July 23, 2015 | By Wisconsin School of Business | Back to press releases

While CEOs and business leaders frequently cite creativity as an important leadership quality and innovation as a critical competency, recent trends in technology and the marketplace seem to be limiting our ability to think creatively and be creative. Even in the toy department, the Legos of the past—a box of loose bricks and tiles that, with a little bit of imagination, could be turned into anything—have been crowded out by Lego kits that provide the pieces and instructions necessary to build a specific item.

A new study from the Wisconsin School of Business finds that working in well-defined problem-solving situations where the problem is clear and there is an identified way to reach a known solution, diminishes creative thinking and the desire to engage in creative tasks.

Page Moreau, professor of marketing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Wisconsin School of Business, and Marit Gundersen Engeset of Buskerud and Vestfold University College in Norway conducted a series of experiments with subjects building with Legos. Some were asked to assemble kits and others were told to simply “build something”. All were then asked to engage in creative tasks, where their performance was measured. Those subjects who tackled the well-defined problem of building the kits performed worse on subsequent creative tasks than a control group and those who built whatever they felt like building.

“We live in a world where fumbling with a roadmap has been replaced by getting directions from Siri, where struggling to find the name of a movie has been replaced by Googling it, and where following a recipe for an Italian meal can be replaced by picking up a Bertolli ready-to-cook frozen meal for dinner,” says Moreau. “The marketplace is offering more and more products that engage us in well-defined problem solving, and that impacts our ability and even our willingness to be creative.”

Moreau added, “Our results have implications for business managers and for public policy makers, in terms of how to promote innovation, how to market products, and how to look at education reform.”

Moreau said a well-defined problem-solving mindset is characterized by convergent thinking, with an emphasis on speed, accuracy, and logic in pursuit of a single best (or correct) answer to a clear question. Additional research found that it wasn’t the rigid process of building a Lego kit that reduced creativity, but rather the search for that single correct answer. A subsequent group of subjects were given the Lego kits without instructions, with one group receiving a picture of what the finished kit should look like and the other left to build what they wanted. Both groups were then given an ill-defined problem that serves as a common test of creativity—brainstorm as many uses for a paperclip as possible.

The participants who were given a picture of the finished Lego kit in the first task produced fewer original uses for the paperclip than those who did not, providing additional support for the idea that well-defined problems create a mindset that carries over to impair creativity in later tasks.

The findings support the widespread belief that corporate culture can have a positive influence on innovation outcomes. Encouraging employees to engage in open-ended problem solving, rather than focusing on well-defined problems can generate a more creative environment. And in the area of education policy, educators should consider how “teaching to the test” and focusing primarily on questions with one right answer may be contributing to the decline in creative problem-solving skills among students.

Moreau’s research paper, “The Downstream Consequences of Problem Solving Mindsets: How Playing with Legos Influences Creativity”, will appear in the Journal of Marketing Research.