Is your workplace an idea factory, with employees coming up with new product ideas and other new innovations on a regular basis? Or does everything just run along at status quo, with few new inspirations seeing the light? Do you feel like no one but you ever shares any valuable ideas?
If you answered no to the first question and yes to the other two, then your business likely runs like most others. But it doesn't have to be that way. Creating an atmosphere where new ideas flourish and are quickly expressed and passed around would give you a competitive edge. That's the word from Ed Harrington, CEO of Ideas to Go and co-author of the new book Outsmart Your Instincts: How the Behavioral Innovation Approach Drives Your Company Forward.
Our ingrained negativity bias causes us to stifle a lot of ideas, he explains: "We're conditioned to allow negative impressions to form more quickly than positive ones." Our genetic code also discourages us from trying things that are completely new. "We all have an inherent bias against venturing into unknown territory," he says. "We're descendants of risk-averse ancestors whose self-preservation instincts served them well in a time when potential danger lurked behind every boulder or bush. But in today's world, where innovation rules the day, our survival necessitates overcoming these ingrained behavioral biases that hinder new ideas and stifle creative solutions."
So how do you do that? Begin by recognizing that your team members' own innate negativity bias may well cause them to veto their own ideas before they even share them with other teammates or with you. If your workplace doesn't foster the free sharing of ideas, and especially if you yourself tend to shut down discussion quickly if an idea seems unworkable, you're not likely to get employees to tell you what they're thinking, especially if what they have in mind is groundbreaking or unorthodox.
Maybe that's OK with you. But if you want to hear your employees' most creative thoughts, Harrington has some advice:
1. Stop saying "Yes, but...." Start saying "Yes, and...."
"Yes, but..." is a great way to kill innovative ideas, Harrington says. On the other hand, "Purposely using 'Yes, and...' emphasizes what people are in favor of and invites broader participation." It helps the team respond to new ideas with additional ideas of their own. Best of all, it helps reinforce the concept that ideas don't have to be perfect or fully formed when they're first expressed.
2. Make a list of what's good about an idea, and a wish list for making it better.
When you first hear a new idea from someone, or come up with one yourself, begin by making a list of what's most interesting and promising about the concept, Harrington advises. "Don't worry about addressing any problems with the idea. Instead, focus on what's good about it," he says.
Next, make a wish list for the idea. This shouldn't be a list of drawbacks or potential obstacles. Instead, focus on the issues within the idea that may require solutions. For example, you wish the idea could be implemented at a lower cost. Then use the wish list to try to generate solutions to the issues you've identified. "This method allows you to optimize the original idea," Harrington says.
3. Don't make pronouncements too quickly.
"Imposing idea-killing pronouncements when the group is striving for creative ideas is not only counterproductive, it smacks of arrogance," Harrington says. And you won't get as much out of employees' ideas as you could. "It's possible to extract value from even the most outlandish ideas if you give them proper consideration," Harrington says. So don't give in to the temptation to comment right away or say why an idea won't work. Instead, let every idea play out.
4. Be playful.
"Physical play increases fitness for prolonged survival in many animal species, as it makes participants smarter, more agile, and more adaptable," Harrington notes. Among humans, mental play increases empathy and can get us thinking in larger terms. While there are moments in the innovation process where you have to be extremely serious and focused to get the job done, a lighter attitude is better most of the time. "Successful innovation occasionally requires mental play to create emotional energy and resilience," he says.