Analytical creativity

The ideas come out of the analysis

By Morten Kloster, edited by Filip Lau

Ten years ago, things did not look well for the Danish toy giant LEGO. The company was losing money fast and was feeling the pressure from new, digital competitors. The assumption was that kids today want instant gratification from plug-and-play toys like game consoles and that LEGO would have to move away from the simple brick, instead focusing on flashier toys requiring less time and commitment. However, LEGO’s efforts in this direction were not doing well in the market. In response, LEGO engaged in deep analysis of how and why kids play. It turned out that their assumption had been wrong: yes, kids like digital gaming but not because it is “easy.” In fact, part of the appeal of console gaming and other play activities is that it is difficult and requires commitment. Just like skateboarding is appealing and cool even though it offers the exact opposite of instant gratification—as anyone who has tried their hand (or foot) at it can tell you.

So deep analysis of consumer behavior have proven to help companies like LEGO set a new direction for their innovation. But what about the next steps, coming up with new products, services, or business models based on the newfound wisdom? What role does analysis play then? We’re traditionally taught that the criticism inherent to analysis is a no-go in the process of “ideation”: the first rule of brainstorming is “don’t criticize”. The absence of criticism is supposed to set free creativity but as it happens, the human mind is not a creative volcano waiting for an excuse to erupt. As has been demonstrated by Charlan Nemeth, a professor of psychology at the University of California, people are not very creative when they are given complete freedom: when, as part of an experiment on word association, she asked people to associate freely on the word “blue,” the vast majority said first “green,” then “sky” or “ocean.” Her research shows that people are able to generate both a larger number of associations and more creative associations when faced with dissent and criticism. As part of the aforementioned experiment, Nemeth placed her test subjects alongside actors posing as test subjects who would disagree on established truths like what color an object is. It turned out that the test subjects confronted with the “dissenting” actors had much more creative associations than the test subjects in the group without actors. Rather than associating “blue” with “green,” “sky,” or “ocean,” they associated “blue” with words like “berry pie.” Instead of killing creativity, disagreement seems to foster it.

When a company is in dire straits like it was the case for LEGO, analysis is not only an essential tool to understand what is going on in the world and to evaluate existing ideas—it is also a catalyst of the creativity needed to come up with solutions. Analysis injects dissent and criticism into the ideation process, and contrary to what the rules of brainstorming tell us, this makes people more, not less, creative. As Nemeth puts it, “Authentic dissent can be difficult, but it’s always invigorating—it wakes us right up”.

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