The invention of compass (Polar stone), Annonymous, Gdańsk, 1590 (Courtesy: National Museum Warsaw)
Ideas for Leaders #626

Why Good Ideas Don't See the Light of Day

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Key Concept

For a novel idea to be accepted and implemented, decision-makers must buy into its future success. Unfortunately, the managers who decide the fate of new ideas are the worst predictors of market success.

Idea Summary

Creativity is generating creative ideas. Innovation is successfully implementing creative ideas.

Past researchers have connected creators to implementation by looking at such factors as network position: if creators have the right network, they have a greater chance of getting their ideas implemented.

In his recent research, Stanford’s Justin Berg highlights another important factor in the implementation process that had been previously ignored: roles.

For a creative idea to be implemented, decision-makers must accept that the idea, if implemented, will be successful. However, decision-makers — specifically the managers who receive the idea and can decide its fate — are worse at forecasting the success of an idea than creators. Through a field experiment involving potential circus acts, and the lab experiment involving potential consumer products. Berg demonstrates how the dynamics of these two roles impact the implementation of creative ideas.

In the field experiment, 339 professional circus act creators and managers, joined by a control group of 150 laypeople, were asked to watch 10 videos of circus acts (out of a pool of 100) and predict which would find success with audiences. An additional 61 videos were rated by the creators who had submitted them.

To test the accuracy of these forecasts, a total of 13,000 audience members were recruited to watch one of the 161 videos and predict their success. Because most of the videos were already available for public viewing, Berg could also measure the relative “past success” of the acts based on prior video views.

The results of the circus act experiment were as follows:

  • Creators were more accurate than managers when forecasting the future success of others’ novel ideas.
  • Creators were less accurate than managers when forecasting their own novel ideas.
  • The forecasting advantage of creators over managers was also undermined when creators previously had poor ideas that were successful in the marketplace anyway (measured by circus acts whose videos were poorly viewed).

In the lab experiment, 206 participants were recruited from a subject pool at a large university, and assigned one of five different roles. Some became creators, and were asked to generate 3 novel ideas in 10 minutes. Others became managers, and were asked to generate market success criteria in 10 minutes. The creator-manager and manager-creator roles were hybrids, with the participants performing both tasks in 10 minutes (the order of the tasks depending on the order of the roles in the hybrid). Finally, a layperson/control category did neither task.

In the second part of the experiment, all participants (including the control group) were asked to rank four patented consumer products that were unknown to most people (because they had not been widely distributed).  In a pre-test, approximately 400 consumers had already ranked the four products in terms of potential market success.

The results replicated the results of the field experiment. Creators were better at forecasting success than managers than all of the other categories except one: the hybrid manager-creators.

Business Application

Divergent thinking — being open to new possibilities rather than being guided by the past (aka convergent thinking) — is the key to forecasting success because it makes the person more receptive to the possibility of novel ideas. Thus, creators forecast better than convergent-thinking managers. It should be noted, in the circus field study, most managers had once been creators. However, past history doesn’t matter: once you fully engage in convergent thinking, the benefit of past openness disappears. This effect was replicated in the lab experiment when creator-managers did worse than manager-creators. Both conditions involved both types of thinking, but creator-managers ended with convergent thinking.

This study offers a cautionary lesson to business leaders who want to encourage innovation. Companies often address networking barriers — for example, putting structures in place that allow innovative ideas to travel from employees to decision-makers. However, Berg has identified another element that can undermine innovation: role barriers. Specifically creators are more likely to correctly value innovative ideas, but managers have more power. As a result, good novel ideas that deserve to be implemented fail.

This study might also explain why innovation is rarely sustained. Creators with past successes are less accurate in forecasting the success of new products. In addition, successful creators often become managers in their own… and start to lose their divergent thinking advantage. (The hybrids in the lab experiments were particularly telling on this subject: manager-creators were excellent forecasters, but creators-managers, who moved from divergent to convergent thinking, were less effective.)

Companies who want to become innovators in the marketplace must thus seek out their divergent thinkers — and give them the power to make or influence decisions on new ideas. Companies must also be vigilant about whether their once-effective creators are evolving into convergent thinkers, focused on the past instead of the future. 

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