One of the most pivotal types of feedback you can give others is feedback on their new, creative idea. Often leaders call for "out of the box" thinking, but when out of the box ideas get presented, a lot rests on how we respond.

We can willingly embrace the idea, which will reinforce to everyone around us that we're accepting and new and creative ideas, but we run the risk of investing in and implementing an idea that might not work out.

We can also shoot down the idea, say it won't work, and encourage people to go back to the drawing board. Research shows that this second reaction is much more likely. We routinely claim we want creative ideas, but regularly rejected new, untested concepts in favor of the status quo. In the short-term, this reaction is behind the infamous oversights we know from business history. Xerox researchers invented the personal computer; Kodak employees invented the digital camera. Neither invested in the technology and both allowed others to make a fortune off of their rejection of a home-grown idea. Long-term, this second response might even cause the well of new ideas to run try.

Luckily, there's a third way. Instead of naively accepting or rejecting new ideas, we're better off responding with a question. One I learned from design thinking expert and former business school dean Roger Martin. Instead of offering your immediate reaction, ask "What would have to be true for this idea to work?"

It's not a yes or a no. Instead, it's a willingness to engage everyone in testing the idea. Asking "what would have to be true" invites all parties to depart from their preconceived beliefs and collaborate on a fact-finding mission to test the idea. It's not taking a stance on the idea, at least not yet, but instead it's stepping back and allowing for exploration.

If the exploration yields a list of ways to test the idea, and the idea passes those tests, then we know it's one worth investing in. If it fails them, then it's a mutually-agreed upon failure that allows everyone to feel heard. Great ideas don't get missed, and the ideas that get rejected don't yield the negative responses a quick "no" would normally trigger. And often, the ideas get better just from having been through the process.

Next time someone pitches you a crazy idea, don't give them your opinion at all. Instead, invite them to help you find "what would have to be true."

Published on: Sep 7, 2016
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