innovation is not an idea problem; it’s a recognition problem.


Kodak’s research laboratory invented the first digital camera in 1975 but didn’t pursue it. Instead they paid virtually no attention as Sony developed a different prototype and stole the future of digital photography out from underneath them. Xerox developed the first personal computer, but didn’t invest enough in the technology and allowed Steve Jobs and Apple to snatch the opportunity away. The US Navy rejected 13 submissions from William S. Sims regarding an innovative new firing method. It wasn’t until Sims appealed to President Theodore Roosevelt that his improved method was recognized.


A study published last year by a team of researchers led by Wharton’s Jennifer Mueller. The research team divided participants into two groups and created a small level of uncertainty in one group by telling them they would be eligible for additional payment based on a random lottery of participants. The researchers didn’t give many specifics around how their chance for additional payment would work, just that they would find out once the study was completed. It was hardly an earth-shattering proposition, but it was still enough to yield some feelings of uncertainty within the group.

The participants were then given two tests. The first test was designed to gauge their implicit perceptions about creativity and practicality. Participants were shown two sets of word pairs and asked to select their preferred phrase. The pairings were created by combining words that reflected creativity (novelinventiveoriginal) or words that reflected practicality (functionalusefulconstructive) with words that conveyed a positive (goodsunshinepeace) or a negative (uglybadrotten). So in each round, participants would chose their preference from phrases like “good original” or “bad practical.” The second test was designed to explicitly survey their feelings toward new, creative ideas. In this test, participants were simply asked to rate their feelings toward creativity and practicality on a scale from 1 to 7.

The researchers found that those exposed to a small amount of uncertainty said they valued creativity, but actually favored the practical word pairings over the creative pairings.

One possible solution to this “idea killing” problem is to change the structure ideas have to move through. Instead of using the traditional hierarchy to find and approve ideas, the approval process could be spread across the whole organization.

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