There is nothing like a crisis to demonstrate the importance of creativity. To date Covid-19 has cost the global economy over $16 trillion, cost millions of jobs and lost working hours, killed at least 2.6 million people and restricted travel for everyone. Considering the enormous costs of the illness, how many creative solutions have we seen for dealing with it? Here are the biggest changes I’ve seen:
Work-From-Home (WFH) or telecommuting: started in the ’70s and ’80s, although it’s notable most people worked from home in agricultural societies and Aristotle Onassis ran his enormous business empire from his yacht in the ’60s.
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Online shopping: basically mail order, which was invented in 1861 with the Pryce-Jones catalog.
Masks and PPE: Johann Mikulicz is reportedly the first surgeon to wear a mask in 1897, and masks were required in many communities during the 1918 flu epidemic.
Vaccines: The Chinese and Indians used inoculation in the 900s and Edward Jenner invented the first modern vaccine in 1796. mRNA vaccines are novel, but were first used in 1993.
Note: none of these things are new or were invented in response to Covid-19. They were existing technologies or ideas that we’ve adapted to the situation. That’s worrying, because we depend on creativity to solve challenging problems, and it seems like we’ve come up blank against Covid-19. Globally we are facing many other challenging problems as well, such as climate change. Our global civilization can not afford to let creativity wither.
I think the creative crisis can be divided into 3 main problems:
In 2011, Dr. Kyung Hee Kim from The College of William and Mary, published an article called, “The Creativity Crisis: The Decrease in Creative Thinking Scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking”. It lead to a small media blitz including an article in Newsweek. Her research results showed that creativity seemed to have increased in a wide slice of American students (K-12) and adults from 1966 to 1990, but then decreased from 1990 to 2008. A follow-up, published in 2017, continued to show the same downward trend.
In 1966 a psychologist professor at the University of Minnesota named Ellis Paul Torrance developed the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT). The test is both verbal and visual. The verbal tests presents the test subject with an object or a situation and asks the participant to talk about uses for the object or stories about the situation. The visual test gives the participant a drawing with two lines or a squiggle and asks the subject to generate complete drawings using the lines and squiggles as a starting point. The results are then compared to results of previous tests. They are measured on four spectrum: quantity of ideas, how unrelated the responses are to one another, how original they are and how well elaborated the responses are.
The TTCT has been widely used both in academic studies of creativity and as a method of identifying intellectually gifted children.
That ubiquity allowed Dr. Kim to compare the results of 272,599 children and adults across the decades from 1966 to the present day. The results show that creativity has decreased along all spectrum to its lowest levels yet recorded.
It’s not possible to know why this has happened, but Dr. Kim theorizes that it has to do with the teaching to standardized testing, over-committing children to structured activities and the rise of digital interaction with more limited constraints than exploring the physical world.
Considering the abundance of talk of fostering creativity and the need for innovation in business, it may be surprising to know that we may have a implicit bias against creative people and their ideas. However, new research suggests that is exactly the situation we are in.
In 1961, Daniel Ellsberg, working for the Rand Corporation, was researching the psychology of decision making to better understand how a nuclear war between the US and USSR might start and how it might be avoided. During his work, he developed a thought experiment involving two urns (shown below). Urn A was transparent was transparent and contained half red marbles and half black. Urn B was opaque, but contained some mix of red and black marbles. If people were offered a prize if a red marble was randomly drawn from an urn, which urn would they choose to have the marble drawn from?
Ellsberg two urn paradox
Mathematically, the answer is that it makes no difference. Urn A has a 50/50 chance. Urn B could be filled with red marbles or filled with black or a mix of both. Therefore, there is a 50/50 chance of drawing a red marble from it as well. However, when this scenario is presented, people overwhelming prefer that the marble would be drawn from urn A. This includes business people, scientists and other people trained in mathematics. It even includes people that have been given training to recognize the bias, which is called uncertainty aversion.
Uncertainty aversion is the preference for known risks over the unknown. In the case of the Ellsberg Experiment, the fact that one can see the marbles makes one feel that the risks somehow more certain.
Now, consider creative ideas, like a bathroom fan with a noisy mode for when you don’t want people to hear what’s happening. What is the market potential for the product? We can estimate, but ultimately, it’s unknowable. What about how it will be made? Do we include a speaker or do we have a playing card move in the way of the fan? How does that effect cost and reliability? Again, unknowable without doing some work.
Now consider a non-creative idea, like just a copy of an existing bathroom fan. The market potential is known and the manufacturing is well understood. In fact, we can probably just buy a fan from an existing factory and put our name it.
The noisy bathroom fan is innovative, but has a lot of uncertainties. Just like the opaque urn, most business managers will be hesitant to choose it over the existing fan. This is a big problem, because consumers are looking for innovation and it’s certainly easier to get attention in a crowded market with an innovative product. Indeed, the problem is found in real world studies too.
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One of my favorite studies used the Quirky website user reactions and real sales data and compared it to the ratings of expert product developers. The result was that the experts were less likely to predict market success than the Quirky user community voting.
It’s difficult to get such good market insight for public research, but we can also compare it to how academia treat creative ideas too. One study looked at 1,008 papers submitted to top scientific journals for review and compared whether the journals accepted the papers for review versus how many citations the papers eventually generated. Of the 14 more cited papers, 12 were not just rejected for publication, but were rejected for peer review.
It seems as though something happens to us when we become managers that biases our judgement and we might be close to discovering what that bias is.
This psychological block brings us to management. As Harry Truman said, “The buck stops here”.
For decades, researchers have looked at creativity from the individual level: how does a person have a creative idea, what conditions do they need, how can we structure their work so that they have more ideas. Now, researchers are realizing that our workers already know how to be more innovative, but their ideas are often getting blocked. Moreover, people that understand creativity the best are not moving into management.
Jennifer Mueller has a Ph.D. in social psychology and is currently a professor in management at University of San Diego. She studies the psychology of creativity and how to promote it in management. In her book, Creative Change, she recounts her history of trying to help bring creativity to companies in need. Time after time, she would learn that the companies already had training in idea generation and were following its best practices, however the companies still struggled to produce creative products. Mueller decided to start studying why organizations struggle to be creative even while pouring time and money into being creative.
What she discovered was that, under uncertainty, many people have an implicit bias against creativity. An implicit bias is one that we are not aware of. She tested this with an implicit attitude test or IAT. Test subjects were shown words that were associated with creativity or practicality and asked to pair them with positive or negative words (cake or heaven are positive words, rotten or vomit are negative). The subjects almost all said they loved creativity, but when they were primed with uncertainty, their IAT test results suggested they felt negatively about creativity.
In the Covid-19 world, all business has become uncertain. Air travel and events have tanked while decor, construction and certain medical equipment industries have boomed, but that could all change just as fast. Our managers and entrepreneurs are certainly primed for uncertainty, so what kind of decisions will they be making? Mueller’s research strongly suggests they will not be open to innovation.
Moreover, it’s not just this generation of managers that is the problem. Some studies suggest that uncertainty biases us to selecting less creative and less open managers in the first place. Mueller, along with Professors Jack Goncalo and Dishan Kamdar studied 364 employees at an Indian refinery to see how perceptions of creativity effected management potential. In spite of the business sector, the company is proud of its innovations and explicitly encourages employees to come up with new ideas to improve the company. The study asked managers in the company to rate their direct reports on creativity and their leadership potential. The more creative the employee, the lower they rated for leadership potential. This result was consistent with unpublished studies at two other companies and research using students.
To sum up, it seems as though we are in a valley of low creativity, our psychology biases us against creative ideas at work and our managers are penalizing their most creative employees by passing them over for advancement.
Luckily, there are some things we can do.
Take a break
I’m not anymore immune to the problem that I’m describing than anyone else. New ideas often make me feel uncomfortable and it’s hard to decide whether that discomfort is because it’s a bad idea or because it’s just novel. When I have that feeling, instead of taking a decision, I take a break. Come back the next day and revisit the idea.
Prime yourself for creativity
Many self-help books are based on improving self esteem by envisioning ourselves as more confident. We can do the same with creativity. Before meeting to evaluate new ideas, remind yourself of an innovator that you admire: Pablo Picasso, Thomas Edison, David Bowie or Steve Jobs. Ask yourself how they would evaluate the ideas.
Trust the creative process
Less creative people I know tend to think that innovative products pop fully formed into someone’s head. The reality is that innovation takes time.
One of my favorite sculptures is Michelangelo’s Bandini Pietà. The great master abandoned it. Even the greatest artists start with an idea and then let their creative process lead them to a solution.
If you are presented with a creative idea that doesn’t have a full MS Project sheet of how to accomplish it, don’t dismiss it. Ask what would need to be done to be able to plan the project and what would need to be done to know if customers are interested. Often, these first steps are cheap and easy to do without disrupting the day to day business.
Michelangelo’s Bandini Pietà
Partner with a creative person
One of the first rules of investing is diversification. Investing in one company, one sector or one stock market is more risky than investing broadly.
Professor Mueller suggests two mindsets that people use to evaluate ideas. The first is the how/best model, where we try to identify the most feasible option and focus on how the project will be done. The second mindset is a why/potential model. In why/potential, we try to estimate the future value of an idea and think about why it’s valuable. It maybe that we trend towards one or the other mindset. Therefore, it would be valuable to identify which one we trend towards and try to team up with someone with the alternative mindset. That way we can have a balanced evaluation of new ideas.
“Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door“
Although I’ve often heard this old saying bashed, it’s more or less the attitude that I’ve encountered in nearly two decades of design. We’ve thought that the value of creativity was obvious and that it would automatically flourish. However, that idea is faulty and it’s lead us down a path of monotony. Now, it’s weakening our ability to adapt to a relatively slow moving and obvious threat.
The good news is that humanity has survived and prospered by our creativity. Generally, we’ve been getting more creative as we stand on the proverbial shoulders of giants. With effort, these last few decades can become a momentary blip in the continued success of our creativity.