Many of us bemoan the fact that creativity seems to be in decline in America. Research by KH Kim finds that the ability to think creatively is down among children and adults, which suggests they may be less able to come up with creative solutions to problems. This trend worries those in the business sector and beyond, who fear it could spell disaster for the future of innovation.
But what if the biggest block to creativity isn’t the inability to come up with new ideas and solutions to problems, but our inability to accept and recognize them?
This idea is at the heart of Jennifer Mueller’s new book, Creative Change: Why We Resist It . . . How We Can Embrace It. Mueller, a former Wharton School management professor, uncovers the way our minds react to uncertainty and how that can get in the way of embracing creativity. Her book aims to give us the tools we need to be more open to creative ideas and to communicate them to others.
Why creativity is uncomfortable
History is full of examples of companies who ignored novel ideas: The Kodak Company declined to develop digital photography technology, for example, while Hewlett Packard rejected Steve Wozniak’s vision of a personal computer. Many organizational leaders pride themselves on knowledge of their businesses—after all, their expertise is what got them there. Yet, according to Mueller, this very expertise can blind them to the potential of something truly new and inventive.
Mueller believes that people miss creative ideas because of what she calls the how/best mindset—one marked by an intolerance of uncertainty and a concern with being right. People who have this mindset will pick apart creative ideas and try to find flaws in them to protect themselves from the discomfort of not knowing whether or not the ideas will work.
“Someone in a how/best mindset will tend not to see a new idea as a good and viable option relative to an existing solution because there is often more uncertainty around whether the new idea will result in the achievement of any specific goal,” she writes.
Interestingly, this kind of rejection often happens at an unconscious level—even when people say they value creativity. In a study recounted in the book, participants wrote about one of two statements: “For every problem there is only one correct solution” or “For every problem there is more than one correct solution.” Then they were tested on their implicit biases around creativity and asked to rate a highly creative idea.
Though all of the participants said they valued creativity, those primed with the “one correct solution” prompt unconsciously associated creativity with negative words like “vomit” and downgraded the creative idea; those primed with the “more than one correct solution” outlook associated creativity with positive words like “cake” and found the idea much more appealing. These results suggest that people can devalue creative ideas unconsciously when they are uncertain or fearful about making a mistake.
How to embrace creativity
Mueller suggests that to become more accepting of creativity one must cultivate a different kind of mindset—something she calls the why/potential mindset. Cultivating curiosity, being open to uncertainty, and being willing to imagine the potential benefits of an idea can help people embrace innovation, she writes.
Mueller’s book is full of entertaining stories of business leaders who have either embraced innovation or been hampered by their inability to do so. She uses these stories, as well as the research in this area, as jumping off points for making a host of recommendations to those who want to increase innovation in themselves and their organizations.
For example, she suggests that leaders check their egos and consider using the wisdom of the crowd to assess creative ideas. While leaders often ask their followers to brainstorm ideas, they don’t often get input from others in evaluating creative ideas, which they should. She also suggests that when looking at creative solutions to problems, leaders should prime themselves to think more like inventors, perhaps by imagining an inventor they admire.
“If you frame your role as an inventor who is leading the creative process and not as a leader who seemingly already knows the answers, you will have a better shot at embracing the creative ideas you want and improving them in the process,” writes Mueller.
For those who are on the other end of the equation—individuals pitching creative ideas to others—Mueller suggests ways to decrease uncertainty in nervous leaders. In particular, she promotes the idea of using an “aha” strategy, where you tap into the emotions of decision-makers rather than simply reciting facts and figures. Creating excitement by telling stories or using powerful analogies to get your points across can help people get on board with ideas that would otherwise cause anxiety, she argues.
Organizations can also position themselves to be more open to innovation, varying their approach depending on the problem at hand. The how/best mindset might be better for evaluating ideas to improve existing programs or products, while the why/potential mindset might be better for evaluating truly innovative, out-of-the-box solutions.
Mueller also suggests that the power to decide what direction an organization will take shouldn’t reside with just a few people.
“If I had to nominate one main reason why corporate America is stagnating and failing to embrace creative change, I’d need just one phrase: all checks and no balances,” she says. In other words, without soliciting more input from others, managers and leaders are bound to fall into familiar patterns and end up killing creative ideas.
Mueller’s book is a wakeup call for those who are in positions to evaluate and promote creativity. Rather than simply generating more creative ideas, we should learn to better evaluate the ones in front of us and save a lot of heartache and hassle. If we understand our own blocks to creativity, we are in a better position to change tack and become the innovative people and organizations we want to be.
We may even be able to use these skills to solve intransigent problems at work and in the world, she says.
“The sooner we learn how to spot our unconscious resistance patterns and cope with them, the sooner we will start to make real and meaningful progress—and the sooner we can begin working together to embrace the world we want to live in.”