The Primal Mark: How the Beginning Shapes the End in the Development of Creative Ideas

Justin Berg, Stanford Graduate School of Business

Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, July 2014, Volume 125, Issue 1, pp. 1-17.

Abstract: While creative ideas are defined as both novel and useful, novelty and usefulness often diverge, making it difficult for employees to develop creative ideas that are high in both. To explain why and when novelty and usefulness diverge and how employees may overcome this tradeoff, this article introduces the concept of the “primal mark”, which is the first bit of content that employees start with as they generate creative ideas. Due to primacy effects, the primal mark may shape the novelty and usefulness of the ideas that employees ultimately develop. To test hypotheses on how primal marks shape the creative process, I conducted two experiments in which participants started with primal marks that contained varying degrees of novelty. The results suggest that familiar primal marks lead to less novel but more useful ideas, whereas new primal marks lead to more novel but less useful ideas. However, the results also suggest a solution to this tradeoff—starting with a new primal mark and then elaborating it with familiar elements, which tends to produce ideas that are both novel and useful. The implications of these results for theory and research on creativity in organizations are discussed.

Read the full paper here.