Sub-theme 19: [hybrid] Creativity and Imperfection: Unveiling the Potential of Experimentation and Mistakes

Pier Vittorio Mannucci
Bocconi University, Italy
Barbara Imperatori
Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Italy
Christina E. Shalley
Georgia Institute of Technology, USA

Call for Papers

Hybrid sub-theme!
For further information on hybrid sub-themes, please click here.

Research on creativity in organizations has arisen as an attempt to identify the recipe for stimulating creativity in organizations. With this attempt at “systematizing” creativity, however, has come the recognition that experimentation and the tolerance of mistakes are fundamental preconditions for creativity. Individuals must feel free to risk making mistakes in order to have the autonomy, freedom, and experimental drive that are needed to be creative (Amabile & Pratt, 2016). In the words of Ken Robinson, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original” (Robinson, 2009). Tolerance for mistakes and imperfections has been recognized as a necessary precondition not only for generating ideas, but also for recognizing them, given the high risk and uncertainty associated with novel ideas (Zhou et al. 2017).

However, still today many organizations fail to adopt these practices: despite stating that they want creativity, they tend to reject novel ideas and are intolerant of mistakes (Mueller et al., 2012). While it is well recognized that a risk-tolerant environment is necessary for creativity, organizations often do not attempt to create such environments or do so only on paper. One example is Microsoft before the advent of Satya Nadella as CEO: despite stating that innovation and experimentation were core values of the company, management ended up implementing a culture of power games and fierce internal competition that can be crippling for creativity and innovation. Despite this evidence, we still lack a clear understanding of the barriers that get in the way of actually implementing a mistake-tolerant organizational culture and of the tactics and factors that enable its emergence and effectiveness.
One unifying feature of extant theoretical frameworks is that they see being wrong, failure, and false turns as a “necessary evil”: unavoidable hiccups in the creative process, that are bound to happen and that you thus have to prepare yourself for if you want employees to come up with novel and useful ideas. Mistakes, however, can also be a direct source of new ideas: Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin after forgetting to clean a pile of dirty petri dishes; the Post-It, 3M’s most profitable product to date, originated from Spencer Silver’s failed attempt at developing a super-strong adhesive; Neil Gaiman came up with the idea for one of his most beloved novels, Coraline, after spelling the name “Caroline” wrong; and Wilson Greatbatch invented the portable pacemaker that saves millions of lives every year by plugging a resistor of the wrong size into a circuit. Consistently, successful creative companies such as Pixar and IDEO embrace mistakes not only as something that you must deal with, but also as a powerful source of new ideas (Catmull & Wallace, 2014; Kelley & Kelley, 2012).
At the same time, creative individuals and companies need to adopt processes that ‘avoid’ the mistake of not recognizing unconventional ideas that could be really disruptive. The history of companies is full of examples of creative ideas that did not get the necessary recognition, and that were initially ignored or downgraded. For example, David Sarnoff’s Associates rejected a proposal for investing in the radio in the 1920s because they thought that the wireless music box had no imaginable commercial value and that no one would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular. Similarly, Chester Carlson, inventor of the XEROX machine, received a rejection letter in 1940 saying that no one wanted to copy a document on plain paper; in fact, over 20 companies rejected his idea between 1939 and 1944. However, we still have a limited theoretical and empirical understanding of the individual, collective, and organizational factors that enhance or diminish employees’ ability to generate ideas from mistakes and to recognize their creative potential.
Papers submitted may include, but are not restricted to, the following questions: is it possible to develop processes and systems that enable mistakes to be turned into novel and valuable ideas? Are some people more likely than others to see an opportunity, where others see only wasted time and energy? What are the individual and organizational factors that can help people to recognize the potential of unconventional and apparently imperfect and wrong ideas? These are just three of many questions that extant research does not allow us to answer.
This sub-theme aims to contribute to the ever-growing creativity domain and it welcomes all the scholars that are interested in presenting cutting-edge research on the imperfect beauty of creative outcomes and creative processes, considering their antecedents and consequences. Rigorous conceptual and empirical research with relevance to organizational settings is called for.
Contributors to this sub-theme are encouraged to elaborate and test new theories on how imperfections and seemingly useless discoveries can be the source of powerful, novel ideas and how to support creativity within organizations. We also welcome contributions that explore how creatives can effectively face and deal with potentially harmful mistakes, and we encourage diverse and juxtaposed theoretical perspectives and methods on creativity more broadly. Specifically, we welcome theoretical and empirical contributions that could help organizations create a work environment that tolerates mistakes and imperfections and encourages creativity; on what enables individuals and collectives to identify and develop creative ideas and recognize their, at times, unconventional value; and on what tensions are inherent in the “beautiful imperfection” of the creative act.


  • Amabile, T.M., & Pratt, M.G. (2016): “The dynamic componential model of creativity and innovation in organizations: Making progress, making meaning.” Research in Organizational Behavior, 36, 157–183.
  • Catmull, E., & Wallace, A. (2014): Creativity Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. New York: Random House.
  • Kelley, T., & Kelley, D. (2012): “Reclaim your creative confidence.” Harvard Business Review, 90 (12), 115–118.
  • Mueller, J.S., Melwani, S., & Goncalo, J.A. (2012): “The bias against creativity: Why people desire but reject creative ideas.” Psychological Science, 23 (1), 13–17.
  • Robinson, K. (2009): The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything. London: Penguin.
  • Zhou, J., Wang, X.M., Song, L.J., & Wu, J. (2017): “Is it new? Personal and contextual influences on perceptions of novelty and creativity.” Journal of Applied Psychology, 102 (2), 180.
Pier Vittorio Mannucci is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Management and Technology at Bocconi University in Italy. His research focuses on creativity and creative processes at the individual and team level. Pier Vittorio’s work has been published in international journals and books.
Barbara Imperatori is Professor of Organization Design and Human Resource Management in the Department of Economic Sciences and Business Management at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, Italy. Barbara’s research interests are collective creativity; e-HRM; employee engagement; work social meaningfulness and social innovation. Her contributions have been published in international and national journals and books.
Christina E. Shalley is the Matthew R. and Sharon M. Price Chair of Organizational Behavior, Scheller College of Business, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, USA. Her research interests focus on both individual and team level creativity, and in particular examines the contextual and personal factors that contribute to creativity. Christina’s contributions have been published in national and international journals.