Recently, I heard from a new subscriber who asked if I had any thoughts on “how to get more ideas out of a work team”. He also drew attention to a recent “BusinessWeek” article by Liz Ryan — Corporate Provocateur September 23, 2011 — entitled “Ten Things Only Bad Managers Say”. So let me start there. If you say or, worse believe, any of the following statements from Liz’s list, it is a good bet you will not get much in the way of good ideas out of any team:
“If you don’t want this job, I’ll find someone who does”.
“I don’t pay you to think”.
“I’ll take it under advisement”.
“Who gave you permission to do that”?”
“Don’t bring me problems. Bring me solutions”
“Sounds like a personal problem to me”.
“I have some feedback for you and everyone here feels the same way”.
So assuming you don’t find yourself on the above list, what can you do to maximize your ability to get great ideas out of your team?
Start with whom you hire. True, most managers inherit a staff rather than hire one. Yet most managers also hire over time. So if you want creative, idea people, screen and interview for them and don’t settle for less. Look for a track record illustrating creativity, out of the box thinking, and the guts to speak up in front of colleagues and the boss. Ask behavioral questions where job candidates can tell you about some ideas they pursued in some previous incarnation that took folks in a new or different direction. Even a few of these folks on your team can often stimulate and unlock idea generation in some of their work colleagues.
Role model what you want from others. Idea women and men tend to gravitate to managers who are idea generators themselves. Freely share your ideas with your team but be careful not to fall in love with your own creations simply because they are yours. Encourage your team to critique your ideas, to modify and develop them, and to reject those that fail to survive the light of day or the giggle test. Acknowledge when one of your ideas falls short of worthy pursuit and openly admit when someone else has a better idea. As a role model you are setting the standard for what you want from your team and encouraging them to follow your lead.
Create opportunities for creative, non-judgmental idea generation. This is your opportunity to encourage a little play and fun at work; qualities frequently lacking in today’s bureaucratic, hierarchical, organizations. Because free, innovative, creative thinking among colleagues and in front of authority figures requires conquering one’s fear of being judged silly, stupid, or ridiculous, opportunities to let loose one’s ideas should be frequent, familiar, practiced, non-judgmental, and safe. So make these opportunities happen often. If you have to schedule them on a regular basis, so be it. Also bear in mind that it takes surfacing a boat load of potential ideas, simply to find the few that actually warrant pursuit.
I have previously mentioned Tom Kelley’s and Jonathan Littman’s two books focused on the innovative practices of the North American design firm IDEO: “The Art of Innovation” and “The Ten Faces of Innovation”. They are a great source of ideas for establishing the sort of creative and fun environment I have in mind here and offer textbook-quality insight into the art of project-relevant “brainstorming”.
Demonstrate a willingness to experiment by acting on ideas of potential value to your organization. While brainstorming is generally great fun, managers must produce results. Moreover your team will soon lose interest if none of their ideas are ever pursued. The best organizations in my experience are always characterized by a bias for action. They do not confuse talking about something with actually doing it. So if an idea seems to have potential value, act on it. Do not expect instant perfection. Rather think in terms of doing something, assessing the results, fixing what seems needing further development, then pushing on. Keep at it until you achieve a final result you deem worthy of prime time exposure. Few things excite a work team more than seeing an idea fulfilled in actual practice.
Resist reacting negatively to failure but do insist on learning. There is no such thing as creative and innovative achievements without a lot of mistakes, missteps, and failures along the way. A great many of the most significant scientific discoveries were the result of accidents that occurred during extensive idea experimentation looking for something else.
I am often reminded of management consultant Tom Peter’s encouragement that organizations adopt the philosophy of “fail fast frequently”. His notion embodies a bias for action, with the inevitability of some failures along the way and the opportunity those failures present for learning and progress. Working in this type of environment generates the sort of infectious, intellectual energy that should reward any manager whose goal is to get more ideas out of her or his team.