It’s 9am on a Monday morning. You’re gathered around a meeting table.
“Listen up, people,” says the SVP who’s leading your team. “We need new ideas. Fresh, creative approaches, things that push the envelope. If we don’t get them, I don’t know what’s going to happen. You have until same time next week. I want to see a bare minimum of 5 raw ideas before this time next week. Go! Push the envelop, people, I’ve got pressure from above to make big things happen.”
Wondering if both your job and the future of your division lie in the balance, you set to work. The next morning you email the SVP a set of ideas. They’re rough, but highly-creative. You’ve never heard anything like them. Fifteen minutes later you get a reply. “Nice effort,” says the boss, “but these just aren’t quite right. Keep at it.”
The next day, you try again, submitting 3 new concepts, each one better than the first batch. Minutes later, a similar reply hits your inbox. “I really appreciate your hard work, but these are just too to different, too risky.” This dance goes on daily for weeks. Not just with you, but with the SVP and the other members of your team.
You begin to wonder…
How can a group of smart, innovative people brainstorm more than 100 ideas and have them all be rejected out of hand as being either too dull or, more often, too risky? Is the entire team really that incapable of creativity?
Turns out, the problem may not be the team’s ideas but rather your “leader’s”‘ inability to validate them…
A recent study conducted by professor Jennifer Mueller at the University of Pennsylvania revealed something that does not bode well for organizations.
Team leaders often reject highly-creative ideas not because those ideas don’t have potential, but rather because the leaders themselves are not equipped to handle the fear, uncertainty, exposure and anxiety that rides along with validating, then backing an idea that is innovative, but also necessarily carries potential risk of loss and exposure to judgment.
It gets worse. Most managers not only reject good, highly-creative ideas on a regular basis, they have no idea they’re rejecting them because of their own lack of innovation mindset coping skills.
In the study, Mueller et al shared:
People often reject creative ideas even when espousing creativity as a desired goal…people can hold a bias against creativity that is not necessarily overt, and which is activated when people experience a motivation to reduce uncertainty…. Furthermore, the bias against creativity interfered with participants’ ability to recognize a creative idea. These results reveal a concealed barrier that creative actors may face as they attempt to gain acceptance for their novel ideas.
Turns out, many people in supervisory/leadership roles have become so afraid of having to act on edgy ideas and dance with uncertainty, they’ve unintentionally blinded themselves to the existence of the very thing they clamor for.
Question is, what do we do about it?
Here are a few thoughts…
1. Build intelligent Uncertainty Awareness & Management Training into the training programs for all team leaders, managers and executives.
Maybe what organizations really need more of is not better people and ideas, but rather leaders who are equipped with “uncertainty scaffolding”—mindset skills, practices and strategies that allow them to be comfortable with uncertainty—capable of opening them to first seeing and then acting upon the great ideas that are already being laid at their feet.
With most modern organizational training, as employees rise up the management food chain, they receive additional training in the content needed for their jobs, leadership strategies, social dynamics, best practices, time management and more. But the specific, proven mindset practices, tools and strategies needed to wrangle uncertainty are never trained, let alone explored.
This may be a reflection of a flawed assumption that you either “have that ability or you don’t,” when in fact, it is a skill that’s not only trainable, but mission critical to success on an individual and organizational level.
In a world where companies need to not only exist, but discover and execute on the opportunities delivered by an environment of persistently amplified uncertainty, this skill set is needed like never before.
2. Counter the management negative creativity bias with an unbiased co-decision-maker.
Bring in a second manager who is neither vested in, nor will be held responsible for the the outcome of any ideas that are accepted and executed. In theory, this would serve to counter the underlying negative creativity bias and allow truly creative ideas to surface and be allocated resources. But, it’s not likely to work well in practice for a few reasons.
One, there is no such thing as a complete lack of bias. If you’re human and alive, on some level-you’re biased. It may not be against ideas, but it may be against people, entities and circumstances. There may even be underlying political reasons to want to see a colleague succeed or fail. And like the negative creativity bias, people are often unaware of the existence of their own biases, let alone the impact on their decision-making processes.
Two, this unbiased proxy will not have the same level of intuition, specific segment experience and understanding of the unique abilities, limitations, history and approaches of the members of the other person’s team. That may make them more able to objectively identify and counter a negative creativity bias, but less able to understand the social dynamics of a team and more inclined to validate ideas that would be viable in a vacuum, but not executable in the real world.
In the end…
We are all human. We’re largely hardwired to run from decisions and actions that lead us further down a rabbit hole. That leads us to reject not only our own creative ideas, but the envelope-pushing ideas of those we lead and back. Because validating our team-members “unprovable” ideas, then allocating resources to them makes them ours. If the ideas go down in flames, so do we.
Problem is, in a world where what got us here ain’t gonna get us there, this phenomenon is death not only to individual power, but to organizational innovation and progress.
The answer, at least from my perspective, is to do 3 things…
One – alert team leaders to the existence of the problem—most managers have an innate negative creativity bias.
Two – explain how this leads to an inability and unwillingness to see, validate and back highly-innovative ideas.
Three – equip those same leaders with the mindset skills and abilities needed to embrace truly innovative ideas.
Easy task? No. Necessary for evolution, innovation and progress? Yes.
Curious, what do you think? Have you experienced either side of this dynamic?
Share your thoughts below…
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