Book Review: Creative Change

Leadership Matters

Leading UX transformation

July 24, 2017

Book Cover: Creative ChangeIf you, like most UX professionals, have worked within organizations that seem to respond to User Experience in much the same way that the human body responds to a virus and want to understand why that happens, you should read Creative Change: Why We Resist It… How We Can Embrace It, by Jennifer Mueller, PhD. If you want to understand why organizations struggle with innovation, you should read this book.

Creative Change is a great book about creativity within organizations that is grounded in solid research. Mueller has been studying creativity for almost twenty years, and her research has revealed that, even though many business leaders lament a lack of creativity and innovation within their organizations, they commonly reject creative, innovative ideas. They tend to be biased against and fail to recognize the value of creative leadership as well, believing that creative leaders lack business acumen. This does not bode well for UX leaders.

Occasionally, among the many books I read, I discover a book whose ideas are so transformative that I feel impelled to share them with UXmatters readers. This is one of those rare books.

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Author: Jennifer Mueller, PhD

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Publication date: January 2017

Formats: Hardcover, Paperback, and Kindle. 256 pages in print.

Hardcover ISBN: 978-0544703094

Paperback ISBN: 978-1328745668

List Price: Hardcover, $28.00; Paperback, $16.99; Kindle, $14.99


This book comprises eight chapters whose ideas flow logically, building upon ideas that came before—as well as a table of contents, preface, acknowledgments, notes, and an index—as follows:

  • Table of Contents
  • Preface: The Seeds of Our Uncreative Destruction
  • Chapter 1: The Hidden Innovation Barrier
  • Chapter 2: Our Love-Hate Relationship with Creativity
  • Chapter 3: The Science Behind the Paradox
  • Chapter 4: Self-Disrupt: Overcome Your Own Bias Against Creativity
  • Chapter 5: Overcome Others’ Bias Against Creativity
  • Chapter 6: Cultivating Creative Change in Your Organization
  • Chapter 7: Overcome the Bias Against Creative Leadership
  • Chapter 8: Stop Generating Ideas and Start Making Impact
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Index


In this part of my review, I’ll summarize some of the book’s key messages—emphasizing those that are particularly meaningful for UX professionals. Throughout the book, Mueller supports her arguments with research findings—from both her own research and that of others—and tells many stories from business and other domains that illuminate her thinking. She builds a powerful case for the necessity of creative change and elucidates the hidden barriers that thwart creative change in both individuals and organizations. I highly recommend that you read her entire book to gain a deeper understanding of the foundations of her ideas.

Preface: The Seeds of Our Uncreative Destruction

The Preface, titled “The Seeds of Our Uncreative Destruction,” succinctly summarizes the key ideas that inspired the author to write this book. Mueller begins by debunking the idea that companies need to generate more creative ideas, saying, “This dialogue around generating more and more creative solutions is starting to scare me. … [It’s] addressing the wrong problem. … We have developed lots of great methods to help us generate new ideas and solutions.

“The problem is, however, that our ability to recognize and to embrace creative solutions is … dysfunctional. … We are more likely to reject an idea because it is creative than to embrace it. If our ability to generate creative ideas far outpaces our ability to truly embrace them, then it doesn’t matter if you generate a lot of ideas, because they won’t make any impact.

“Our problem isn’t the idea-generation part of creativity. Our problem is our inexplicable inability to get out of our own way, to disrupt our unproductive thinking, and to embrace the new and the bold.”

These ideas really resonated with me because, for many years, I’ve rejected the fallacy that the ability to create lots of ideas is the core competency for companies that seek innovation. Ideation is just the beginning of an innovation effort—and it’s the easy part. Actually implementing an innovative idea is much more challenging. But, until now, something has been a missing from the vast literature on innovation. In her book, Mueller identifies the primary barrier to innovation: resistance the creative change.

Mueller also discusses the idea of uncreative destruction—“sticking to the status quo when urgent and pressing problems require that we embrace creativity immediately.” Even though we say we desire creativity, we often reject creative ideas. The purpose of Mueller’s book is to help people—especially business leaders—and organizations embrace creative change.

Chapter 1: The Hidden Innovation Barrier

In Chapter 1, Mueller describes the hidden innovation barrier that exists “beyond idea generation and implementation,” harms innovation, and makes companies that desire creativity fall prey to uncreative destruction.

Mueller posits the idea that creative ideas may be “so different from familiar and proven ideas that experts have a difficult time assessing them.” She writes, “Creative ideas tend to have many unknowns. We don’t know exactly how creative ideas may benefit us in the future or whether others will view us positively if we endorse them. … When evaluating a creative idea, … you can’t know what you don’t know. … You can calculate risk only when you have one known unknown. Creative ideas often involve many unknown unknowns.” How can we measure “something that is completely unknowable”? Depending on how we frame a problem, our response to ambiguity can differ. “Our ability to embrace creative ideas is not a purely rational process…, but instead a psychological process of simply managing our feelings of uncertainty.”

Communicating a key idea in her book, Mueller states: “Winning with creativity requires that we both generate ideas and then figure out a way to effectively implement them. But there is one more step…, [the] decision to embrace a creative idea—what I call creative change.” We must weave creative change “throughout the idea-generation and implementation stages” of the innovation process.

Unfortunately, as Mueller’s research has made clear, “people hold bias in favor of the status quo” and dislike uncertainty. So creative change requires that we manage the inevitable uncertainty that people feel about whether a solution will actually solve the problem we’re trying to address. Mueller says, “First, you have to actually understand why the idea is more useful than the status quo. Then you need to manage [everyone’s] uncertainty about whether the new idea [will work].” Our avoidance of uncertainty is the reason “it is so difficult to make creative change and why creative change is the hidden barrier [to innovation].” Mueller writes, “Making a creative change … will always require that you disrupt your thinking before your behavior can follow suit.” Of course, disruption is the goal of big innovations.

As Mueller’s research proves, because we both love and hate creativity, “many companies [that] say they want innovation with creativity … fail to achieve it.” They are unable to commit to implementing creative ideas. “Creative change is thus the hidden barrier in the innovation chain because we falsely believe that we love creative ideas—that we are truly open to and accepting of them. … But the hard reality is that, when we try to assess the future value of creative ideas using real numbers, these assessments tend to be overly negative.”

Chapter 2: Our Love-Hate Relationship with Creativity

Chapter 2 discusses the love-hate relationship that people and organizations have with creativity. Mueller tells us, “While people may worship creativity, they also seem to distrust and discredit creative ideas and thus ignore creativity as an important consideration—even if creativity is clearly relevant to the problem being solved.”

Mueller explains that our rejection or acceptance of creativity depends on our situation and mindset when evaluating ideas. Our mindset shapes our ability to recognize creative potential. According to Mueller, “A mindset is a set of beliefs or a way of thinking that can be activated … by your disposition or environment. When it comes to creativity, two mindsets are of particular interest:

  1. How/best—Focuses the evaluators on knowing the most feasible and appropriate option now. This mindset is much more tolerant of uncertainty.
  2. Why/potential—Focuses the evaluators on learning the future value of something. This mindset is intolerant of uncertainty.”

UX professionals will recognize the challenges we encounter in our work when we are confronted with business leaders who have a how/best mindset and the obstacles this mindset presents to our making a big impact on our organizations. As Mueller writes, “Absent any other factors, a pure how/best mindset can undervalue the future potential of a creative idea relative to a practical one. As a result, decision makers who are in a how/best mindset will instinctively tend to reject new ideas in favor of maintaining the status quo.” What makes this reality even more challenging: “For decision makers, the how/best mindset is a best practice! From a how/best perspective, the most important problem to solve is whether … the idea in question is a good one. In this case, good is defined as immediately feasible and cost effective.”

Significantly, Mueller acknowledges, “this problem-solving approach … completely ignores the actual problem.” Today, UX professionals seek to contribute greater value to their organizations by identifying unmet needs and other problems their organizations can solve by conducting and analyzing user research. By addressing people’s unmet needs, we can create business value that has not previously existed. So these are important problems that are getting ignored. Thus, the how/best mindset can pose a huge barrier to innovation.

“A how/best perspective isn’t concerned with whether the idea in question could be modified or adjusted to solve the problem,” writes Mueller. “For a person in a how/best mindset, solving the problem is not the ultimate goal. Instead, the goal is evaluating the solution…. But to evaluate something…, you need to make one big assumption: … that the idea being evaluated won’t change or improve. … When it comes to creative ideas, we know this assumption is false.” Therefore, “a how/best approach is a poor fit for the demands of evaluating a creative idea….” With today’s Lean UX methods—which are characterized by rapid iterations of design and evaluation—this discovery is very relevant.

Plus, Mueller tells us, “Those in a how/best mindset are more likely to use stereotypes … when making decisions under uncertainty … because they allow them to quickly and efficiently categorize things and make decisions with relatively little cognitive effort.” For example, “it is very common for decision makers to look to specific qualities and characteristics of the inventor or idea champion to reduce uncertainty around whether an idea is a good bet.” As we know from experience, many business leaders have biases against creative types like UX professionals.

“In the how/best mindset, uncertainty is a red flag,” says Mueller. “And, worse, the how/best mindset makes people pay closer attention to all the ways in which new ideas are uncertain. … [They] will immediately zero in on the greatest weakness of any creative ideas—because no one has experience implementing it yet, the idea is not proven. … Someone in a how/best mindset will tend not to see a new idea as a good and viable option….” So those of us who think outside the box and want to push the boundaries of innovation will often have a hard time being heard.

Mueller warns us that, “Rational persuasion attempts can have unwanted results when pitching creative ideas to someone who has a how/best mindset. … A traditional selling approach of overcoming all objections with good data might not work when selling creative change to someone with a how/best mindset. … When it comes to learning and embracing new information, the how/best mindset can really get in the way.” The first recourse of UX professionals who are doing user-centered design is to validate our ideas through user research. But this finding of Mueller’s research shows that we may encounter resistance in communicating our findings.

“When you pitch creative ideas to others, you can help lead them down the path of feeling uncertainty, fear, and anxiety, or toward curiosity and hope,” advises Mueller. “Whether you can make yourself or someone else feel hope rather than anxiety about a creative idea could be the key to your embracing and advancing creative change.”

Chapter 3: The Science Behind the Paradox

In Chapter 3, Mueller explores the science behind her conclusions about our paradoxical relationship with creativity and why we resist creative change. She acknowledges that both our mindsets and our expertise can play a role in our unconscious resistance to creativity. Experts often have a hard time evaluating creative ideas objectively “precisely because they are creative. … It is more difficult to know how to interpret the quality of a new idea when it has features that differ so dramatically from our basic reference points. … Experts also know more about what they do not know—the unknown unknowns. … This might explain why successful ideas—that experts have vetted and liked—tend to strongly resemble … existing ideas. … Experts have more uncertainty to cope with when evaluating a new idea…. One way to diminish this uncertainty is to see the familiar in the new.”

Mueller further explains, “The psychological experience of fit influences how we feel [about creative ideas]. People love the experience of fit.” When ideas fit our expectations, we respond positively to them. When they don’t, they feel wrong. “By definition, creative ideas don’t fit perfectly into existing paradigms…. For this reason, it is difficult to know if new ideas are useful…. When you evaluate a creative idea, it’s less likely you will feel this psychological experience of fit. … Experts often know things that make it harder for them to feel the fit…” Importantly, Mueller has discovered that our reactions to creative ideas could be malleable—feelings that different situations could evoke.

Mueller addresses an issue of importance to any UX professional: why great ideas get rejected by the powers that be. “Decision-making roles can evoke a real bias against creativity. … Decision makers can reject your great ideas [simply because] the decision-making role evokes a how/best mindset and, very often, a … cover-your-butt-response. When decision makers have a how/best mindset, they will see creative opportunity only if [they can avoid responsibility if an idea fails].” Business leaders typically use economic data to cover their butts—and too many unknowns make it impossible to come up with any reliable data. The feeling of not knowing and lack of fit can make both experts and decision makers with little expertise anxious about pursuing creative ideas.

Mueller warns, “The organizational implications are concerning. If an organization employs decision-making roles to serve as the main gate-keeping function to resource ideas, it will struggle if it needs creativity to survive. Merely placing a person in a decision-making role can shift this person into a how/best mindset. Because people in how/best mindsets [want to avoid] uncertainty…, they define great ideas as proven to have wide appeal. But new ideas aren’t proven, by definition. … So even if you mandate that decision makers select creative ideas, they will choose incremental ideas, or potentially bad ideas…, [believing that they] are more creative…. And if the ideas they choose fail in the marketplace again and again because creativity is needed, decision makers can … cover their butts and keep their jobs. This kind of decision-making cycle can go on and on and contribute to an organization’s uncreative destruction.”

Finally, Mueller shares some helpful warning signs that indicate people are experiencing bias against creativity, as follows:

  • a strong, negative, knee-jerk reaction to an idea”—“Instead of stimulating interest, questions, or curiosity—which are more reasonable responses…—the new idea immediately … [gets rejected outright].”
  • belittling an idea—People express “extreme discomfort around feeling uncertain,” saying things like they don’t understand the idea, it makes no sense to them, or the idea is stupid or silly. “The expression of contempt [is] a telltale marker that a person feels threatened” by the way the idea makes them feel. “Contempt conveys a person’s perceived relative superiority to [another] person. … Contempt is such a powerful marker of bias because it provides a reason why a person can reject an idea with little thought or care, and it makes other people observing the reaction think that person is actually smart.” Of course, he is actually rejecting “the idea because he does not understand how to evaluate it.”

People “might not reject creative ideas as readily [if they] think deeply about them first or have a dialogue with others who think differently … about them.”

Chapter 4: Self-Disrupt: Overcome Your Own Bias Against Creativity

In Chapter 4, Mueller revisits the mindsets she introduced in Chapter 2, looking at how they affect the way we frame problems:

  1. How/best—“Hows put you in a much narrower state of mind, making you consider the details of things. … A how/best mindset can create [an] uncertainty spiral that builds upon itself, making you feel more and more uncomfortable about an idea that is new. … The best practice approach is one marked manifestation of a how/best way of thinking about solving problems [and] status quo bias.”
  2. Why/potential—“Whys put you in a broader state of mind—making you consider higher-order categories of things. … The problem with big whys is that they can inoculate us from caring about the many hows that are critical to success. … The why/potential mindset can seduce us to embrace poorly executed ideas….”

The challenge is to balance these two mindsets.

Mueller devotes most of this chapter to presenting a four-step process for self-disrupting our own bias against creativity, providing strategies for managing our negative reactions to creativity. “Self-disruption is the process of evoking creative change in oneself,” says Mueller. “If you have a strong how/best way of thinking, [disrupt] your mindset to think like an inventor …. Even if you don’t have a strong how/best view, you need to prepare.” She’s added a fifth step in case the first four don’t get you where you need to be. Thus, Mueller describes the following path to self-disruption:

  • Step 1: Identify whether you are evaluating familiar ideas, creative ideas, or both.”—Strategies for evaluating ideas include the following:
    • Leveragethe wisdom of crowds (WOC) for creativity.” “First…, identify whether you are evaluating ideas that are high quality but either incrementally creative, radically creative, or both. … Ask your crowds to rate each idea in your set on creativity and quality. … Aggregate your ratings to create an average creativity and quality rating for each idea.” Throw out low-quality ideas and, for now, “keep all your high-quality ideas.” OR
    • Develop an idea-evaluation plan.” This is necessary only If you have both “creative and not creative” ideas. “Place the familiar ideas and the creative ideas into two piles…. Find two separate times to evaluate each kind of idea.”
  • Step 2: Prepare to self-disrupt.”—Before you start evaluating ideas, assess your current mindset and calibrate. Strategies for preparing for self-disruption include the following:
    • Think of an inventor you admire….” “Give yourself an image that you can take with you when you evaluate an idea. … This is called behavioral priming.” AND
    • Think of a problem you are passionate about solving.” This should be “a singular problem in the world you care about or even a problem you have that the ideas you are about to evaluate might solve.”
  • Step 3: Self-disrupt—accept the unknowable.”—Strategies for accepting the unknowable include the following:
    • Accept that metrics today cannot tell you the future.” “When it comes to unknowns, you lack control over knowing the answer. If you have more than one unknown…, calculating risk just isn’t possible. … With creative ideas, calculating risk can truly be a waste of time. … Metrics …cannot tell you the true potential of an idea.” AND
    • Go with your gut.” “Accepting the reality that new ideas are unknowable can … help you make money. … Bear the uncertainty. Embrace it.”
  • Step 4: Self-disrupt—shift from problem finding to problem solving.”—“How/best mindsets view metrics as indicating what is. Inventors view metrics as indicating progress toward what could be.” Strategies for shifting from problem finding to problem solving include the following:
    • Frame constraints as problem-solving opportunities.” “When you are in a problem-finding mode, feasibility constraints and failure are nothing but a red flag. But if you adopt a problem-solving way of viewing constraints, then suddenly you can frame the constraints as an important and challenging part of the problem you want to solve.”if you give idea developers a moderate number of constraints and guidelines, they can develop higher-quality creative solutions.
    • Lead the process, not the outcome.” “Accept that creative ideas may look pretty awful at first,” but they can improve. Adopt “an inventor’s perspective to evaluate ideas…. … ”Decision makers who adopt a problem-solving … frame quickly realize that they can present a different kind of expertise [and] lead the process itself.”
  • Step 5: Partner with your opposite.”—“Self-disruption is difficult. … There is another very effective way to disrupt your thinking…. … If you are a why/potential kind of person, pair yourself with a how/best kind of person to complement you, and vice versa. … Structure your decision-making task so that there are two decision makers with distinctly opposite views, and both have to agree and collaborate with each other to make decisions. … No one person can veto the other. Both partners … adopt a firm problem-solving approach … to resolve the inevitable conflicts that will arise. … It’s advisable for both partners to evaluate each idea in the set independently, before discussing them.

Once we’ve overcome our bias against creativity, we can more clearly see the value of creative ideas when evaluating them. “Decision makers invent by embracing the ideas other produce. … By reframing your role of gatekeeper into the role of inventor, you are one step closer to making creative change,” advises Mueller.

Chapter 5: Overcome Others’ Bias Against Creativity

Chapter 5 offers some strategies that you can use to help other people disrupt their thinking and overcome their aversion to creativity. Mueller introduces her FAB (Fit, Aha, and Broaden) framework, which provides influence strategies that can help you to avoid others’ status quo bias and positively affect their responses to creative ideas. “[These] are three basic levers you can use to help promote feelings of interest versus anxiety in others. … When a person feels the fit, has an aha moment, and broadens her thinking, it is more likely she will feel hopeful, interested, and even joyful about your ideas, as opposed to frustrated, bored, or anxious.”

  • fit—“How/best [managers hold] a very different definition of creativity relative to the average … consumer,” believing that creative ideas are for the masses and highly feasible. “When creating a feeling of fit for your audience, though, their definition of creativity is important, not yours. … Fit is about making sure the way you present your idea conforms with what your audience defines as creative.” (The section on fit includes a well-designed table that presents the cues people associate with creativity—“cues you can use to communicate that your product is creative.”)
  • aha—“There is a critical first step when selling creative ideas”—using an aha strategy. “This first step is especially important when selling to a person with a strong how/best mindset. … Analogies, combination, and re-categorizations help people have an aha moment or an insight.” You can use these three aha strategies to elicit insight in your listener—“a kind of creative insight similar to what someone feels when they generate an idea in the first place. But you do this with the aim of pitching the idea to make someone else like and want to embrace it.” Mueller explores how to use all three of these aha strategies in depth.
  • broaden—“Sell with the aim of broadening the other person’s role from expert to inventor. … You are moving expert decision makers into an inventor role by giving them a problem to solve or motivation to solve a problem. … You can get decision makers to brainstorm with you about your idea by asking for feedback.” Mueller calls this strategy ”the feedback pitch.” Another broadening strategy involves creating “a story that links the status quo directly to failure in a way that makes executives feel anxiety, shame, or even embarrassment about it. … People make creative change only when they realize their current definitions are blocking them from achieving what they want.”

Mueller outlines the five steps of “a feedback pitch:

  • Step 1: Make a list of all the people whose approval you need … to green-light a given idea.
  • Step 2: Make a plan to approach each person one on one, with enough lead time to allow you to meet with them as well as make any changes you’ve agreed upon.
  • Step 3: When asking someone for her feedback, take the opportunity to turn the feedback session into a collaboration.
  • Step 4: Follow up with each person, thanking them for their feedback and showing how you implemented it.
  • Step 5: Ask for their approval.”

All of the strategies this chapter covers can help UX professionals who are struggling to gain support for their ideas.

Chapter 6: Cultivating Creative Change in Your Organization

Chapter 6 explains how the cultures of many organizations impede the adoption of creative change and how to actively promote creative change within your organization. “Loose or weak cultures tend to be more creative because the rules are more informal and ambiguous—so people don’t necessarily know when you break them,” says Mueller. “A strong culture is one of the most powerful vehicles enforcing the status quo bias. [A] strong corporate culture is often a creativity killer. … To make “creative change at the organizational level, … you need to somehow evoke positive feelings and curiosity about what is new—and … raise concern and worry about the old.” According to Mueller, “There are three major organizational-level barriers to creative change”:

  • Problem #1: Culture without course corrections”—By “building in course corrections,” it is possible for a company to “change one specific assumption or value at a time.” To disrupt organizational definitions that are holding you back, take these two steps:
    1. Identify problematic definitions.” “If you want to make creative change en masse and shift from one ingrained definition to another…, you first need to figure out the definitions that are holding your organization back.”
    2. Use FAB for the masses to shift definitions.” “Choose strategies from the FAB methodology … to help people change those counterproductive definitions.”
  • Problem #2: Conflict without communication”—“People engaging in a creative effort will feel disheartened and rejected when the way they are defining creativity does not fit what others are looking for. … People have … conflict around creativity without a real sense of true communication. … [As a leader], to diminish conflict and aid communication regarding creative ideas,” you can take these two steps:
    1. Understand how your definition of creativity may differ from [that of others].
    2. Make your definition explicit to employees.
  • Problem #3: Checks without balances”—According to Mueller, the single primary reason “corporate America is stagnating and failing to embrace creative change: … all checks, no balances. In most large organizations that want innovation, the power to make the decision to innovate is given to a relatively small group of people. That decision-making group or person does not have to collaborate or compromise with the person or group generating the idea. That decision-making group or person can trump the designer, company founder—or whoever is responsible for developing the idea—by mandating design changes or killing projects. What happens to the innovation process when people with a how/best mindset have total control over it? … Bureaucracy, red tape, highly structured and formalized processes where idea generators can’t say boo without decision-making approval. These things make the person in a how/best mindset feel more in control and less anxious. Unfortunately, they also kill early-stage creative ideas.” To “balance your checks”, Mueller suggests the following:
    • Ensureaccountability for creativity.” “Consumers and even designers have a more accurate, less biased way of viewing creative ideas … because consumers and designers are less likely to have a how/best kind of mindset.” Use the two-step process of idea selection that Mueller describes in Chapter 4. (See my review of Chapter 4.) Then, ask “decision makers to choose at least some ideas that others view as creative…, giving them a way to cover their butts.”
    • Give joint decision-making authority to managers and creatives.” “Delegate complete control to two decision-making counterparts with opposite concerns. Then let them have the hard conversations and allow them to strike the right balance. … Sharing power between two roles with opposite interests can help create balance because each keeps the other in check.” This is the approach they use at Pixar, and Mueller describes the way Pixar works in detail. In my view, all UX teams and product teams should function in this way. But how many companies do you know of whose UX teams include Creative Directors and Producers? On the best product teams, the UX Lead and Product Manager take on these collaborative roles and share decision making. Unfortunately, the ascendancy of the Product Owner on agile teams has resulted in how/best decision making and balanced product teams are now less common.

Chapter 7: Overcome the Bias Against Creative Leadership

In Chapter 7, Mueller laments the inability of most organizations to recognize true creative leadership. She also cites a survey of over 1,500 CEOs that IBM conducted in 2010, which “identified creativity as the number-one leadership competency to win in the future.” A summary of that survey’s findings states: “Successfully navigating an increasingly complex world will require creativity. … CEOs are confronted with massive shifts …  [that] can be overcome by instilling creativity throughout an organization. … CEOs identify creativity as the number one leadership competency of the successful enterprise of the future.” Figure 1 shows an illustration from that survey, which outlines CEOs expectations of creative leaders.

Figure 1—CEOs on creative leaders
CEOs on creative leaders

In her book, Mueller writes, “We want our leaders to know the answers. We want our leaders to be experts. We want our leaders to make us feel less uncertain about the world, not more uncertain. … But in today’s complex world, where you need deep expertise to know anything about any domain, nobody can truly know all the answers. … It’s a sense of humility—not taking credit for knowing the answers—that promotes effective leadership.” Often, those in “leadership positions lack the skills to make creative change and fail themselves, their customers, stockholders, and employees.”

Mueller also discusses societal contributors to the impending creativity crisis that Kyung Hee Kim describes in her paper, “The Creativity Crisis: The Decrease in Creative Thinking Scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking” (PDF). According to Kim’s research,“ Millennials scored lower on creativity tests than prior generations.” Thus, next-generation leaders “may lack creative-thinking skills.”

Mueller believes, “The creativity crisis America faces stems from a lack of creative leadership. In today’s complex, ever-changing world, you need to understand how to make creative change in an organization to be an effective leader. … Creative thinking by a diverse group of people is every bit as important as efficient execution. … Our current inability to recognize creative leadership is sowing the seeds of a creativity crisis in America. … [To] retrain ourselves to recognize creative leadership, … we need to follow a process of creative change…, recognizing our current definition of leadership, understanding when this definition gets us into trouble, and then learning to expand the definition….” Mueller has “developed a three-step process to identify creative leaders in your organization:

  • Step 1: Diagnose your definition of leadership.
  • Step 2: Self-disrupt and identify fakers.Fakers—those with confidence but little care to improve their competence—are dangerous. … Fakers are more likely to gain high-status positions even though they are less competent. … Over-confident people … speak first in a group, take up more air time, and are calm and relaxed. Competent people speak up only when they have something to say. Fakers claim to know the answers, and they aren’t humble….” Look for leaders with a combination of confidence and curiosity. Rather than choosing someone who has all the answers, look for someone who is comfortable with uncertainty, is willing to consider a range of possible solutions, and diagnoses problems by asking questions.
  • Step 3: Learn to recognize creative leadership. When looking for creative leadership, focus less on what people say about themselves and their ideas and more on the actions they engage in to shift the direction of the group. … [Identify] those people who have a knack for understanding the creative process and who can help groups move forward when stuck. The essence of creative leadership is helping employees disrupt and embrace productive new directions. … Creative leaders know to ask the right questions when groups show signs of poor decision making or when problems emerge that need solving.”
    • Creative leaders know when to disrupt.” “A group needs disrupting … when group members polarize in … extreme [directions or] group members conform in ways that block out creativity.”
    • Creative leaders ask questions.” “Creative leaders … bring their groups back into balance by asking questions to disrupt and focus them.” Creative leaders recognize and point out when a “group is anchored on the same kind of idea, … then [asks] questions to shift the group in a new direction. … When diagnosing creative leadership, look for people who know what to ask when. … Three kinds of questions … [are] key to helping groups disrupt”:
      • Question 1: What problem are we trying to solve?”
      • Question 2: Why does this solution have value?”
      • Question 3: How can we make this solution work?”
    • Creative leaders strive for a balance between how/best and why/potential problem frames.” “When groups converge on a how/best problem frame, … the creative leader [asks] a question to help shift the group away from [that] problem frame.”
    • Creative leaders understand the process of inquiry.” “One of the most powerful processes of inquiry that exists is the experimental method. … If candidates have entrepreneurial experience, … see whether they used some version of the experimental method—for example, Lean startup methodology….”

Chapter 8: Stop Generating Ideas and Start Making Impact

In Chapter 8, Mueller exhorts her readers to “stop generating so many solutions and start making creative change” and shows how to make your ideas count. She believes that generating lots of solutions may make it more difficult for organizations to innovate by evoking a negative response to creativity. “As you increase the number of options a person has to consider, his preference for the status quo increases. As you increase decision makers’ workloads, their preference for novel options decreases,” says Mueller.

“The problem … is that creative idea-generation efforts are occurring in organizations without the benefit of creative-change efforts. Creative idea generation without a clear focus on making creative change overwhelms management and has the result of leaving the very creative ideas you hoped to cultivate languishing…. We need to build creative change into the very fabric of how we generate create ideas. …

“[You] need to make creative change within your organization for breakthrough ideas to have a real impact. … [A] 1 to 1 ratio of creative idea generation to change [is necessary].” Match your investment of time, money, thought, and effort in creative idea generation with an equal investment in “designing the organization and equipping your employees with skills to embrace [creative change]. …

“Without carefully setting up a system to manage creative change in your organization, your attempts to capitalize on creative opportunities will fail. … There is no one-size-fits-all way to implement creative-change initiatives. However, [many] companies and employees are quite proactive in how they plan their idea-generation efforts, but quite reactive in how they plan for creative change.”

To cultivate proactive creative change, “begin the idea-generation process with creative change fully in mind. … Build creative change into the way … you generate [ideas]. … You can frame the same idea very differently for different kinds of decision makers. … Frame the idea as already fitting with a decision maker’s interests. For this strategy to work, it is imperative that you know precisely at the start of the process what the decision maker’s interests truly are.”

Mueller describes coordinating creative change on teams, saying, “Creative change has a better shot of succeeding if your team assigns and distributes various external-relations roles throughout the idea-generation process.” When discussing “structuring creative change in organizations,” she writes, “The fewer people … who need to say yes to an idea…, the less time it can take to gain internal buy-in. … Once you know the number of layers and who the decision makers are, then you can start redesigning the system with checks—but also balances.”

In the conclusion to her book, Mueller says, “Few managers want to pay the price for innovation. To most managers, being innovative means that they have to do everything wrong.”

Writing & Copyediting

Mueller writes with clarity, supporting her ideas with well-told narratives and deep research. The information in this book is well structured, with section headings that effectively chunk the book into topics and subtopics, then run-in heads for the final level in the hierarchy. The book includes no bulleted or numbered lists, boxed information, or pullquotes, and just one well-designed table. The book’s copy is clean, without typos. However, the text’s punctuation is somewhat inconsistent and does’t always adhere to best practices.


The book includes only one illustration, in Chapter 1. According to the acknowledgments, the author’s mother created it.

Book Design

My review covers the hardcover version of the book. The dust jacket’s design is unremarkable. There is a well-written description of the book on the front flap and a brief biography and photo of the author on the back flap. Five blurbs on the back flap are by well-known authors and academics. The colors of the book cover are garish, and the text on the spine is very hard to read because of inadequate contrast with the bright orange background.

The table of contents is well designed—though it comprises only chapter titles and no section headings. The chapter titles and section headings are well formatted to serve their purpose. The body font is easy to read. The only oddity is the design of the Notes section, which is structured by chapter, so far so good; page numbers, okay; then, rather than an endnote number, a phrase from the text in italics. I found the endnotes hard to use, though I think a combination of endnote numbers with such phrases might be superior to either alone. The main deficiencies of the Notes design are that insufficient whitespace separates the notes to allow easy readability, and all of the notes pertaining to a particular page run together rather than their being on separate lines, making it hard to distinguish them. The index is well designed and comprises two columns per page.


This is an important book for creative, innovative people working within corporation’s that are not always receptive to their ideas, as well as for those who struggle with creativity and innovation. Following its guidance could transform organizations that have been unable to innovate and are, therefore, under threat of uncreative destruction. The book’s value derives primarily from the author’s original thinking, which has its basis in many years of solid research. 

Principal Consultant at Strategic UX

Founder, Publisher, and Editor in Chief of UXmatters

Silicon Valley, California, USA

Pabini Gabriel-PetitWith more than 20 years working in User Experience at companies such as Google, Cisco, WebEx, Apple, and many startups, Pabini now provides UX strategy and design consulting services through her Silicon Valley company, Strategic UX. Her past UX leadership roles include Head of UX for Sales & Marketing IT at Intel, Senior Director of UX and Design at Apttus, Principal UX Architect at BMC Software, VP of User Experience at scanR, and Manager of User Experience at WebEx. Pabini has led UX strategy, design, and user research for Web, mobile, and desktop applications for consumers, small businesses, and enterprises, in diverse product domains. Working collaboratively with business executives, multidisciplinary product teams, and UX teams, she has envisioned and realized holistic UX design solutions for innovative, award-winning products that delighted users, achieved success in the marketplace, and delivered business value. As a UX leader, she has facilitated conceptual modeling and ideation sessions; written user stories; prioritized product and usability requirements; established corporate design frameworks, standards, and guidelines; and integrated lean UX activities into agile development processes. Pabini is a strategic thinker, and the diversity of her experience enables her to synthesize innovative solutions for challenging strategy and design problems. She is passionate about creating great user experiences that meet users’ needs and get business results. A thought leader in the UX community, Pabini was a Founding Director of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA).  Read More

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