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Why We Miss Creative Ideas That Are Right Under Our Noses

Here is an interesting excerpt from an interview with Jennifer Mueller and Shankar Vedantam, author of The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives.

While this is an argument for distance, it's also an argument for the incubation phase of innovation.

[T]he research seems to suggest that part of the reason we miss seeing creative ideas that are right under our nose is because the ideas are right under our nose. There's this new research that looks at how people evaluate creativity. Jennifer Mueller at the University of San Diego and her colleagues … find that where the idea comes from appears to influence whether people think it's creative.

We found that when we told people the idea was generated far away, they rated the idea as significantly more creative than when the idea was generated nearby.

We're talking about how a manager, a boss, would evaluate an idea that's brought to them.

So it seems to happen … because our minds are prone to mixing these two things up. When things are nearby, they're concrete and you can see the details of the things. On the other hand, when things are far away, they're much more abstract. So thinking about things that are near and far puts us in different mental states. When you think about things nearby, you see the details, and so when a creative idea comes along, the first thing you ask is, can it work?

Now, most creative ideas are risky and the risks are obvious when you look at the details, so when you think about it with this detail-oriented mindset, you're more likely to shoot the idea down. On the other hand, when you're thinking about things that are far away, you're in a more abstract frame of mind and so the first question you ask is not will this work; you're more open to seeing the creative possibilities.

So it's not just that as a manager, that the manager disrespects the employees. The manager is just familiar with the employees, he or she works with the employees every day, and they're thinking about the details of it. Whereas somebody comes from the outside, they can think big.

So obviously it has to be said that some ideas are not creative and they deserve to be shot down, but the reason managers often are shooting down ideas that might be creative that come from subordinates is not because they're necessarily bad managers, but they might be in this different mindset.

Creativity and innovation in organizations is inherently difficult. In part, because the people who make decisions tend to be the people with the most experience. That experience helps you spot big mistakes but it also makes it harder for you to “recognize out of the box possibilities” or do something that might go against how your organization makes money today. Also, in part because the skills generally associated with innovators overlap with ones organizations don't like (such as, questioning and experimentation).

The key to building an innovative organization is developing a culture of open-mindedness: a sense of shared curiosity.