Psychologist Charlan Nemeth conducted a set of interesting experiments throughout her career, one of which involved color-word associations. Basically, participants were shown a color, let’s say it was blue, and were asked to associate it with a word. She found that 80% of people had very predictable responses, associating the color blue with either the word “color”, another color, or the word “sky”, while only 20% of people were creative enough to think of other words such as “jeans”, “lake”, or “lonely”. To mix it up, Charlan Nemeth decided to introduce some noise into the experiment…
She now showed the slide colors to a group of people, some of whom were actors, and asked them what color the slide was. To the participants surprise, some people (the actors) thought that a clearly blue slide was actually green! The participants were then asked to associate the color they named with a word.
This time, many more participants thought of creative word associations, such as “jeans”, “lake” or “lonely” with the color blue than the participants without the noise. In other words, when participants were given inaccurate information, they became more creative!
As Steven Johnson writes in Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation:
“The groups that had been deliberately contaminated with erroneous information ended up making more original connections than the groups that had only been given pure information. The “dissenting” actors prodded the other subjects into exploring new rooms in the adjacent possible, even though they were, technically speaking, adding incorrect data to the environment.”
“Big organizations like to follow perfectionist regimes like Six Sigma and Total Quality Management, entire systems devoted to eliminating error from the conference room or the assembly line, but it’s no accident that one of the mantras of the Web startup world is fail faster. It’s not that mistakes are the goal—they’re still mistakes, after all, which is why you want to get through them quickly. But those mistakes are an inevitable step on the path to true innovation.”
So before you cut out all the noise, reconsider. Making errors could actually force your team to become more creative and innovative than you thought possible.
Article image via john barban.