Monday, February 03, 2020

Evaluating Creative Ideas: Ask Why, not How

Stanford Professor Justin Berg has conducted some fascinating new research regarding people's self-evaluation of creative ideas. How do they assess the ideas that they generate, and can they spot the best ideas at a very nascent stage of the problem-solving process? Berg finds that individuals are not great at spotting the very best idea. In fact, the idea that they rank second-best at first often tends to be superior to the concept that seemed optimal at initial glance. What's happening? Berg explains his theory of how evaluation goes off track in this Stanford Leadership Insights article:

“People value concreteness too much and abstractness too little in their initial ideas,” Berg says. A concrete idea, he went on, is necessarily more developed, and so it will more readily present its creative virtues. Abstract ideas, meanwhile, can be difficult to see as promising. “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. Their abstractness is a barrier that prevents people from spotting their potential.”

Berg tested this theory by putting people in more abstract states of mind as they assessed their initial ideas. He had them ask “Why is this a good idea?” as opposed to “How is this a good idea?” and then provide answers. This approach was based on prior research showing that focusing on why (versus how) encourages abstract thinking. This simple shift to a more abstract mindset helped people identify their most promising idea at the outset.

This theory definitely resonates with me.   Research has shown the value of "why" questions and abstract thinking.   I think "how" questions often shift people into an "implemental" mindset too quickly, as I wrote about with Derek Pankratz in this article for Deloitte Review.  When we start thinking about how to execute an idea too soon, we can actually select a flawed course of action.  We become vulnerable to certain biases and faulty reasoning.  Perhaps we are also less creative too, as Berg's research suggests.   We move from the abstract to the concrete prematurely in those situations.  We need to think about what we want to do and why we want to do it, before we get too bogged down into the execution-related issues.  Of course, we can't ignore the how while we are making the decision, but the balance of our thinking can't shift too much to the how at those early stages of the creative problem-solving process.

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