little bit into what that model is all about?

Jennifer: Love to. The F in FAB is supposed to be about fit, and fit means knowing the model of creativity that your audience has. What do Chinese people think creativity is? Well, you darn well better know before trying to pitch a new product to them. It turns out that some of them think creativity means the opposite what the people in U.S. think.

I’ll give you an example. Apple called their Apple watch the first mass market wearable. To a Chinese audience, that kind of marketing is a perfect fit, because they think mass market equals more creative. [But] to the average American, mass market equals the opposite of creativity. Why would Apple do something that’s mass market? Aren’t they all about individuality and thinking different? To Americans, “mass market” is a violation of that. When you have fit, people feel safe. When you have mis-fit, they don’t feel safe. They feel something’s wrong.

The first thing is to know the mental model of creativity you’re working with. If you are an entrepreneur pitching to a decision maker who’s one of those “How Best” people, they want your metrics to look better than the status quo. That’s their version of fit, not only for a good product, but in some ways, a creative one. Yes, it has to be different, but the metrics have to be better.

The second piece to [FAB] is what I call “aha strategy.” You pitch ideas [by] using an analogy or combining two things that may seem opposite. An example would be what movie executives often do. “Aliens with Jaws in space,” for example. You’re combining two things that may seem opposite, but they [provide] an immediate picture, and all of a sudden, people get it.

Sometimes, our creative ideas are difficult to get. The reason people don’t like them is they don’t understand exactly what they mean. For example, when the digital camera came out, experts in film hated it because the digital camera didn’t require darkrooms and film speed, the things they thought were critical to quality of the picture. But the novice loved the digital camera.

“Typical selling techniques are not going to work for creative ideas because if you give metrics and compare them to the status quo, the status quo always looks better.”

David: Because it didn’t require darkrooms and film speed.

Jennifer: Because it wasn’t complicated. But as soon as you [offered] the analogy that this camera is like a scanner, film experts were like, “Oh yeah, that makes total sense. Of course it’s not going to have a dark room. It’s a scanner.”

David: This is why everybody in the startup world is currently saying “We’re like Uber, but for…” It’s actually a brilliant way to pitch your idea.

Jennifer: It is. So you need to understand how to connect with them. That’s where B comes in – “broaden.” The B is about developing strategies to get the person to want the new in the first place, to broaden out of the status quo, because the status quo feels really good. Typical selling techniques are not going to work for creative ideas because if you give metrics and compare them to the status quo, the status quo always looks better. How do you get people away from the status quo? “Broaden” focuses on putting people in a different mindset, and one of the strategies is what I call the feedback pitch.

When you’re pitching an idea, our instinct is to try to unilaterally convince them and sell them and give them information, and that doesn’t work. You can’t guarantee they’re all going to have the same kind of concern, because each person has a different perspective. So you might want to do a feedback pitch. The first question to ask is, “What do you think?” You want to give them an open framework to talk about whatever is on their mind.

Then ask, “What do you think I should do?” They’re going to mention their several problems [with your idea]. The next stage is to try to get them in a collaboration to help overcome those concerns, and sometimes, all it takes is a small tweak. Take those objections and try to integrate them. Then say, “Hey, you had a great idea. I made this change. What do you think now?” And it’s possible that their impression of that idea will have shifted because now, in some ways, they have psychological ownership.

David: It’s almost like intellectual jiujitsu, right? You get a little foothold, then you use some leverage. Now, you’re working their idea against them and boom, you’ve got that acceptance.

 

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To listen to the full version, click here.