When Outside The Box Isn’t Outside Enough: The Problem of Pseudo-creativity

If you are like me, you can surf the net and find many a perspective on how to “build a creative team” in your business; those that think outside the box. Dont you just love this phrase? I mean, we seem so hellbent on getting outside the box all the time that no one knows the “properties of the box” itself.  All we know is we want out 🙂 Such naivete can lead to something I call “pseudo-creativity”, a state of being where the purposeful seeking of contrarian knowledge at all costs can lead to only the feeling of being creative.   Many times this is really the bottom line, functionally speaking, in business while language of bottom line (financial) is verbally noted. Why? We havent linked knowledge of the verbal world with the neuro-level of processing laws that are actually running the show.

So how do we transcend the feeling of being creative in meetings and discussions?

For one, it is critical to understand the role of language/culture and how it influences the free association-type process of ideas.  The brain is highly influenced unconsciously by patterns, things that are known reliably by what it commonly sees in its environment. So even if you consciously set up a brainstorming meeting to get outside this box we have grown so passionately to hate (poor box, eh?) we rarely get what we think we get.

Dr. Charlan Nemeth, a psychologist at UC-Berkeley did some fascinating research on how we can bust through this neurological tendency.  When subjects were shown colors on a slide the people simply had to name them. Easy enough, right? These folks then had to do some free association tasks with the colors. Another group had the same task, but in this condition the lab assistant yelled out wrong names of colors sporadically before the subjects responded. So if a yellow slide was shown, they would hear “Red!”  These folks then had to free associate on the colors shown them.  What was most interesting was in the first group, the free associations were “standard”—-blue would bring up “sky” and green would bring up “grass.”  But in the second group, where flat out wrong answers were given, they actually free associated a standard deviation or two, shall we say, beyond what we call the normal or safe realm of creative responses. Here, we started hearing responses like “Miles Davis” in response to “blue”.

The implications of this experiment on the thought leadership assumptions and strategy of Corporate America is beyond far-reaching.  Neuroscience-oriented beliefs and failure, arguably, merge for a wisdom perspective that is quite rare in Board rooms. Imagine dissenting to the level of wrongness akin to “red” being “yellow” in your meetings with your team?  This makes me think that it is essential not to reinforce the regular use of brainstorming practices, but to be blatantly wrong on a regular basis and as a result rewarded in your culture–or at least share the same reward as the one who says the solution. For as we see in the experiment, the lab assistant was the “wing man” to brilliance.  Both would share the same bonus in my world of corporate regulations.  Wild, eh?  Think about this for a second.  As things are now in the business world—and the world we all live in—-when numbers are thrown up on a screen and a “gross revenue” amount is shown to be the logical result of numbers added together, imagine someone saying the 2 + 2 is not 4?  This implications of this position is staggering, for it calls on radical acceptance of radical denial in a weird merging of something that can only create something more beatiful and brilliant then we could ever imagine—-because it doesnt make sense.  Now, keep in mind I did not just promote emotional invalidation, but rather an acceptance of the reality of invalidation. Perhaps we are now seeing the inadvertent positive consequenes of this understandably undesireable state.

Do we have the courage in this world to be this lab assistant to dissent so radically, to respond with the same love and enthusiasm (not mere intellectual tolerance) as we do to “the right answer,” and to go a step further to create systems, with checks and balances, in commerce that exploit this irrational yet courageous tendency?

I will let you know when I get there.


About kevinfleming
"Beyond The Speed of A Brain's Half-Truth" The Neurowire is the thought space of former neuro-psychologist; author, speaker, executive coach, Dr. Kevin J. Fleming

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