Idea Generation Session Vomit Bags? Barf Brainstorming?

My new creativity research hero, Jack Goncalo of Cornell

Ideas can make you sick.

Okay, not sick exactly, but a word many of us would associate with new and different — high quality ideas — is “vomit.”

It’s not pretty this new idea business.

A Cornell University study was published recently that I feel compelled to share. The study reveals our deep and nearly unconscious reaction to new ideas. The link here is not to the actual study but a summary article written by Mary Catt for Chronicle Online, a Cornell blog (thank you Mary). In People are biased against creative ideas, Catt reveals the studies key results. Essentially the study says:

* creative ideas make us feel very uncomfortable (think vomit)

* people rule out creative ideas and choose purely practical ones

* objective data about the validity of an idea doesn’t help gain acceptance

* people are largely unaware of this bias

I’m not at all surprised, I’ve been saying this a long time, and, experiencing it my entire life. The surprise for me is it’s even worse than I thought. Nearly every time I lead a brainstorm session (so to speak) I am frustrated that many of the most interesting ideas are not even taken to the more advanced stage of concept writing. They are literally left on the wall.

I’m aware of this tendency. As a facilitator I often make people choose at least one idea they find interesting but not practical. This research will have me modify my advice. Pick one that makes you feel like throwing up!

The key point about objective data not helping underscores another thing, which is idea selection or convergence is nearly always emotional and intuitive no matter how many concrete criteria you try to wrap around the selection process. People’s favorite ideas always seem to do better against criteria don’t they! And those uncomfortable ones aren’t going to get the benefit of the doubt. Think the Russian judge in figure skating — this is what we tend to do to really new and different ideas. We really don’t want to get out of that box do we?

Bottom line: we close down on new ideas way to soon. We need to defer judgement on them long after the idea generation process to have them survive. We need time to get used to new and different.

Kudo’s to Jack Goncalo, ILR School, who’ll be publishing the study in an upcoming issue of the journal of Psychological Science. Two other academics were involved, Jennifer Mueller of the University of Pennsylvania and Shimul Melwani of University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I’m grateful to this cohort for providing the evidence I need to urge people to include more uncomfortable ideas.

Should idea generation sessions come equipped with airline vomit bags?


PS: If you want to start into more advanced practice, you might consider my book — Jack’s Notebook, a business novel about creative problem solving.

PPS: If you liked this post or found it interesting, please comment, and/or subscribe to this blog, thank you)

    • That’s not surprising, but very, very interesting! Great post, Gregg.

    • Good point that making an effort to compensate for habitual preferences, (which are really the beginnings of prejudices) can pay off in unexpected ways. After all, how do you tell – is it an intuitive gut reaction or a prejudice?

      Familiarity breeds contempt for what’s new, in many arenas. Strangely enough, human perceptual judgment of our physical spacial orientation and effort is also surprisingly suspect. It works to bias results in exactly the same way. We can be obviously physically twisted up, and we’ll reject the possibility of untwisting – because it “feels strange.” Yes, we don’t stop to consider why easier way is strangely without the twisty tension – we really don’t sense we’re tensing up!

      Gregg, I really enjoy the ways that you use to educate people about how to compensate for the biases of familiarity. Gross ’em out! It is Halloween this month after all…

      • Really interesting that a twisted up person won’t untwist because it’s different. In Yoga classes I’ve taken I’ve been told that some of my pain and soreness is “going back through” to get to normal, does that make sense? Sorry about the gross bit, I just thought it would be a bit entertaining and an eye catching headline…

    • Gregg,

      Just published Too Many Notes a couple of weeks ago, citing the same study. Thought you might be interested in another take.


    • I liked the gross bit!
      Yes – let’s focus on teaching how to embrace new ideas, as Peter Lloyd suggests. One of Barbara Sher’s techniques for this is telling people to intentionally lie about who they are and what they do for a living.

      Oh Yoga…Soreness can also occur as a person insists on doing movements without undoing their habits that stand in the way of making the move without conflicting cross-tension. There may be a journey to “go back through,” but a good Yoga teacher will help you with that, (rather than offer some lame explanation why it’s your problem.)

      You can prove that to yourself by going to the edge of how far you can move in a certain direction – and no farther. Instead of pushing to get farther, observed what part of you is preventing you from moving farther and see if you can undo that – then see if it works. A great teacher of any movement skill will show you what those restrictions are that you weren’t aware of, so you can get past them gradually, without so much suffering.

      • I like the “not suffering” part. For me it’s not “no pain, no gain,” it’s more like, “no pain…no pain!”

    • Pingback: Gregg Fraley, Creativity & Innovation Consultant, Professional Speaker. Idea generation training and new product development | Eight Politically Incorrect Statements About Innovation()

    • Pingback: Innovation Excellence | Innovation and the Art of Recognizin Hidden Criteria()

Posted in Books & Reviews, Creative Problem Solving (CPS), Idea Generation, Innovation