The 2-Minute Thought: How do we know if a new idea is ingenious or crazy?

When someone presents us with an idea that’s totally new and different, we may think, hey, that’s incredibly brilliant and game-changing.  Or we may think, that’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard . . .  it will never work.  But how do we really know?  After all, the telephone and Star Wars were initially rejected.  So were Gone with the Wind and the idea that disease was spread by germs.

Who in the end is the best judge of a new idea?  Is it the person who comes up with the idea -- the creator him- or herself?  Or is it a manager who is paid to assess it professionally and impose a voice of reason?

According to Justin Berg of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, the answer is neither.  Creators aren’t good judges of their own ideas because they can only see the good in what they’ve created, not the bad.  And managers aren’t good judges either because they tend to be risk-averse and reject unconventional ideas which can turn out to be highly successful.

The best judges of a creative idea, Berg found, are other creators.  These are people who spend a significant amount of time generating their own ideas, but don’t participate in the idea in question. 

Here’s how Berg came to this conclusion: 

Berg worked with Cirque du Soleil to collect more than 150 videos of circus acts from around the world and then asked 339 circus professionals to predict how successful these would be with audiences.  Those circus professionals included both creators, who come up with ideas for new acts, and managers, who decide whether to include them or not.

The results were that creators were poor judges of their own work because they overestimated how well their own acts would do with audiences.   In addition, managers were poor judges because they discounted acts that veered too far from the conventional – and yet, some of the most successful videos were highly novel. 

The most important result: Creators were much better than managers at assessing the work of their peers.  Unlike managers, they were consistently able to rank the most popular ideas, many of which were novel.

Why does this happen?  Berg explains:

“When we generate ideas, we first engage in divergent thinking, which involves searching for novel connections or combinations that may be valuable.  After we generate possible ideas, we engage in convergent thinking as we evaluate the ideas based on our previous knowledge and experience.  Since managers evaluate ideas after creators have generated them, they skip divergent thinking and go straight to convergent thinking.”  (see https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/managers-are-not-best-judge-creative-ideas)

The danger for managers is that they assess new ideas by comparing them to what they already know and have already seen.  As Adam Grant, a psychology professor at Wharton, said in an interview, “Harry Potter was rejected by publishers because it was too long.  ‘Who would read a children’s book that was hundreds and hundreds of pages?” they thought.”  But instead of thinking about what children’s books usually look like, publishers should have focused more clearly on whether the story would have appeal.