Innovation and the Power of the Negative

Innovation and the Power of the NegativeThe concept of negative thinking is typically seen as anathema to the field of innovation where we are constantly challenged to remain upbeat while working on new concepts and ideas.  The word innovation itself seems to have exclusively positive connotations, perhaps with the exception of the buggy whip manufacturer facing innovation in the area of transportation.  An innovation workshop that incorporates negative concepts, at first glance, might not seem the best way to drive new thinking.  However, there is value in some of the aspects of negative thinking that warrant consideration by the innovation practitioner.  Indeed, the power of the negative in terms of innovation has been explored by Drew Boyd’s excellent article “Rejection Breeds Creativity” in this journal.

My article expands on Boyd’s concept of creativity driven by rejection and adds three new approaches to innovation that could be enhanced through negative thinking.  The first concept articulates the value of focusing on the worst possible outcome in analysis of competing scenarios, which runs counter to the aphorism that positive thinking always works best.  The second concept is similar to Boyd’s approach and notes that negative feedback is often more valuable than positive feedback.  Finally, the third concept focuses on the rhetorical power of the negative, antithetical phrase in terms of the impact it can have on the reader or listener to emphasize a particular point or serve as a call to action.  The combination of these negative elements can provide the innovation practitioner with enhanced approaches to driving new thinking in an innovation effort.

Focus on the Negative Path

All of us have at some point encountered a person whose positive outlook on life flows into every conversation and interaction.  We often refer to these individuals as “Pollyanna,” after a 1913 novel by Eleanor Porter that recounts the tale of a young orphan who makes a constant effort to be glad no matter what circumstances she encounters.  At the start of an innovation session, we often expect the workshop leader to effuse positivity and inspire the workshop participants with an energetic presentation to set the tone for the meeting.  However, according to Oliver Burkeman, there is value to thinking of alternative approaches to the traditional concept of positive thinking.  In his recent book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Burkeman presents several cases where positive thinking may not always lead to the best outcome.  The first scenario entails using the power of the negative to minimize the anxiety about a future outcome.  Burkeman cites the work of the psychotherapist Albert Ellis who “rediscovered a key insight of the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome: that sometimes the best way to address an uncertain future is to focus not on the best-case scenario but on the worst.”  The famous Stoic Seneca taught his followers that if they feared losing their wealth, then they should “set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?'”  Thinking about the worst possible outcome can free a person from anxiety about that outcome, which enables a person to concentrate on other aspects of the outcome, perhaps devoting more energy to examining the positive potential outcomes.

A second scenario cited by Burkeman relates to the importance of goal-setting and driving unceasingly towards achievement of those goals.  Research performed by Christopher Kayes at George Washington University highlights the potential perils of an approach that is fixated on the accomplishment of a single goal at the expense of other alternatives.  Professor Kayes postulates that this “overpursuit” of goals may, in fact, be tied to a fear of uncertainty, with the definitive nature of the single goal making up for the lack of certainty concerning possible outcomes.  Likewise, Saras Saravathy from the University of Virginia expands on this concept to recommend that enterpreneurs embrace uncertainty as a means of expanding the possible universe of outcomes from an endeavor.  Sarasvathy focuses on “effectuation,” which she defines as assessing the capabilities available to an entrepreneur then envisioning the range of possible end points resulting from work efforts leveraging those capabilities.  She also notes that the “affordable loss principle” drives behavior to the extent that successful entrepreneurs focus less on the spectacular rewards from an initiative but, rather, think about the magnitude of the loss of an endeavor is not successful.

For the innovation practitioner, these two ideas can spark creativity in addressing an innovation challenge.  A team working on a new product or service may focus on the best possible outcome for their work effort, which would be customers lined up around the proverbial block to purchase the new offering.  Indeed, the positive energy of an innovation team may be infectious, as positive thoughts beget even more positive thoughts to the point where the participants lose sight of reality.  In this scenario, the negative view could be valuable by having participants think about the worst possible outcome in addition to the best possible outcome.

A good example is cited by Lynn Spigel, a professor at the Northwestern University School of Communications.  Spigel, writing on the evolution of television in terms of its impact on the family as it moved from the family room into the kitchen.  The technology evolved to the point where it became inappropriate for the television to be an inherent part of the dining experience, though not before some innovator rolled out a line of TV stoves, in which a television was embedded in the stove itself.  One can imagine the team working on the concept decades ago swirling in the excitement of the ever-expanding footprint of television and thinking that the next likely frontier would be the kitchen.  A naysayer in the room might have been able to help the team work through this worst case scenario (the complete failure of the TV stove in the marketplace) and redirected their focus to other areas, leveraging the potential failure to make product improvements elsewhere.

Spigel’s research is referenced in Nick Bilton’s “Disruptions” column in the New York Times in the context of the ubiquity of smartphone distractions in today’s day and age, and thinking about what the apogee (or perhaps nadir, depending on one’s perspective) of smartphone disruption could point towards other useful innovations as opposed to a team focusing on creating new distracting smartphone application.  An innovation practitioner should also be wary of the overpursuit of goals in an innovation endeavor which may limit a team’s ability to modify their approach to follow a new thread or pathway that could, in the end, lead to a greater innovation that what the team originally intended to cover.  Sarasvathy’s concept of “effectuation,” with its envisioning of a range of possible end points, is precisely the type of mindset that can help drive ideation efforts.

Negative Feedback

Another theory which asserts the value of the negative is relayed by Heidi Grant Halvorson from the Columbia University Business School.  In a recent Harvard Business Review Blog posting, Halvorson cites research by Stacey Finkelstein and Ayelet Fishbach that highlights the benefits of negative feedback when used for certain types of individuals.  The authors surveyed students in a French language class and found that novice students sought positive feedback from the instructor, whereas expert students preferred negative feedback.  In other words, the novice students wanted the teacher to focus on what the students were doing well (positive feedback), whereas the expert students wanted to receive feedback on what they had done incorrectly (negative feedback).  As Halvorson notes,

“Positive feedback (e.g., Here’s what you did really well….) increases commitment to the work you do, by enhancing both your experience and your confidence. Negative feedback (e.g., Here’s where you went wrong….), on the other hand, is informative — it tells you where you need to spend your effort, and offers insight into how you might improve.  For instance, when you don’t really know what you are doing, positive feedback helps you to stay optimistic and feel more at ease with the challenges you are facing — something novices tend to need. But when you are an expert, and you already more or less know what you are doing, it’s negative feedback that can help you do what it takes to get to the top of your game.”

This leveraging of the negative can help the innovator by ensuring that an innovation discussion does not unnecessarily focus only on the positive aspects of an idea. Typically a brainstorming session would be accumulative from a thought process standpoint, in which participants would present idea after idea that builds upon an initial them and expands it, as opposed to a more criticism-oriented approach in which participants think of the negative aspects of an idea as the discussion is underway. Although there have to be some limitations to negative interjections (for instance, a workshop where every idea is shot down immediately would be a very short session), we ignore the negative at our own peril in ideation activities.  Moreover, by pointing out the weaknesses of an idea or approach, the participants will force the author of that idea or approach to think even harder about how the idea should evolve and may, in the process of that additional thinking, stumble across an even greater innovation.

Rhetorical Use of the Negative

A final use of the negative lies in its strength as a rhetorical tool, which allows the author or speaker to focus the attention of his or her readers or audience on a particular point.  This technique, as Douglas Wilson of Knox College notes, appears prominently in the works of Abraham Lincoln.  According to Wilson, “[t]his is not to say that Lincoln was a naysayer or negative thinker, but rather that he demonstrated an acute understanding of the power of negation in language and was unusually adept at putting that force to use.”  Wilson provides several examples of Lincoln’s use of the concept of negative terms in the form of the antithesis, where the author places two concepts in opposition to each other in the same sentence:

“If slavery is not wrong, […] nothing is wrong.”

“With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.”

“Without the assistance of that Divine Being, who ever attended him [Washington], I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail.”

“You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect, and defend’ it.”

For instance, think of the contrast in power of the positive versus the negative statement.  Instead of saying “[w]ith public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed,” Lincoln could have said “everything is successful with public support.”  The latter is underwhelming, whereas the former is part of the canon of American history.

Another set of examples from Wilson highlight Lincoln’s use of the negative as a “call to action” on the part of the audience, and these quotes come from Lincoln’s most famous works, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural:

“We can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground.”

“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

“[…] that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

“[…] but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.”

“With malice toward none.”

The power of the negative also holds true in these examples, as we can imagine the lack of effectiveness had Lincoln stated in this Second Inaugural that instead of “[w]ith malice towards none” we should focus on “with kindness towards all.”

Although this linkage between innovation and the concept of the negative is more esoteric, it is nonetheless something that could be useful for the innovation practitioner who pays particular attention to the language he or she uses to communicate with colleagues engaged in an innovation effort.  As Wilson states, Lincoln’s use of the negative allowed him to focus his audience’s attention or a particular idea in a sentence and also served as a call to action on the part of the participants.  Both of these concepts are valuable in ideation work where focus and energy are critical to the success of any endeavor.  Using the negative constructs like Lincoln does in our written and verbal communication to our workshop participants could help them focus on a particular topic of importance.  If nothing else, the creative use of language may inspire the participants to think in new pathways after staring at poorly-written email traffic all day.  As a further reminder of the continued power of the negative, note the recent use of the phraseology by President Obama in his statement on intervention in Syria:

“We cannot raise our children in a world where we will not follow through on the things we say, the accords we sign, the values that define us.”

Nick Bilton, “Fraying at Tethers of Our Phones,” New York Times (September 2, 2013)

Oliver Burkeman, “The Power of Negative Thinking,” The Wall Street Journal (December 7, 2012)

Douglas L. Wilson, “The Power of the Negative,” The Wall Street Journal (January 16, 2013)

Heidi Grant Halvorson, “Sometimes Negative Feedback is Best,” Harvard Business Review Blog Network (January 28, 2013)

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Scott BowdenScott Bowden works on Innovation Programs for IBM Global Services.

Scott Bowden

Scott Bowden is founder and CEO of Bridgeton West, LLC, a firm consultancy focusing on historical innovation. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and the Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has a PhD in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University.




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No Comments

  1. Elizabeth Alexander on September 25, 2013 at 6:41 pm

    Thought provoking article, Scott – thank you.

    I recently wrote about the value of avoiding “confirmation bias” when exploring innovative approaches. ( How, as human beings, the default is to look for agreement with and evidence for our assumptions. I don’t think of myself as a “negative person” but my graduate school training inculcated me toward the benefits of the scientific approach of testing hypotheses and it’s a shame that’s not used more when making business decisions. There’s a lot to be said for looking evidence that something can be proven wrong rather than support for it being right.

    Still, I guess we’re naturally inclined to find what we expect to find, right?

    Dr. Liz Alexander
    Co-founder, Leading Thought

  2. Clive Rushton on September 30, 2013 at 9:19 am

    Freeing a person from anxiety, enabling them to concentrate on other aspects of the outcome, devoting more energy to examining the positive potential outcomes – this is negativity? I’m seriously missing a link here.

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