Cartoon: Creativity needs criticism

Criticism Feeds Creativity

Creativity often seems a lovey-dovey sort of thing. In brainstorming, all ideas are welcome and criticism of ideas is a capital offence. Idea management systems often reward participation by quantity of ideas rather than quality. Criticism stifles creativity and probably causes cancer -- or so we are led to believe. But the truth is, we need to be critical if we want to be creative. After all, if we believe that an ill-thought out idea is already truly marvellous, why would we want to push it further?

Likewise, if an existing process is good enough, why bother to come up with a creative new idea to replace the process? "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," as we say in English.

If existing products are great and racking up lots of sales, why try to come up with a radical new product concept? Why not just implement incremental improvements from time to time to make a good product a bit better?

If in a staff meeting, your manager proposes a new idea and everyone tells her it's great, why should she or any of her direct reports bother to push the idea further or replace it with a more radical idea?

Compliments Encourage Complacency

In short, if we do not criticise ideas, processes and products, we do not encourage creative thinking. Instead, we encourage complacent thinking which, although less intimidating than creative thinking, is boring.

In truth, creativity feeds off of criticism. If an idea is not good enough, then you need to make it better. If an idea is boring, you need to make it more exciting.

If an existing process is out-dated and not good enough for a great company like yours (even if it works well enough in practice), you need to identify weaknesses and areas for improvement so that you can come up with a better idea for the process. That requires criticism.

If a product is selling well, but it is far from cutting edge, then it is time to acknowledge that although the product is good enough for today, it might be obsolete tomorrow -- especially if Google or Apple or Elon Musk comes up with a radical new way of delivering the kind of value your product provides. To avoid becoming the victim of someone else's innovation, you need to be critical of your product today so that you can devise a more innovative replacement for tomorrow.

If the boss suggests an idea in a staff meeting and you tell her that it is an okay idea, but has a few flaws that can be improved upon, you push her and the team to think more creatively about her idea. Of course, I am assuming that your boss welcomes, or at least tolerates, well meaning criticism of her ideas, which brings us to a key point when it comes to criticising ideas.

Criticism Must Be Respectful

Criticism of ideas must be respectful. Anticonventional Thinking (ACT) which, unlike nearly every other creative thinking methodology, actively encourages criticism of ideas has three rules:

  1. Always criticise boring ideas.
  2. Criticise the idea, not the person. It's okay to say, "Your idea is boring." It is not okay to say, "You are boring."
  3. After criticising an idea, you must be quiet and allow the idea owner or anyone else in the group to defend the idea.

In my own experience, the best way to criticise an idea is to start with a compliment; everyone loves being complimented. Then be critical in as constructive a way as possible. Lastly, provide encouragement. For instance, "I like your product improvement ideas a lot. Your suggested features will make our product more versatile. But, I don't think you are pushing your thinking far enough. Our competitors have introduced a number of these features already and we want to leap ahead of them, don't we? Think about it. You are creative. I know you can come up with even more creative ideas if you try!"

Criticism Need Not Be Detrimental to Creativity

Many people will tell you that criticism is detrimental to creativity. They are wrong. They are lying to you. In fact, criticism is food to creativity.

By the way, that idea you've been working on lately? Let me be honest with you. It's okay, but not very creative. You and I both know you can do a lot better than that!

Offer: Critical Help

If you want a little help in learning how to use criticism to improve creative thinking and innovative action in your company, please get in touch. I can teach you and your team how to criticise ideas in order to boost creativity and innovation significantly. Contact me here...


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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium




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My other web projects 100s of articles, videos and cartoons on creativity - possibly useful things I have learned over the years. reflections on international living and travel. - paintings, drawings, photographs and cartoons by Jeffrey