The Pulse

Secrets Of Visionary Thinkers

How to ensure new ideas get real consideration

by Susan Robertson

Susan Robertson empowers individuals, teams, and organizations to more nimbly adapt to change, by transforming thinking from “why we can’t” to “how might we?” She is a creative thinking expert with over 20 years of experience speaking and coaching in Fortune 500 companies. As an instructor on applied creativity at Harvard, Susan brings a scientific foundation to enhancing human creativity. To learn more, please go to: SusanRobertsonSpeaker.com.

When you think of famous visionary leaders, you often think that they have something, know something, or do something that the rest of us don’t have, don’t know or can’t do. The truth is, they don’t. The only thing they have is an intuitive understanding of how to open their minds and consider new ideas.

When you’re thinking about new ideas, you’re often thinking of the divergent phase of the brainstorming process – where you generate many new ideas.

However, the convergent (deciding) phase is equally important – to ensure that those new, fresh, and interesting ideas thought of during the divergent phase actually get considered. Due to some basic neuroscience principles, it’s all too easy to instantly reject any truly new ideas. The very human tendency is to decide to select the ideas that make you feel the least uncomfortable. In other words, even if you managed to generate some really unique and innovative ideas, you’re actually fairly unlikely to decide to use them, unless you do some overt things to help overcome instinctive fears of anything new.

Facing Change

There’s an old adage that people are resistant to change. There’s some truth in that, most people are a bit resistant to change in most circumstances.

However, there are many instances where change is embraced with open arms. Events like marriage, the birth of a child, a career change, or moving to a new city are all dramatic life changes that are typically welcome. Most people are happy and excited to embark on these new journeys.

So, what is it about other types of changes that make the “people don’t like change” adage true? The difference is, with a few exceptions like the above, change is typically assumed to be negative.

To better understand this, think about this hypothetical situation. You’re at your desk, doing your work as usual, when your boss walks over and says, “Things are going to change around here”. If you’re like most people, your instant assumption is not that things are going to get better. You probably assume it’s going to be worse. That you will experience some loss of something you currently benefit from. Even if you can acknowledge that the change might be good for the department or the company, your go-to assumption is that things will be somehow worse for you personally.

This expectation that change equals loss is, surprisingly, grounded in neuroscience. All humans have a set of cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are mental shortcuts that you use for problem-solving and decision-making. There are a few things to understand about cognitive biases before you dive into why they’re problematic.

  • First, cognitive biases are NOT the same kind of bias related to diversity and inclusion initiatives. That’s a completely different concept. Cognitive biases are a neuroscience concept; they have to do with how our brains operate.
  • Second, cognitive biases are not individual. All humans share the same cognitive biases. It is not as if you have one cognitive bias and somebody else has a different one. All humans share these same mental shortcuts.
  • Thirdly, cognitive biases operate subconsciously. You are not aware you’re relying on these shortcuts when you are.
Due to some basic neuroscience principles, it’s all too easy to instantly reject any truly new ideas. The very human tendency is to decide to select the ideas that make you feel the least uncomfortable...

When it comes to the convergent phase of creative thinking – when you’re voting and deciding from a large list of ideas – the cliche that people don’t like change tends to hold true. You tend to shy away from the truly new ideas and only vote for the “safest” ideas.

This tendency is due to a specific cognitive bias called the Status Quo bias.

The Status Quo bias is the phenomenon just described – that you instantly and subconsciously presume change to mean loss. Specifically, loss to you personally and individually. You assume that the current state of affairs is the best, and anything other than that will be negative.

So, when you are looking for new ideas and have generated a list of possibilities, and it is time to choose among them, you tend to choose only the safest, most incremental, and least disruptive ideas. In other words, you lean toward the least amount of change possible.

But suppose the situation is something that actually needs real change. In that case, you need to ensure that the team making the decisions doesn’t let the status quo bias get in the way of considering a more radical idea, which may be the one that really solves the problem.

Here are some tips to help you get around the status quo bias:

  • Overtly include in your list of criteria that you want ideas that are disruptive, new, and will make a significant impact. Clearly stating that as a criteria will make a difference and will remind people that they need to explicitly consider some of the more interesting, unique, and potentially harder-to-implement ideas.
  • Another way you can approach getting around this status quo bias is to require the group to list the potential downsides of changing nothing. Changing nothing is a decision. And unfortunately, it is often the decision that is made by default. You can all too easily “decide to decide later” once you have more information. And then during the next meeting, you decide again to decide later, once you have even more information. And you continue that cycle until you miss the window entirely, and it’s too late.  So, when a group decides not to decide, they need to consider the true consequences of that decision. Given that they thought there was a need to get together and develop new ideas, there’s likely a definitive reason to create change by selecting a more impactful idea.

In order to become a more visionary and creative leader, you need to personally ensure that new, interesting, and more challenging ideas get real consideration. And you need to give your team some assistance so that they can do the same. These tips for getting around the Status Quo bias will help your team truly consider the potentially more disruptive ideas you may need to fundamentally solve the challenge at hand.