To solve problems, groups need good ideas. Since complex problems usually require many good ideas, we generate them any way we can — brainstorming, conversations over lunch, or even dreaming. The ideas we generate include the good, the bad, and the ugly, and it isn't always obvious which is which. We have to comb through them all, evaluating, assessing, doing thought experiments, and making judgments. When we think we've found something worthwhile, we might do some actual experiments to help with the judging.
Generate, judge, experiment. Generate, judge, experiment. It isn't a simple cycle, of course, because sometimes we generate new ideas in the course of judging, or while running experiments. Nevertheless, it's useful to consider three roles for group members: generators, judges, and experimenters. Some people hop easily from role to role, and some adopt two roles — or all three — simultaneously.
Although ideas have a life cycle, we don't always respect that life cycle, and that's where trouble can begin. Over the next three issues, I offer some insights that help us to accommodate our generating, judging, and experimenting efforts to the life cycle of ideas. Let's begin with generating.
- Newborn ideas are fragile
- Newborn ideas — ideas just hatched and new to the group — are easily crushed. They usually have weaknesses that haven't yet been addressed. They're incomplete and vulnerable.
- Their vulnerability arises from at least three sources. First, if the problem space is complex, the generator of the idea might have grasped only a part of the problem. Second, generators tend to focus on singular aspects of the problem, even if they have grasped the entire problem. Third, to aid generation, generators often intentionally produce wacky or mostly-wacky ideas, because they can trigger creative thinking.
- To prevent premature rejection of newborn ideas, suspend judging until generation has completed an iteration. This suspension is an important part of formal brainstorming.
- Addressing weaknesses requires resources
- Newborn ideas are Newborn ideas are incomplete,
in part, because of the
their constituenciesincomplete, in part, because of the narrowness of their constituencies. Because it's new, a newborn idea hasn't yet acquired advocates beyond the small circle of its generators. This is rarely enough to protect a newborn idea from rejection, as its list of weaknesses accumulates.
- When we apply our judging and evaluation processes to newborn ideas, they sometimes die because their constituencies are so narrow that they suffer from insufficient exposure to cognitive diversity. For example, their generators might not have considered a weakness identified by a judge, or even if they have, they might not have developed a resolution.
- To prevent premature rejection of newborn ideas during judging, consider designating teams of advocates to address the weaknesses judges identify. The advocates might need more members than the judging team, because addressing weaknesses can be more difficult than identifying them.
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- Once you find a task that you can tackle as a "barn raising," your work is just beginning.
Planning and organizing the work is in many ways the hard part.
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That can make the problem even worse. Why? How does this happen? What can we do about it?
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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