Wharton management professor Samir Nurmohamed specializes in research about employee motivation and behavioral ethics in the workplace. In his latest research, “Hearing Crickets: An Inductive Study of Overcoming Negative Reactions to Radical Creativity,” he examines how companies and individuals can best promote a novel idea or out-of-the-box approach. Using the edible insect industry as a case study, Nurmohamed finds that radical creativity is most likely to be embraced when it’s parsed in terms that are familiar to consumers.
An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.
Knowledge at Wharton: Can you give us a quick overview of your research?
Samir Nurmohamed: This is research that I’ve been doing with my colleague, Spencer Harrison of Boston College, who’s an expert on creativity as well. We were really interested in the question that when creative products and creative ideas are introduced, how do people gain traction for them? If we think about ideas, some are extremely novel and different from prevailing habits in society, and we don’t have much of an understanding of how these ideas grain traction and why some do versus others that don’t. We thought it would be interesting to look at this in an emerging market, such as the edible insects industry here in the United States and other Western countries — observing this industry called entomophagy and what companies and entrepreneurs are using to gain traction for these new products and new types of food.
When you think about the idea of eating insects you probably think, “Ugh, disgusting.” We were interested in how these companies and entrepreneurs are trying to get customers to try their products, which do offer a number of health benefits but also provoke this reaction of disgust. What we tried to do was look at these companies and see what types of tactics they are using, not to just come up with their ideas but also to sell these ideas to the public. We’ve come up with a number of tactics that companies and entrepreneurs are using to “tune down” the novelty of their ideas.
When we think about creative products and creativity, we think you need to be as out there in the world as possible to wildly depart from existing norms. But what we actually find is that you want to tone down or tune back your radical ideas. You want to make them less novel. These entrepreneurs are using some of these strategies to sell their ideas to customers. They’ll come up with vocabulary so that these new products sound much more familiar to us. Similarly, they’ll put them in [familiar] forms — so that they look just like a chocolate bar or a cookie, but they contain insects. We’ve come up with a wide variety of tactics that entrepreneurs are using to convince users to try their products.
Knowledge at Wharton: What were some of the key takeaways of your study?
“People are scaling back their ideas by putting them in familiar forms.”
Nurmohamed: This big idea of tuning back and tuning down the novelty of the ideas was a big one. There’s been some prior research looking at, for instance, Thomas Edison, and what they found is that he had better designs for disseminating electricity, but what he did was use existing designs and existing infrastructure to his advantage. Similarly here, what we found is people are scaling back their ideas by putting them in these familiar forms or using vocabulary that’s familiar to us. Instead of calling them crickets or wax worms, they’ll say that this tastes like pistachio or shrimp — things that are somewhat familiar to us but are also provoking a sense of curiosity to get people to try these products. I think this is really important for businesses, because a lot of investment is spent on coming up with the design itself or the product itself rather than trying to think about the question: How can we get the mainstream public to buy into these ideas that seem quite novel on the surface?
Knowledge at Wharton: Did any of these strategies really surprise you?
Nurmohamed: I think there were a couple that really were a-ha strategies for me. One of them was managing the surplus of ideas that you have. That’s what we call it in the paper. If you think about the people working for you, oftentimes you have to say, “Well, you know what Joe, that idea is just way too out there right now,” and we assume that companies shelve those ideas. What we found in this context is that they are not shelving the ideas. They’re actually using those ideas for the future. They’re trying to work towards some of those ideas that are too extreme right now. Instead of just putting them on the back burner, they’re saying if we imagine a future maybe five years from now where that product will be important and become an everyday thing, what do we need to do today to get there?
Knowledge at Wharton: If you had to advise a company that was introducing a novel product, what practical advice would you give them?
Nurmohamed: When we think about creativity, we assume that a lot of it is being done inside the organization. What really took us by surprise was just how much companies are really using the public to navigate whether this is an interesting idea or not, or whether it will be an idea that gains traction. What’s happening is that some of their customers, some of these clients that are outside of their organizations, are the ones promoting it and using it in really interesting ways.
One thing that we came across in our interviews is how [consumers are] using cricket flour as a way of making waffles or pancakes. That was something that maybe the companies thought would happen at some point, but it’s really being left up to the customer to come up with recipes and sharing those ideas online. Using that to kind of promote your product is really helpful.
“Entrepreneurs are really using the media to see what’s going to gain traction.”
Similarly, we found that entrepreneurs are really using the media to see what’s going to gain traction versus not. They might think that an idea is too extreme right now, but they’ll still pitch it to the media, and the media will cover it. Based on customer reactions, they’ll decide whether they want to produce it or not.
Knowledge at Wharton: What kinds of misperceptions do you think your research dispels?
Nurmohamed: I think one of the big misperceptions of some of this research is this idea that when we see something disgusting, we’re very much revolted by it. I think that’s still very much generally the case. When I say, “Do you want to try this set of crickets here in my hand?” – you would probably say, “No, that sounds really, really gross.” But one of the things that we saw is that entrepreneurs are trying to use some of these negative emotions and harness them into more positive emotions or cognitions.
So I have this set of insects or this set of crickets in my hand, but they actually look like cookies or chips, which are very familiar to us. It almost provokes this sense of surprise or curiosity. What we’re seeing is entrepreneurs are playing a much more active role in shaping reactions to how people respond to their ideas. They’re doing that through the designs that they’re using for their products and how they are pitching them. They’re also using the people around the customer or the people around the audience to really gain traction.
For instance, we observed with these entrepreneurs that if they asked a parent to try one of these edible insects, the parents would be really uninterested in doing it. But of course their kids would be super interested. By seeing their kids [trying the product], it would take the parents back to a time in which eating dirt was actually OK. Again, it’s kind of channeling these negative emotions into something that’s more like surprise or curiosity and saying if my son or daughter can do it, I can try it, too.
Knowledge at Wharton: How does your research stand apart from other research in this field?
Nurmohamed: I think one of the big things for us was trying to find a context where radical creativity is taking shape. One of the things we see in existing research is that we either look at creativity in the lab or we look at more incremental innovation. We don’t see many ideas in our lifetimes that really change the course of things for people. If you think about the edible insects industry, that’s really trying not just to change food itself, but it’s also trying to change eating habits around the world. [Eating insects] is seen as something that’s very off-putting to people, but these entrepreneurs are trying to change it.
“Entrepreneurs are playing a much more active role in shaping reactions to how people respond to their ideas.”
What we were trying to do in this research was go to a context where we would see the phenomenon in action. Whereas some of the prior work on radical creativity or radical innovation has really looked at things in hindsight in evaluating the practices, we’re actually seeing these entrepreneurs [in action] as [their] new businesses emerge. Over the course of our study, we had to keep updating our list of people to interview because there were so many new companies. We got to see companies that were not only well-established and having great sales records, but we also saw companies that were just starting to get Kickstarter donations and that were in that idea-generation phase. That really opened up all lines of the supply chain, but also the creative process to us, which was really interesting as a researcher.
Knowledge at Wharton: What do you want to look at next?
Nurmohamed: A big curiosity of mine in terms of research is looking at [what happens] when individuals or organizations are constrained in some way, whether that’s in terms of resources or talent, or they’re constrained in what they are trying to do in terms of their products. They have a limited set of resources, and they’re trying to make things better for the world. I want to keep pursuing this research related to creativity but also take it back to employees. How can they gain traction for their ideas when they’re facing adversity?