Leaders Say They Want More Creativity. But They Really Don’t

For many years people have thought that the reason organizations struggle with creativity is because there aren’t enough good ideas.  Therefore, leaders sought to fix the problem by having staff generate more ideas, and practices proliferated that improved idea generation (such as brainstorming) and individual creativity (such as classes).

But brainstorming and art classes haven’t solved the problem: Leaders still say that there isn’t enough creativity, often blaming lackluster returns on inadequately creative solutions.

But what if too few ideas isn’t the real problem?  What if there are plenty of good ideas, and the real issue is that people in decision-making positions – the leaders who are complaining about the lack of creativity – are refusing to act on them?

There is good evidence that points to this as the actual issue organizations face. Research by Justin Berg has shown that some companies don’t have a deficit of creative ideas, they have a deficit of managers who are good at identifying which creative ideas are good and then acting on them.  Similarly, research I did with Jennifer Mueller and Jeff Lowensteinshowed that people in decision-making roles tend to evaluate creative ideas with an eye toward their feasibility and fit with what the organization is already doing, and prefer the less-creative ideas to the more-creative ones that customers themselves prefer. This is likely to be especially true in organizations that have a strong culture, as Adam Grant has pointed out.

No matter what leaders say about how much they love creativity, when the time comes to make a decision and spend money to make an idea happen, the calculation is often that disruption is unpredictable, and unpredictability is threatening.  Most people don’t want to advocate for an idea that they believe is as likely to do poorly and make them look bad as it is to do well and make them look good.

So what is a leader to do to reduce the creativity deficit?  Rather than focus on increasing the number of brainstorming sessions, leaders at every level in the organization need to learn how to better evaluate the creative ideas they are presented with.  There are specific practices that organizations – and people with creative ideas in organizations – can use to help give creative ideas a fighting chance, such as changing how pitches are framed.

This trend in increasing creativity in organizations is likely to have a far greater impact on organizations that can act on it because is it about changing mind-sets about creative ideas rather than simply coming up with yet another pile of ideas that will languish on Post-It notes. And that is truly radical.

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