In today’s unforgiving business environment, it can sometimes be difficult to squeeze often-elusive creative thinking into workplace processes. Companies want results-driven methods that fit the metrics — and hopefully the forecasts. But Jennifer Mueller, a former Wharton professor now at the University of San Diego, challenges that notion in her new book, Creative Change: Why We Resist It . . . How We Can Embrace It. She says a shift in mindset can make room for new ideas to flourish. Mueller talked with [email protected] about why it’s important for companies to embrace failure along with success, and why “if you believe that pattern recognition is how you find innovation, you’re already lost.” She appeared on the [email protected] show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
[email protected]: Are leaders scared at times to bring creative ideas forward?
Jennifer Mueller: I would say yes and that it’s not their fault. We’re finding the reason why is because of how organizations are structured. Leaders are trained with what we have found to be a certain mindset, a certain way of believing good decision-making happens. What we’ve found is that merely putting them in that role of having the responsibility to allocate resources makes them want to make correct, accurate, good decisions. This sounds all reasonable.
They also want to know which creative ideas are the best and how to implement them. These are the big concerns that people tend to have in organizations when they care about making these great decisions. But how do you know? Creative ideas don’t have metrics. They haven’t been around for a while. You might not know anybody that’s been using them. What ends up happening is, you get a creative idea, it has weird metrics, you don’t really know much about it, and it doesn’t allow a decision-maker to make a correct decision. They don’t have the data.
[email protected]: Sometimes these biases that happen in the workplace tend to be unknown, correct?
Mueller: That’s right. People and managers have been trained how to manage change, and that’s great. But those very best practices for managing change don’t work or go awry when you have creativity in the mix. Creativity is just a different animal because the psychology around creativity and how you recognize it is different. The fundamental reason why is that there’s this unknowability that you have. Calculating risk is a wasted exercise. ROI? What does that even mean?
“Uncertainty is not ambiguity.”
Instead, a way to think about creativity might be better served by not thinking like a decision-maker but like an inventor figuring out and getting curious about the answer.
[email protected]: Is this an issue throughout society, not just the corporate world?
Mueller: Yes. I call it the how/best mindset. This is a mindset we use as consumers. This is a mindset we use in many aspects of our lives to make decisions quickly and efficiently. We want to know which is the best one, and we want to know how to implement it and use it. It’s also how we teach our students in our classes with multiple-choice tests and right answers. What makes this tricky is how this mindset can be really valuable and useful in many aspects of how to make decisions. If this leads us down the wrong path, it opens up opportunity for creativity in our organizations and our lives.
[email protected]: One of the places where you could see this as a significant issue is Washington, D.C., and the dysfunction that goes on in Capitol Hill.
Mueller: That’s right. When I think about this question of Obamacare, like most decision-makers, the Republican Party is in this how/best way of thinking. That means they want the solution that will work, the correct one that can justify to the American people that it will make a difference. The problem is that when you have that, you need metrics. What are the metrics? What would a good metric even look like?
The second problem is that the American people also have a how/best mindset of viewing whatever policy the government is going to put in place. They want it to work. They want immediate results, when the reality is that any policy has bugs. Parts of it look great, parts of it don’t. When Obamacare initially launched, the website crashed. Of course it did. That’s normal. That’s just business as usual for any innovator, any entrepreneur. Yet when you evaluate it from this how/best perspective, there’s no tolerance for that reality. It makes it harder for people to actually embrace solutions that are good for them because the solutions ultimately change and iterate and get better.
[email protected]: Is there potential that we’re going to see a shift in this in the future?
Mueller: I think part of what I’m hoping is the realization that this is a new kind of leadership skill. We have been training leaders like they can know answers. And if you know answers, you’re a good leader. There’s another way to think, which is that leaders don’t have to know the answer if they know the process of how to get the answer. If they’re curious. If they start asking questions. If they just kind of let the air in a little bit to say, “You know, we don’t need to always know.” Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you have to experiment. Failure is what they’re supposed to be doing. It’s actually the thing that you want to seek because then you could learn and make the kind of changes to improve.
[email protected]: Is this a generational issue? Is there a difference in the acceptance of creativity with millennials compared with the baby boomer generation?
Mueller: We expected the millennials to be much more embracing of creativity. We’re finding the opposite. We’re finding that millennials are just as good as any other generation at generating original ideas. We’re finding that they’re having a harder time or less motivation around elaborating on those ideas. There’s other research coming out showing that they have more fear around embracing creative ideas. To quote a student in one of my classes the last week, when we had an idea-generation exercise that was great, everybody did great. But when they were tasked to select a really creative idea, one of the students raised her hand and said, “Professor Mueller, maybe it’s too late for us. We just don’t feel comfortable with this. We can’t fail. We have so much pressure on us to do the correct thing. Maybe this kind of training should have happened earlier in our lifetime.”
“If you believe that pattern recognition is how you find innovation, you’re already lost.”
We think younger people should embrace creativity more. What I’m seeing is that we have inculcated this how/best way of thinking. You have to be correct. There’s one best solution. You want to be accurate. If you’re not, you’re a failure. This kind of mindset is leading us down not only to where our leaders are not being able to see value in the