You Can't Handle the Creative

In their 2011 study, "The Bias Against Creativity: Why People Desire But Reject Creative Ideas" by Jennifer Mueller (UPenn Wharton), Shimul Melwani (UNC) and Jack A. Goncalo (Cornell), they found that the vast majority of people (ie, pretty much everyone) has an unconscious bias against creative ideas that works to ignore and reject creative ideas that fall outside of our comfort zones.
According to a summary by, the researchers found that:
  • "Creative ideas are by definition novel, and novelty can trigger feelings of uncertainty that make most people uncomfortable.
  • People dismiss creative ideas in favor of ideas that are purely practical -- tried and true.
  • Objective evidence shoring up the validity of a creative proposal does not motivate people to accept it.
  • Anti-creativity bias is so subtle that people are unaware of it, which can interfere with their ability to recognize a creative idea."
According to this research, job descriptions calling for creative thinkers should actually read, "We're looking for someone who will come up with ideas that won't take us too far out of our comfort zone." Creative ideas trigger a feeling of uncertainty and uncertainty causes a fight or flight reaction. It's why truly creative people don't last long at corporations and why innovation is so difficult the bigger an organization gets.
Sure, we celebrate icons like Steve Jobs, but he was an outlier. Most creative people die without recognition or reward. Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press that was as transformative for the world of publishing in it’s time as the internet is today, died penniless. And he wasn't the only creative genius who went unrecognized in their lifetime. Jobs was fortunate, but I'll bet you real money that his famous ad rant, "Here's to the crazy ones" inspiration came from personal experience of fighting for his ideas.
“The fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
[chart from my presentation: Here is Your Magic Content Wand]
Hedgehogs are valued in companies because they use formulas and "best practices" to present their ideas. They are focused and speak to what people know. Their ideas reinforce comfort and certainty, even in a changing world. Foxes are the innovators, connecting seemingly unrelated dots and pushing the boundaries. They can see "where the puck is going" while most others focus on where it is right now.
Of course every organization needs a good mix of Hedgehogs and Foxes in order to operate. A room full of Foxes would lead to skating in all sorts of directions. A room full of Hedgehogs would fail to take any risks. But there is a bias against Foxes that keeps them out of leadership positions all too often, so we see too many companies grow to a certain point, then stagnate.
The first step in changing this is to recognize our own biases. Hire people that make you uncomfortable. Look for characteristics you don't usually associate with organizational success. .
Give the Foxes a seat at the table right next to the Hedgehogs. Sure, it will create more tension and heated discussions, but the ideas that survive that tension will help your company stay relevant. Don't just stack the leadership team with Finance, Technology and Operations. Add Social and Creative to that team. Hire entrepreneurs and artists.
Resist the urge to separate the Foxes from the Hedgehogs. There are many companies that break off innovative groups to shield them from the bureaucracy (Xbox from Microsoft, for instance), which is good for giving creative license to that group, but won't help get the broader organization out of its comfort zone.
Pair up your Hedgehogs and Foxes. Encourage them to learn from one another. Not to worry, this won't water down ideas. If both parties are on the same level of power and accountability, it will help you move forward without alienating and frightening your customers.
Instill respect in both Hedgehogs and Foxes and encourage them to learn from one another. The minute you see a H vs F rivalry going on, nip it in the bud. As a lifelong Fox, I've learned to hone more of my Hedgehog side over the years to make sure I'm not too far out in my thinking. It also helps me present my ideas in a more organized way. The Hedgehogs who I've been fortunate to work with have grown their ability to take risks and embrace change. We've fought like crazy, but at the end of the day, we respect one another deeply.
So if your organization wants to truly attract creative thinkers (which it should because it will keep you ahead of the competition and help you stay just ahead of customer expectations), value creative people and their approach and step outside of your comfort zone.
(Viral pandya)


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