The Creative Paradox: Why Companies Simultaneously Want Creativity and Stifle Creativity

By Todd Anthony, Founder, Head of Strategy

You’re sitting in front of the widescreen during the Superbowl halftime show when they cut to a commercial break. A slew of bland, safe, overexcited spots for SUVs, mobile phones, beers, and fizzy sugar water then assaults your psyche. It makes you wonder why a company like Remy Martin would spend $14M to bore you with their overwrought, boring 60-second lecture delivered by Serena Williams about what it takes to win as a team. Your eyes roll involuntarily. 

Then maybe you ask yourself: “Where’s the creativity? Wouldn’t they want to surprise and delight the Super Bowl audience with a clever concept that truly sells their product? And why would they think that holding us captive with this interruptive thought garbage actually works?” 

The neuroscience behind why creativity works

When new information enters your brain, it processes and encodes it into two categories: things to ignore and things to pay attention to. “Known” patterns (like superstars waxing inspirational about teamwork) are generally ignored because they’re not useful. By its very definition, a “creative” idea is different from those known patterns in some significant way. Hence, our brains encode them as something to pay attention to. 

But your brain doesn’t pay attention to just anything that’s outside the pattern. It’s particularly interested in ideas that capture and reveal a truth about yourself and/or the world around us. Truly valuable creative ideas combine elements in a whole new way to make a truth pop out to us. This delights us and causes us to think. It’s fresh and different, yes. But it’s also somehow useful to us because it expands our understanding. 

Perhaps this is why creativity is seen as the engine of scientific discovery, a force for positive change, and is often associated with intelligence, wisdom, and moral goodness. Creativity gave us the iPhone, cancer-sniffing robots, and 3D-printed Waygu beef. It got us to the moon, to Mars, and helped us figure out how to keep a delicate structure the size of a football field hurtling through space at 17,500 mph for 20 years. And let’s not forget the Lobster Bloody Mary.

As a uniquely valuable way of thinking, you’d imagine that every company in the world would put creativity on a pedestal and be eagerly organizing itself around generating more of it. You’d expect to hear CEOs publicly declaring that creative ideas are one of their key initiatives. You’d expect them to have Chief Creative Officers overseeing marketing and product development with legions of creative directors reporting to them. 

You’d be wrong. 

Our love-hate relationship with creativity

While we humans may delight in creative ideas, we also hate them – especially when we’re asked to support them. Even when the logic behind creative ideas makes perfect sense, research shows that people reject them in favor of known, safe, staid ideas. 

In fact, even when someone has explicitly said that they want creative ideas, they still have an unconscious bias against them – associating creative ideas with negative words such as “vomit,” “poison,” and “agony.” A 2012 study from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania showed that this unconscious bias against creative ideas also tends to interfere with a person’s ability to even recognize a creative idea when they see one. 

This begs the question: If we’re evolutionarily hardwired to crave creative ideas because they impart a valuable truth, why do we also have this unconscious bias against them? A famous 2010 study from the University of Pennsylvania offers a clue to unraveling this tragic paradox. It showed that people tend to dismiss new ideas because they make us think, and being forced to think can make us uncomfortable. 

Researchers from Cornell’s college of business suggest that the “agony” people ascribe to creative ideas is what personal growth feels like. If we accept a creative idea, it forces us to rewrite old thought patterns which then forces us to rewrite other, interconnected patterns and so on. In some sense, this interconnected system of thought patterns is fundamentally who we are – with all the intertwined beliefs, biases, perceptions, emotions, and memories. Therefore, the degree to which you’re accepting of new creative ideas is positively linked to your willingness to rewire yourself. 

The authors of the aforementioned UPenn study concluded, “The field of creativity may need to shift its current focus from identifying how to generate more creative ideas to identify (sic) to how to help innovative institutions recognize and accept creativity.”

No shit. 

Companies enforce conformity at the expense of creativity

Further compromising the viability of creative ideas is organizational conformity. Companies, especially larger ones, tend to operate as vertical hierarchical systems that rely on conformity for their efficiency. Conforming means altering our behavior to align with the norms – the behaviors, customs, beliefs and attitudes – of the larger group. And everyone’s an enforcer of those norms. It’s efficient because people behave in predictable ways in accordance with accepted protocols.

They do what they’re told and what’s expected and nothing more. In conformist-leaning cultures, blending in is a successful strategy whereas standing out is riskier. Dissent is risky. One famous study revealed that people will deliberately choose the wrong answer to a question if they think it will make them more accepted by the group. 

Workplace conformity does have a few advantages: 

But conformity can be a double-edged sword

Companies need people who can follow the herd AND they also need people who “think different.” In organizations where conformity dominates, there is a noticeable lack of openness, experimentation, and boundaryless thought, which are all necessary for creativity and innovation. 

Conformity also tends to suppress the inherent talents that employees can bring to the table. Researchers at the London Business School and IE Business School of Madrid studied a range of businesses and found that conformity cancels out certain strengths that employees have. Meanwhile, companies that fostered individual authenticity had higher employee engagement, greater levels of creativity, and a pipeline of leaders growing within the company. 

In highly conformist companies, nobody wants to rock the boat or ask uncomfortable questions that can lead to positive change and growth. As a result of conformity: 

Find a healthier balance between creativity and conformity

A company can get pretty far on the momentum of that first groundbreaking product. In the meantime, it can become comfortable with the way things are. During those times, conformity reigns supreme. Suddenly, they don’t see a need for creativity. They forget how to take risks. Then one day some innovative startup Netflix’s their Blockbuster. It happens again and again. 

In some sense, this paradox is one that we share as individuals, and it behooves us to find a healthier balance between conformity and creativity. Between rigidity and fluidity. Between a respect for boundaries and a willingness to step outside of the herd and absorb the consequences. Between accepting what you are told and finding out for yourself. Between being stuck in your ways and growing as a person. 

It’s not a question of which way you want to go, but how much of each opposing force you invite in. So what do you say? Are you ready to invite more creativity into your business and even your life? 

7 ways to become a creative-leaning organization

So far, we’ve established that we, as individuals, like creativity and also kind of dislike (or hate) creativity – especially when we’re being asked to support it. We’ve also established that the companies where we work both need creativity and systematically stifle it. What a mess. 

There is no easy fix. But here’s a list of things that your company could do to set creative thinkers up for success – but definitely won’t do if you’re at a change-averse company run by die-hard conformists. 

  1. Start with an honest assessment of your organization’s creativity quotient. It’s key to acknowledge that conformity and creativity are two necessary, yet opposing, forces. Do good ideas tend to get watered down? Is your company leading the way in launching new products and features? Or, are you mostly following the pack? 
  2. Invite more disagreement and questioning into the organization. To think outside of the box, you need to know the shape and dimensions of said box. Creative people tend to be questioners who poke and prod at conventional thinking to see where the boundaries are. Let that happen and you’ll be rewarded with far better solutions. 
  1. Become more adept at handling discomfort. The status quo is safe, comfortable, and most of all, easy. But getting too comfortable will gradually erode your company’s relevance. Inviting debate can help the organization evolve. Just in keep in mind that any people get uncomfortable in a debate-oriented culture because it’s cognitively taxing to have their worldviews challenged and revised all the time and their ego gets bruised, so it’s okay to ease into it.
  2. Consider creating safe spaces for disruptive conversations. Ensure that it’s understood that one of the goals is to challenge the status quo and set parameters for those conversations to help everyone feel safe and heard. If you do it right, it’ll actually improve team cohesion while delivering bold new ways to do things. 
  3. Create a culture of constant learning. New information is like oxygen for creative thinkers. Continuous training programs, customer surveys, guest lectures, partner interviews, and the like can foster risk-taking, inspire new solutions, and feed creative thinking.
  4. Embrace failures, mistakes, and experiments. Rather than viewing it as an invitation to a rousing game of pin the blame on the donkey, most people now realize that failure is merely a point in time in the story of a project or product. By making that notion a central component of your company culture, motto or creed, you take a lot of the risk out of decision-making for people. Less perceived risk translates to feeling more comfortable trying creative things. 
  5. Elevate your creative teams. Most companies over a certain size (i.e. ~25-50 people) have designers, writers, and other creative thinkers toiling away, mostly unrecognized, in marketing and/or product. These people have made creative problem-solving and ideation their jobs. Companies would be wise to involve them more and elevate their stature in the organization. Apple, for example, famously had its creative director reporting directly to Steve Jobs. It’s no coincidence that Apple is synonymous with thinking outside the box. 

These are just 7 rough ideas to get you pointed in the right direction. But there are a million other ways to become a more creative-leaning organization. Why not sit down with a blank sheet of paper and start imagining what might work best for your team? You might be surprised by what you come up with.


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