Dwelling on an initial spark of inspiration comes at the expense of potentially more exciting ideas that can arise from a longer creative journey, according to new research.
In an article for Harvard Business Review, Kellogg School of Management professor Loran Nordgren and Cornell University assistant professor Brian Lucas argue that people’s best ideas are their last ideas, and that “in order to live up to our creative potential, we must first understand how the creative process actually works.” (Harvard Business Review, 26 January 2021
Forming that understanding, they stress, is mission critical at a time when organisations of every size are facing unprecedented challenges.
Nordgren and Lucas explain that they ran a series of problem-solving tests on a variety of sample populations. “In one of our studies,” they write, “we enrolled professional and amateur comedians in a caption-writing competition. We surveyed their beliefs about how creativity changes over time, and then had them spend as long as they wanted coming up with captions for a cartoon.”
They note: “We found that the comedians who were more certain that their early ideas would be their best ideas stopped ideating sooner. These comedians ended up submitting fewer jokes and, importantly, fewer of the jokes that these comedians did submit were rated as being highly creative – suggesting that if you think your first ideas will be your best ideas, you’re more likely to stop the creative process before your actual best ideas are uncovered.”
In Nordgren and Lucas’s view, people are bad at predicting the quality of their own imaginative outputs because they conflate creativity with a performance indicator that, in this field, is not actually very useful: productivity. “When generating ideas (or, for that matter, completing any task that requires mental energy),” they write, “productivity does tend to decline over time, and people often take the ease of producing ideas as a signal of the quality of those ideas.
“In other words, people … think the creativity of the ideas they produce must decline as well. But of course, this is not the case. In the creative process, the ideas that are most easily accessed tend to be the most obvious ones, and it’s only by digging more deeply that more novel, creative ideas finally emerge.”
What should leaders take away from this research about how to manage teams through creative endeavours?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s Head of Brand and Marketing, Jay Ludditt says: “One of the most rewarding things when developing ideas is seeing them come to life. On the flipside, when a great deal of work goes into an idea that never sees the light of day, people find that incredibly frustrating and demotivating.”
He points out: “By encouraging a test-and-learn approach, teams can develop ideas and deploy them in a considered way. That will provide them with enough airtime to gauge success without pushing the process so deep as to create unmanageable problems, should things not perform as expected – or even fail altogether.”
Ludditt notes: “While the notion that cutting the creative process short may not allow staff to reach the most creative outcomes, we should also consider business pressures – and the impact that a longer, more drawn-out process could have on teams.
“With creativity comes experimentation, and therefore a degree of the unknown. Embracing an element of risk while ideas are hot could generate a competitive edge and demonstrate to teams they can be trusted to put their creativity into practice without being interrogated at every step.”
He adds: “Progressing creative ideas in a more staged manner can be an effective way of being mindful of business pressures while encouraging creativity, before it leads to team fatigue.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on creativity