TABLE OF CONTENTS
PICTURE THIS: It’s Monday morning, your typical weekly team meeting. You can see the team steal quick glances to the phones laid face up on the conference table. People are quick to criticize, but when you ask for solutions? Crickets. How are you supposed to run effective meetings that solve problems when nobody participates? On the rare occasion that someone asks a question, they get the side eye, like when that student in the back row asks an irrelevant and lengthy question when everyone is ready to get out of the classroom. You’re trying all the things, cheesy icebreakers, pizza lunches, and one of those misty things that changes colour for relaxation. If only you could just get them to SAY something, to contribute ANYTHING! Your next stop is Value Village to find a Boom Box to hold over your head à la John Cusack in Say Anything
iykyk, 80’s friends.
Your team doesn’t lack ideas; it’s that they think only the good ones are worth sharing.
But how do you know if it’s a good idea? If it has worked before? Or when everyone else agrees? Is it an idea that magically turns this meeting into an email?
If you want a new solution or innovative approach, the seemingly bad ideas are the rainbow that leads to the pot of gold. When you build an environment where people are encouraged to share all their ideas, including the bad ones, you develop business team innovation and drive employee engagement. The first thing you need to do is to build an environment where your problem-solving team can speak up.
Bad ideas are usually bad ideas. But they catalyze thinking and spark ideas that can lead to the solution that changes everything. If you want to build the most successful innovation team: start looking for bad ideas.
As a leader, I’m going to break this to you gently. You hate creativity. They even call it something – the “leader dilemma”, where leaders are averse to creative and unproven ideas. Don’t feel badly, it’s like most biases – unconscious. You might think you are encouraging your team, but you probably have a tell. Maybe you should show up to your team meetings wearing sunglasses and a hat like a poker player trying to hide their tells.
Company Culture Drives Team Innovation & New Solutions
Would anyone on your team feel comfortable suggesting a bad idea? Or would they fear being criticized, shut down, attacked, cancelled, or even called violent? Do you have a “side-eye” culture that silences ideas, or have such a limited time frame for people to explore innovation that there is just. no .time for it all.
We often don’t share our ideas because we worry about what people will think. Rejection is painful. Staying quiet is comfortable.
Searching for bad ideas and encouraging people to share their radical and unrealistic ideas can result in transformational change and innovation in your teams and organizations.
In my keynote presentations and workshops, I often lead the audience through the Guildford’s Alternate Uses exercise. Participants look at an item, such as a brick, and are asked to imagine new ways of using the item. Ideas that are close to the original use of the item (i.e. build a wall with a brick) are considered less creative. Ideas that diverge from the original use (i.e. use a brick as a scuba diving weight) are considered more creative.
In this video of a keynote I gave to Women in Agriculture, you can see how it works. Sometimes, people feel uncomfortable to share ideas, for fear of looking silly or saying something weird. I’ll often ask groups, “How many of you are thinking of a weapon?” and nervous laughter erupts. Spoiler. Everyone is always thinking of a weapon, or something NSFW.
Key point: Mining for bad ideas is not a permission slip to share hateful or prejudicial comments.
In Design Thinking, product development teams search for innovative technology and products to lead to a better customer experience. Teams at Stanford University used “Dark Horse Protoyping” in three case studies in product development. Pursuing a ridiculous, unfeasible idea helped to loosen the constraints of success. One student expressed how the exercise made them “less afraid of doing things that bother people, less nervous about taking risks on the final project.” Another benefit of the approach included a clearer definition of the problem they were trying to solve. Prototyping at a low resolution allows problems and opportunities to be identified early in the project, for rapid iteration.
The Riches are in the RidiculousCaroline Brookfield. Just made that up. Might be a bad idea.
Bad Ideas at the Museum
At the National Gallery of Art, employees gathered in a 4-day design sprint. The goal was to increase digital offerings and foster connections between the museum and guests. Based on a poll, many visitors didn’t consider themselves “art people.”
In their session, they doubled down on some bad ideas, like to require a PhD degree to all visitors or to subject them to mandatory lectures before allowing them to visit. These bad ideas led to the prototyping of short video courses that visitors could access before visiting the exhibit.
Why do people resist sharing their ideas? Most people fear judgment. We feel judgment as we would physical pain. They call it the “sting” of rejection for a reason. We are instinctually programmed to fit in thanks to our outdated survival mechanism. As humans, we evolved a survival tactic of working in communities and groups. If we were excluded from that group, we would die – of starvation, predation, or exposure.
Another reason is the tragic loss of curiosity. People who don’t feel connected to a purpose, or who don’t feel like their contribution matters, lose their sense of curiosity about how things could be different. And if you don’t wonder how things could be different? Maybe because your bad ideas were shut down as a naive new hire? You lose interest in your role in making change.
Now, Doug in accounting won’t get booted out into the tundra for sharing his idea to rework that Excel document into a pivot table. However, he might feel anxious about the consequence of trying to change how things are done around the office if ideas are constantly being shut down.
Successful Team Innovation Case Study – A Glassware Factory
I recently shared a video on Instagram about a glassware factory. It kind of went viral (for my small account, anyway!) 350K views and counting. People really resonated with the story, with thousands of likes, shares and saves:
Criticism is the Enemy of Creativity and Team Innovation
I didn’t want to read the comments, I wasn’t born yesterday, and I knew there would be trolls. But I wanted to engage with those who wanted to debate and discuss the concepts.
As I read the comments, I skimmed over the positive comments and locked right onto the negative ones. I could feel the flush of embarrassment creep up my neck, my heart started pounding and my defensiveness jumped up like a centurion on guard.
I knew what was happening. It’s a concept I speak about on stage – how the fear of judgment holds us back,that we focus on the negative comments (another outdated evolutionary adaptation).
I knew what was happening but it didn’t help.
Among the hundred or so comments included
“I don’t think this person is real”
“I can’t believe she said that out loud”
“This isn’t real”
They couldn’t decide if they were angry that the original workers were fired (an assumption they made), or that the visually impaired workers were victimized and exploited (another assumption).
Do these comments remind you of a team meeting gone wrong?
I wanted to defend myself. To shout out that I don’t support worker exploitation. I never claimed the story was true, and, can’t you see, it doesn’t matter if it’s true? We have used stories for thousands of years to share concepts and ideas, like Aesop’s Fables or Mother Goose.
It didn’t help. Over the weeks of the reel on Instagram getting more traction, I calmed my nervous system, which felt like a herd of hyenas were circling and moving in for the kill. In this scenario, if you need me to spell it out, I was the victim, and the hyenas were the criticism. Thankfully, time helps. After a few days, I could turn on my thinking brain. Some of the comments were trolls from bots or fake accounts. Others were people who had emotional reactions to the story for their own reasons, for which I cannot take responsibility, but I can show empathy.
Ironically, the “BS” and “Terrible” comments prove the point of the video – that people are afraid to share ideas because there is always someone who has something bad to say or personal attacks.
One person remarked that it was ridiculous. My response? Yes! We need more ridiculous!
There can be magic where you least expect it.
Also, there was magic in the comments, even the negative ones. People reacted indignantly with creativity. How would they have done it differently? Ideas like keeping the sighted employees hired so that they could read to the visually impaired workers to keep up morale, or using newspapers in a different language. I encourage you to add your ideas to the comments (and maybe I’ll be brave enough to read them).
The bad idea (theoretically poking out the eyes of the workers who were reading the paper instead of working) catalyzed their creativity to solve a problem in a more palatable way. Despite the judgment and criticism, I achieved my goal. I shared a problem-solving scenario that catalyzed others to have ideas for problem-solving.
Brene Brown and the Fear of Being Seen
I knew it would be uncomfortable to read the comments. My Instagram Reel experience reminded me of what Brené Brown shared after her viral TED talk.
Brené Brown ignored the advice not to read the comments when her TED talk went viral. She found devastating personal attacks in the comment section, things that had kept her small until now in her career. In response? She withdrew and binged on Downton Abbey. Then, following a thread to bury the angst and pain from the comments, she researched who was the President of the US at the time of Downton Abbey. A famous quote from Roosevelt popped up and changes her life. “It’s not the critics that count…..the credit belongs to those who are actually in the arena”.
In this talk for 99U, Brené Brown starts with a bad idea. How to extract eyeball juice from a first grader. She is so nervous about the presentation that she was wondering if there was a way to give herself pink eye. (side note, brilliant!)
“If you are going to show up and be seen, there is only one guarantee. You will get your ass kicked.”Brené Brown
She also suggests only taking advice from others who are also putting themselves on the line (one of the hardest things to do).
“If you’re not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.”Brené Brown
Ok, how are you supposed to do this?
Watch for the 4 critics – Shame, Scarcity, Comparison, and choose your own to complete the group.
Whether a teacher, a coworker, or a boss, there is probably a fourth critic that is unique to your history. You might invite them to lunch and offer them a seat, but let them know you aren’t interested in their feedback, according to Dr. Brown.
“When we stop caring about what people think, we lose our capacity for connection. When we become defined by what people think, we lose our willingness to be vulnerable.”Brené Brown
Building a Problem-Solving Team
So, if you dream of a team meeting where the phones are face down, where people are leaning in and nodding or shaking their heads, and just plain engaged in the process?
Start with an environment where people can share their ideas.
The irony is that the fear of criticism, the fear of showing up as the unique person that you are, which doesn’t align with the “ideal” of what a manager “should” look like, might just be what’s holding you back from being the leader your team needs.
Here are a few suggestions to start:
1. Ground Rules.
To allow creative expression, there must often be constraints. Forbid cruel attacks (well, on each other – theoretical attacks are fair game), eye rolls and unconstructive comments. Start with yourself. I recommend an audio recording of your team meeting and use AI to help you flag the negative comments, interruptions or sighs.
2. Give Everyone a Chance to Speak.
An interesting finding fromthe book Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande found that the simple act of operating room team members introducing themselves increased the chance that they would speak up when they saw something that could compromise patient safety.
3. Be intentional about ideas.
One of the biggest barriers to innovation is the human tendency to diverge and converge at the same time. When you are brainstorming or looking for ideas, make sure that you identify when it is time to diverge. Be ruthless about limiting any criticism or pushback during the divergent time.
Explain to your team that you are diverging, and looking for quantity not quality. You might experiment with timers, music, change the lighting colour, or an other strategy to signal to your team that this is a “no holds barred” time. Heck, buy some balloons. Friendly competition, perhaps, like who has the most ideas, or whose idea would most likely get you fired.
Then, of course, don’t actually fire anyone, just saying.
The bad ideas can still be bad ideas. When the divergent time is over you can criticize and converge and start selecting ideas that are worth pursuing.
Still, no firing, just saying.
Consider a structured Creative Problem Solving Process and facilitator for best results in a big project, or attend a creativity conference to uplevel your own skills.
4. Create TOGETHER.
Teams who create together produce more innovation, have higher cohesion and are less likely to be looking for another job. Keep your teams engaged by working together on problems. You can use team building activities or select small challenges to address together before moving on to bigger issues, like the hygiene of the lunch room microwave.
5. Find the person who can dust you off when things go sideways.
Brené Brown reminds us to find support. Find an ally, if you want to share anything of significance, and get to the end of your life knowing you showed up. Find an ally by your side for the inevitable fall, when you get your ass kicked. But, you will make a difference if you keep getting up and trying again. Find that person who can let you know they are still on your side in the arena.
What’s Next to Building an Unstoppable Team?
Build a culture that isn’t afraid to share bad ideas, who love to riff and bounce new ideas off others, to prototype early and iterate often. You know what isn’t a bad idea? Looking for bad ideas.