Creativity is a team sport. Whether you are an extrovert or an introvert, when you are within a team, others can build on top of your ideas, and you can build on top of theirs. The quality of teamwork depends on the ability to do just that and have an open and honest debate of ideas. However, political correctness prevents us from pointing out flaws in other team members' ideas.

While historically brainstorming required you to initially defer judgment (during the divergence phase of brainstorming), it was later discovered that even early judgment helps in formulating great ideas within a team. When we are politically correct, we avoid judging altogether. We accept all ideas as "great" ideas, even if in our hearts and minds we know some of those are pretty stupid. As a result, we may end up having a very large number of ideas, but very few that are really good.

"There is no such thing as a stupid question" is one incarnation of political correctness. You are about to ask a question, knowing it might be a stupid one. You are not sure whether you should ask it or not, so you prefix it with "this might be a stupid question," to which you receive the almost immediate response "there is no such thing as a stupid question." Sounds familiar? And there lies the problem. You are going to ask your question, which, by the way, might very well be a stupid one. However, nobody will now tell you that your question was stupid. They can't. Not after the assurance you just got that your question cannot be stupid in any way, shape, of form. So, what do we do now? We have to treat your question (or idea) as a good one, and settle for mediocrity of the process.

For the team to be creative, true, and honest, true and honest judgment must be used. Some ideas may be stupid. Some questions may be stupid. Some of them are stupid at the time, but will reveal themselves as smart later on, and in a different context. How should you fight this urge to be politically correct, then?

1. Ask stupid questions

Be willing to ask stupid questions, suggest stupid ideas, and be told they are such. You need to feel comfortable enough to do that. Nobody expects you to have great questions and bright ideas only. Besides, you might find that what sounds stupid in your head gives someone else a much better idea. Don't hold back. Share, and be willing to accept the criticism. After all, what's the worst thing that will happen if you ask a stupid question?

2. Don't make promises you can't keep

When someone is reluctant from sharing an idea or asking a question because it might be stupid, don't make the "there is no such thing as a stupid question" promise. You may be wrong. Very wrong. You should respond with "what's the worst that can happen if you ask a stupid question?" Minimize the fear of proposing less-than-perfect ideas. You can also ask "what if we find this is a great question?"

3. Attack the idea, not the person

And then it happened. The other team member asked the question, and it was, in fact, stupid. Don't sugar-coat it. Don't say it was a great idea if it was mediocre at best. Say it was a bad idea. Say why. Don't tell your teammate he is stupid. Don't make them defensive, but offer direct and honest feedback. "Don't be mean when you say it..."

4. Build trust first

The willingness of a team member to be vulnerable and ask stupid questions or propose stupid ideas depends on trust, defined as "the safety in relationships." Before you ask team members to feel comfortable asking stupid questions, they need to know that you will not make fun of them personally. They need to know that what you say is what you mean. Trust takes time to build, but without it--you will never get over the fear of asking stupid questions. Very few people ever will.

5. Set ground rules

I found that setting ground rules at the beginning of a meeting helps a lot. A rule such as "nothing is off the table" will assure that team members will not hide controversial topics. Another rule such as "what happens here, stays here" will calm the fear of your stupid questions being put on display outside the team. Even a rule such as "stupid questions/ideas are welcome" would help. Use your imagination to put together a set of ground rules that will assure team members will be willing to share whatever potentially stupid idea or question they have with the rest. That's the only way the team will produce 1+1=3.

Now, do you have a stupid question?

 

 

Published on: Apr 26, 2016
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.