Monday, January 25, 2010

Demand Funny Ideas

All the easy problems have been solved. To solve difficult problems requires deeper thinking and a true commitment to the quest.

Most creative breakthroughs begin with ideas that sound odd at first. People put forward conventional, safe, serious ideas because they think that is what is expected of them at work. If leaders are truly looking for creative ideas, they have to make that expectation clear.

I suggested to a manager that he send some of his people to a marketing seminar that was coming to town, and sent him the brochure. This seminar was directly relevant to his industry. A week later I happened to see him, and asked if he was going to send anyone to the seminar. He said no, he wasn’t. Curious, I asked why not. I thought he would say that they were all too busy to go, or that they had no budget left. His response was revealing. He said “They might come back with some funny ideas”.

On the one hand, this manager would say that his business is innovative. On the other hand, he wanted to exercise control of his people's thinking. There is a tension between traditional management (which is about control), and leading for innovation (which is about freedom). Even if he says he wants people to put forward their ideas, the subtext is "only if they are ideas that fit with my existing views".

People look to the leader for clues as to the “right” way to behave. They offer “safe” ideas which they think will gain the approval of others. One really simple way to get more creative ideas is to ask people to “be creative” with their suggestions. Research shows that people are more likely to produce unusual, useful ideas if they are given instructions to be creative, than if they are asked, for example, to “do their best”*. Asking them to be creative focuses their attention on being creative (rather than, say, pragmatic, or quick).

Funny ideas are fuel for the cauldron of innovation.

*Shalley, C.E Effects of Productivity Goals, Creativity Goals, and Personal Discretion on Individual Creativity (1991) Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 76, No.2 179-185

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