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. Don’t 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 of seeking 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 the language of bottom line (financial) is verbally noted. Why? We haven’t 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 the 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 “wingman” 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?  The 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 beautiful and brilliant then we could ever imagine—-because it doesn’t 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 consequences of this understandably undesirable 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.


Dr. Kevin Fleming
Dr. Kevin Fleming
Dr. Kevin Fleming is a three-time University of Notre Dame grad and Founder of a global neurotechnology-based firm, Grey Matters International, Inc., that concentrates on providing true sustainable behavior change solutions for distinctive clientele seeking to go beyond mere self-help, coaching, and therapy. His work has been featured in top media outlets including The New York Times, CNN, Forbes, Fortune, Christian Science Monitor and has been endorsed by faculty members in both Harvard Medical and Business Schools, given the crossover illusions of success and happiness that confuse high performing brains of our modern day. This innovative neuroleadership research and practice of his prompted an invite to speak for top Middle Eastern leaders in 2008, which had cabinet members for the King of Jordan in attendance. He received a feature chapter on his behavior change work in a book that hit the tops of both Wall Street and NY Times bestseller charts, ALL IN by Adrian Gostick. With the growth of Grey Matters International his offering of cutting edge neurotechnology options for creating breakthroughs in mental health, he was asked to be an expert aftercare resource for the CBS hit show "Face the Truth", created by the producers of The Doctors and Dr. Phil. In addition to being considered as one of the top personal & executive coaches globally (published in interviews and anthologies with the great Marshall Goldsmith, the late Stephen Covey, and Deepak Chopra), he is the U.S. Ambassador for the International Regulatory Body of Coaching and Mentoring. He is also on the Advisory Board for the DeNicola Center for Ethics & Culture at the University of Notre Dame. He resides in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Tulsa, OK and enjoys singing/songwriting and recording as a semi-professional recording artist and studio drummer, having recorded projects with the producer/bandmate affiliated with Carole King and Dan Fogelberg.

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  1. “The 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 beautiful and brilliant then we could ever imagine—-because it doesn’t make sense.”

    As I read this, I had an image of the employee who yelled out “2+2 doesn’t equal 4!” being carried out of a conference room.

    Many leaders say they want out-of-the-box thinking because it makes them feel, well, sexy, but 9 times out of time, they fall back to the last line in the P&L. That only serves to create distrust on the part of staff and a continuation of the status quo.

    In my corporate days, I introduced the organization to in-the-box thinking, or “innovation for the rest of us” courtesy of Systematic Inventive Thinking – an Israeli-based innovation firm. They follow a very non-brainstorming method of innovating by “manipulating” current products and services via various tools. Adapting what is known had the effect of staying within the customers’ frame of reference and comfort zone as well as the bosses.’ We created some innovative products that were actually accepted!

    Thanks for your article, Kevin.

  2. My favorite “out there” question is how many 90 degree angles can you have in a triangle?
    My favorite story is on how to measure the height of a skyscraper with a barometer (I can think of a least six of which I later used one to measure the height of my 150′ Redwood tree.)
    My favorite organizational story involves origami frog racing.

    Thank you for sending me back in play mode, Kevin.

  3. Hello, Kevin.

    Okay, I will admit that my favorite part of the piece was Miles Davis in response to ‘blue.’ I saw him in a small room (The Cellar Door) in DC and was not the same after. It also happened in 1966 when I saw Frank Zappa and the original Mothers of Invention at the Trauma (very small room) in Philly.

    Loved the piece, and here is a brief snack for thought:

    Be well, and please be in touch,