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Team Creativity At Work I and II: Creative Problem Solving At Its Best
Edward Glassman : Listening to New Ideas at Work

Listening to New Ideas at Work

By Edward Glassman, PhD

A TRUE STORY: At one workshop, a brand manager in a Fortune-500 company told me he had learned creative thinking techniques like brainstorming before, but never the habits that affect the creative climate with clarity. He claimed a positive atmosphere was missing in his team, and that negative habits spoiled their creative thinking. As he said: "Creative thinking techniques by themselves are not enough. A creative atmosphere is essential."

Most people in my creative thinking workshops make mostly negative comments when presented with a new idea. They do this under the guise of honest criticism, devil's advocate, or constructive criticism. Indeed, quick negative criticism commonly inflicts our society.

A HABIT THAT SPOILS CREATIVE THINKING: We respond to new ideas with quick negative criticism and a habitual automatic NO that usually maims or kills new ideas and spoils creative thinking.

Criticism spoils creative thinking. Only the toughest risk takers will volunteer to share the first-stage, half-baked ideas that most of us have. Successful creative people, who have written about their creative thinking, agree that quick negative criticism has a devastating effect on new ideas. Albert Einstein made this point in his autobiography.

Still, you have to give honest opinions about new ideas. Here are some ways to do it without spoiling creative thinking and stifling people's desire to present new ideas.

Suppose a person in brings you an idea they like very much. How would you respond? Very carefully, I hope.

First, you should be thinking that whatever the idea's flaws, you need to trust this person. Consider that the new idea has merit. After all, its proposer thinks so.

Consider also that you want this person and other people to bring you ideas and proposals in the future, and you do not want to discourage this.

Also, you do not want this person to leave feeling resentful, as you have done, when people rejected your ideas.

Finally, you want this person to tell you about this idea without feeling defensive, or under pressure. Abolish the hot seat antagonistic to a positive creative climate. Given all this, you do not say: "That's a lousy idea."

I recommend you curb your automatic NO and use "Yes, if..." describing the conditions needed to get from NO to a conditional YES.

A TRUE STORY: At the end of one creative thinking workshop, an executive who tried "Yes-if" for the first time said he noticed that "Yes-if" not only kept him away from his automatic No, but led him to listen to the new ideas presented to him very intently to discover the ways to convert a NO to a conditional YES. As he put it: "Yes-if converted me into a collaborator to help a new idea get going, rather than staying a judge."

Let's see how you might use Yes-if. Say "YES," there are many interesting and useful features about this idea, "IF, we can improve this aspect..." Clear, supportive, and crisp.

Notice that you have pointed out a fatal flaw and still helped the other person feel encouraged. People often ask why not start with direct questions. In my experience, and from what others tell me, many people perceive immediate quick questioning as a negative response that puts them on the defensive, and lowers their willingness to propose new ideas again.

The person can now respond to your Yes-if comments in several ways. He or she might say: "You're right. I had not noticed that. Thanks for telling me. I'll change the concept," and leave, hopefully feeling encouraged, and thinking you took his or her ideas seriously.

Now aren't you glad you didn't say "That's a lousy idea" when you first heard it? Of course, it might have been easier if the other person had made it clearer. This leads us to another habit that spoils creative thinking.

A HABIT THAT SPOILS CREATIVE THINKING: We expect sellers of ideas to present their ideas in perfect form. No half-developed ideas for us. Every "i" dotted, every "t" crossed, every concept clear, every label and term used correctly, and no errors of spelling or grammar.

In other words, we expect them to help us before we help their idea. Beware. Creative ideas rarely appear in perfect form, and negative consequences occur if you insist on this. People will expend valuable time and effort toward perfectionism. Besides, few of us have training in selling ideas anyway. In my book on Team Creativity, I have a chapter on how to sell proposals.

A TRUE STORY: A plant manager wrote me after a workshop that "Yes-if turned me into a better listener, one who is more empathetic with his people, better understood, and now more predictable. My effectiveness improved by leaps and bounds!"

Alternatively, you might use "What's good about it" and state three positive statements first.

Or you could pretend your boss presents any idea you hear. Make up your own idea-helping approach. Your attitude counts a great deal. Other statements to encourage new ideas include:

  • The value of that idea is....
  • That seems like a useful idea. Can we build on it?
  • A good start. Can we help it?
  • It seems we are getting somewhere.
  • Describe that in more detail. Tell me more about it.
  • How can we make this work?
  • I am interested in what you have to say.
  • Tell me what you are thinking.
  • I like your idea. Let's see how we can get over this snag.
  • That idea has value. Let's get the bugs out.
  • You may very well be right. Still, let us look at it another way.

The more polite alternatives to Yes-if include the following quick creative thinking spoilers.

  • It's already been patented.
  • We've never done it that way before... We've tried that before.
  • If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
  • Once you define the problem properly, the solution seems obvious (so we don't need to generate more ideas).
  • We don't need any more new ideas around here; what we need are more doers, implementers, product champions, etc.
  • The problem with that idea is...
  • It's not in the budget ... or We haven't the personnel.
  • What will the customers (unions, top management) think?
  • Somebody would have suggested it before if it were any good.
  • We're too small for that ... or We're too big for that.
  • We have too many projects already.
  • It has been the same for twenty years so it must be good.
  • I just know it won't work.
  • That's not our problem / responsibility.
  • Engineering can't do it...Production won't accept it.
  • You'll never sell that to management.
  • Why something new now? Our sales are still going up.
  • Not in the plan... No regulations covering it.

Stop using these quick spoilers; they have many detrimental effects.

First, people will suppress and stop expressing their ideas.

Second, creative people stop being creative on the job and save their creative thinking for the weekend.

Third, some people become defensive, apologetic, and shoot-down their own ideas before anyone else does.

Finally, some people tend to do things the same old safe, complacent way instead of taking risks, exploring new perspectives, shifting paradigms, and developing half-baked, half-developed, bizarre ideas. Not all of these pan out, of course, but unless you deliberately and relentlessly help develop new ideas, they perish. If you want to be around butterflies, you have to help many caterpillars. •

© 2011 by Edward Glassman. All rights reserved.

Edward Glassman, PhDEdward Glassman, PhD was the President of the Creativity College®, a division of Leadership Consulting Services, Inc., and Professor Emeritus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he headed the Program For Team Effectiveness And Creativity. More »