Are your clients unknowingly killing your creativity?

Posted on Posted in General, Meetings

The scenario:

The client sits down in a meeting with you and your team. They explain they want something original, revolutionary. Something people can’t help but talk about.

They offer a couple ideas of their own to serve as examples. “But of course you guys are the experts,” they say. “We want you to have a completely blank page!”

Unfortunately, it’s too late. The page is no longer blank. Your creativity has been contaminated.

The anchoring effect explained:

If I asked you to guess how many gas stations there are in the US, what would you say? Wait. Before you answer, what if I told you that my guess was 200,000? Now, go ahead and guess.

Like it or not, my guess probably influenced yours. An abundance of research has shown the anchoring effect as a powerful cognitive bias that leads humans to overly rely on an initial impression, perspective, or value when making a decision. In other words, unless you happened to know precisely how many gas stations there are in the US, my guess likely served as a reference point, pulling your estimate in its direction.

But here’s where it gets fascinating:

Let’s say instead of guessing 200,000, a reasonable estimate, I guessed 10. We both might laugh at the absurdity of my estimate, but guess what?

The anchoring effect still occurs! Astonishingly, even known false, or totally irrelevant information can influence our estimates and decisions. Even when we consciously try not to let it influence us.

So when you’re sitting in that meeting, listening to the client’s ideas, you might have every intention of ignoring what they say, but don’t be so confident that you’ll actually be able to. Even if their ideas are horrible (and often they are), the research says they’re likely to serve as anchors for your ideas.

Why does this matter?

For many projects it doesn’t. For projects where the client has a specific vision for how they want something done, and your job is to deliver that vision as accurately as possible, a blank page isn’t necessary. In fact, a blank page can be counterproductive.

But for projects where the client is relying on your creativity to come up with something unique, brilliant, something they could have never even dreamed about themselves, the blank page is critical. And in these cases, it’s your responsibility (not the client’s) to prevent contamination, and keep the page as blank as possible.

So what’s a solution?

Select a liaison. Someone on your team who will listen to the client, assess their needs, and find out the parameters for the project. That person should be responsible for strategically filtering that information to the creative person doing the work in a way that provides him with enough to do the project, but prevents unwanted contamination.

And it pays to be conservative in filtering that information to the artist. You can always communicate more information later.

It’s easy to go from uncontaminated to contaminated. The reverse, unfortunately, isn’t easy at all.

3 thoughts on “Are your clients unknowingly killing your creativity?

  1. Very thought-provoking; thanks, Al. The anchoring effect is a very powerful and I’d underestimated just how powerful until I read your post. Definitely something to watch out for.

    Meanwhile, Wolfram Alpha suggests around 88,000 gas stations. Trust, but verify 🙂

  2. This provides a new perspective on why I don’t talk with guests before my show, Al.

    It’s much easier to be spontaneous on the air!

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