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Report 103

Your newsletter on applied creativity, imagination, ideas and innovation in business.

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Wednesday 16 January 2013
Issue 220

Hello and welcome to another issue of Report 103, your twice-monthly (or thereabouts) newsletter on creativity, imagination, ideas and innovation in business.

As always, if you have news about creativity, imagination, ideas, or innovation please feel free to forward it to me for potential inclusion in Report103. Your comments and feedback are also always welcome.

Information on unsubscribing, archives, reprinting articles, etc can be found at the end of this newsletter.


Note

Most articles in this issue of Report 103 can also be found in the archives together with dozens more articles, papers and thoughts.


 

In this issue of Report 103

  1. Evaluating Ideas on the Fly
  2. How Status Quo Bias Can Kill Innovation
  3. Monetary Awards, Satisfaction, Productivity and Innovation

Also some self promotional stuff about anticonventional thinking....


 

Evaluating Ideas on the Fly

Brainstorming and its more sophisticated sibling, creative problem solving (CPS), both argue that when you are trying to generate creative ideas, you should withhold judgement, not criticise ideas and simply try to list as many ideas as you possibly can. Only after you have done this can you even consider evaluating or judging ideas. This has become the norm in idea generation in spite of the fact that its effectiveness has never been substantiated emperically (at least not to my knowledge - feel free to correct me). Indeed, recent research has shown that the opposite is true; when you allow people to criticise ideas during the idea generation phase, you get a higher level of creativity1.

I go one step further. I am convinced that when you generate ideas on your own, it is better and more creative to evaluate ideas as you think them up rather than to reserve judgement and simply generate lots of ideas.

How to Evaluate Ideas on the Fly

First, let me explain my approach to evaluating ideas on the fly. Firstly, before you start generating ideas to solve your problem or acheive your goal, determine what criteria you will use to judge ideas. This will require some initial evaluation of what you are trying to achieve and why. It may result in your changing the formulation of your problem or goal (I prefer goals, so let's reformulate your problem into a goal, okay?). If your aim is to come up with a creative solution, one that may result in an innovation when implemented, be sure that one of your criteria is "highly creative".

Once you are clear on your criteria, try too come up with an unconventional, crazy idea to achieve your goal. As soon as it comes to mind, grab it and review it against your criteria. Is the idea likely to succeed? If not, why not? Can you improve on the idea? How? Once you've made the improvement, will the idea meet your criteria? Are there other ways you can improve upon the idea? If you cannot modify an idea to meet your criteria, reject it. Now, think about why you rejected the idea. Try to come up with an idea that overcomes the weakness of the first idea. Ask yourself the same questions. If an idea looks like it will meet your criteria, make a note of it. Now, ask yourself if there are ways to modify the idea so that it even better meets your criteria. Can you make it crazier (ie. more creative). Can you make it less expensive, more durable, bigger, smaller, funnier? Continue until you come up with an idea that meets all of your criteria.

If you are in a hurry, and you have an idea that meets your critiera, you can stop idea generation now. But, it is much better if you are not in a hurry. If you have the time, put your great idea aside and continue trying to come up with new ideas. Follow the same procedure, but also compare each new idea to the existing great idea. Does the new idea better meet criteria? Is there an advantage it has compared to the great idea? If not, reject the new idea -- or make a note of it as a fall-back option if the great idea does not work out. It is better still if you can spread the idea generation over two days. Sleep allows your brain to sort out information and often leads to new insights in the morning.

Once you have settled on the perfect, creative, incredible idea, make a list of the steps you need to take in order to implement the idea. Assuming the idea is creative and different to your usual ideas, you may face additional challenges in implementing the idea. Think about how you will deal with those challenges and devise the necessary steps to take. Then take the first step. If this is not possible, you have not broken down your idea into sufficiently actionable steps.

Be Anticonventional

While you are generating and evaluating ideas, you need to train your brain not to reject ideas that are unconventional, crazy, too different or even embarrassing. You need to train your brain to reject ideas that are boring and conventional This is not easy. Our brains -- and in particular your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible, among other things, for the regulation of thinking and action2 -- are programmed to favour conventional behaviour and deas. For the most part, this is a good thing. We need to function within society and within our social groups. Being too unconventional, unless you are an eccentric artist or scientist, could affect your standing within your group. At worst, it could lead to your being ostracised from your group.

However, when you want to be creative, you need to change the way your brain filters ideas. You can try to do this by making it a policy, when you are trying to generate creative ideas, of purposefully rejecting boring, conventional ideas as soon as they come to mind; and of embracing crazy, outlandish ideas when they come to mind.

Too Crazy?

If the idea meets criteria, but you are uncomfortable with it, ask yourself why. Is it because the idea seems too crazy? Are you afraid you might be laughed at by your colleagues or family or friends if you present the idea to them. If so, you might have a highly creative idea there. Often the most creative ideas seem outlandish and sometimes even stupid at first. If so, give the idea a day or two to perculate in your head. If possible, discuss the idea with someone you trust, ideally someone removed from the situation where you will apply the idea. Explain not only the idea, but why you are uncomfortable with it. If you get support, it will make it much easier for you to go forward with the idea. If you get criticism, try to counter it. If you can, this will strengthen the idea and your resolve to implement it. If, however, the criticism is valid, accept it and go back to the idea generation phase. Ask yourself how you can overcome the criticism and build a new idea.

Why Evaluation on The Fly Works

The problem with CPS is that by not allowing criticism, you do not give yourself the opportunity to really think about ideas and address their weaknesses. As a result, you can easily end up with 100 ideas that fail to meet your needs. On the other hand, when you evaluate ideas on the fly, you critically review each idea; indentify strengths and weaknesses; and use that information to build better, more creative ideas.

Another flaw of CPS is that it does not address the basic behaviour of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex which is wired to reject automatically ideas which your mind perceives as being unconventional or inappropriate. Having more ideas will not change the way dorsolateral prefrontal cortex works. Recognising what your brain is trying to do and working with it, on the other hand, addresses the way your brain works and exploits it, rather than ignores it.

Lastly, CPS tends to leave you with a long list of undeveloped ideas from which to choose the best idea. Ideally, you will apply a structured evaluation process to each idea. In reality, this seldom happens. After the fun of a brainstorm, no one wants to sift through 50 or 100 ideas and evalaute each carefully. Hence, the weak ideas are sifted out early on, usual through some kind of voting mechanism. The problem with this is that the weak ideas can sometimes be turned into powerful ideas with a bit of modification. By separating idea generation and idea evaluation, CPS simply does not provide the opportunity to strengthen weak ideas.

Evaluation of ideas on the fly enables you not only to build more powerful and creative ideas, but because it focuses on building one idea at a time, it also enables you to take action on a viable idea immediately. This means it is not only a more creative approach than CPS, but a more efficient one!

Evaluation of ideas on the fly is a part of the anticonventional thinking (ACT) process. You can learn more about ACT here.

References

  1. Matthew Feinberg, Charlan Nemeth (2008) “The ‘Rules’ of Brainstorming: An Impediment to Creativity?”, Institute for Research on Labor and Employment Working
    Paper Series (University of California, Berkeley) Paper iirwps-167-08; http://escholarship.org/uc/item/69j9g0cg
  2. Simon Moss (2008) "Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex"; Psychlopedia http://www.psych-it.com.au/Psychlopedia/article.asp?id=191

 

Frustrated with Brainstorms?

Are you frustrated with brainstorms that may be jolly good fun, but seldom result in truly creative ideas and even less often result in the implementation of truly new ideas? If so, you are not alone. More and more managers are coming to realise that brainstorming does not deliver useful results.

Fortunately, there is an alternative: anticonventional thinking (ACT). ACT is modelled after the way artists, writers and scientists collaborate on creative projects. It incorporates the latest research into social psychology and creative thinking. Moreover, it's fun and easy to do.

Learn more at http://www.creativejeffrey.com/act/ - or contact me.

 

How Status Quo Bias Can Kill Innovation

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

Status quo bias is an irrational desire that all normal humans have. It is a desire to keep things pretty much as they are; to avoid changing things. It is irrational in the sense that the bias exists even when there is no evidence that keeping things the same is a better outcome than change. Nevertheless, substantial psychological research has empirically demonstrated that status quo bias is commonplace among us humans.

This is not a good thing for innovation which inevitably involves change. Moreover, it may explain why so many organisations find it easy to generate lots of ideas, but difficult to put the more creative ideas into practice (in other words, to innovate): the average human manager when faced with approving an idea that will result in significant change in operations is all too likely to find reasons not to approve the idea. The manager faced with a choice of several ideas ranging from incremental improvement to significant change is more likely to choose incremental improvement. It's not her fault. It's at least partly the result of status quo bias

Status quo bias may also explain why some companies innovate constantly, while others struggle to maintain a process of continual improvement. In companies where innovation is the norm, it becomes the status quo -- and not innovating is something to be avoided!

I believe status quo bias is one reason why brainstorms and crowdsourcing initiatives seldom result in notable innovation. With dozens, hundreds or even thousands of ideas to choose from, managers can select ideas that do not require substantial change. When voting is available in these ideation tools, incremental improvement ideas tend to receive the most votes -- allowing managers to reinforce the legitimacy of their decisions as popular. However, the votes and decisions in such a scenario are more likely to be the result of status quo bias than of any analysis of creativity or innovation potential!

This is not to say that status quo bias affects every managers' decisions nor every brainstorm. Nevertheless, it is doubtless a negative factor in any innovation programme. And if you are overseeing an innovation programme, you should be aware of the effect this cognitive bias and the negative effect it may be having.

What Can You Do About It?

The first thing you can do is be aware that status quo bias exists and is a part of human nature. It may be irrational, but it exists in all sane people: even you and me. And you must use this knowledge in your innovation process.

If you are trying to encourage true innovation in your company or business unit, consider establishing a permanent evaluation criteria of "Does this idea veer significantly from the status quo?" and only implement ideas where the answer is "yes". If you use some kind of stage gate or automated process for reviewing ideas. Be sure that they system gives points to ideas that veer from the status quo, rather than the other way around.

On the other hand, if you are trying to sell a potential breakthrough innovation that will result in change, bear in mind that status quo bias is one of the challenges you will face. It is something you should address when selling the idea. For instance, you might demonstrate that although it may seem that the idea will cause great internal disruption, in fact the change will not be that great and most people will continue working as usual. Such reassurance may help people, who need convincing, to overcome their status quo bias.

Most importantly, put yourself in your colleagues' shoes. Think about how you would feel if a colleague was trying to convince you of the value of an idea that would potentially disrupt the way you work and force you to make changes in your daily routine not so much because you chose to make those changes, but because the implementation of a new idea would force that change. Most of us would not like that, no matter how compelling the idea might seem.

Where possible, draw up implementation plans that limit operational disruption -- at least initially.

You also need to be aware of status quo bias in yourself. If you are responsible for approving ideas, be sure you are not rejecting ideas that would result in change, simply because you don't want the change. One way to do this is to apply strict criteria to idea selection. Also, if you feel compelled to reject an idea that would result in operational change, analyse your decision carefully. Any idea that involves operational change is surely creative. Whether it is a potential innovation is a trickier question.

Summary

Status quo bias is a proven cognitive bias that exists in all normal people. Innovation, especially breakthrough innovation, requires veering from the status quo. As a result, the average managers is all too likely not to approve a highly innovative idea, not because of any intrinsic flaw in the idea, but because the idea would require change. You need to work around this bias if you truly want your company to innovate.

You can read more about status quo bias in Wikipedia

 

Monetary Awards, Satisfaction, Productivity and Innovation

By Fernando Cardoso de Sousa
President of the Portuguese Association for Creativity and Innovation - APGICO

If you ask managers, or even HR directors, if they think there must be a structure of productivity based monetary awards, indexed to goals based on results, almost certainly they will be 100% in agreement. Their logic comes from a perspective of meritocracy, where those who make the best or produce more should be rewarded accordingly; and that more satisfied employees produce more and deliver better results.

So far so good. These principles may seem faultless. Sadly, they are not, at least on the matter of satisfaction. Organizational theory says that there is no strong relationship between satisfaction and performance. This is because salary satisfaction is not the sole consideration in job satisfaction which includes other factors, such as relationships with colleagues and supervisors, working conditions and even the job itself. Incidentally, it has been proved again and again that, even if individuals are satisfied in general, they do not necessarily work harder or better. Performance is dependent on many other factors, including pressure to meet external task requirements such as, for example, customer service, complying with clients’ orders, manufacturing mechanics, or even external factors such as family relationships. One may work with an angry face, but work hard. Presumably the exception to this is satisfaction with colleagues, which has implications regarding company commitment, i.e., with the "company shirt wearing", whose relation with performance can be quite solid. Indeed, we all know the influence that work teams can have in high performance, or how a noxious team climate can be a serious obstacle to productivity. And it is precisely here that the bonus system fails most. If we reward the individual and not the team, we destroy the core that would best meet the productivity objectives of the company.

Returning to the issue of monetary awards, we typically see that the amount of the award is generally indexed to salary and generally decreases with the hierarchical pyramid, which seems perfectly understandable. Ii represents the logic of the wage scale. This information is usually sensitive, since it is considered almost an interference with one’s privacy to reveal how much someone earns, or even the result of its performance evaluation (in some of today’s Asian dictatorships, for example, revealing one’s salary results in punishment). In this respect, the public system, in which each one earns the same as another in the same category, regardless of differences in productivity and skills, is presented as the antithesis of what should happen.

The public sector in Portugal still tries to follow the logic of the private sector. But public debt has been the result of these vagaries, and the system has only kept the privacy in performance evaluation. Moreover, Portuguese public-private companies have to follow this logic. They are now being prevented from giving cash bonuses, and having to make public the whole table of salary and benefits, without exception. Even so, they still manage to retain much of the logic of individualism and "meritocracy", in non-cash awards and performance evaluation, which turns out to be a real shot in the foot of the company.

In private companies, the awards have also been subjected to some erosion, especially in the lower levels, keeping the logic of bonuses at management level, for meeting or exceeding the goals. This is of some concern, since, in principle, the manager is not there to "work" but make the others work. These others, if they work more and better, are increasing only the earnings of managers, which seems somewhat perverse.

One argument for this approach is that if the company does not reward managers, they will leave for the competition. However, this argument is incomplete. Prize money is not the only way to retain competent personnel. Of course, we know that a reduced base salary becomes cheaper and is less appealing for dismissal and unemployment benefits. But, this argument is not solid. There are many other ways to structure pay supplements and fringe benefits, without having to use such a "premium" as the lion's share of retribution.

Moreover, the drawbacks of monetary awards are numerous. For one, the extent to be achieved in most of the performance objectives is far from clear. Only a small part is reflected in financial gains for the company. Even so, many of the steps for its calculation are dependent upon statistical smart engineering. Because people know this, they know that they can receive an award, that does not reflect the added value for the company, by smart use of the indicators needed. There is nothing worse for dedication to the company than the perception that distributive justice is far from clear and fair. Earning low wages is bad but earning less than others of the same category, who are only stronger in street smarts, can be devastating to dedication.

This negative aspect is also reflected when prizes are removed. Indeed, each one adjusts the life standard to the wage earned (20% more, they say, thanks to credit), regardless of that amount coming from base salary or supplements. If compensation drastically is reduced for any reason, it can shake up a whole scheme of life. When this happens, it brings dramatic losses to productivity, without having anything to do with decreased satisfaction.

To imagine such a system, where monetary awards would cease to exist, is to imagine a catastrophe. Yet, if things are fair, after a while people would praise what once was criticized. Indeed, before the proliferation of this meritocratic ideology, none of this existed. Nevertheless, we have no doubt that the trend will continue. Just look at what happens in school. Exams proliferate more and more, not to improve the quality of learning but as a disciplinary tool that replaces the paddle and poor leadership. Consider teacher's evaluations which follow a complex scheme of grading. Because promotions are frozen -- these lead to no rewards. Only punishment. In fact, the prizes (and performance evaluations), designed to ensure a fair internal system has become perverted and is now, above all, a disguised disciplinary tool.

Are we here to defend a system that treats everyone equally, regardless of the outcome? Not a chance! People can and should be treated differently, according to their capabilities and performance. Monetary awards can and should continue to exist, especially if they are designed as opportunities for development and strengthening the team spirit. Basically, any initiative that increases the bond between the employee and the company is worthwhile, provided it is fair and transparent. As it is very difficult to please everyone, the solution is to make awards even more transparent. Allow everyone to have access to information about how much each person earns as well as the evaluation obtained in the performance assessment. This way, everyone may criticize the system and participate in the performance evaluation of all. That's right! Each employee should be able to give one’s opinion about any colleague or manager. Even the scores of everyone could bet indexed to the number of reviews received, rather than to its numerical value. This would determine if the scope of the employee's action was limited to its core section or resonated throughout the company, customers and suppliers. None of this is new. There are many examples throughout the world, as reported in the book Employees First, Second Costumers by Vinet Nayar. Instead, we think that it is too complicated to deal with transparency and with the conflict inherent in everything that has to do with compensation and performance evaluation. We prefer to ignore the problem and to allow the information by rumor to take account of events. We do not believe in Bob Galvin, founder of Motorola, who says"- Tell them the truth! They will know it, anyway."

This near-obsession of wanting to reward the good and punish the bad through monetary awards raises questions about the quality of management. Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear reference managers saying that they have no bad employees, even if they have hundreds (maybe the bad guys are no longer there). Of course, such a view seems to ignore the principle of "talent"; the necessity that the company must maintain and develop its "Einsteins", because the company’s success is dependent upon them. Again, we are faced with the dangerous ideology of modern HR management, which tells us that winning the game is the work of top stars, and the mission of the remaining gang is only to add numbers. As if the stars, alone, could by themselves do what they do. Just try it with a football team of "Ronaldos" and see how many games it will win before self-destructing.

After all, how did we build this whole award system that forgets the most basic rules of common sense? The answer is simple: there was money, lots of money, which had to be passed along to people other than senior management and the board of directors. Of course, in this perspective, secrecy about salaries, performance assessments, and other impediments to trust and transparency, did make the rule. This happened together with an ever-increasing sophistication of computer tools for performance assessment, idea management, and compensation systems.

I cannot understand how competent and well intentioned managers and HR technicians continue to insist on such a fragile system, which devastates cohesion and business productivity. How come that knowledgeable and intelligent managers are not able to overcome the ideological cover that has been formed around the concept of meritocracy?
Now that there is less money, it might be a good opportunity to override the real obstacles to productivity and innovation, which are the prizes awarded in a climate of injustice and lack of transparency, favoring the kind of individualistic competition that breaks up companies. After that we can then talk about creativity, productivity, commitment, and the like. Until then, let us be content with the make-believe of internal marketing activities.

 

ARCHIVES

You can find this and every issue of Report 103 ever written at our archives.


Happy thinking!

Jeffrey Baumgartner


 

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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium