Innovation and the Art of Recognizing Hidden Criteria

Hidden Criteria, Novelty and the Gag Reflex

When we propose a novel concept that disrupts cherished assumptions and tacit expectations, we need to expect hidden criteria to surface. Hidden criteria are the crutches decision-makers lean on as they attempt to block something truly disruptive because it is frightening or de-stabilizing.

In the face of fear, the limbic system hijacks the mind and unseats reason. This somatic reaction stands behind the findings by Mueller and others that in situations of high uncertainty, people typically associate the words “vomit”, “poison” and “agony” with creativity. What if this is linguistic association is about feelings, not just words?

After all, change is scary. Breakthrough ideas threaten current products, brands, companies, jobs, careers, identities. And if the first encounter with a truly breakthrough idea actually does make someone want to vomit (and believe me, I’ve seen this), then marshalling excuses is better than barfing all over the boardroom. The protective, face-saving function of hidden criteria is entirely understandable.

What are “hidden criteria”?

Criteria provide the basis for rational, accountable decisions. Explicit criteria are named out loud. You’ll find explicit criteria in:

  • product or process specifications
  • job descriptions
  • procurement tenders

In other words, if you work in an organization of any size, you’ve encountered explicit criteria often. Explicit criteria help teams gauge the resources needed and imagine ahead of time what “job-well-done” looks like. They underpin “clean logic”.

Hidden criteria are the opposite of explicit criteria. They hide in plain sight, until an activity or event teases them into salience. When they surface, hidden criteria take the form of verbal dismissals – “that’s rubbish” – or feints like “I don’t get it” (head shaking slowly). Sometimes they’re even fainter: blank stares, shrugged shoulders. Only rarely do hidden criteria get put into words.

Agendas and values

Sometimes, hidden criteria mask a hidden agenda. “We say we want X but, really, we want Y.” Other times, hidden criteria indicate there’s a value gap. Author and Research Professor Brené Brown, Ph.D. explains:

“The space between our practiced values  (what we’re actually doing, thinking and feeling) and our aspirational values (what we want to do, think and feel) is the value gap”.

Brown also calls the value gap “the disengagement divide”. Once we pitched to a confection company who approached KILN. We demonstrated our framework. The person who had invited us in agreed, the framework achieved in the demo what we had said it would: bolder questions were asked. But the thing was: “our department doesn’t have permission to ask questions as brave as that.” That’s the disengagement divide in action.

The link between hidden criteria and values is clear, if unspoken. Hidden criteria often:

  • reinforce loyalty to an established hierarchy of perceived value, rather creating real value outsiders would verify
  • serve self-interest
  • flatter the decision-makers, or buttress their self-esteem

Recognizing hidden criteria

It’s not a surprise that hidden criteria surface in the face of novelty, it would be weird if they didn’t.

Here are the telltale signs that a boss is mustering hidden criteria:

  • s/he won’t give an idea air time, won’t allow a meeting or presentation or pitch to be scheduled
  • s/he starts interrupting the presentation, usually with questions or comments that flatten the positive responses group members may be showing towards the novel concept
  • s/he uses body language and silence to show group members that their curiosity or interest in the novel concept isn’t welcome
  • s/he outright rejects any comment that would reframe or add context to the novel concept, from a team member brave enough to speak up

Building a matrix of support

As innovators, we have a choice. We can cave-in to the murky logic that hidden criteria try to impose. Or we can work within what psychologist Howard Gardner calls a “matrix of support”.

Here are three ways you can build a matrix of support, to counter murky logic’s corrosive effects.

  1. Share early and often, so that acceptance finding for a novel idea is happening ahead of any meeting where a boss might grow defensive.
  2. Stand in the boss’s shoes and from there, dream up all the rebuttals s/he might imagine. From there, you have the choice whether to equip your allies with the responses they’d find most helpful to shore up the case.
  3. Thank your boss for creating the creative space in the first place. Find the genuine contributions s/he has made to the breakthrough thinking (be that framing the commercial imperative, inviting new ideas, flexing business-as-usual workloads).
  4. Model the behaviour you seek. Use tools like PPCO to put some rationality back into idea evaluation.

In the matrix of support, “clean logic” may not govern decisions but at least it’s present.

Emotional scaffolding for creatives

One colleague said to me recently, “your brain is exquisite”. I’d just made someone very angry by making connections that violated hidden criteria. The conversation my colleague initiated with me became “a way for the creator to test that he or she is still sane, still understandable by a sympathetic member of the species” (Gardner 1993, pg. 74).

You can be that sympathetic fellow human being. Let the disruptor know that something of what they propose (or are or do) makes sense to you. Vera John-Steiner identifies that creative collaboration flourishes thanks to “emotional scaffolding”:

“Emotional scaffolding is multifaceted; it includes the gift of confidence, and the leaning on that gift by creative people during periods of self-doubt and rejection by those in power. It creates a safety zone within which both support and constructive criticism […] are effectively practiced.”

(bold for emphasis)

Without the support or emotional scaffolding you provide, the highly creative thinker might otherwise abandon the situation.

It’s ironic that highly different thinkers are brought into organizations specifically because of that quality, but when they actually demonstrate radically different or potential breakthrough thinking, it is often roundly rejected. Then they quit and go somewhere they are appreciated.

At which point, everyone ends up impoverished.


Brown, Brene (2012). Daring Greatly. London: Penguin.

Gardner, Howard. (1993). Creating Minds; An anatomy of creativity seen through the lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi. New York: Basic Books.

John-Steiner, Vera. (2000). Creative Collaboration. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mueller, Jennifer S., Shimul Melwani, and Jack A. Goncalo. (2012). “The Bias Against Creativity: Why People Desire But Reject Creative Ideas” Psychological Science 23(1) 13–17. Via Gregg Fraley

Acknowledgement: with thanks to the matrix of support provided by my Time To Think® teacher Ruth McCarthy and by Gregg Fraley and Indy Neogy, the best creative collaborators I could wish for.

image credit: barbariansatthekitchengate

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Kate Hammer is a joint founder of KILN, working with large-scale companies in the USA and Australia to transform their internal innovation processes. Kate works as a business storyteller. In 2012, she created StoryFORMs to help others articulate their commercial & organisational stories. Kate offers workshops & 1:1 coaching.

Kate Hammer




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No Comments

  1. Achim Muellers on March 22, 2014 at 10:11 am

    Hi Kate,

    as per our short conversation on Twitter, here are some personal thoughts on innovation, disruption and the corporate labyrinth:

    “Innovation” has unfortunately turned into a buzzword with far too many interpretations. “Disruption” on the other hand is – still – straightforward and proactive. Just look at Schumpeter’s famous concept of “creative destruction”. Most companies love the “creative”-part and ignore the “destruction”-part. But Schumpeter was very clear on new products, services, methods etc. replacing existing ones, not coexisting with them.

    Problems start here. Companies, just like people, grow attached to what they have and tend to overvalue it. When contemplating change, they focus on what they may lose and not on what they may gain. Companies hate to let go, I call this “cocooning in the status quo”.

    Many companies will say “let’s have an innovation department”. I’ve seen a few, they look like orphanages. For example, I once attended a corporate innovation workshop and the opening statement of a VP was “OK, let’s be innovative today, but don’t touch our successful business model and stick to our corporate identity”. What a waste of time and resources. Incidentally, corporations run into massive problems once corporate identity turns into corporate inquisition.

    Based upon my experience, the disruption that leads to change sometimes comes from the top, due to the hierarchical structures of many – especially old economy – companies. More often it still comes from the outside, again due to the hierarchical structures of many companies. Remember that Karl Benz was not a member of the horse breeders association 🙂

    Hence the need for more Chief Disruption Officers.

  2. Alejandra Mendoza on April 3, 2014 at 10:34 am


    This blog is compelling and interesting. The topics that you put forth do not only incite curiosity but most importantly, thought. The concept of hidden criteria had not occurred to me before. Nonetheless, now that I ponder on it, I have certainly found myself and others exercising the latter, In fact, I have been in circumstances were my work has been judged by pure gestures of dismissal or crude tightenings of the lip. I suppose I used to not think about it very much, but now I realise that behaviour of that nature not only expresses the most inner parameters of judgement of the doer, but it also affects the judgement and behaviour of those around.

    With this in mind, many times, hidden criteria is born out of disregard for innovative, fresh ideas. Actually, we all tend to judge more strongly, inside the walls of our own mind, those ideas that seem different. And of course, this judgement is expressed through gestures that may be verbal or purely physical. Indeed, it is a herculean imposition to be the one tearing apart the established, old settlements, but someone must do so.

    There is profound beauty in this doing despite the distress it is embedded with. This beauty is the peace that is generated in the soul of another who finds in you, the innovator, a piece of him or herself. There is nothing more uplifting than sensing a reflection of yourself in someone else.

    However, there will always be one, either a peer or someone higher in the hierarchical scheme of everything, that will disapprove of the new proposal and influence other individuals who are fearful of attempting to do that which isn’t part of the uniformity of all things. And, if no one acknowledges the brilliance that you see in whatever it is that you are proposing, it is dismissed, as nothing more than a waste of some “important” person’s meaningful time.

    Sadly, this cycle is repetitive in every field of understanding known to man. Whether it is in science, business, or philosophy, there are plenty of people whose ideas are disregarded and put aside in order to keep the societal machine working undisturbed. That is, of course, until someone does break through, and empowers others to support the brilliance of the new proposition.

    Without a doubt, more new thinkers are needed. Now more than ever before; now that everyone is being stripped of their ability to think well, and to wonder deeply. We must not succumb to fear and thus we must always stand for that which we believe to be better.

    Thank you for making me think.

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