Business Psychology

Article No. 370
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Provoking Novel Solutions

Research discovers the value of a scarcity mindset.

To succeed in business, you must solve problems. They are your test. Solve the problems, and your business thrives. Fail to solve them, and you are defeated. The problems win. You lose.

Solutions to problems are a joy, and often, others can appreciate the elegance of a solution, especially if it is novel, if it's an idea unknown yet eminently practical, one that warrants the forehead slap and the comment, "Of course, why didn't I think of that?" Unfortunately, wonderful, business-saving, novel solutions to problems too often elude us: how to get more customers, how to make better use of our resources, how to improve our products, how to expand customers' use of our products. Wouldn't it be nice if we could switch on a place in our brains that would help us? Ravi Mehta from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Meng Zhu from Johns Hopkins in Baltimore may have discovered how to do this.

Mehta and Zhu conducted six experiments that explored the psychology of the generation of novel solutions to problems. They also identified common factors that suppress such ideas. Their experiments demonstrated how to turn on and turn off the mental processes to generate novel, practical solutions to problems. Here's what they learned.

People come to a problem with a mindset regarding resources. It can be one of abundance or scarcity. We're either aware of the wealth of our circumstances or its opposite, our lack of resources. In this country, abundance is pretty much the rule, and this poses a problem according to their research.

Mehta's and Zhu's six experiments required people to generate novel solutions to problems, for example, find a use for 250 sheets of bubble wrap left behind by a moving company after a move. But before Mehta's and Zhu's subjects were presented with the problem, they were prepared for their assignment by having their attention directed to either scarcity or abundance. In five of the experiments, people wrote short essays - for 3 minutes - about growing up either with scarce resources or abundance. In the sixth experiment, they searched the internet and collected images reflecting either scarcity or abundance.

Once the mental mindset of scarcity or abundance was established, subjects tried to solve the problem, and their solutions were judged by independent raters for their novelty and usefulness. People prepared with scarcity mindsets far surpassed those with abundance mindsets, and it happened over and over again.

Scarcity stimulates creative problem solving. Abundance provokes laziness, a mental laziness Mehta and Zhu call the "path of least resistance" (POLR).

Products, businesses, and organizations have their design functions. A telephone is for talking to people. A hamburger fast-food restaurant serves lunch and dinner. The laziness of POLR thinking limits people's thinking to the design functions of things. A scarcity mindset relaxes POLR thinking. When POLR thinking is relaxed, imagining a telephone to access the internet and eating breakfast at a fast-food restaurant easily come to mind. With an abundance mindset and POLR thinking, novel solutions are much less likely to emerge. Since abundance is the rule in our western society, useful, novel solutions to problems are more likely to elude us.

Could a few novel ideas help your business? Do you have any staff meetings planned in the near future? Try this: Induce a scarcity mindset in the minds of your staff following Mehta's and Zhu's example (don't forget to adjust your own mindset). You could ask people to write for three minutes about childhood experiences of scarcity or collect appropriate images from the internet. Next, pose the challenging problems of your business begging for novel solutions to the group, and then facilitate the discussion that explores solutions. Some unique ideas may well emerge.

Sounds kind of exciting, don't you think? Maybe even worth a try.

Reference: Mehta, Ravi and Meng Zhu (2016) Creating When You Have Less: The Impact of Resource Scarcity on Product Use Creativity. Journal of Consumer Research, 42(5), 767-782.

© Management Resources

Keywords: Creativity, scarcity, business problems, meeting exercise
Consult Subject Index for related research.

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