Escaping old ideas and the bias that erodes your creative culture

I recently discovered the following quote from John Maynard Keynes, an influential English economist, about the challenge of thinking creatively.

As you can see it got a bunch of attention and seemed to really resonate with people, as it did with me, so I thought I would spend a little longer considering what he is saying.

The creative process continues to be a passion and fascination of mine. What that process continues to rely upon is a creative culture within an organisation. When strong it is supportive of new ideas, when weak it erodes them.

John Maynard Keynes points us to the challenge of “escaping” old ideas, a direct reference in my opinion to two things. (1) The creative culture those new ideas are born into, (2) the mindset of those attached to existing ideas.

A 2010 study by the University of Pennsylvania points to an underlying negative bias towards creativity when we feel uncertainty. New ideas may often be generated in times of change and when things are in flux, and the sense of uncertainty may actually be getting in the way of being open to new ideas. As Maynard Keynes states escaping old ideas is harder and the bias research sheds some light on this.

Our results show that regardless of how open minded people are, when they feel motivated to reduce uncertainty either because they have an immediate goal of reducing uncertainty, or feel uncertain generally, this may bring negative associations with creativity to mind which result in lower evaluations of a creative idea.

Back to thinking about culture. If there is such a bias, implicit or otherwise, we have to mitigate against this within our schools and organisations. Familiarity with constant change and development is key, creating a new norm. If we can reduce the negative bias by increasing our level of collective comfort when faced with uncertainty we might recognise and encourage more creative thinking.

This makes me think of Dear Mr Judgy Pants, my open letter to those judgemental types who shoot down ideas too soon. Those people, and I know many of us have encountered them, are showing a fear of the wider uncertainty that is in fact forcing us to think creatively in the first place.

I just wanted to let you know that there are thousands of idea headstones carved because of people like you. We mourn those precious little sparks, those little glimpses of something new, different and unexpected. We still think about those ideas and the fleeting moments we had with them.

James L. Adams refers to the “Inability to tolerate ambiguity; overriding desire for order; ‘no appetite for chaos’” as one of a number of emotional blocks to creativity. When it comes to complex development and problem solving the ability to tolerate some chaos is vital.

You must usually wallow in misleading and ill fitting data, hazy and difficult-to-test concepts, opinions, values, and other such untidy quantities.

The key thing I have been pondering on, since I shared that tweet, is about better understanding the people in our organisations and so better understand the creative culture.

Perhaps if we were to extend the research to create a measure of people’s tolerance of ambiguity <a> and compare this with a measure of their propensity for divergent thinking <b>, we would have an interesting +/-differential <c> that we could explore further.

If we were able to gather individual or collective measures we might be able to better understand the collective creative culture and make plans to support and encourage positive change.

Of course we can easily hypothesise that those individuals who are able to generate new ideas and have a high level of divergent thinking, coupled with a high level of tolerance for ambiguous and uncertain developmental states, may prove to be the most innovative.

Across an organisation these values may be carried by different people at different times and the make up and balance of our teams is something else to consider.

As much as it may feel odd to attempt to measure the artful design of innovative culture, I think there is huge value in exploring the science of it too.

Maybe a further thinking matrix or framework might look like this.

I am grateful to have had the provocation from that quote this week to think more deeply about the individual contribution we make to a creative culture. As always, let me know what you think and how you help yourself and others “escape old ideas”. I think that is the next step to consider, what are the practical tools that allow us to escape.

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