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Keep Brainstorming—Your Best Ideas Are Still to Come


Apr. 1, 2021 Kellogg Insight

Most people assume that lightbulb moment will arrive right away, when you’re feeling freshest. But according to new research, we’ve got it wrong. 

Across several studies, Loran Nordgren, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, and Kellogg PhD alumnus Brian Lucas, now of Cornell University, discovered a widespread, persistent, and mistaken belief that creativity drops off with time. They dub this the “creative-cliff illusion.” 

What’s more, they found, the illusion is self-defeating. The more people believe in it, the fewer creative ideas they generate. But with experience comes wisdom, Nordgren and Lucas learned: people who do lots of creative work do not fall victim as often to the myth of declining creativity. 

“People think their best ideas are coming fast and early,” Nordgren says. In fact, “you’re either not seeing any drop-off in quality, or your ideas get better.” By giving up too soon, we risk leaving our best ideas on the table. 

Nordgren believes bringing attention to the problem can help people unlock new ways of thinking. “People don’t maximize their creative potential, and part of that is because of these beliefs,” he says. 

Creativity Increases as You Brainstorm

Nordgren and Lucas began by recruiting a group of 165 online participants, all of whom had previously worked at charitable organizations, to complete a five-minute brainstorming task. Before they got started, participants were asked to predict their creativity during each minute of the task.

Next, participants set to work generating ideas for how a charity could increase donations. As motivation to keep the juices flowing, the researchers told participants they would be entered in a lottery to win $50 for each idea they came up with. 

Then, Nordgren and Lucas recruited a new group of online participants to rate the creativity of the ideas the first set of participants had generated.

Participants in the brainstorming task gave faulty predictions about their own creativity, the researchers’ analysis revealed. While people thought they would become less creative as the session went on, the opposite was true: their creativity—as rated by the second group of participants—actually increased. 

Confusing Productivity with Creativity 

Why do people so uniformly believe their creativity will decline the longer they tussle with a problem? 

Nordgren and Lucas suspected people confuse creativity with the ease of generating ideas. For many of us, early ideas come quickly, while later ideas prove more elusive as the brainstorm slows to a brain drizzle. This experience of difficulty could easily be misinterpreted as a decrease in the quality of ideas.

To test the hypothesis, the researchers repeated the same study as before, recruiting 191 new participants. This time, however, participants predicted their creativity after they had already finished generating ideas. 

It didn’t matter. Even after the brainstorming task was complete, participants incorrectly judged their later ideas as less creative—because, the researchers reasoned, those ideas were harder to access. Yet, as in the first study, the opposite was true: ideas that took longer to excavate were more likely to be truly innovative.

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