Stay Creative: How to Keep Your Ideas Fresh and Practical
In this podcast episode, we share common mistakes that can stifle ideas and why managers should stay involved in the creative process.
“To be creative, ideas must be both novel and useful. That’s the definition that we use in creativity research,” says Justin Berg, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business. But, he warns: “Novel ideas are often not very useful and useful ideas are often not very novel.”
In this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, Berg sits down with lecturer and podcast host Matt Abrahams to share lessons from his work on creativity, which has included conducting experiments with both movie directors and circus performers.
The takeaway is that we should never stop being a creator. As managers and executives climb up the organizational ladder, they may benefit from staying involved in the creative R&D side of things, rather than just spend time having ideas pitched to them.
Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.
Matt Abrahams: The engine of innovation is creativity, yet coming up with creative business ideas is only the beginning step. You next need to hone, evaluate, and communicate these ideas to others. Many amazing ideas have failed in these follow-on steps.
Hello, I’m Matt Abrahams, and I teach strategic communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast. I am so excited today to chat with Justin Berg. Justin is an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the GSB, and he studies how to successfully develop, evaluate, and implement creative ideas in and outside organizations.
Welcome to the podcast.
Justin Berg: Thanks Matt, great to be here.
Matt Abrahams: Why is creativity so important in organizations? And from your perspective, what role does communication play in creativity?
Justin Berg: Well, all progress depends on creativity. All innovations begin as creative ideas in people’s minds. To have a hit product or service or to gain or sustain a competitive advantage, you need creativity. But generating a creative idea is just the beginning of a long, arduous process. To actually implement creative ideas, to make them into reality, you need to effectively communicate those ideas.
So, creative ideas are often risk, uncertain, and difficult to understand or see value in, and organizations tend to prefer the status quo. So, you need to actually convince people to take a chance on something new, which is why effective communication is so important for making creative innovation actually happen.
Matt Abrahams: So, not only do you have to be creative, but you also have to think through how to communicate that creativity to work against that risk aversion I heard you mention.
Speaking of that, selecting promising new ideas is key to creativity and innovation in organizations, yet this type of predicting what will be successful and not is really hard. Can you share what factors go into creative forecasting, and how can people and organizations be better at doing it?
Justin Berg: I’ve studied this question in the circus arts industry, primarily with companies like Cirque de Soleil. I guess you could say I ran off and joined the circus.
Matt Abrahams: But you came back, so thank you.
Justin Berg: I came back, I came back. And the whole journey was to conduct scientific research, so it wasn’t quite as thrilling or exciting as becoming a trapeze artist.
Matt Abrahams: Are you sitting in a chair right now, or are you suspended upside down or something?
Justin Berg: I am admittedly sitting in a chair, I’m sitting in a chair, yeah. So, the study was about forecasting the success of new ideas. In the circus industry, innovation is typically divided into two separate roles: the performers are the creators who generate ideas for new acts, and managers decide whether to include those acts in shows. So managers act as gatekeepers in between creators and the audience, which is really similar to how roles are structured in many organizations and industries, not just the circus industry.
And so for the study what we did is, we collected over 150 videos of circus acts from creators all over the world. We then had 300 circus professors, so those who created the videos of the acts and also some other circus creators, and then some managers, all of them watched 10 randomly selected videos and tried to predict how successful each act in the video would be with the audience.
And we then tested all these large number of predictions with a sample of over 13,000 audience members. So, we crunched all the data, and what we found is that very consistent with lots of past research, creators were really bad at evaluating their own ideas. They tended to think more highly of their own work than the audience. So, managers had the advantage over creators when forecasting about creators‘ own ideas.
But when forecasting about others‘ ideas, the advantage reversed, and creators were significantly more accurate than managers. In other words, creators were more accurate judges of their peers‘ ideas than managers. A key to creators‘ advantage over managers was that creators were able to see value in the more novel ideas, or the performances that deviated from conventional circus art. Managers tended to undervalue novel ideas in favor of conventional performances.
Some novel ideas did poorly with the audience, some were flops, but some were hits, the most successful acts in the study, and creators were better than managers at forecasting these novel hits.
In the follow-up experiment, I found that a key to creators‘ advantage over managers is that creators simply spend more time generating their own novel ideas. Managers spend more time evaluating other people’s ideas than generating their own ideas. And it turns out that generating our own novel ideas helps us recognize value in other people’s novel ideas.
So the practical takeaway here from my view is that we should never stop being a creator. As managers and executives climb up the organizational ladder, they may benefit from staying involved with the creative R&D side of things, rather than just having ideas pitched to them. So, spending time generating your own novel ideas should help you accurately forecast the success of other people’s novel ideas.
Matt Abrahams: Wow, I love that you take things from the big tent to the office building, and that notion of we all need to keep creating because it keeps us open to novel ideas and therefore can help us better predict success.
Another struggle organizations have when it comes to creativity is balancing the novelty of innovative ideas with their usefulness. Often these two traits diverge from each other. Can you talk to us about your research into what you call primal marks, and how these can help people maximize novelty and usefulness?
Justin Berg: Good question, yes. To be creative, ideas must be both novel and useful, that’s the definition that we use in creativity research. But novelty and usefulness often diverge. Novel ideas are often not very useful, and useful ideas are often not very novel.
So the challenge is creating ideas that are high in both novelty and usefulness. What I found is that this challenge can be traced all the way to the very start of the creative process. I use the term primal mark to capture the first bit of content that you start with as you develop a new idea.
I borrowed this term from painting theory. There’s an ancient painting theory that talks about the primal mark as the first brushstroke put on a canvas. And the primal mark is important because now something is there on the canvas in front of you, which enables and constrains where you go from there. So, that first brushstroke shapes the rest of the painting, even if the actual stroke, that primal mark, is invisible in the final painting.
So using a series of experiments, I found that this was true for developing creative ideas as well. The primal mark, which is the first bit of content you start out with, shapes the trajectory of the idea. So, the main question in this research was, is it better to start out with a novel idea and try to make it useful or start with a useful idea and try to make it more novel.
Matt Abrahams: Curious.
Justin Berg: And what I found is that you want to start with novelty and then inject familiarity to make the idea more useful. When we start off with something already familiar to us, we get anchored by that and have a difficult time figuring out how to make it more novel. So, we end up with a useful but unoriginal idea. But if we start with a novel idea, it’s relatively easy to then make it more useful by incorporating some familiar elements. Let me give you an example.
Matt Abrahams: Please.
Justin Berg: In the 1990s, some medical researchers were touring NASA and they came across some technology in the Hubble Space Telescope that the NASA engineers were telling them about. And this technology was designed to take a bunch of noisy data and use it to pinpoint specific stars.
And the medical researchers realized that this is similar to the challenge of pinpointing abnormal tissue in mammograms. They were actually able to build an innovative mammogram machine based on this technology which was a drastic improvement over existing mammogram machines.
And what they did, which was very clever, is embed the novel technology in a machine that works similarly to existing mammogram machines, so it felt familiar to doctors. And the result was a highly novel and useful invention.
Now imagine if they started with an existing mammogram machine and tried to make novel improvements. They could probably think of some incremental improvements, but it’s very unlikely they would’ve thought of something nearly as novel as incorporating technology from the Hubble Space Telescope. They’d be too anchored by the existing paradigm of mammogram machines. So, they really needed to start with that novel technology and then figure out how to make it more familiar.
So the takeaway here is, you want to focus on novelty in the early stages of the creative process, and worry about usefulness later.
Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. You’ve done research into brainstorming and how we can do a better job of evaluating our ideas. What did you learn, and what best practices can you share, to affect our brainstorming?
Justin Berg: So, one best practice is to not converge too quickly on one idea. Early in the creative process, when ideas are very rough and incomplete, it’s really difficult to know which ideas have the most potential. Often, the best ideas take time to show their value. So if possible, it’s best to develop at least two ideas until they’re relatively full-fledged, mature ideas. And then it should be easier to make a smart choice about which idea to move forward with. So then you can put your eggs all in one basket, but don’t do that too early.
Matt Abrahams: Excellent. And there’s a tendency due to time pressure or the need to move on to accomplish other tasks to have that convergence happen, so taking the time makes a lot of sense.
Justin Berg: Yeah, and just our own excitement too. It’s actually easier to get more excited about an idea that’s further along early in the creative process. But oftentimes the idea that comes to us as fully formed and really concrete and actionable, that’s often actually not the best path. The tougher idea that’s a little bit more abstract, that we maybe don’t even know how to clearly articulate to others, oftentimes if we invest in that idea and really focus on developing it and give it time to develop and work hard at it, then it will overtake that idea we thought was our best.
And so, we have to remember that our excitement about an idea is an important indicator of how we should spend our time, but it’s not the only thing to think about.
Matt Abrahams: The immediate idea that came to me as I heard you speaking was this notion of nurturing the idea, and that nurturing takes time sometimes. And so, that’s great.
Personally, I have always been fascinated by transitions in communication. The most likely place for us to lose our audience is when we take them from one idea to the next. And I was excited to learn that you also share an interest in these transitions. In your case, you look at the handoffs of creative ideas in organizations. What have you learned, and what can we do to make sure we don’t stifle creativity and innovation when we pass ideas along?
Justin Berg: Yes, so I have a study on handoffs in creative work that I did with [Alisa Yu], who recently graduated from our Ph.D. program, a brilliant graduate of our Ph.D. program. And we looked at handoffs in the context of Hollywood filmmaking. And we found that movies are more creative, on average, when the director was also a writer on the film, meaning the director created the original story and/or the screenplay. When someone else writes the screenplay and then hands it off to the director to implement, the movie is less creative on average. We call this a late handoff, where people are asked to implement mature ideas that were created by someone else.
In a complementary experiment, we found that late handoffs are bad for creativity because the recipient of the handoff doesn’t have a chance to develop a sense of ownership, or a clear, coherent vision for the idea. When people say movie directors enter the creative process earlier, when ideas are still rough and incomplete, they’re able to shape the nature of the idea before it becomes mature and difficult to change. And so this gives them an opportunity to develop a strong sense of ownership and vision for the idea, which sets them up for success as they actually build the idea into a finished product.
And so, the takeaway here I think is that you want to avoid late handoffs. And so, if you need to hand ideas off, which does happen sometimes, perhaps to take advantage of people’s specialized skills or expertise, you want the handoff to be relatively early in the creative process, when ideas are still rough and incomplete.
And that gives the recipient of the handoff a chance to actually shape the nature of the idea, form a sense of ownership over that idea, and a vision for it, which then when they go to build the actual product, build the actual maybe it’s a movie, maybe it’s a consumer product, maybe it’s a new service, maybe it’s just a new process for the organization, they’re able to implement it more effectively.
Matt Abrahams: The last question I’d like to ask is around this notion of job crafting. I love that term, and I’m hoping you can explain what is job crafting, and how can employees better tailor their jobs to their specific needs?
Justin Berg: Yeah, so job crafting involving redesigning your own job to better suit your values, your strengths, your passions. It’s optimizing the job you’re already in, as opposed to switching jobs to find a better fit.
So my colleagues, [Amy Wrzesniewski] at Yale and [Jane Dutton] at Michigan and I have been studying job crafting for over a decade together. And one thing we find is that people often have untapped opportunities to craft their jobs in beneficial ways. It’s easy to get stuck in the day-to-day grind of your job and overlook opportunities to redesign your job to better fit you, which can of course improve your happiness and performance on the job.
And we actually created a tool based on our research called the job crafting exercise, that helps people identify opportunities for crafting their jobs in helpful ways, and you can check it out at JobCrafting.com.
Matt Abrahams: That’s great. Any specific things that tool optimizes for, or people should think about before trying to use it?
Justin Berg: So, what it does is, it helps you think about your job in a unique way, as a flexible set of building blocks rather than a fixed list of duties. So when we want to get things down, what do we do? We make a to-do list, and to-do lists are incredibly helpful and effective at getting things done and helping us do that. They’re not great at helping us identify opportunities for change, for positive change.
And what we have found is this process of visualizing your job is a much more powerful and insightful way to think about opportunities for actually making change in your job. And so, that’s what the tool helps you do.
Matt Abrahams: Wow. And it strikes me that you’ve done a fairly good job yourself of job crafting, getting to go to the circus and movies to do your research. So, well-done exemplifying what it is you study.
Justin Berg: I try to practice what I preach. I don’t always do a perfect job at that, but I do my best.
Matt Abrahams: Excellent. So before we end, I’d like to ask you the same three questions I ask everyone who joins me. Are you up for that, Justin?
Justin Berg: I love that.
Matt Abrahams: All right, let’s do it. If you were to capture the best communication advice you ever received as a five to seven-word presentation slide title, what would it be?
Justin Berg: I would say, Better To Be Liked Than Right.
Matt Abrahams: Okay, tell me more about this. Why do you say it’s better to be liked?
Justin Berg: So, this advice came to me from my Ph.D. advisor, [Adam Grant], who’s a professor at Wharton. And this advice was given specifically in the context of academic job talks. In research, like so many other areas of business and life, there are no perfectly right answers. We’re all doing the best we can with imperfect data, imperfect methods, and trying to make the most of that, and make smart, thoughtful choices.
And so in that context, I think a really important thing is to make sure that you’re making your audience feel like you’re having a conversation with them. And when you’re having a conversation with someone, the goal is not to be right. It’s really to be liked, and to have an enjoyable conversation.
And so, I think that’s non-intuitive in a job interview context. Especially in academia, where we take science really seriously, the instinct is to try to say that your decisions and your approach was the correct one, the right one, when there’s actually no such thing.
And so, I think although this advice works especially well in an academic job talk context, I think it applies to so many different situations where there really aren’t completely right answers, we’re just doing the best we can. And in those situations, you really, you want to leave the audience liking what you had to say, liking you, liking your message, liking your communication style, whatever it might, rather than having being right your ultimate goal.
Matt Abrahams: I think there are so many words of wisdom in that advice. We often don’t remember exactly what somebody said, but we do remember the feeling we had based on how they said it. And if we like the person, that makes us more likely to want to have future interactions, to trust, to follow-up. So absolutely, focusing just on being right and getting the information across at the expense of not thinking about the relationship you build when you’re communicating is something we really have to avoid.
So let me ask you the next question, question two. Who is a communicator that you admire, and why?
Justin Berg: I’ll say two. My collaborators on the job crafting research who I just mentioned, Jane Dutton and Amy Wrzesniewski. What I admire about them as communicators is you can really feel their compassion and respect for other people when they speak. They’re both brilliant and highly creative researchers, but they combine this with a genuine deep concern for others, and I find that really inspiring.
Matt Abrahams: What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?
Justin Berg: Okay, so I’ll answer this in terms of three key ingredients to successfully communicate creative ideas. Okay, so first, before communicating novel ideas to others, infuse familiar elements to make the ideas more useful.
Second, don’t communicate novel ideas too early. The most creative ideas take time before others can see value in them.
And I would say third, the people who are the most receptive to novel ideas are probably busy generating their own novel ideas.
Matt Abrahams: So it sounds to me like familiarity, timing, and appreciating that the audience members most likely to be positive to your new messages, or your novel messages, are those who are very creative thinkers themselves, is that right?
Justin Berg: Exactly. It’s picking up on one of the big insights from the circus study, which is that people who are creators are the most open to novel ideas.
Matt Abrahams: Well, thank you Justin. Your ideas are both novel and useful, so congratulations on that, and for helping all of us. Thank you. We learned a lot about how to hone and improve our creative, innovative ideas.
Justin Berg: Thank you, Matt, this was a lot of fun.
Matt Abrahams: Thanks for joining us for another episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast, produced by Stanford University Graduate School of Business. For more information and episodes, visit gsb.stanford.edu, or subscribe to our show wherever you get your podcasts. Finally, find us on social media @StanfordGSB.
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