People aren’t very good at evaluating how creative an idea is — but they’re not terrible at it, either, so we can improve.
New research from the Stanford Graduate School of Business is looking into how people gauge the creativity of their ideas, and how we can improve. The findings suggest that in the very early stages of the creative process (when rough ideas are first pieced together), people have a rough understanding of which ideas are most promising — but it’s usually your second choice that ends up being the most creative.
Tortoise and hare
"Evaluating creativity is difficult," says Justin M. Berg, an assistant professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business who studies creativity and innovation, and the study's author.
"A lot of research suggests that people are not very good at it, that a number of biases and challenges get in the way."
Berg carried out five experiments in which he asked participants to tackle a creative project, such as designing a new piece of fitness equipment or a way to keep people from falling asleep in self-driving cars. Participants were asked to come up with three ideas and rank them according to how promising they were from a creative standpoint. Afterwards, they were given some time to flesh out and finalize one of them.
Berg then asked a separate sample of experts and consumers to rate the creativity of the participants' ideas.
Overall, he found that when participants only had a short time to work on their ideas, the way the experts and consumers rated them was consistent with the ranking they provided. However, when more time was afforded to work on the ideas, the one they ranked second-best tended to be rated as most creative. He explains that, just like in the fable of the tortoise and the hare, the second-ranked idea started at a disadvantage but made it to the top in the long run. This pattern was strikingly regular, he explains.
"People's most promising initial ideas were consistently ranked second," Berg says. "People are not terrible at identifying their best initial idea, and they are not terrible in a non-random way, which means they can get better at it."
Independent raters were also asked to judge how abstract each idea was. Berg found that the ideas initially ranked second in terms of creativity were also more abstract than the ideas ranked first. A concrete idea is necessarily more developed, he explains, so its virtues are more readily apparent. Abstract ideas, even if they're very good, can be difficult to be seen as promising.
"People value concreteness too much and abstractness too little in their initial ideas. The best initial ideas likely won't seem very creative at the beginning—there may not be enough substance to see their potential originality and usefulness," he adds.
"Their abstractness is a barrier that prevents people from spotting their potential."
Participants were then put in more abstract states of mind -- with questions such as "Why is this a good idea?" as opposed to "How good is this idea?" -- and asked to rate the creativity of their ideas again. In this step, participants were much better able to identify the most promising idea from the get-go.
Berg says that there are obvious limitations to the study. For starters, the result could shift if participants were asked to work with more ideas.
"When you have lots of initial ideas, your most promising idea might not be your second favorite," he says. "Instead, it may be somewhere in the top half of your predicted rankings, below the idea ranked first but above the ideas you think are your worst."
"We're probably all killing a lot of our best ideas early in the creative process without knowing it."
When developing new ideas, he recommends opting for the more concrete ones if you're under time pressure (as these will reach their potential the fastest). However, if time isn't an issue, try focusing on asking why (versus how) an idea is good, to get you into a more abstract mindset -- and then select the most promising one. If time and resources permit, develop two ideas to maturity rather than a single one. Pick a surer bet and a riskier bet, but develop the riskier bet first so you don't get anchored by the sure bet.
Finally, when working with more abstract ideas, don’t share them until you’ve worked on them to make them more concrete.
"You may recognize an idea's potential before others can see it. If you need to win support for an idea, sharing late may be better than sharing too early."
The paper "When Silver is Gold: Forecasting the Potential Creativity of Initial Ideas" has been published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.