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  • Dr. Kim Stephens

Be creative, but only if there is no risk: The conflict between creativity bias and innovation

Updated: Sep 26, 2019


If I were to ask you what is the most important leadership quality for success in business, what would you say?

When IBM asked 1,500 CEOs this question in 2015, 60% cited creativity as the most important. They placed creativity ahead of integrity and global thinking.

And you may agree. We are all being asked to be more creative, more innovative. Leaders of innovative companies are highly praised. Steve Jobs once said, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”

But do we really want people to be creative? Think hard before you answer.

For many of us, we have a creativity bias. We tend to shy away from anything that is different than the status quo because of the fear of uncertainty.

With creativity comes trying something never done before, moving away from the known to the unknown and ultimately risking failure. It is easy to say we want our employees to be creative, but it’s a very different thing to give them the freedom to make changes.

Jennifer Mueller, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, summarizes Creative Bias this way:

  • Everyone says they want creativity, but generally they fear it.

  • Creativity is often seen to lead to uncertainty. It's more certain to create incremental improvements over delivering something entirely new.

  • Creative people are often seen as quirky, unfocused and non-conformist. As a result, when a person voices creative ideas she isn't seen as a leader.

  • Corporations squelch creativity, and it's difficult to move big ideas through the pipeline.

Sound familiar? This all rings true with me. During my long career in the corporate world, I recall many times being told I could not implement a creative solution because that’s "not the way we do things around here." Or "you will never get that past legal."

It’s understandable in a way. Large companies have more to lose, so they stick with what is safe – what is proven and certain. And we as individuals are comfortable with the familiar.

Take this well-cited example of Kodak:

Kodak engineer Steve Sasson patented the digital photography technology in 1978. When he presented it to the corporate executives, they could not imagine a world without film. And they did not want to – they were making money every step of the way in the film process. As you probably know, Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012. Because they did not accept change, they were left behind.

Risk intolerance has consequences. By not embracing creativity or the next innovation, you are essentially condemning yourself to stagnation. So how do you mitigate creativity bias?

  1. Be okay with uncertainty. If you are trying something new, you will not know all the outcomes. For those that need a small step before the big leap: Try a pilot. Test out the solution, program, etc. with a small group before taking it to the entire company.

  2. Do a pre-mortem. Gather together people you trust with diverse viewpoints and work through a pre-mortem to talk through what could go wrong, but also what could go right.

  3. Allow creative people some freedom, time and space to innovate. Creative ideas don’t always pop up overnight or even at the office. Creatives need the flexibility to think and play. Imposing strict rules and parameters will impede “thinking outside the box.”

  4. Encourage collaboration. Diversity bonuses come from teaming up people with different perspectives – the perfect environment for creativity to thrive.

  5. Trust your employees and give them the tools and resources to push the boundaries. Back off from micro-managing, PowerPoint updates, and pointless interference. In other words, don’t get in the way of creative ideas.

  6. Allow for failure. Some creative ideas are not going to work out. But don’t allow your own biases to hold others back from trying.

The bottom line is that you cannot have creativity without change. With change comes some risk, but it also has great rewards. In an increasingly knowledge-based society, don’t let your creativity bias hold your company back from growth and success. Take a risk on change.

#unconsciousbias #creativitybias #innovation #creativity #change

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