Cartoon: man arrested for criticising ideas during a brainstorm

The Wrong Way and the Right Way to Motivate Creativity

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

Most corporate innovation programmes encourage mediocre levels of creativity and innovation. There are three reasons for this problem: many creativity tools and activities reward quantity of ideas over quality of ideas; the wide-spread belief that criticising ideas is detrimental to creativity; and risk-averse committees. Let's look at each of these problems quickly and then I will share with you a simple method to boost rather than reduce creativity.

Rewarding Quantity

Suggestion schemes, idea management software and other ideation tools typically reward participants for every idea submitted irrespective of its level of creativity. Moreover, many idea management systems allow users give users points, for ideas, which they can exchange for material rewards, such as gifts, or recognition. As a result, the creative thinker is motivated to submit a lot of shallow, undeveloped ideas rather than invest creative thought into developing a nascent idea into something truly creative.

For example, let us imagine you want creative ideas about how to differentiate your business and you need those ideas in two hours. You invite me to help you generate ideas and offer me a dollar for each idea. There are two approaches I could take

In approach one, I generate as many ideas as possible. I'm sure I  could easily come up with over 100 ideas in a couple of hours. And you could too. However, those ideas would be simple, shallow and ill-thought out. Many of them would be useless. Perhaps there would be a good idea hidden among the mostly mediocre ones, but it would need be a nascent idea that would still need to be developed considerably in order to be viable. Nevertheless, I earn $50 an hour for providing you with a list of mostly useless ideas.

In approach two, I spend an hour asking you about your business and background; a half hour doing some research; and 30 minutes writing up a well developed and creative idea that you might actually use to differentiate your business so that it really stands out.

But, from a selfish perspective, why should I do that, when I'd only get a dollar for my two hours of work on your behalf? That's just 50 cents an hour! Approach one pays far better, even if the results are far less useful.

This is what most ideation software does: rewards mediocre abundance over creative quality. If you have an idea management system full of mediocre ideas, this is why.

Prohibiting Criticism

Ever since Alex Osborn published his brainstorming approach, corporate creativity enthusiasts have incorrectly believed that criticism is bad for creativity. Research has proven him wrong. My experience has proven him wrong. Millions of artists, musicians, writers, scientists and other professionally creative people regularly criticise each other in order to build creative projects. It is only in the corporate environment, which is notorious for its lack of creativity, that we prohibit criticism and believe we are more creative for it.

There are three problems with this ban on criticising ideas. Firstly, bear in mind that the issue with most ideas suggested in brainstorms and idea management systems is not that the ideas are too outlandish. It is that they are too boring! However, if all ideas are welcome without criticism, you are telling participants that boring ideas are fine and dandy. There is no need to stretch yourself. There is no need to exercise your creativity muscles. Mediocre is good enough. As a result, you are not motivating them to be more creative; you are motivating them to continue being mediocre in their thinking.

Secondly, in order to build upon an idea, you need to criticise it. You must be able to identify weaknesses in ideas and devise ways to overcome those weaknesses. If an idea would be too costly to implement, you need to identify that weakness and find ways to overcome it. If you cannot criticise, you cannot improve the idea and it will later be rejected by some approval committee for being too costly. 

Thirdly, when you criticise ideas, you give people information about the kind of ideas you need for a given situation. That better enables them to build relevant ideas. For example, let us imagine you and I want to cook a dinner for a few friends including some vegetarians, one of whom is me! We decide to brainstorm meal ideas. You suggest ideas like grilled chicken, roast beef and lamb curry. If I accept your every idea with a compliment, you would likely continue with your meaty suggestions. But none of your ideas would be viable and all would have to be rejected later.

 Alternatively, I could be critical of your first meat idea, remind you that some of the invitees are vegetarians and so could not eat any of the meat dish suggestions. Once you have this important information, you can start suggesting more relevant dinner ideas. By criticising your meaty suggestion, I enable you to focus your creativity on devising more relevant suggestions.

Risk-Averse Committees

I do not believe I need to explain why risk-averse committees are bad for creativity. If the typical idea review committee does not completely reject creative projects, it at least strips all of the creativity out of the projects so that what once seemed like a bold and brilliant idea suddenly seems mediocre. If Elon Musk had presented his electric car concept to a typical car manufacturer's approval committee, members would doubtless have demanded that he replace the electric motors with traditional internal combustion engines and make the dashboard more car-like, because launching an electric car with a funny dashboard is too big of a risk and customers might not like them.

To make matters worse, committees tend to be made of large groups of people any one of whom can strip out a creative element of a project as easily as she can sneeze.

The Solution: Push Creativity to the Extreme

If your company's creative initiative produces mediocre ideas that are made even less creative by approval committees, you need to change your attitude towards creativity. You need to promote extreme creativity at every step of the creative process. Do not obsess about quantity, criticism and committees. Obsess about creativity, creativity and creativity. Be obsessively, extremely creative.

Let's see how that would work. 

Reward Creativity Rather than Numbers

The first and most important thing you need to do is to start rewarding creativity rather than numbers. Would a marketing director reward a direct report for a presentation with lots of slides rather than for the quality of the presentation? No! Would a human resources director reward a human resources assistant for selecting lots of unqualified people to interview for a senior position rather than selecting a few suitably qualified people to interview? Of course not! Likewise, do not reward people solely for the number of ideas they produce. Instead, reward for the level of creativity demonstrated not only in ideas, but also in solutions to problems and in day-to-day work. When you reward creativity, you encourage creativity. It's a simple as that.

Criticise Ideas

Go ahead and criticise ideas, but do it respectfully and with the aim of increasing an idea's creativity. The way to do this is to recognise an idea's strengths first, then identify weaknesses and work out how you can fix those weaknesses. In the example of our planning a dinner, I would not say, "don't be stupid! We need vegetarian dishes, not meat dishes."

I would say something like, "That's a great idea, but some of our guests are vegetarians. So, let's focus on vegetarian options."

No Idea Is Sufficiently Creative

When you focus on extreme creativity, then every idea has a problem. It is not creative enough. So, tell people, "that's a good idea, but it's not creative enough. How can we make it even crazier?"

"That's a clever idea, but you can do better. How can you make it even more extreme?"

"You're a creative woman! How can you push that idea even further?"

Give Committees Super Creative Ideas

Think of submitting your idea to a committee as an economic transaction. To explain, imagine you want to sell your house for at least $350,000, which is its market value. You would probably advertise the house for more than that, perhaps $380,000, because you know that potential buyers will offer you less than your list price. That way, after bargaining, you would get at least $350,000 for your house. On the other hand, if you advertise your house for $350,000, you would have a hard time selling it for that much, because most people expect to negotiate pricing when buying houses.

Likewise, when you submit a creative idea to a committee, you should make it even crazier than you want it to be, much crazier, because you know that the committee will strip the craziest aspects of the idea. With luck, the approved idea will retain the important creative bits.

Be Extremely Creative It's as Simple as That

In other words, the trick to being more creative is not to encourage lots of ideas. It is not absence of criticism. It is not avoiding committees. It is very simple: push yourself and others to be extremely creative and to push their creativity to the limit and beyond. Make creative ideas more creative, make creative proposals more creative, make creative projects more creative. Once you and your colleagues are in the habit of being super-creative, and knowing you will be rewarded for it, creativity will start coming more easily.

Note: a version of this article was originally published with the title: Boost Rather than Reduce Creativity


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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium




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