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managing books

Creative Change

By Jennifer Mueller

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 239 pages, $20

As companies struggle to fuel innovation, they typically reach for methods to improve idea generation or fret over their inability to implement the ideas they have. But there's a bigger problem we face, according to University of San Diego professor Jennifer Mueller, a social psychologist who has focused on creativity. Our ability to recognize and to embrace creative solutions is dysfunctional.

"The irony is that we are more likely to reject an idea because it is creative than to embrace it," she writes in her provocative new book, Creative Change.

We may talk enthusiastically and lovingly about innovation and creativity, but she contends we also hate creativity because of the risk and uncertainty involved, resulting in a hidden barrier to innovation. The innovation process is considered a rational assessment, but undercutting it is this deep, undiscussed emotional element.

She is not talking of a divide in which bosses propound change and subordinates cling to the status quo, because the change is done to them rather than by them. She is talking of the bosses also rejecting ideas – be it from within their own ranks, or consultants or subordinates – because of the uncertainties involved. Indeed, she goes further: "It is not merely the powerful doctor, professor, decision maker, or boss who rejects and dislikes creativity. The person who rejects and dislikes creativity is you."

Creative ideas are challenged. We look for holes in them. We want guarantees of economic return. We apply a rational mindset that she calls "how/best" thinking, focusing on the most feasible and appropriate option now, intolerant of uncertainty.

We aren't really out to solve the problem, even if we think we are. We are instead intent on evaluating the proposed solution, and to do that accurately, we have to assume the idea being evaluated won't change or improve. We cleverly think up unknown unknowns that could trip us up, issues that the proponent of change has not planned for. We seize on the flaws in part because they protect us from the uncertainties ahead.

But creative ideas are not static. They will change, being improved upon as we deal with challenges in implementation, while the proven and familiar ideas we would fall back on are static. Instead, we need "why/potential" thinking, focusing on learning the future value of something. This mindset, she notes, is much more accepting of uncertainty.

Experts can stink at evaluating creative ideas because the proposals violate existing paradigms. She learned that even though she is a creativity expert, she can be biased against creativity. Start by recognizing that bias within yourself. Then apply her four-step process to counter your tendency to reject novel ideas:

  • Identify whether you are evaluating familiar ideas, creative ideas, or both: Get a panel of people to rate the ideas before you on whether they are incrementally creative or radically creative, and also to judge the quality of the idea. The ones that involve little change can be evaluated normally, assessing risks in the “how/best” approach. The rest, particularly the high-quality and highly creative ideas, require the next steps in this process.
  • Prepare to self-disrupt: Take a break to notice what you are feeling and thinking. Are you worried, for example, about looking dumb if you go ahead with these untested ideas? Prime yourself to be open-minded by thinking of an inventor you admire, which will unconsciously encourage you to think differently and be quirky.
  • Accept the unknowable: Recognize that today’s metrics won’t predict the future if you adopt the option before you and that the more people think about things they can’t control, the worse they feel. Instead, embrace the uncertainty.
  • Shift from problem finding to problem solving: Don’t view problems as red flags. Look at how to solve the issues they raise. See what the potential is.

She goes on to also advise readers, crucially, on how to sell a new idea to an audience that is inclined by our anti-creativity bias to be rejectionist. The book is thoughtful, well-researched, eminently practical, and hits on a little-discussed but vital aspect of creativity.

Given the importance we attach to innovation, this is an important book.