Sometimes you can’t solve a problem without creativity.  For example, the Republicans have stated that they will repeal and replace Obamacare.  In other words, the Republicans have given themselves a mandate to thwart the status quo and generate something new.  Curiously though, they have yet to embrace a single agreed upon plan to do just that.

I study how people recognize creative opportunity.  One of the major findings that falls from my work is that the mindsets people adopt can obscure their ability to see value in the new.  For example, in one study we brought undergrads into the laboratory and told them to substantiate the statement “for every problem there is one best solution” or the statement “for every problem there are multiple solutions.”  We found that when students had a mindset around finding “the best solution” they associated the word “creative” with words like “vomit” and downgraded a creative idea.  Those with a mindset tolerating multiple solutions associated the word creativity with words like “heaven” and embraced a creative idea. 

I call this mindset around finding “one best solution” the how/best mindset.  My colleagues and I have evidence that giving someone leadership responsibility to allocate scarce resources evokes a how/best mindset. To a person with a how/best mindset, a decision is either bad or good.  A bad decision is one where you were incorrect. A good decision is correct and accurate.  But creative ideas are unknowable. You don’t know if a creative idea will solve the problem you have until you try it out.  And creative ideas have a high fail rate – they often have bugs that need working out.  There are always aspects of the new ideas you need to tweak as you learn how to make them work.  So it's no wonder why people with a how/best mindset associate creativity with vomit!

One reason why Republican decision-makers are stuck is because, like most leaders, they could be using a how/best mindset to decide which path to take.  A how/best mindset believes that metrics will tell you if an idea is good.  For the Republicans though – there isn’t agreement on what kinds of metrics they need, let alone when a metric looks “good.”  Most decision-makers resolve this problem by dressing up the status quo as innovative – because you have benchmarks for something you have done in the past.  But Republicans have taken this option off the table for themselves.  So no wonder Republicans are in a bind.  They can’t choose to tweak the status quo.  They can’t go back to the past either.

But there is a way forward for Republicans that might feel very uncomfortable for them.  Instead of thinking like decision-makers, Republicans in the House and Congress, could make decisions by thinking like inventors.  Inventors know that metrics are not themselves the answers – but the pathway to the answers.  Inventors embrace and seek out uncertainty. For example, inventors view failure as a pathway to solving the problem at hand.  Inventors know that solutions are not static so individual decisions are not inherently bad or good but part of a process.  Creativity is a process of expanding what works and changing what does not until a great solution emerges over time.

Even if the Republicans could adopt an inventor mindset and choose a creative plan – they face a second problem.  They are accountable to the American people – the other decision-makers – who also want correct decisions that work immediately.   If the American people evaluate Republicans actions using a how/best mentality – the Republicans face having to justify their inevitable failure, a position that is never pleasant.  This is why research has shown that many inventors hide their inventions experimenting on a smaller scale – to reveal them only later when they can show decision-makers the great metrics they want to see.

So one solution that follows are smaller experiments at the state or county level, that might provide the kind of metrics Republicans could use to justify their decisions later to an American public – who also has no tolerance for failure.  Another solution is to try to switch the mindset of the American people. Instead of giving the American people the expectation that there is one best solution, frame the problem as having multiple solutions.

Either way, Republicans have set themselves an admirably high bar, but they likely face a bias against creativity not only from within their ranks, but the American people themselves.  One thing we all could do is recognize when we are using our how/best mindset to ill effect, and give inventors the space to fail so they can learn to succeed.