First published at Innovation Excellence on 16 March 2014

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.


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