The science suggests that we will naturally try to find reasons to reject an idea before it begins. Could this most simple of all benefits analysis activities actually be one of the most harmful you can do at your business?
I just got back from a lunch with a dear friend of mine, who was describing a potential project which was being discussed at his new accounting company.
They were discussing whether to move from a very large office far outside of their town into a much more appropriately sized office closer to the centre.
Not exactly a breakthrough innovation idea, I know, but read on to see what happened next.
He then described how in order to make a decision, they began to “weigh up the pros and cons” of the change, and one in particular stuck out to me:
Someone said that a reason we should stay in our current (bigger) office outside of town is that we have more than enough parking for when clients come to visit us. But I thought that wasn’t quite right, as we almost always go to the clients’ offices for meetings. Afterwards, when I looked at our guest log book to see how often clients actually did visit us, I saw that we only get about one client a week here.
You might be asking yourself, why am I telling you this story here, on an innovation and creativity blog?
Because it illustrates a powerful yet simple example of what people always face when trying to get support for a new idea:
People will always find it easier to list reasons to keep the status quo and not change, than to find reasons to try something new
It is human nature to try and avoid the unknown. It is what keeps us from wandering into dark caves, but it also a reason why it’s so hard to convince your boss to support a new idea or innovative project.
Studies have shown that even though managers say they look for creative ideas, they will overwhelmingly reject these ideas in situations where there is uncertainty of the outcomes, which ironically relate to most innovation programmes. This is especially true of creative, original ideas as they are usually quite rough when they are first thought up, and require time and effort to be refined.
One of the best examples of this is a study entitled The Bias Against Creativity: Why People Desire But Reject Creative Ideas. The results demonstrated a negative bias toward creativity (relative to practicality) when participants experienced uncertainty. Furthermore, the bias against creativity interfered with participants’ ability to recognize a creative idea. These results reveal a concealed barrier that creative actors may face as they attempt to gain acceptance for their novel ideas.
Another example comes from how people treat the effects of successful creative projects compared to what those projects look like at the beginning.
“We think of creative people in a heroic manner, and we celebrate them, but the thing we celebrate is the after-effect,” says Barry Staw, a researcher at the University of California–Berkeley business school who specializes in creativity.
Staw says most people are risk-averse. He refers to them as satisfiers. “As much as we celebrate independence in Western cultures, there is an awful lot of pressure to conform,” he says. Satisfiers avoid stirring things up, even if it means forsaking the truth or rejecting a good idea.
And this brings me back to the idea of Pros & Cons lists. Yes, they may seem like an excellent way to get a balanced view before undertaking something new. But in reality, what they do is encourage people to think of “con” ideas and give them a similar weighting to the “pros”, when in reality they might not be as bad as they are made out to be.
In a worst case scenario, many people will simply count the pros compared to the cons in order to see which has more points, and that becomes the basis of their decision. If it is easier and more comfortable for the brain to think of all the reasons a rough new idea might not work, then that will artifically inflate the list on the “cons” side every time.
But if you weighted each item on the pros and cons list to see both its impact and actual cost, you would be able to make a much better decision. A single strong “pro” reason could outweigh a dozen underthought “con” reasons.
It’s the effect of moving away from a mindset of “Why NO!” to “Why not?”
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This is exactly the approach I take to politics, a subject I dislike very much, but is necessary if you want to have a say in the way your country is run. During the past few elections of my country (where I rarely ever have a candidate that I can fully support) I weighed not just how many points I agreed with from each of the primary candidates, but also how much of those issues I agreed with which were most important to me. This changed my vote when doing a side by side comparison and that weighing in on my values helped me to vote in a manner that felt better.