Trying to be creative? Don't try to please!

Your Unlikeable Creative Idea
By Jeffrey Baumgartner

One reason why many people have trouble coming up with truly creative ideas is because they want their ideas to be liked and they want to be admired for good suggestions. This may seem a good motivator for being creative, but it's actually a motivator to come up with conventional ideas. If you want to have creative ideas, you need to drop this notion of your ideas being likeable and you need to be willing to accept criticisms of your ideas and, by extension, yourself. Worse, you have to accept that the more creative your ideas are, the more likely they are to be rejected. None of this is easy for most people.

As I have written in the past, we humans tend to want to maintain the status quo. We don't want to rock the boat. We don't want to change things. But, highly creative ideas threaten to cause big changes.They can result in the destruction of processes, products and actions that work just fine in order to replace them with unproven processes, products and actions that are different, unknown and a bit scary. People don't like that.

To make matters worse, creative ideas are initially hard to judge. They may be brilliantly creative or they may be stupid. Back when I was an employee in one or another company, I often had to ask managers whether a crazy notion I had was stupid or worth pursuing. I found asking that question difficult -- and I've been branded a rebel time and time again. I also have an overactive imagination that fires my creativity. In other words, I am more open than most to propose crazy ideas. So, I can imagine for someone less inclined than me to rock the boat, proposing a possibly stupid idea would be even harder.

As a result, the typical person's brain -- and particularly her dorsolateral prefrontal cortex -- tends to reject more outrageous ideas as she formulates them. Most people don't want to be laughed at in front of colleagues. No one wants to lose the respect of her managers. So, the typical person kills the most unconventional creative ideas before they get a chance to materialise in her mind's eye. Less radical ideas, however, are safer. This is why most people are good at coming up with conventional and moderately creative ideas, but find it hard to have super creative ideas.

What Can You Do?

What can you do about this? You need to teach your brain to behave differently when judging ideas.

Many creative thinking techniques instruct you to generate as many ideas as possible and to reject no ideas no matter how crazy -- or conventional or boring or predictable they may be. However, I've seen no evidence this actually works. Asking for lots of ideas does not address status quo bias. It does not stop us from thinking that some of our ideas are stupid and dismissing them. It does not address the fact that most people's minds are programmed to reject outrageous ideas and embrace conventional, safe ideas (highly creative people are different in this respect -- indeed, it's the key factor that makes them more creative than others).

A far better approach is to acknowledge in advance that your brain normally rejects crazy ideas; that you do not really want to present to your boss, client or business partner an idea that may appall them; that conventional ideas are easier to sell and less likely to be criticised. Acknowledge and accept these facts. Then, when you really need to be creative, don't try to be creative. Rather, purposely try to come up with stupid ideas. Intentionally generate ideas that will cause others to laugh at you. Aspire to dream up ideas that will appall your boss, customer or business partner.

As you generate ideas, immediately reject ideas that are conventional. Such ideas will be too seductive; like seeing a deliciously sweet and rich cake when you are on a diet. If that cake is in front of you, you won't be able to ignore it. So, you need to remove it. Likewise, immediately remove from your mind conventional ideas. Instead, focus on the outlandish, the crazy, the possibly-if-not-probably-stupid ideas. Develop those ideas further. Make them more appalling, more ridiculous, more absurd.

When you do this, then your brain will be truly free to be creative.


If you are working with teams, you should do two things. Firstly, you should brief your team about our tendency to stick to the status quo, how highly creative ideas can also seem highly stupid (at least at first) and how difficult it can be to sell unconventional ideas to conventional managers, customers and business partners. Then tell the team that for your current project you want to come up with stupid ideas that will achieve your goals. Tell them that crazy, insane and outlandish ideas will be rewarded and conventional ideas will be grounds for ridicule, condescension and possible disciplinary action!

Encourage team members to criticise each other's ideas that are conventional or, worse, boring. On the other hand, when an idea is a little bit crazy, encourage the team to make it even crazier!

Doing all of this will reprogramme their brains from the usual rejection of unconventional thinking in favour of safe, conventional ideas to embracing the unconventional.

The result, will almost certainly be a much higher level of creativity than you have attained in the past.

The Downside

The downside to being super creative is that it will still be hard to sell these wildly creative ideas to conventional managers, customers and business partners. So, only follow this approach if you really want to be creative. I

Incidentally, this purposeful rejection of conventional thinking in favour of unconventional thinking is a core component of anticonventional thinking.

© 2013



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Jeffrey Baumgartner
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Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium




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