What's Stopping the Big Idea?

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"When I work with leaders, one of the biggest challenges they face is fighting groupthink. I have yet to meet a leader who does not find it frustrating that it's so hard to get people to share their most unconventional ideas and speak up with important suggestions."
Adam Grant, author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, in an interview with The Washington Post

Grant, a Wharton professor at age 34, writes op-eds with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and got a book blurb from Star Wars director J.J. Abrams. His last book, Give and Take, proposed that nice guys—like he is reported to be—can finish first. His new book looks at how people with groundbreaking ideas make them happen. If we accept his above premise about groupthink, what can be done to bring new ideas forward? Here are some answers.

1. Give people time to think independently before an idea meeting, wrote Jill Geisler, author of Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know, on the Poynter site. "We often bring a group together to brainstorm, then encourage people to keep thinking about things on their own afterward. But the data is clear that "...groups organized with alone-then-group hybrid structure generate more ideas, better ideas, and are better able to discern the quality of the ideas they generate."

2. Encourage and reward idea givers. "I don't think we have a shortage of creative ideas in the world," says Grant. "...where the shortage exists is that people don't know how to champion them. They don't know how to speak up... get heard... find allies, they don't know whether one or two of the dozen ideas they've come up with is any good."

3. Diversify any work teams you form. Research finds that socially different group members do more than simply introduce new viewpoints or approaches. Diverse groups tend to outperform more homogeneous groups not because of an influx of new ideas, but because diversity triggered more careful information processing. "The mere presence of diversity in a group creates awkwardness, and the need to diffuse this tension leads to better group problem solving," said the study.

4. Hire people who don't have the same values or experiences of others there. Grant said that while strong organizational cultures may help to attract top people, they also "tend to predict more stagnation, more inertia, and more difficulty with innovation and change. That's because... you're trying to bring in people who share something in common. So that means they buy into the same set of values [and] approach problems in similar ways.... that crowds out diversity of thought... Instead of bringing in people who fit the culture, let's bring in people who enrich the culture."

5. Ask for quantity and creativity, not perfection. Again from Geisler, "...if you ask people to come up with a few great ideas, they [may] self-censor, fearing their offerings aren't good enough. Ask them to conjure up lots of creative thoughts..." I recall Molly Lindblom of Business Transformations, and David Foster of BVR, emphasizing this in a session on new product development. They said that by putting ideas quickly out there, you'll get valuable feedback and discussion. "When you invalidate an assumption, say you find out that you completely mischaracterized a customer segment, you walk away with those insights and gems that can point you in the right direction."

6. Leave an empty chair to represent the customer. In a book I've mentioned here before, To Sell Is Human, Daniel Pink relates a story about Amazon founder—and Washington Post owner—Jeff Bezos, who often puts an empty chair in important planning meetings. "Seeing it encourages meeting attendees to take the perspective of the invisible but essential person. What's going through her mind? What desires and concerns? What would she think of the ideas we are putting forward?"

Interestingly, Pink will be interviewing Grant here in Washington, D.C., on Monday night. 

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…