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Lots of identical lightbulbs

The Best Idea Is Seldom Creative

Scenario A

Jane, a manager in a large organisation, needs innovative new product improvement ideas for the company's electronic widget. After thoroughly reviewing customer feedback, competitors' products and a number of other issues, Jane carefully crafts an excellent innovation challenge. She posts the challenge on her firm's innovation process management web application, inviting all of her colleagues to participate by collaboratively developing ideas on-line. To encourage participation, she also offers several rewards of holidays for two in Paris for the best ideas.

What's wrong with Scenario A? For the most part, it is very good. But, it is likely to produce ideas which are not very creative and which, at best, will result in incremental innovation. To understand why, consider scenario B.

Scenario B

I, Jeffrey Baumgartner, launch a Creative Vegetarian Cooking Competition. I offer several rewards of holidays for two in Paris for the best main course dishes submitted to the competition. I am the only judge.

If you know me or ask my children or friends, you will quickly learn that I am a pasta fiend and, in particular, I often make and thoroughly enjoy spaghetti with a spicy tomato and vegetable sauce flavoured with fresh basil or oregano.

With this information, you get busy in your kitchen, experimenting with various kinds of tomato and vegetable sauce combinations until you come up with something you feel is rather creative. You then submit your dish to the competition.

Most likely, you and most of the participants will have made me a spaghetti with tomato and vegetable sauce or something broadly similar such as linguine with tofu sauce. Submissions may be very good. Indeed, if you've cooked your dish, I am sure it will be absolutely excellent. But as foods go, it probably won't be particularly innovative or creative. But that's not surprising. After all, you followed the instructions to win: make the best dish according to my tastes. So, it is not at all your fault that your dish is not innovative. It is mine.

Now let's consider another similar scenario.

Scenario C

Scenario C is the same as Scenario B, except that instead of offering a reward for the best dish, I offer a reward for the most creative dish; or the most innovative dish.

In Scenario C, you might still want to research my tastes, but you will not be aiming to produce my favourite dinner, you will aim to surprise me with your creative culinary skills. After all that is the stated goal of the competition and you are very creative, as we both know! As a result, your submission for the contest will doubtless be something new, original and delicious!

Best Ideas Are Based on Existing Concepts

The same thing (as Scenario B) happens when employees are told that there will be rewards for the best ideas. They tend to submit ideas that they feel management will like and their judgement is based on their understanding of their managers.

In the case of scenario A, if Jane is known to be keen on the appearance of the company's widgets, most ideas will focus on the visual appearance of the product. Such changes may well improve upon the existing product, but they are highly unlikely to be breakthrough innovations. That's because colleagues are following Jane's rules, just as you followed mine in Scenario B.

However, if Jane wants to have truly innovative ideas submitted to her ideas campaign, she should offer rewards for the most creative ideas or even the most outlandish or crazy or wild ideas. And she must reward accordingly, even if she does not implement the most creative ideas. This, as you can doubtless see, encourages creativity. And it has been confirmed in the laboratory.

Confirmed by Research

In a set of experiments performed in the early 1960s, Researchers set up a series of ideation activities and divided the participants into three groups. In one group, participants were told the best ideas would be rewarded. In another group, participants were told that the most unique and valuable ideas would be rewarded. The control group was given no indication of rewards. The second group typically had fewer ideas than the other groups, but the ideas were rated higher in creativity. *

This is very significant indeed. If Jane were to change her rewards method in scenario A just slightly, she could expect to get better ideas with the added benefit of reducing her workload as there would be fewer ideas to evaluate.

Bear this in mind when launching ideation initiatives in your organisation: base rewards on creativity, imaginativeness, uniqueness and/or value-add; rather than rewarding for the “best ideas”. You'll get fewer, but better ideas!

* Reference:
V S Gerlach, Schutz, Baker, Mazer, (1964) "Effects of Variations in Test Directions on Originality Test Response", Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 55 No 2, pp 79-84.


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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium