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Lessons Learned

Why Managers Squash Great Creative Ideas And Bet On Bad Ones

Researchers who studied the circus arts industry have found that more heads might be better than one.

Why Managers Squash Great Creative Ideas And Bet On Bad Ones
[Photo: Flickr user Jimmy Baikovicius]

Creativity is the lifeblood of every successful company. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in: If you want to stay competitive, your organization needs to cultivate creative ideas and be set up in order to execute them.

That's where the trouble lies. Recognizing a creative idea with solid ROI potential can be tough. Justin Berg, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, recently studied this issue in order to find out just how often the most potentially successful creative ideas get overlooked. And to do that, Berg went to the circus.

Photo: Mariana Oliver/Flickr user Focka

It's A Circus Out There

Berg worked with Lena Gutschank, a veteran of the circus arts industry, and James Tanabe, former creative director for Cirque du Soleil. The circus arts industry follows a similar creative process to many others: Creatives develop concepts based on what they know about audiences, and strategy heads decide which ideas get the go-ahead.

With Gutschank and Tanabe, Berg studied how effective circus arts managers were at evaluating those concepts' potential for success relative to the assessments of the creatives who'd come up with them. The research involved 150 circus act videos, 339 creative and managerial circus professionals, and 13,000 audience members.

By showing groups of circus professionals videos of creative acts and having them predict how each video would do in terms of shares, likes, and eventual monetary support, Berg was able to study who was most likely to accurately forecast each creative concepts' potential success.

It turned out that managers—those with more decision-making power—weren't any more effective at determining the ROI of creative ideas than their inventors. Instead, it was the creative professionals' peers who proved most likely to know a successful idea when they saw it. Even managers who'd been promoted from creator roles were less successful at identifying creative ideas with strong ROI potential.

All this begs the obvious question: Have we been approaching creative strategy all wrong in the business world?

Photo: Mariana Oliver/Flickr user Focka

Democratizing Creative Decision Making

Virtually every industry changes faster now than it used to, making it ever more crucial for businesses to innovate at lightning speed. But human ingenuity usually only moves so fast. And while data science is helping plenty of companies test their strategies more quickly, the fact remains that some of the most powerful of them succeed despite predictions and expectations—that's the magic of creativity.

What Berg's research seems to suggest is that more of the leaders who dictate strategy need to let creative staff in on the decision-making process, rather than just submit pitch ideas and wait for some to get a green light. The greatest chance for success may rest with employees who are encouraged to work collectively and with authority, regardless of job title or who's senior to whom.

When employees can provide feedback on one another’s creative concepts, the most realistic and successful ideas are more likely to come together in relatively short amounts of time. In a followup study, Berg found results that would seem to corroborate this approach. Creatives were significantly more likely than their managers to identify the creative concepts that would most appeal to consumers.

That's led Berg to believe that organizations could benefit by combining the roles of creator and manager. "Moving away from specialization is a trend in the business world," he tells Louise Lee, writing for the Stanford Graduate School of Business's website. "More people are wearing more hats. For creative forecasting, that’s probably a good thing."

In other words, one reason managers may not be any better than their subordinates at judging creative ideas is precisely because they do so at such a remove. Of course, it’s often necessary to have some level of structure when it comes to dictating which ideas to implement and which to pass over. But managers may want to start taking their team member's opinions more seriously more often. When it comes to creative innovation, more heads really might be better than one.

William Craig is the founder and president of WebpageFX and a columnist for Forbes and Fortune, where he writes about the role of culture in entrepreneurial success. Follow him on Twitter at @webpagefxbill.

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