January 26, 2017
Editor's Choice: Creative Change: Why We Resist It … How We Can Embrace It
Creative Change: Why We Resist It … How We Can Embrace It by Jennifer Mueller, Ph.D, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 256 pages, $28.00, Hardcover, January 2017, ISBN 9780544703094
Creativity is universally celebrated. Yet resistance to creative ideas remains, ironically, nearly universal. What if that is because, while we claim we desire creativity, we have an unconscious bias against it? Jennifer Mueller stumbled upon this paradox early in her consulting career, and has been obsessed with addressing it ever since. She has been researching the problem for nearly two decades, and the result is a new book published this month by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Creative Change: Why We Resist It … How We Can Embrace It.
What she found has found is that the problem is not with idea generation or implementation, but a psychological aversion to the unknown that prevents creative ideas from taking hold. While we say we love creative ideas, we tend to fall back on those we find most feasible and familiar—those that have the most knowable outcome. We choose ideas we think we can most easily assess and analyze. The problem with truly original, creative ideas is that they haven’t been tried before, so there’s no way to unambiguously assess them. But in avoiding the anxiety of the unknown, we miss opportunity.
We all want to know what we’re doing, to feel competent and like we have some sense of control over the outcome of any decision, to mitigate risk. And so what we deem “good” ideas are usually those we think will cost us the least, not those that could potentially benefit us the most. We dislike uncertainty, and new ideas, creative ideas, are by their very nature uncertain. There are no best practices yet, just best guesses.
In business, we look for certainty in numbers and evaluations. But the world is not, and never will be, deterministic. In order to embrace creative ideas, we must be able to recognize and manage our own feelings about them. We must know that ideas evolve, and that the future is uncertain. We don’t make it more certain by trying to maintain what we have, but by participating in the process of creative change, by becoming the change we want to see in the world. Or, to more accurately quote Mohandas Gandhi on the matter.
“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. ... We need not wait to see what others do.”
And so Mueller wants us to be able to change ourselves, particularly how we think about ideas. She teaches us the difference between a how/best mindset and a why/potential mindset, and how to move back and forth between them when evaluating creative ideas. To do that, you have to be able to understand what mindset you’re in and shape it accordingly.
We are usually prone to evaluating ideas with a known, how/best mindset, and we need to be able to break out of it to see the potential of creative ideas. But adopting a why/potential mindset can also cause us to embrace new ideas too rapidly and easily, to love every new idea and throw caution completely to the wind. What is needed is a middle path, a balance in your mindsets, an ability to know which one you're in and move from one to another when appropriate. It requires a process of self-disruption, of being able to deliberately change the way you’re thinking about the world at any given moment. You have to be able to evaluate whether an idea even is truly creative. And we must also work together, which means we must help others switch mindsets, be able to prime our intended audience to be more receptive to creative change, to convince others to embrace it. Mueller provides strategies and processes for all.
I get weary of words like innovation and disruption, but I never get tired of people challenging assumptions or disrupting patterns of thinking. And that is what Creative Change is all about. It only takes Mueller 26 pages to tackle one of the giants of innovation thinking, Clayton Christensen, pondering how he could have left creativity out of the “list of features that can identify a technology as disruptive.” Of course, low cost was one of those features, which, as Mueller tells us, “explains why he predicted the iPhone would not be disruptive.” She tells us, in fact, why experts are actually more prone than a novice to dismiss a truly creative idea in their field—and how she's been guilty of it herself.
I have told readers in many reviews that the strength of a particular book is that it’s easily digestible, that it can be picked up at any point or picked apart for what’s applicable to their specific circumstance—perfect for busy businesspeople, right? That is not the case with Creative Change. But that is this book’s strength. This is a book that is perfect for our collective specific circumstance, our ability to solve our biggest problems in every field. You should begin at the beginning, finish at the end, and read it all the way through. Although impeccably written, it is not easily digestible. It forces you to hold contradictory ideas in your head at the same time. It forces you to confront some flaws and limitations in how you think, and teaches you how to overcome them. It asks you to fundamentally rethink the way you think. It forces the reader to slow down, consider carefully, and think deeply. The process she encourages is difficult. And, in the end, you still have to be comfortable with the fact that you may sometimes be wrong, that something you do or a decision you make may lose you money or fail. You have to believe in and lead a process while knowing you can’t be sure of the outcome. You have to realize that on a personal and organizational level, and that’s really scary. So she asks us to embrace that anxiety and uncertainty as the beginning of real, creative change.
We have incredibly complicated and complex challenges to address and overcome in this world—none more so than our own psychology. Creative Change comes at the perfect time to help us do just that.
About Dylan Schleicher
Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.