A recent day of discussions with one of the U.S.A.’s largest corporations brought to mind some of the innovation related challenges I have experienced. Following a session where we discussed the challenges that led us to build our first private cloud, one of the participants said, “See, I told them we could innovate,” or words to that effect. Essentially this person was referring to something that we see regularly: Quite often, established large IT organizations are mentally pigeonholed as being unable to innovate because they are too large and slow, and/or because they must spend so much of their resources keeping the lights on. What is both interesting and dangerous is that this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy that drives even an energetic and innovative team into a creativity coma, especially when encountered frequently.
Though this is something that I have run into often throughout my career, and not only in the context of enterprise IT, this specific interaction caused me to pause and think about its possible causes. There are many sources ranging from company bureaucracy and size and corporate culture to misery self-erected. As my thoughts became more introspective I realized that a few of the caveats I had written and spoken about recently can be even more damaging in the context of innovation.
The downer dog pile is one of the most fascinating and potentially destructive phenomena I have encountered. Most people have witnessed this, and I would guess many of you have been active participants. It often starts in a group setting following the statement of an objective or of a creative idea. For a very short period of time people contribute to the idea (“plus” it) and then someone states a reason they believe the idea won’t work. Sometimes someone will have a remedy to the first stated objection, though whether or not that is the case another objection or impediment is soon presented. Others follow until there is a deluge of impediments and a metropolis of innovation-killing, energy-consuming walls. The objective of the gathering has somehow changed from making something new happen to finding reasons it can’t be done. Or so it would appear.
I have seen many cases where someone with an execution bias and/or passion for solving problems (puzzles…) has become very excited about an idea, and this early buy-in has manifested itself as if they did not support the objective or idea, or worse, that they were trying to shut it down. With these execution and puzzle-solving biases they immediately begin to think about how the new idea or objective could be accomplished. Unfortunately by the time someone asks them a question they are five phases into mental preparation and thinking about how to overcome a potential obstacle they feel they may encounter later on. Sadly, it is this potential roadblock that is often surfaced when that person speaks or is asked a question, long before they needed to be addressed and before they had been thought through completely. This can send the wrong message to the others; especially if they are senior businesspeople.
This “thinking aloud” is potentially destructive and can often have the unfortunate side effect of “sucking the energy out of a room.” People can become exhausted dealing with what appears to be a barrage of questions or “artificial roadblocks,” and this can contribute to an IT organization’s reputation of being the “Department of no” or the “Office of the CI-No.”
Innovator, tear down that wall!
Though often well-intended, in the context of innovation, dog piling can be an idea killer and a time killer. Without attention to this entire meetings can be dedicated to addressing issues that may not even be impediments to the idea at hand; and it can certainly change the energy in a room to something that is not conducive to brainstorming, creative thinking, or innovation. This also creates an ideal petri dish for interpersonal conflict, which can itself be as spectacular as any innovation. (A recent HBR article discusses the impact of toxic interactions on productivity and employee satisfaction.)
This is a very complex interpersonal issue so what works for one team may not work for another, though a few simple things helped us a lot.
1. A skilled facilitator can be key to getting past the dog pile, or avoiding it altogether.
2. Simple “ground rules” or structure for meetings, or even informal discussions of this nature, can also make a dramatic difference. Everyone must understand these, making “simple” the key word, and they should be covered before the meeting begins. For example, knowing that ideas will be brainstormed initially without constraint and that a discussion of obstacles will take place later on can help.
3. Consistency in the ground rules will help immensely as everyone will understand them and they will become less of a topic unto themselves. I have found that teams will often develop lighthearted, non-threatening, non-insulting ways to move a discussion along if someone is unconsciously dog piling. (Though if the rules are not working, change them. Or get help.)
4. Get write to the point. I recently read some research that indicated that when people are working on things of this nature their creative thinking is often impeded because they think of something and they (subconsciously?) worry that the important thought that came to their mind will be lost if they do not focus on it. One recommendation is to have people write these things down if they are not directly applicable to the current point. There are several variations that work in different situations (though until I read the article I hadn’t really thought about why):
Context and team dynamic/composition can dramatically impact the effectiveness of each of these, though once the ideas are written the participant can focus on the meeting without the subconscious concern that they will forget something important.
Over time this approach can result in extremely efficient meetings regardless of the topic.
5. Start with the infinitely possible. This can be the most difficult of all, and I have found that real focus on this is required in order to achieve the best possible result. Quite often we place boundaries around our thinking based upon our personal experience and what, based upon that, we believe to be possible. I think this may be one reason that newer or younger employees often generate great innovative ideas – because they don’t yet know some things “cannot be done.” Some teams think without constraints naturally, and some need to be frequently coached to think not of what can be done, but to think of what an ideal (“perfect”) solution might look like… if there were no constraints… if anything was possible.
This is definitely one of the more complex issues innovative teams must deal with. The objective is not to shut down communication, or even to shut down discussion of potential objections and obstacles. Those discussions are useful and necessary, and open and honest communication within a team is critical, even when the news is not good. We simply want to allow time for unconstrained thinking so we can enable and empower our teams to accomplish the next “impossible” task.
What things have you seen stifle innovation and creative thinking? What was done to deal with them successfully? Are there things that did not help? I would be grateful if you shared those with us.
If you want to read more about innovation topics, check out the CA Innovation Central blog for more posts.
Quote: “Only those that can see the invisible can do the impossible” attributed to Frank Gaines
Person in a cage image Image courtesy of stock.xchng.