Saying “No”: The secret of getting results from creativity.

One of the myths of creativity is that you mustn’t be negative. I’ve recently been thinking about this, because it is sort-of true, but at the same time, deeply not true.

One of the rules of brainstorming is “Don’t evaluate or criticise.” This can be useful. Proposing and accepting the most impossible blue skies ideas is a good way to seed further bright ideas.

The idea that negatively damages creativity also feels intuitively right. People are often reluctant to propose a new idea in a group because of fear of ridicule. Most of us will be able to think of occasions where our creative drive has been switched off by a deeply negative reaction to an idea. In one of my favourite Dilbert cartoons he is shown sitting “under a wet blanket surrounded by imbeciles” who are deciding the future of his bright idea.

On the other hand, saying “no” is a vital part of creativity. The social psychologist, Charlan Nemeth has shown in her classic article Managing Innovation: When Less Is More that groups make better and more creative decisions if they have even a single dissenter. It doesn’t even matter whether the dissenter is right or wrong.

The most successful creative individuals generate lots of ideas but are also extremely good at filtering out their bad ones. The psychologist Csikszentmihalyi quotes the inventor Jacob Ranibow, saying “You cannot think only of good ideas….. if you’re good, you must be able to throw out the junk immediately without even saying it”

This is also very true. You can notice creative people who are sometimes virtually incoherent, because they are simultaneously buzzing about an idea and interrupting themselves by saying “no that won’t work…I need to find a way to make this bit better…” They have a really powerful internal filtering process that continually edits and refines their ideas.

I think there are some important lessons we can learn from why this internal process works so much better than the wet-blanket boss.

To my mind, part of the power of the mental process is that it focuses on filtering out the bad ideas, not picking winners. It simply transfers energy and attention from the less promising to the more promising ideas. This means that as ideas are kicked around, one quietly loses interest in the bad ideas, while the best float to the top. One may of course be wrong in one’s judgement, but the process is a neat and evolutionary way of picking winners, without ever having to bring everything to a halt to make decisions.

Usually the business world often has a lot more trouble with filtering ideas. Not least because it often believes it’s important to pick the “very best” idea, not just a “good” idea. As early stage ideas are inevitably ambiguous and uncertain, this is at best difficult and risky. At worst it results in “analysis paralysis”, with a stalled innovation process and increasingly frustrated innovators waiting for a decision.

One successful local company avoids this analysis paralysis by fostering evolutionary mechanisms to allocate resources between innovation projects. They let the most promising and interesting projects attract people and resources, and find that unworkable ideas tend to fade away and be replaced by something more promising. They very seldom have formal reviews to pick winners but have nevertheless developed a succession of profitable new business areas.

A second powerful lesson that we, as managers, can learn from the “inner voice” is that doesn’t just act like an all embracing wet blanket. The internally generated negativity is constructive and sympathetic, not destructive and hostile. It points out directions in which an idea could be improved, but never rejects all the ideas. This means that one keeps one’s creative self-confidence and hence the ability to keep on generating and evolving ideas.

I think that we need to remember that negativity can be just as useful for stimulating creativity as optimism, but that they work best when used together. An overdose of either alone is fatal.