Michael A. Roberto is the Trustee Professor of Management at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI. He joined the tenured faculty at Bryant after serving for six years on the faculty at Harvard Business School. His research focuses on how leaders and teams solve problems and make decisions. He is the author of Unlocking Creativity.
In an exclusive webinar for LEADx subscribers, Michael Roberto taught how to avoid the benchmarking curse (the habit of adopting copycat strategies when studying rivals), how to unlock original ideas, and how to foster an open-minded culture that encourages constructive devil's advocacy. The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Michael Roberto: “Hi everyone. Let me tell you a story. In the 1980s, Barry Marshall and Robert Warren, two doctors, began to argue that bacterial infections, rather than stress, caused ulcers. They began to present at various medical conferences. It didn't work out well. They said it was as if they were telling people the world is flat. Their ideas were soundly rejected. Frustrated by the medical communities’ reaction to their work, they took drastic action. One of them extracted the bacteria that they thought was causing an ulcer in a patient. They took it out of that patient's stomach, and they ingested it themselves. They became ill. They documented the symptoms as the illness began to progress. As they gave themselves an ulcer.
Then they took the proper antibiotic treatment that they believed would treat this infection and cure the ulcer and it worked. Still, they faced skeptics but some years later in 2005, Drs Marshall and Warren, they won the Noble Prize in medicine for this amazing discovery. This story amazingly is rather familiar. Bold innovators. Creative individuals who found solutions to perplexing problems or who brought really creative new ideas to market and business and other sectors. They faced immense resistance to their new ideas.
There is a famous saying that in the beginner's mind, there are many possibilities. In the experts, there are few. The fact is many of us cling to the status quo when we become experts in our domain. There is an amazing resistance to new ideas.
Many leaders talk about the dire need for creativity in their own organizations. Their companies face a growth crisis. They desperately need to nudge that top line and they don't know how. Where can they find that organic growth? But do they really support those with quirky, original ideas? Or do they marginalize them? Do they make it difficult for those people to thrive?
I argue in Unlocking Creativity that it's not about finding more creative people. There are plenty of talented people with original ideas in organizations already, but they face a number of obstacles and barriers. And one of the key things they face is a series of mindsets and belief systems within organizations that inhibit creativity. The job of the leader is to clear the path, to move these mindsets out of the way, so that people can flourish in their creativity. Bring original ideas forward.
Let’s talk about three of those mindsets in the little time that we have together today.
A benchmarking mindset. Or in fact you might call it the curse. Let's go back to the year 2000. A man named Mark Burnett. He had an idea for a really quirky, different kind of television show and he shopped it around Hollywood. He was a British paratrooper who had moved to California with lots of ideas for new kinds of businesses he might launch. Here he was going around Hollywood, not a veteran of Hollywood. Not an experienced television producer. He had done a little bit of work, but not much.
And he was rejected time and time again. Finally, CBS agreed to air his show, but they wanted to air it in the summer a time when basically at that point only reruns were being aired. But he accepted. It was his only taker. And by the end of that summer, 51 million people had watched the season finale of a show called Survivor. The reality TV genre had blossomed. And of course, what happened next?
Over 300 imitators emerged. Incredible amounts of copycats if you will. Awful copycats in many cases. Yes, there were a few great successes in the reality TV genre over the years, but so many shows that came and went that flopped in their first season. Why do we see so much copycat behavior? Not just in Hollywood but in industry after industry. We see people looking at those who have been successful and imitating them. They try to benchmark them. They study them. They identify their best practices and try to implement those best practices. Benchmarking should lead to learning. Learning from the best. Taking those ideas, adapting them and making them your own. But for many companies, it's not about learning and adapting, it's about observing and copying.
Why does this happen? Why doesn't benchmarking work in many cases? Or why does it lead us astray? I argue that there's a fundamental psychological phenomenon that's behind our tendencies to engage in copycat behavior, even if we don't intend to. It's called fixation and over the years, psychologists have been studying this closely. What does it mean to become fixated? It's when we look at something and our mind gets trapped into a certain way of thinking and we begin to be trapped in a certain way of thinking a problem or a single type of solution to a problem. We can't think more broadly. It limits our ability to engage in what we call divergent thinking.
When we're really generating bold and creative ideas, we're hopping around to different ways of framing the problem. Different types of solutions. Different categories of solutions if you will. Fixation is when we quickly converge on one way of looking at the problem. People have studied this and done some experiments. For instance, in one case they asked people to design something like a bike rack for an automobile. Some engineers were given a blank sheet of paper. Others were told to study previous designs for bike racks. And then they measured the creativity of the designs these engineers developed. And, perhaps unsurprisingly now that I've talked about fixation, you can guess what happened.
The people who looked at the prior designs, they tended to mimic what they saw. Elements of those old designs crept into their engineering drawings. The people with the blank slate, they were far more creative, as measured by outside expert judges. But what happens if we were studying something and we explicitly knew that they weren’t using the best practices, that there were flaws in a prior design? Some studies looked at this as well. They said okay, here is a challenge: design a new spill proof disposable coffee cup. This is a previous design, it's not so great, here are some flaws, you might want to avoid these kinds of flaws. Again, other people started with a blank slate of paper. What happens?
Even when they are showed the design and told it's a flawed design, even when they are told to avoid specific flaws in that design, people engage in fixation. Still, elements of the old drawings crept into the new drawings by these engineers. Fixation took place.
So how do we overcome fixation? How do we study and learn from others but find our own path and unleash creativity?
Let me share two ideas. First, it's so important that we learn, not just from our direct competitors but that we go outside of our industry, outside of our technical domain, outside of our field of study to learn. We should read broadly, think broadly, study and travel broadly. I think it's important to do that because when we go out of our own context, we're forced to learn and adapt. It's almost impossible to copy because the context is so different.
So, suppose for example, that you're thinking about running a business where you sell shoes. You're a shoe store. You could study other shoe stores and benchmark them, but you might end up looking a lot like them. What if you went to the Ritz Carlton and studied how they served their customers? The Ritz Carlton? What does that have to do with selling shoes? Not much you say. But what does the Ritz Carlton offer to us? It offers us an incredible example of top-notch customer service. Of exemplary service to customers.
Maybe we could learn something about that and build it into our business model for selling shoes. We almost can't copy, because we've gone so far outside of our own domain. So sometimes learning from outside is really important.
The other thing we can do is to look at others but explicitly ask ourselves the question, what if we did the opposite? What if we did it a totally different way? What if we rejected some elements of the conventional wisdom that all of our competitors have adopted? What would that look like? Might that be successful?
Imagine for a moment a grocery store where nothing was ever on sale, where there were few branded items sold in the store, where there was no acceptance of coupons and no loyalty card, no self-checkout, and virtually no social media and no television advertising. Would you shop at such a grocery store? Well it turns out millions of Americans do.
The company is called Trader Joe's and its sales per square foot exceed the industry average by a wide margin. They are at the top of the industry. They didn't fail to study other grocery stores, I'm sure they look at them every day. But they've explicitly rejected some of the key things that everyone else does and built a unique and creative model. Learning from outside your industry and looking within your industry but rejecting some of the central tenets of conventional wisdom can be key in avoiding that benchmarking mindset and the fixation that comes with it.
Let's talk about two other key mindsets that get in the way of creativity.
The focus mindset. There’s this myth that creative breakthroughs come when we go off alone in isolation away from the business of our daily life and work and we focus intensely on a problem. This image of the rock band that holes itself up in the studio, perhaps on a mountain top or off in a faraway land and somehow getting away from it all, they emerge with a creative breakthrough. In corporation, we sort of adopted this focused mindset when we set up warm rooms or innovations hubs when we put teams off in isolation and expect them, by focusing intensely on a problem, to have some breakthrough with an original idea, with a disruptive innovation.
But for many of us, creativity doesn't thrive with just intense focus. Remember that Mark Twain for instance, in writing Huckleberry Finn, took several years away from the novel. He wrote intensely, initially, and then he put the manuscript aside. He said the tank had run dry. He needed some time away from it. Years later he came back to it and he finished the great American novel.
Now it's not just about taking a break or going for a walk. Those things can enhance our creativity at times. But there are some other deliberate strategies we can employ to un-focus ourselves when we're stuck because sometimes by focusing intensely, by going off alone, we do get stuck. Creative breakthroughs come from oscillating or toggling between periods of intense focus and periods of gaining some distance from a problem. And distance is more than just taking a walk or taking a break.
Psychologists describe different forms of psychological distance that we can achieve, and they argue that when we achieve this distance, we think more abstractly about a problem and therefore more creatively.
Let's talk about three forms of psychologically distance.
Social distance. Amazingly, when asked to think about a really tough problem, if we think of ourselves facing the problem, we're far less creative than if we think of others facing the same problem. If we think of ourselves as someone else, we imagine ourselves as someone else, we're more creative too. Achieving some distance socially or interpersonally can be effective. How does this translate to the workplace? How can we do that?
Well we can find ourselves at times role playing the competition or perhaps engaging in an exercise where we take on a different role within the organization. At Sun Life in Canada, the major financial services firm, I did some research once on a strategic planning offsite that they engaged in. During that off-site, they asked various members of the management team to take on the role of a different functional area as they engaged in discussions and brainstormed about new models for their group insurance business. They found that people were far more creative when the finance executive was forced to think like the chief marketing officer. And when the chief human resource officer was asked to think about operations and its perspective on a problem. Role playing can be effective.
In the military, they engage in something we call red teaming, where the blue team acts as the allies and plots strategy in a simulated battle and the red team role plays the enemy. Having people do that sparks creative solutions and creative strategies for the military at times. Achieving social distance is real. We can make it happen and unleash our creativity.
Temporal distance. We can time travel if you will. When asked in experiments to think of themselves several years from now, people get more creative. They think more abstractly and more innovatively. How can we do that in real life in the workplace?
At Amazon, they do something interesting. They ask people if they have an idea for an interesting new product or service. They ask them to imagine when that product or service will be released. And they ask them to write the press release that will be issued to the public. In other words, what will you say to customers a year from now when you bring them this new product or service? A little bit of time travel if you will. And it often gets people to think creatively.
Who is our target market? How would we sell this product? What is the value proposition? What exactly are the key benefits that we are proposing here and how would we make it appealing? Does it solve a customer pain point? All these questions that emerge, can we think more creatively if we put ourselves out in the future when the product actually hits the market?
Physical and cultural distance. There's an interesting study of fashion designers. Objective evaluators of fashion design found that more creative designs were developed by those fashion experts who had spent time in other cultures and other countries living there and working there. They created more fashionable clothing. They created more hip products. What did they learn by traveling and by spending time with other cultures? Turns out we notice things that we take for granted in everyday life when we immerse ourselves in a different culture, in a different country, in a different place. We learn about different ways of looking at the very same types of problems that we look at every day in a certain manner. But others perhaps look at it in a different manner. And that may spark our creativity.
The kinds of assignments we give our people can be important. Making sure that we have people outside of the office, into the field, and perhaps in the field, far from the corporate office so they can experience how others look at problems can be important. Think for a moment back to my favorite rock band, the greatest rock band of all time, The Beatles. They made their trip to visit the Maharishi Maj hash yogi in India back in the late 1960s. They learned about meditation and eastern concepts of spirituality. They lived and ate very differently and even dressed differently than they were accustomed to. It turned out to be a moment of incredible creative breakthrough too though.
They didn't go there intending to write songs. In fact, George Harrison intentionally didn't want to be writing songs when they were there. But Paul McCartney brought along his guitar and John Lennon his notepad and the four of them, they did write when they were there. And many of the songs on the great breakthrough album The White Album, emerged during their trip to India.
Getting some distance. Social. Temporal. Physical and cultural can help us stimulate our creativity.
We don't want to just focus intensely. We have to shift between intense focus and getting some distance, especially, as Mark Twain once said, when the tank runs dry.
Let's talk about a third mindset that gets in the way of creativity.
The naysayer mindset. You know Tom Kelly of Ideo, the top-notch product design firm, based out in California? Tom and his brother David worked there for many years, developing new products for tons of companies around the world. Tom wrote a book in which he offered a stern admonishment for the devil's advocates in organizations around the world. He said the devil's advocate is the single biggest innovation killer in corporations today.
Is it? Is Tom Kelly right? My research suggests that having people play the devil's advocate can stimulate creativity and actually enhance the quality of decisions we make. It's not just my research but decades of research in management shows that there can be great benefits to having people play the devil's advocate. It helps if someone authentically is the devil's advocate and really believes it. But in the absence of constructive debate, sometimes it helps to have leaders assign people to play the role of devil's advocate.
But Tom Kelly has a point and many of the corporations that I work with and where I've done research and consulted, I've seen the devil's advocate run amok. I've seen contrarians become really dysfunctional. I've seen the naysayer mindset tear down good ideas and nip great ideas in the bud before they ever get off the ground.
So how do we overcome the naysayer mindset? How do we utilize the benefits of the devil's advocate without ending up with contrarians who are constantly saying no, a situation where everyone is constantly saying no and no one is ever saying yes. I think it's about who plays the devil's advocate, when they play that role and how they play that role. It's not a yes or no question. It's a who, when and how. Getting it right. Doing it right really matters.
So, let's think about the right type of contrarian. The constructive devil's advocate.
Who. There are a couple of things that are really important here. The same person always playing the contrarian, always being the devil's advocate, no matter how effective they are, no matter how well intentioned they are, they become a broken record. People tune them out. It just doesn't work. They marginalize them. They dismiss them. They go “here goes Mike again. Chicken little. The sky is always falling.” So, you've got to rotate the role.
Kevin Loften runs a large Catholic health system out in Denver, Colorado and Kevin says he purposely rotates the role of devil's advocate on his team, to get new ideas, fresh perspectives and to make sure there is no problem with a broken record. Research also suggests that it is helpful to have two devil's advocates. That two is better than one. When you have one, it's easy to marginalize or dismiss the contrarian view points. But it turns out when you have two people on the other side, they each give themselves a little social support. They are more confident in their ability to come forward with a really different quirky idea, and they are more likely to ask others and call upon others to think differently and others indeed will think differently in more occasion when challenged by two rather than one contrarian.
When. If you unleash the devil's advocate as soon as people start to propose new different alternatives to a problem, well what happens? If someone is poking holes in my idea, what is everyone at the table thinking? They are thinking maybe my idea is a little too crazy. A little too infeasible. A little too off the beaten path and maybe I won't propose it. So we quash great ideas and they never surface. When you play the devil's advocate in the early stages of problem solving, we don't want it. We want to hold off. We want to defer judgment. We want to simply generate options. Generate alternatives and then later we can critique them.
You know, in too many organizations, they embark on what I call the yeah but syndrome. When new ideas emerge, everyone thinks, yeah but. Yeah but the boss will never go for it. Yeah but we don't have the budget to do that. Yeah but we tried that 10 years ago and it didn't work. What we want to practice is what comedians do which is they talk yes and. They accept others’ ideas and build upon them so as to end up with a creative sketch. They don't reject others’ ideas outright. Later, there is plenty of time for constructive debate, but in those early stages, it's a time to generate options.
How. You don't deliver a lecture. You don't just chide people and tell them what's wrong with their proposal. You practice the Socratic Method. You ask questions. You seek to generate new options with the group. You help uncover assumptions. You don't tell people they are wrong, but you ask them if they can think differently about the problem and how might they do so. What other options might there be to solve this problem?
So, who plays the role, when they play the role and how, if you do it well, you overcome the naysayer mindset and you have an organization where people embrace a can-do attitude, where it's not why won't that work, but instead, how can we make that work. A positive attitude that can in fact help creativity flourish.
Leaders need to shift these mindsets. They don't need to go out and find more creative people. They've probably got plenty of talented people in their organizations. What they have to do is clear the path, remove the obstacles so these people can flourish. It's not a people problem, it's a situation problem. It's an environment problem. And it's the leader’s job to change the situation, to reshape the environment, to clear these mindsets, to shift them. So that creativity can flourish.
Thank you for listening and being with me today. I hope you'll take a look at my new book Unlocking Creativity, published by Wiley. Thanks for being with me. I'm Mike Roberto, professor at Bryant University and director of our center of program innovation. Thank you very much.”