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Generating ideas that are novel and useful: why is this difficult?

Datum:20 juni 2017
Auteur:Yan Shao
Generating ideas that are novel and useful: why is this difficult?
Generating ideas that are novel and useful: why is this difficult?

Nowadays, organizations constantly encounter problems with no existing solutions. Employees that are good at generating novel and at the same time useful ideas to solve those ill-defined problems are a valuable resource for their organizations.

However, generating ideas that are both novel and useful is easier said than done. Indeed, research has consistently shown that people tend to focus on generating either novel or useful ideas and that they rarely can combine novelty and usefulness to achieve high-quality ideas. When people are asked to generate creative ideas, they tend to generate ideas that are novel but not very useful, or ideas that are useful but not very novel (1).  Also it has been found that people performed poorly at identifying high-quality ideas characterized as both novel and useful (2). Moreover, when people were provided with initial ideas on which they needed to build up their own ideas,  people were less likely to choose ideas that are both novel and useful as a starting point (3). Instead, they chose to start with either a novel idea or a useful idea. Ironically, only those people who chose a novel and useful idea as starting point achieved high novelty and usefulness in their own ideas. It seems that people inevitably face inherent tensions when they are required to suggest creative ideas, as novelty requires people to jump out of box, to break boundaries, and take risks, while usefulness requires people to stay within boundaries, follow existing rules, meet various constraints. The common strategy to deal with those tensions is to pursue one goal at the expense of the other.

Despite the obvious importance of combining novelty and usefulness when generating and selecting ideas, we know little about why people are not able to combine them and what conditions can motivate people to produce and select ideas that are not only novel but also useful. So far, only a few studies have touched upon this issue and most of these studies remain conceptual and warrant empirical examinations.

Our projects aim to contribute to the understanding of  the dynamic relationship between novelty and usefulness of creative ideas by adopting a tension perspective. That is, we conceptualize creativity as a process involving inherent paradoxes between conflicting demands and goals imposed by the dual requirement for novelty and usefulness. We argue that the key to achieve optimal balance of novelty and usefulness is to recognize, embrace and work through tensions and paradoxical demands in creative situations.

How then can managers stimulate employees to generate their best ideas. The results of our first project provide some insights. We showed that  managers play an important role in helping employees manage tensions in creativity: An effective leadership approach is to be a role model, showing to employees that it is possible to behave paradoxically (e.g., combing flexibility with clear requirement; providing autonomy but controlling important decisions) and thereby address tensions in creativity. However, this leadership approach is mostly effective when employees have experienced tensions at work (e.g., high time pressure, excessive work demand), and when employees have sufficient cognitive complexity to understand and embrace paradoxes and tensions. However, when employees do not have sufficient cognitive complexity and when they have to work under high workload, managers who demonstrated paradoxical behavior did  harm instead of benefits for employee creativity as employees perceive this leadership as a source of chaos.

In our future projects, we will continue working on understanding conditions that prevent or promote the optimal combination of novelty and usefulness when generating/selecting ideas. If you are interested in this research topic, please feel free to contact us.

Yan Shao (y.shao is PhD student at the Faculty of Economics and Business of the University of Groningen. Her expertise is on:  Creativity/innovation.

Prof. dr. Bernard A. Nijstad (b.a.nijstad                      

Dr. Susanne Täuber (s.tauber


 (1) Nijstad, B. A., De Dreu, C. K., Rietzschel, E. F., & Baas, M. (2010). The dual pathway to creativity model: Creative ideation as a function of flexibility and persistence. European Review of Social Psychology, 21(1), 34-77.

(2) Rietzschel, E. F., Nijstad, B. A., & Stroebe, W. (2010). The selection of creative ideas after individual idea generation: Choosing between creativity and impact. British journal of psychology, 101(1), 47-68.

(3) Berg, J. M. (2014). The primal mark: How the beginning shapes the end in the development of creative ideas. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 125(1), 1-17.