It is a common belief that encouraging creativity will lead to higher levels of innovation. In actuality, most organizations already have the creative ideas they need. But they are missing or outright rejecting them, and they don’t even realize they’re doing it.

Leaders are continually searching for innovations that will give them an edge against changing consumer needs, technological advances and globalization. Accenture describes the challenge in their 2015 US Innovation Survey – “The belief among US executives that innovation is a critical tool for growth and market differentiation is stronger than ever.” But knowing is very different than doing. As Accenture continued, “…a significant gap exists between what companies want to do in the area of innovation and what they are able to do.”

Many leaders confuse innovation with creativity. They believe innovative organizations are the ones lucky enough to find that rare breed of creative genius to join their team. Or that creativity workshops and workspaces filled with bright colors and communal games will bring innovative ideas to light. But the problem in most organizations is not a lack of creativity. Yes, that’s right. Most organizations already have the ideas they need.

The real challenge most organizations face is their ability to identify creative ideas and transform them into programs, products, and services that create a competitive advantage. As the renowned expert, Theodore Levitt said, “What is often lacking is not creativity….but putting ideas to work.”

Our Bias Against Creativity

If we have the ideas we need, then where are they? Believe it or not, they are often right in front of us. We’re just not seeing them.

In 2010, Jennifer Mueller of The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Finance and her team published a seminal study on our ability to identify and support creative ideas. The study, The Bias Against Creativity: Why People Desire But Reject Creative Ideas, found that no matter how open-minded we are or how much we say we want new, creative ideas, we unconsciously exhibit a bias against those very same ideas. When individuals were asked to select ideas presented to them, they consistently selected the practical, conventional ones despite stating that their goal was to find new and creative ideas.

The simple truth is that human beings are hard wired to avoid risk and uncertainty. And this survival instinct is alive and well. We unconsciously lean toward the predictable and familiar. In the workplace, this bias interferes with our ability to recognize creative ideas and, even when we do recognize them, causes us to actively reject them. We are missing or outright rejecting many of the wonderful, creative ideas that already exist in our organization, and we don’t even realize we’re doing it.

Combatting our Bias

One of the most important findings of the Wharton study is that we all affected by an unconscious bias against creativity. It’s not a matter of if we’re falling victim to our bias but to what extent.

Leaders who successfully lead their teams to overcome this bias do so by actively acknowledging and combatting it.

  1. Talk. Discuss the bias against creativity with your team and acknowledge that combatting it is everyone’s goal. This step may sound simple, but it is the one most often overlooked. In our excitement to change, we often jump ahead to what we need to do. But, direction without context only creates confusion. Set clear expectations about how and why you want your team to change.
  2. Model. The best way to nurture a new approach is to model it in your behavior. Acknowledge that new ideas are uncomfortable. When that discomfort starts to take hold, and you see your team begin to find flaws with an idea, stop and ask “What if that weren’t the case?”  Demonstrate to your teams that some objections are valid and some represent our bias rearing its ugly head.
  3. Celebrate. Most important, don’t forget to acknowledge and reward your team’s efforts. As the team sees you celebrate initial efforts, they will gain the confidence to combat their bias more often. And that repeated practice will lead to proficiency. Before you know it, your team will be overwhelmed with creative ideas to pursue!

Innovative powerhouses have great ideas. But that is not what makes them unique. Their ability to overcome their natural bias and identify the great ideas that already exist gives them an edge over their competition.

About the author

Rita Santelli is an author, speaker, educator, and CEO. Passionate about making innovation a reality rather than a talking point, Rita helps senior leaders build teams of creative problem solvers who thrive in the face of change. Connect with Rita on LinkedIn or Twitter.


Featured image via Yayimages.