CEOs and executive managers understand that today’s rapidly changing global marketplace puts pressure on businesses to become increasingly innovative in order to compete. New products and new ideas are constantly needed to gain that competitive edge.
Organizations need ideas. But who produces those really great ones? Dean Keith Simonton investigated more than 2,000 scientists and discovered that the most respected scientists were more productive than those scientists who did not have as prized reputations. Is that any surprise to any of us? The most respected scientists, however, while having more good ideas and successful projects, also had more poor ideas and failures. Michael Michalko, an expert on genius and creativity, refers to this in his book, Cracking Creativity, as “Geniuses produce. Period.” They produce-both good and bad.
An example of an idea generator is Thomas Edison. He was an incredible genius, but he also had a remarkable number of inventive failures. Another person with many successes was William Shakespeare. Although `many of his plays and sonnets are masterpieces, many others are studied in schools and universities as examples of what not to do.
So what’s the link between Edison and business today? It’s simple-organizations today need innovation and creativity to remain competitive. This means that they need ideas-lots of them. Out of this abundance, some ideas will be successful and some won’t. But in order to grasp those that will possibly financially benefit an organization, all sorts of ideas need to be generated. So, does the declaration, “An idea every minute and every idea a great idea!” help or hinder idea generation?
Unfortunately, this message implies that each idea has to be a winner-that each idea has to be fully formed and complete. Great ideas die before they are formed when we send out the message that we will be happy only when presented with finished, successful products. Unintentionally, we all-at one time or another-unconsciously send out the message, “If you don’t produce, you are fired (or stupid, inadequate, uncreative, or a poor performer)!” And that suppresses and ultimately kills creativity as surely as if we had bound the eyes, mouths, and hands of every creative person in our work force.
In order to encourage creativity, we need to systematically create workplaces that make it safe for individuals to come up with “dumb” or “crazy” ideas, and we need to help other individuals build on those crazy ideas. Organizations need to generate a plethora of ideas, then select those that seem most promising, and go forward with them. But they also need to revisit those ideas that were rejected in the past in order to see if new insight is sparked by a forgotten idea. After all, sometimes those rejected ideas are the ones that are most successful-when they are picked up by the competition.
Remember, the individual who is dissenting is often giving voice to the opinions of many others who are not as comfortable speaking up. So the way you treat this person will be carefully observed. If you embrace the dissent and engage fully, you are likely to see more of this behavior in others eventually. But if you cut the person off and make it clear that dissent is not tolerated, you will produce the opposite outcome.
Encourage Frank Discussion
Many leaders feel they are being paid to be decisive and to lead, not to discuss. They are not comfortable in the role of a discussion “facilitator.” They would rather hear a few opinions of others, then make a decision. And the reality is that often the leader’s decision is the right one.
One of the reasons they have been placed in a position of leadership is that they have been right more often than they have been wrong. Business leaders are typically bright, competent and dedicated to doing what is best for their organizations. So they can be forgiven if they sometimes tend to lean a little too heavily on their own council.
But over time, a leader who does not cultivate a culture of open discussion and dialogue within his organizations will tend to become more and more myopic in his thinking. As he or she gets wrapped in the leadership “cocoon” that filters information coming in, the business instincts that served so well in the past can veer off track.
So encouraging frank discussion can help to ensure that you are always hearing the authentic thoughts and opinions of those around you.
Ask Provocative Questions
One way for a leader to “prime the pump” and drive an organization toward more frank and candid discussions is to ask questions that provoke a truly engaged response. Not obvious questions where the “right” answer is clear, but subtle, nuanced questions that force people to think. Be sure to avoid telegraphing your own thoughts or opinions when you ask these questions, and don’t let anyone hide out.
If you have someone who tends to speak up consistently. let this person know how much you appreciate their opinion, then ask them to hold back in order to force others to step up.
Reward Dissent / Punish “Yes People”
Ultimately you will see more of the behavior you reward, and less of the behavior you “punish.” So find ways to reward those who are speaking up. Let the organization know why you are rewarding them. Make it clear that one of your top values as a leader is open, authentic dialogue. And be patient – some will believe you and respond right away. Others will take longer to be convinced. And some will never be comfortable sharing their genuine thoughts in an open forum. For those people you may need to schedule one-on-one time to get to their true thoughts.
And if you eventually determine that an individual cannot make the transition, then you need to help to move them on to a career somewhere else. This will send a powerful signal to everyone in your organization that open dialogue isn’t just desired, it is a critical part of your corporate culture.