Are You More Innovative Than You Think?

New research published in Harvard Business Review suggests that we tend to underestimate our creative ability and that we give up too early. The authors, Brian J. Lucas and Loran Nordgren, shared the following:

“In a series of experiments we observed that people consistently underestimated the number of ideas they could generate while solving a creative challenge. In one, we brought 24 university students into the laboratory during the week leading up to Thanksgiving and asked them to spend ten minutes coming up with as many ideas of dishes to serve at Thanksgiving dinner as they could. Then we had them predict how many more ideas they could generate if they persisted on the task for an additional ten minutes. After that, they actually persisted for ten minutes.

On average, the students predicted they would be able to generate around 10 new ideas if they persisted. But we found that they were actually able to generate around 15 new ideas.

Several similar follow-up studies we conducted produced the same result. We asked professional comedians to generate punch lines for a sketch comedy scene; adults to generate advertisement slogans for a product; and people to come up with tactics a charity organization could use to increase donations. In each of these experiments, participants significantly underestimated how many ideas they could generate while persisting with the challenge.”

As a teacher of creativity, I agree that persistence is an important success factor when producing new ideas. As the researchers point out, when creative challenges start to feel difficult, most people lower their expectations about the performance benefits of perseverance, and consequently, underestimate their own ability to generate ideas.

But other factors can boost…or inhibit innovation…motivation, hope, and anxiety (yes, you read it correctly – anxiety).

People are motivated to generate new ideas when they have a stake in the outcome. The stakes could be survival, money, prestige, pride, job security, and so on. The more you have to gain by generating ideas, the better the ideas will be. I taught creativity methods to a group of University honors students last year. They were great at learning an applying the methods. But during one class session, I noticed the quality of the ideas they were producing during group exercises were rather dull. Each group’s ideas were underwhelming. It struck me right away why – they just weren’t motivated. I pointed this out to the students, and said that I was disappointed. I instructed them to re-do the exact same exercise as if their final grade depended on it. Once they had “skin in the game,” the quality and quantity if ideas jumped immensely.

Beyond motivation, people also have to feel a sense of hope in the outcome. Hope is defined as a positive motivational belief in one’s future; the feeling that what is wanted can be had; that events will turn out for the best. Hoping is an integral part of being human. Without hope, tasks such as innovating become difficult if not impossible. Why bother if there is no hope for a successful future? Hope is important for innovation at work because creativity requires challenging the status quo and a willingness to try and possibly fail. It requires some level of internal, sustaining force that pushes individuals to persevere in the face of challenges inherent to creative work.

Finally, innovation creates anxiety, and the best innovators are the ones that embrace it. Anxiety emerges when using systematic creativity methods, because they force you to create configurations that you would not likely have come up with on your own. Anxiety is a natural part of the SOLUTION-TO-PROBLEM approach.  What causes it?  Finke, Ward, and Smith describe it in their classic book, Creative Cognition.  Once you have transformed an existing situation (product, service, etc), it becomes a hypothetical solution to a yet-to-be-found problem.  The trick to great innovation is to construct pre-inventive structures that have these properties:

  • Novelty: the degree to which the structure is uncommon or different than what you know of it in its original form
  • Ambiguity: the degree to which the structure is unclear, obscure, or vague. It puzzles. A more ambiguous structure lends itself to more original and unexpected interpretations.
  • Meaningfulness: the degree to which the structure has an implicit meaning that tends to excite or inspire the drive to find new interpretations.
  • Emergence: the degree to which features of the structure are apparent. In other words, the structure is not so abstract that you cannot “get your head around it.”
  • Incongruity: the degree to which the parts of structure don’t seem to fit with one another. There is conflict or contrast among the elements of the form.
  • Divergence: the degree to which the structure offers multiple directions and interpretations.

Innovation is a skill, not a gift. It can be learned as with any other skill. But creativity is also a disposition. The best innovators are those who use systematic methods, but are persistent, motivated, hopeful, and anxiety-tolerant.

To learn more, read Inside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results (Simon & Schuster).