This is the question Mueller, Melwanie, and Goncalo (2012) sought to answer.
It seems that for every story of wild creative success, there is another about a future brilliant idea being ridiculed and viewed as absurd.
Countless lives have been saved by Ignaz Semmelweis, the man responsible for hospitals taking sanitation seriously, and yet he was thought to be ridiculous at first. Not everyone was impressed with Thomas Edison and his lightbulb, either. Even today, when people’s lives and livelihoods depend upon it, the breathtaking speed with which preclinical and clinical studiesbegan for a covid vaccine has been overshadowed by political shouting matches and misinformation.
The surprising thing about much of this type of criticism is that it comes from within a field of apparently like-minded individuals. Artists closed off to new art; scientists closed off to new ideas; or businesses that turn away from new and potentially profitable endeavours.
Why does this happen? Aren’t these people supposed to be creative too? Doesn’t this mean they should entertain a good idea when they see one?
Mueller, Melwanie, and Goncalo (2012) found that even creative people will reject creative ideas, despite outwardly claiming these types of ideas to be desirable.
People appear to be motivated to do this when they feel a need to reduce uncertainty in a situation. This is an impulse that is somewhat paradoxical because, citing Audia & Goncalo (2007), the researchers note that uncertainty also causes people to desire the production of creative ideas.
They also found that under circumstances of high uncertainty, people associate negative words like ‘poison’ and ‘vomit’ more with creativity than with keeping the status quo.
This is a paradox that many have firsthand experience with, especially in the business world. Many of us have been in situations where our bosses espouse the virtues of creativity and implore us to be creative problem solvers and, yet, when we generate a creative solution anyone disregards it that could act on it.
As the researchers themselves say,
‘[When] research and development companies commend the development of new products… they may do so in ways that promote uncertainty by requiring gatekeepers to identify the single ‘best’ and most ‘accurate’ idea, thereby creating an unacknowledged aversion to creativity’.
Overcoming the uncertainty
This problem can be viewed as a sort of a political problem with creativity. It is a PR problem: the situation becomes framed incorrectly for one party and cultivates an environment that is less open-minded than it should be.There are two variables that they would-be creative needs to influence or control if they want a more receptive audience.
a) The uncertainty inherent in their proposition
b) The culture of uncertainty that might exist around their proposition
Only by acknowledging and working to mitigate these two variables beforehand does the creative give themselves the best opportunity to find a receptive audience. The rest balances on the content of the idea.
According to Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, the pre-mortem is the perfect tool to control for the uncertainty inherent in your creative proposition. Like its cousin the postmortem, it is about finding out what happened — and specifically, what went wrong. The difference is that the pre-mortem is an exercise you complete before your ideas are let loose into the wild. Before anything can go wrong.
It goes a little something like this.
Let’s say you have a new and big idea and you want to share it with someone who has the power to help you make it a reality. Before you do that, take some time and perform a thought experiment. Imagine that you are five years down the road and your idea has been an utter disaster.
Why did it fail?
What did risk(s) did you not foresee and mitigate?
What could you have done differently?
Take real heed of the fruits of this exercise and be prepared to bring up and manage possible objections. You can minimize the uncertainty in others and make them receptive to your ideas by being thorough.
The right culture
As the researchers stated above, an environment can either be open to ideas or, perhaps unwittingly, closed to them because of uncertainty. Thus it is crucial for those who want to do interesting and meaningful things that they design environments where creative ideas have the chance to flourish.
Here are a few ideas for crafting a public space conducive to creativity.
- Minimize the emphasis placed on finding the ‘perfect’ idea. This may cause hesitation that subconsciously impedes open and critical evaluation. Instead, focus on thinking of the ‘fit’ later on. Try to hear and evaluate as many ideas as possible. The extra time spent is worth the upside of a winning idea.
- Promote a culture that looks down on the dishonest diminishing of actual risk. Since people intuitively know uncertainty is a roadblock, they will diminish certain aspects or consequences of their thinking. Budgets and timelines have a habit of growing exponentially for a reason.
- Reward individuals who show the ability to think critically about their own ideas. Someone who looks, like a scientist, to disprove their own thinking, rather than proving it, will be a long-term asset.
Creativity is often not expressed in isolation. At some point there is someone (or a group of someones) you have to win over on the journey to create your thing. Perhaps the biggest obstacle you face is that of uncertainty.
Even people who profess to be open-minded (and appear at other times to have been open-minded) do not seem to be invulnerable to this bias.
If you are a creative yourself, it is your responsibility to learn and experiment with these dynamics to give yourself the best chance to be heard. If you are higher up the hierarchy, it is imperative that you also experiment and reduce bias by minimizing ambient uncertainty. We are fallible creatures. The framing of circumstances matters.
“If you want creative workers, give them enough time to play,” — John Cleese