Your Best Ideas Are Often Your Last Ideas

by  Loran Nordgren and Brian Lucas

Summary:   Research has clearly shown that people’s creativity tends to increase or stay constant over the course of an ideation session. Nevertheless, most of us consistently underestimate the value of persistence in the creative process — a fallacy the authors refer to as the “creative cliff illusion.” While it is true… there’s more. Read on.

As organizations large and small face unprecedented challenges, fostering the creativity necessary to develop truly breakthrough ideas has become more important than ever. But in order to live up to our creative potential, we must first understand how the creative process actually works.

Prior research has shown that people’s first ideas are rarely their most creative. Coming up with just one breakthrough idea typically requires a lengthy brainstorming process, in which you generate and iterate on a large pool of potential options before finally reaching your most creative idea.

Despite this reality, however, most people consistently underestimate the value of persistence in the creative process. In our research, we document a fallacy we call the “creative cliff illusion”: Although creativity, in fact, tends to either increase or stay the same across an ideation session, people assume that creativity drops off over time.

We explored this phenomenon — and what managers can do to overcome it — with a series of studies in which we asked people to predict how their creativity would change over the course of an ideation session. We ran these experiments using a variety of different creative problem-solving tasks, and across several different sample populations in the U.S., including university students and working adults.

In one of our studies, we enrolled professional and amateur comedians in a caption-writing competition. We surveyed their beliefs about how creativity changes over time, and then had them spend as long as they wanted coming up with captions for a cartoon. We found that the comedians who were more certain that their early ideas would be their best ideas stopped ideating sooner. These comedians ended up submitting fewer jokes and, importantly, fewer of the jokes that these comedians did submit were rated as being highly creative — suggesting that if you think your first ideas will be your best ideas, you’re more likely to stop the creative process before your actual best ideas are uncovered.

Why are people so bad at predicting their own creativity? The answer to this question lies with a performance indicator that is often (falsely) conflated with creativity: productivity. When generating ideas (or, for that matter, completing any task that requires mental energy), productivity does tend to decline over time, and people often take the ease of producing ideas as a signal of the quality of those ideas. In other words, people recognize that their productivity declines over time, and so they think the creativity of the ideas they produce must decline as well. But of course, this is not the case. In the creative process, the ideas that are most easily accessed tend to be the most obvious ones, and it’s only by digging more deeply that more novel, creative ideas finally emerge.

Luckily, not everyone is equally susceptible to the creative cliff illusion. In another study from the same series of experiments, we asked participants to report how frequently they engaged in creative work in their daily lives. We found that people who reported engaging in creative work more frequently were less likely to assume that creativity declined over time, suggesting that personal experience with creative work can help people to overcome their flawed assumptions about the creative process. In a third study, we found that regardless of past experience, simply telling people about this illusion can help to attenuate it.

Given these findings, there are a few things that managers can do to help their teams reset their expectations about the creative process and empower them to develop more creative ideas:

  1. Educate Your People

Our research showed how pervasive the creative cliff illusion is — but it also illustrated that a better understanding of the phenomenon can reduce its potency. Managers should educate their teams about the creative cliff illusion, and explain that their first ideas are unlikely to actually be as valuable as the ones that emerge later in the process. This can take the form of one-on-one conversations with key employees, as well as team-based discussions around how project workflows could be adapted in order to overcome this first-ideas bias.

In addition, managers can remind people that when their productivity declines and they begin to feel like they’re running out of ideas, that doesn’t actually mean that they are running low on creativity. While it may be uncomfortable, that feeling is actually the mind pushing its cognitive boundaries and searching for novel connections — two key conditions for generating creative ideas.

  1. Invest in Your Creative Process

There is no set formula for success (e.g., committing X percent more time to the ideation process will give you Y percent more creative ideas). But there are several ways to ensure you’re giving key creative processes the time and attention they need:

  • Set aside more time for creative processes than you might think is necessary — whether that means an extra ideation session, a longer brainstorm, or even dedicated buffer time that can be used for additional meetings if needed.
  • Ask your team to generate two or even three times as many ideas as you think you need, particularly in the early stages of ideation. Setting aggressive idea quotas can help people push past more obvious, early-stage ideas and uncover truly novel opportunities.
  • Experiment with your team’s creative processes and measure the results. You can then use that data to drive future decisions. For example, next time you run a workshop, track when the best ideas were actually generated. Were they generated by the team that brainstormed for one hour, or the team that took three hours? Did increasing your team’s idea quota result in more highly creative proposals? Testing out these different variables can help you calibrate your process and capture your team’s creative potential.

The creative cliff illusion is very common — but it’s also something that managers can help their teams overcome, through a combination of education and process improvements. With the strategies outlined above, leaders can help their people understand how creativity actually works and build a creative process that emphasizes the value of late-stage ideas. While it may take some extra work, that effort will be rewarded when you reach the potentially game-changing ideas that are uncovered through a lengthier ideation process.