Generating New Ideas
Last year, an article in The New Yorker Magazine claimed that brainstorming doesn’t really work. The article was written by Jonah Lehrer, author of “How We Decide.” It threw cold water on works that dated back to the 1940s which had touted brainstorming as the supreme way to generate new ideas and to stimulate creative thinking.
Lehrer did allow for the preservation of one aspect of brainstorming. He cited research that showed that problem-solving and creative idea generation is best done collectively rather than individually. Collaborating in groups with representation from various disciplines and specialties is more likely to result in new ideas. He explained this by describing how complex our problems have become at the same time that our jobs and perspectives have become narrower and more specialized.
So what, exactly, is it that groups of people are supposed to do? It’s not good, old-fashioned brainstorming. Instead, it’s debating and looking at multiple angles and applying critical thinking to the problem at hand. In fact, it’s just the opposite of the post World War II approach to brainstorming which required a criticism-free zone as unedited ideas were offered within the group.
To be effective in engaging in this type of discussion where dissension is essential and criticism is valued, a group would need to be comfortable with conflict and able to trust one another.
In polite company, we’ve been taught that it isn’t nice to argue and it isn’t kind to criticize. How many new ideas and advances have inadvertently been suppressed because someone didn’t want to “rock the boat?” In the workplace, the person most likely to be ostracized in a group is the person who challenges established ways of doing things and doesn’t immediately go along with the group. It turns out that this person may be the group’s greatest asset, a resource who naturally mines for conflict and sees the value of debate.
In group settings, we’ve also been taught that the voices of some are more important than the voices of others. We hold back after an authority figure has spoken, not comfortable with the idea of countering this power voice. We may not mean to become sycophants, but by holding back we add no more value than that to the group.
There is actually a danger in too much agreement within a group. It’s a phenomenon known as “group think” that occurs when group members come to decisions too readily without looking at all the angles and considering enough options.
Group think happens when a strong voice overpowers or suppresses other voices. It happens when efficiency and speed are valued over effectiveness and big picture thinking. It happens when there is not sufficient trust built up within a group to make conflict accepted and even expected.
This movement toward embracing healthy conflict and challenging established thinking is validated in multiple sources. Consider these examples:
1) Lencioni’s groundbreaking work on what makes work teams effective points toward a formula that starts with building a strong foundation of trust so that group members will engage in healthy conflict. He says that only then can members of the group fully commit, be held accountable and then drive results.
2) The Kouzes and Posner research on the 30 behaviors of effective leaders calls out six behaviors that are related to “Challenging the Process.” These behaviors describe how leaders should stretch themselves, take risks, and search outside the “tried and true” to find new ideas and solutions.
3) Recent research by the Corporate Executive Board found that the most successful salespeople challenge their client’s thinking and introduce new ideas. They do not shy away from conflict by offering only what’s been used and accepted by the client in the past.
4) Adult learning principles tell us that adults, if they are to learn, must be given opportunities for critical reflection. In order to learn, adults need to ask questions and debate so that new ideas can be calibrated with past experiences.
5) Best practices in business coaching also illustrate the need for “stirring the pot.” The most effective coaches ask the tough questions and promote self-discovery by challenging established mindsets.
To generate new ideas and to stay a step ahead of competitors, businesses must devise new ways to solve problems and to innovate. In our personal lives, we also have to accept that change happens with or without our willing participation – so it may NOT be a bad idea to develop good conflict skills and a backbone to engage in healthy debates.
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