What they say about following the leader is true: if that's your game, you'll always be a step behind. With competitors multiplying like fruit flies on last week's banana, the key to getting and staying ahead is to forge your own path. The trick is to avoid succumbing to groupthink within your company, which will kill your chances of coming up with truly fresh ideas - and slowly kill your business in the process. 

Amazon, famous for its innovation prowess, has a novel approach to fighting groupthink: defaulting to "yes." New ideas tend to need a business case, whereas continuing on the existing path doesn't. So it's easy for the status quo to persist, and hard for new ideas to grow. To level the playing field, managers are encouraged to on new ideas and working out how to make them viable. They essentially argue their way out of a "yes" instead of into it.

The corollary to avoiding groupthink is building a culture of respectful dissent. It's not enough for the top brass to have an "open-door" policy even when they really do value input from the lower echelons, although that's important for setting the tone. People at all levels should feel empowered to ask tough questions about what's going on inside their team, their department, and even other areas of the company. 

Like any cultural shift, it doesn't happen overnight. And, more importantly, you don't have to wait for a massive top-down initiative or "transformation program" to plant some seeds and reap the rewards. Start with these five tactics and make each of them a habit. 

1. Designate a dissenter

The Wright brothers used to argue profusely but ended up turning their differences of opinion into a game. At lunch, they'd swap roles and have to argue for the other brother's point of view.

We can apply this concept to every meeting whose goal is to generate ideas, solve a problem, or make a decision (which, ideally, is all meetings). Assign someone the role of provocateur. Their job is to offer constructive criticism and ask questions like: 

  • What if this assumption we're making proved false?
  • How could that fail? 
  • Who are the people this wouldn't appeal to, or wouldn't work for?
  • Why is now the right time for this idea?

They should also look for flaws in the logic and call out assumptions that should be validated before they're acted on. If you've got a natural cynic sitting at the table, this is a great way to parlay their negativity into a positive force.

2. Build a diverse, balanced team

I once brought an idea to a Monday meeting. And I loved that idea. I'd been refining it all weekend. When I raised it with the group, they spent the next hour tearing it to shreds and we emerged with something that was about a trillion times better. The group's diversity meant that they saw it from all sorts of angles I hadn't, which uncovered both to new opportunities and edge-cases I hadn't considered.

Or consider the story of the airbag. When it was first released, it actually injured average-sized women and children. Why? It was invented by a team of seven men and tested exclusively on men. 

One person's edge case is another person's primary use case. But without empathy for the "other", you'll never see them. That's why it's critical for teams to be two-dimensionally diverse: demographic diversity (age, race, etc.) and acquired diversity (military experience, multi-lingual, etc.). The more perspectives you can bring to the table, the better your chances of coming up with that breakthrough solution. 

3. Embrace your skeptics

It might be the guy sitting two desks away or a contrarian friend, but you know who they are. Before getting deep into a project, run the idea past them and ask them to poke holes in it. One of three things will happen: you'll strengthen the idea in ways that account for the faults they find; you'll scrap the idea altogether and turn your attention to something else; or, you'll pursue the idea as-is, but add a plan for responding publicly to critics. 

4. Disrupt your neuropathways

Group brainstorming is held up as the ultimate way to come up with fresh, innovative ideas. But the longer the group has worked together, the more they think alike - not exactly a recipe for ideas that stand out from the crowd. 

I like to put constraints on brainstorming. Although it sounds counterintuitive, having to work around a constraint forces your brain out of its usual ruts. If you need to improve your "404 error" page, for example, have the group spend five minutes generating ideas that use humor. Then five minutes on ideas that play on the user's curiosity. Then five minutes on ideas that hinge on rich imagery. And so on. 

At the end of each round, have everyone in the room remove any idea they think is only so-so. This not only creates a safe space for dissent, it means you'll be left with only the truly excellent ideas. They'll be few, but that's ok. All you need is one. 

5. Talk to your customers

I know, I know: talking to customers is scary! They're the ultimate dissenting voice. They're also a goldmine of actionable information and insights. Your customers are more diverse than any team you could craft, and they won't hesitate to be candid about what they like and don't like about your product or service. In fact, they'll probably tell you about ten ways they're using it that you never even imagined. 

Be sure to share the highlights of customer conversations with your leadership team and anyone else whose work could benefit. 

In the future, robots might do this job for us

A recent report from UC Berkeley and Tata Communications notes that in the not-so-distant future, AI can help save us from groupthink. Soon, AI may be able to offer contrarian opinions that prompt more meaningful discussions and improve decision-making or analyze meeting notes and call out where assumptions are being made. Project management tools may soon come equipped with algorithms that suggest subject-area experts from other parts of the company who could contribute. 

Until then, we'll have to keep looking for creative friction the old-fashioned way. 

Published on: Oct 23, 2018