The Best Judge of An Employee's Ideas Isn’t a Boss, but Coworkers

Creators just have a better sense of what will succeed.

In creative industries, employees are charged with generating ideas, and managers pick which ones the company will pursue. But new research shows that model may leave some of the best ideas on the cutting room floor.

To most accurately predict whether a concept will be successful, ask the creator’s colleagues, said Stanford’s Justin Berg, in a paper published last month. In an experiment Berg conducted using Cirque du Soleil staff, a group of creators “significantly” out-performed a group of managers in gauging how popular new circus acts would be when seen by the general public on video. In fact, bosses were no better than a panel of ordinary observers, with no circus background, at estimating the acts’ success.

History is littered with examples of promising ideas that have been rejected, only to flourish elsewhere. The first Harry Potter novel was turned down by 12 publishers before Bloomsbury took a chance on it (and author J.K. Rowling is still being rejected). Star Wars, the Pontiac Fiero and the first Apple computer are other notable examples of products managers shot down or delayed.

Often the managers making the decisions are former creators themselves, and that may be part of the problem “as domain knowledge may lead individuals to undervalue novel ideas,” Berg wrote. In other words, managers know what was successful when they were coming up with ideas, and tend to favor what worked before, at the expense of new concepts.

While creators aren’t much better at judging their own ideas (they tend to overvalue them), they are good at evaluating the ideas of their peers. Berg hypothesizes this is because creators are more likely to engage in both divergent thinking—coming up with new ideas—as well as convergent thinking—evaluating them based on prior experience. Managers tend to do mostly convergent thinking. Interestingly, employees Berg calls “hybrids,” creators with some managerial responsibility, scored in between the pure creators and pure bosses. Essentially, as the job requires more convergent thinking, employees lose their ability to predict success.

So what does this mean for companies looking to profit from more great ideas? Perhaps they should rethink having managers serve as the sole gatekeepers, and give creators a voice in what ideas get promoted. Maybe it’s time for the inmates to help run the asylum.