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Breaking news for creative types: you’re not crazy. Your innovative ideas really are being ignored, downplayed, sidelined and squashed.

So says a study out of University of Pennsylvania Wharton, University of North Carolina and Cornell last year. Turns out that experiments turn up some disturbing findings for those of us hoping to spur innovation in our organizations: new ideas increase feelings of uncertainty and stimulate an anti-creativity bias. The anti-creativity bias causes people to unconsciously ignore the thing causing uncertainty – and your idea along with it.

Even more sadly, objective evidence in favor of your idea doesn’t really help it get through the anti-creative bias.

People just like to play it safe.

What To Do About It

Corporate culture is shaped by this safe-playing instinct. We know from experience that whining won’t help, but knowledge is power. So here are two strategies to use.

  1. Don’t go out of your way to poke them in the uncertainty. Now that you know it’s their uncertainty that makes them want you and your idea to go away, be sensitive and emphasize things that reinforce a feeling of safety. A good way to do this easily is by highlighting boundaries around the issue (e.g., timeframes, maximum/minimums, scope etc.). Boundaries make people feel safe.
  2. When you do poke them in the uncertainty, do it intentionally and strategically. Sometimes making them feel unsafe is precisely what you need to do to get their attention. But now that you know that doing so can work against you (remember when they guy in Jurassic Park succeeded in getting the T-Rex’s attention? – oops), plan to manage their uncertainty once you’ve got them listening. Use strategy #1 above, but also be ready to explicitly acknowledge the discomfort of uncertainty and move them into an explicit process as soon as they pay attention. Process makes people feel safe when they know what it is.
For the record, I emailed with Dr. Jennifer Mueller at The Wharton School, one of the authors of this study. I asked her if  there was a way to get around the anti-creativity bias and she confirmed my suspicion above – that a bias is a bias and the best strategy is to call people’s attention to it and help them deal with it. Dang! I was hoping for that little red pill to solve this dilemma!

What this looks like

A skilled innovator can practice both of the above strategies in a single conversation. Here’s an example.

Don’t say: “Hey Bob, Sue’s got a great idea coming out of the innovation lab that will put the Division A’s main product line out to pasture!”

Do say: “Hey Bob, did you know that our 2012 numbers look pretty bad? Big problem in Division A’s projections. I know, (sympathetic) bonuses are looking shaky for another year, but Sue has an idea coming out of the innovation lab that we think can help. I’ll send you an invite to a meeting next Tuesday where we’ll start to vet it. We’ve got a meeting scheduled with the Board next month and this is on the fast track. Hope to see you there.”

The meeting on Tuesday can also be structured this way. Get their attention, create uncertainty and then use process and innovative ideas to move them back towards safety.

This is one of my favorite strategies for any meaningful strategic planning effort. Begin the strategic planning process with new information – new to most of the participants – that creates a sense of urgency to change. This gets their attention out of the gate, which is necessary because many people walk into the strategic planning process convinced nothing useful will happen. The first order of business with this new information is to knock them off their center (gently) so they have to open up to new information to get centered again. It also helps with teambuilding in the strategic context if you design the process to bring the group back to safety through team effort.

This is a process that has to be managed, but it will help you get innovations introduced in a meaningful context.

What’s your experience? Have you used this approach successfully? Run into challenges with it? Found other strategies that work as well or better? Would love to share strategies below in comments.


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Update: I’m getting ready to launch a new website/blog on women’s leadership in the new year. I plan to continue blogging here on corporate culture, change management and leadership but I’m scaling back this blog to a few posts a month. If you want to receive an announcement of the new site launch, sign up for launch announcement or follow InPower Women on Facebook or LinkedIn, orTheWomanEffect on Twitter. 

This post originally appeared on the Reclaiming Leadership blog. Check out my new self-service women’s leadership coaching website:InPowerCoaching.com.

Dana Theus