How to pick your most creative idea

Science of Productivity Ep 009: How to Pick Your Most Creative Idea

November 19, 2020

You do a brainstorming session with your team, compile the list of ideas, and then have everyone vote on which idea they think is most creative (i.e., valuable and novel). The idea with the most votes moves forward, right?

In most places, it would. But research out of Stanford shows that this won’t get you to your most creative idea. Watch the video below or read the transcript to find out how to choose your most creative idea.

The Science of Productivity segment brings you scientific insights you can trust into how to accomplish your goals faster. It is part of the Anything But Idle productivity news podcast.

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Prefer to read? Here’s the transcript:

The science of productivity segment brings you scientific insights you can trust into how accomplish your goals faster. In this week’s segment, I want to share new research out of Stanford University that answers the question: how do you determine which of your initial ideas is most creative?

Your ability to identify your most creative idea early in the process has significant consequences for your productivity. Choose the wrong idea and you spend loads of time reworking it. Doubt your ability to select a single idea and you might resort to trying multiple ideas in parallel, doubling the time it takes. In addition, the idea you select initially will shape the rest of your creative process, creating ongoing implications for your productivity.

Research from Justin Berg of Stanford found that when people were asked to rank their initial set of 3-4 ideas in order of creativity early on in the process, they consistently ranked their most creative idea (as judged by a panel of experts) as the second most creative idea. This means that you’re not likely to select your most creative idea. If you have more than 3-4 options, the pattern holds though you may not rank your most creative idea as second most creative, but rather, in the top half.

Berg explains that this discounting of your top idea’s creativity is generally caused by the fact that the most creative ideas often begin more abstract. We tend to rate ideas using a more nearsighted view, which leads us to rank more concrete ideas higher.

To correct for this, try to enter a more abstract state of mind. You can do this by, for example, asking “Why is this a good idea?” instead of “How is this a good idea?” This quick tip will increase the likelihood that you will pick your ideas that will be most creative in the long run.

Two important caveats to this are:

  1. If you make this change and select the more abstract, less defined idea, you will likely want to withhold sharing it until you are able to define it more or others may reject it before they have a chance to understand its potential.
  2. Second, if you need to see more immediate fruit from your ideas, you may want to pick ideas that are more concrete since they will reach their potential faster.

Creativity may seem like a black box, but research is increasingly illuminating the path to repeatable, high-quality creativity.


When silver is gold: Forecasting the potential creativity of initial ideas.” Justin M. Berg. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (Aug 2019).

Why Your Best Idea May Be Your Second Favorite.” Walsh, Dylan. Insights by Stanford Business (Dec 2019).