By Oguz Acar
The problem with truly innovative ideas is that, far from being enthusiastically received by those entrusted with evaluating them, they are more likely to be rejected as being too novel or far-fetched. Oguz Acar of King’s Business School has some suggestions on how to avoid missing out on the potential offered by radical innovation.
“Innovation” is possibly the hottest buzzword of the twenty-first century. A quick Google search on it will return almost two billion results1. Amazon alone contains over 70,000 books focusing on innovation2. One recent survey of managers shows that 75 per cent of companies report innovation among their organisation’s top three priorities3. The World Economic Forum considers innovativeness as a key employability skill of the future4 – a view that is shared by many academics5.
Despite the immense appreciation of innovation – almost amounting to obsession – creative ideas rarely follow a smooth path. History is full of anecdotes of breakthrough ideas that are dismissed, ridiculed or even booed6. A case in point is Katalin Karikó’s idea of employing mRNA to fight disease, which was considered “too far-fetched for government grants, corporate funding, and even support from her own colleagues”7. This widely rejected idea later laid the foundation for the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna COVID vaccines.
Katalin Karikó’s case is by no means an isolated one. A field experiment on grant evaluations in science8 documents a systematic bias against innovation; novel research proposals receive significantly lower scores. Even teachers were found to discriminate against9 creative students.
This inconsistency between obsession with, and reactance to, innovation begs the question: do people actually embrace or shy away from innovation? My ongoing research addresses this question.
The research draws on data from a crowdsourcing platform owned by a large consumer electronics company where customers are invited to openly share their innovative ideas with the company. I explore how the innovativeness of ideas generated in the platform impacts their acceptance by the company, based on 1,000 randomly selected ideas. In addition to the content of original ideas, the data set includes other relevant information about these ideas (e.g., number of comments, idea category) and their generators (e.g., past activity in the platform). Importantly, the status of each idea – whether it is (fully, partly or being) implemented by the company – is included. This data set is complemented by asking independent judges to rate each idea in terms of its novelty.
The results show an interesting pattern: the relationship between the novelty of an idea and its odds of being implemented takes an inverted-U shape. That is, idea novelty promotes acceptance up to a point; however, when an idea is too novel, its chances of being accepted drop significantly. In other words, the company is most likely to implement moderately innovative ideas; too much or too little innovation backfires.
What is particularly striking is that these results are based on data from a platform for crowdsourcing innovation. These platforms are often designed to harness the innovative potential of consumers10 and crowds11. Imagine how problematic this bias could turn out to be in contexts where innovation is not really valued in the first place.
Why do people shun ideas that are highly innovative? One explanation is that such ideas prompt a greater sense of uncertainty – a feeling most people find quite aversive. By their very virtue of being different from existing thinking and practices, innovative ideas naturally come with increased uncertainty about whether and how they will work. Indeed, some evidence supports this explanation. In two experiments, researchers found that participants demonstrated a bias against creativity12 only when they were experimentally induced to feel uncertainty or when they inherently had a low tolerance for uncertainty.
The take-away, of course, is not giving up on breakthrough ideas. Instead, the findings highlight the value of proactivity in mitigating this bias, which could derail even the most promising innovation projects. One way to do this is making idea evaluators aware of their potential biases by, for example, nudging them prior to idea assessment. Another way is developing training programmes that focus on increasing tolerance for uncertainty, as this might bring about a more open mindset towards innovative outputs.
Managers could also consider putting together diverse teams to evaluate ideas. Prior research13 suggests that evaluation panels that consist of members with diverse expertise show stronger preference for novelty in R&D projects compared to panels with less diversity. It was also found that panels with a higher workload have significantly lower preference for novelty. Hence, it is important to allocate panels with sufficient resources and time to minimise this bias against innovation.
Finally, how ideas are presented is also a potentially important factor. Emphasising similarities with previous ideas – instead of highlighting novel elements – might be particularly productive for advancing extremely innovative ideas. Such framing could help with reducing perceived uncertainty and, as a result, psychological reactance towards original ideas.
If your organisation is struggling with innovation, first check whether it is falling short in generating breakthroughs or recognising them. It may well be that many outstanding ideas are being killed in the organisation for the sake of playing safe. A lack of tolerance of uncertainty is possibly the easiest path to mediocrity in innovation.
About the Author
Oguz A. Acar is a Professor at King’s Business School, King’s College London and a Research Affiliate at Harvard University’s Laboratory for Innovation Science. His research is on behavioural innovation; it draws on behavioural science to understand the creation, evaluation, and adoption of innovative outputs.
- N. Zhexembeyeva, “Stop Calling it Innovation”, Harvard Business Review (2020, online), available at: https://hbr.org/2020/02/stop-calling-it-innovation
- N. De Mey “7 top-notch books on innovation”, Board of Innovation, available at: https://www.boardofinnovation.com/blog/7-top-notch-books-on-innovation/
- Boston Consulting Group “Overcoming the Innovation Readiness Gap” (2021), available at: https://www.bcg.com/publications/2021/most-innovative-companies-overview
- K. Whiting “These are the top 10 job skills of tomorrow – and how long it takes to learn them” (2020), available at: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/10/top-10-work-skills-of-tomorrow-how-long-it-takes-to-learn-them/
- O.A., Acar, and A. Tuncdogan. “Using the inquiry-based learning approach to enhance student innovativeness: a conceptual model.” Teaching in Higher Education (2018).
- D. Burkus “Why Great Ideas Get Rejected”, 99U, (2012) available at: https://99u.adobe.com/articles/7207/why-great-ideas-get-rejected
- D. Garde and J. Saltzman, “The story of mRNA: How a once-dismissed idea became a leading technology in the Covid vaccine race”, Stat News (2020), available at: https://www.statnews.com/2020/11/10/the-story-of-mrna-how-a-once-dismissed-idea-became-a-leading-technology-in-the-covid-vaccine-race/
- Boudreau, Kevin J., Eva C. Guinan, Karim R. Lakhani, and Christoph Riedl. “Looking across and looking beyond the knowledge frontier: Intellectual distance, novelty, and resource allocation in science.” Management science 62, no. 10 (2016): 2765-2783.
- E.L. Westby, and V. L. Dawson. “Creativity: Asset or burden in the classroom?.” Creativity research journal 8, no. 1 (1995): 1-10.
- O.A. Acar “Harnessing the creative potential of consumers: money, participation, and creativity in idea crowdsourcing.” Marketing Letters 29, no. 2 (2018): 177-188.
- O.A. Acar “Motivations and solution appropriateness in crowdsourcing challenges for innovation.” Research Policy 48, no. 8 (2019): 103716.
- J.S. Mueller, S. Melwani, and J.A. Goncalo. “The bias against creativity: Why people desire but reject creative ideas.” Psychological science 23, no. 1 (2012): 13-17.
- P. Criscuolo, L. Dahlander, T. Grohsjean, and A. Salter. “Evaluating novelty: The role of panels in the selection of R&D projects.” Academy of Management Journal 60, no. 2 (2017): 433-460.