The challenge: Are companies emphasizing the wrong product qualities when they innovate? Are they missing opportunities to launch hits as a result? Professor Mueller, defend your research.
Mueller: It makes sense that companies would be attracted to feasible ideas, but we found strong evidence that they are not what customers want. The number one predictor of whether customers wanted a product was how creative it was. And we also found evidence that customers wanted feasible ideas less because they were less creative. In other words, creativity isn’t being seen by customers as the icing on the cake; it is the cake.
HBR: So organizations aren’t rejecting creative ideas, they’re accepting feasible ones. That seems easy to fix.
The problem goes deeper than that. Our research also suggests that a focus on feasibility can make it harder to even recognize when ideas are creative. In one study we primed people with a “how” mind-set, asking them to describe how to do things, or a “why” mind-set, asking them to describe why they did things. People with the “how” mind-set, which is highly related to feasibility concerns, rated innovative ideas as less creative than those with a “why” mind-set did.
If firms have to consider feasibility, how can they overcome this disconnect?
We believe that the major reason novelty and feasibility are thought to be at odds is that new ideas involve more unknowns. CEOs want to see metrics, such as ROI, to determine the viability of ideas, but for the newest ideas, such metrics are hard to produce, if not impossible. If decision makers are more tolerant of uncertainty—if they focus on the “why” or consider that there are many possible solutions—it may mitigate their tendency to reject creative ideas.
Are you saying that firms should just forget about whether ideas are feasible?
No. But they should recognize that feasibility concerns make creative ideas harder to stomach. Steve Jobs was notorious for his “reality distortion field.” He’d say, “Let’s do this new thing.” His staff would say, “How is that possible?” He’d say, “Just do it.” Maybe this aided creativity because it made feasibility concerns less powerful.
Wait—don’t people think that creative ideas are also feasible?
Though scholars think that creative products are useful and feasible by definition, our new research shows that only a minority of people agree. A minority disagree, and the rest are unsure. But it could be that organizational decision makers see feasibility as a sign of creativity, which leads them to green-light feasible ideas.
So people have different opinions about what’s creative? That’s hardly surprising.
It’s more profound than that. For a long time, theories of creativity suggested that judgment of creativity was based on expertise. But we’re finding that two people with the same expertise will look at an idea and rate its creativity very differently based on their mind-set (“how” versus “why”) or feelings of uncertainty, which may be related to where they sit in the organization. The current theory doesn’t deal with this.
So there is no accepted definition of what a creative idea is?
The scholars agree, but our new work shows that laypeople might not. We’ve found around 30 cues that people use to identify creativity. Some people rely on a narrow set of cues, some on a much broader range. For 20% of our sample, any one of the cues could indicate creativity. Though we don’t have data to support this idea yet, it could mean that 20% of people view something that is highly useful but not novel as creative.