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Busting the barriers to innovation

Is a critical mindset stamping out new ideas in your organisation?

In entrepreneurship circles, the origin of Fed-Ex has become an oft-repeated tale of almost legendary folklore.

A Yale University under-grad named Fred Smith, tasked with creating a business idea for an Economics paper, wrote of a delivery company that would service the entire North American continent with over-night shipping.

This innovative idea, dreamed up in 1962, was submitted to his professor for grading, which was promptly awarded a C.

Undeterred, Fred Smith eventually turned his idea into a reality, with Fed-Ex becoming the first US company to reach $1 billion in 10 years.

This nameless professor has served as an example of how innovators need to expect negative feedback and believe in their idea against the odds.

What is often not mentioned, however, is the fact that this professor was doing his job.

Most academic assessments required a critical mindset – not an optimistic mindset – to engage with the ideas being offered. The danger becomes when we adapt this critical mindset to other areas of life – with product ideation, strategic planning or day-dreaming with our colleagues.

From my experience with innovation in New Zealand, we have an unfortunate tendency to speak critically too early when confronted by new possibilities. Whether in the boardroom or over a beer, our tall-poppy chopping heritage seems to drive a desire to point out flaws in each new idea and explain why it will not work.

This has the unfortunate side effect of stopping most ideas from developing in conversation – and also limiting the sharing of future ideas.

Professor Theresa Amabile, from Harvard Business School, has researched innovation in organisations for over 25 years and cites a closed culture – where ideas are not listened to – as one of the biggest roadblocks to innovation.

The best managers, according to Amabile’s research, are the ones who know when to speak and – more importantly – when to ‘shut up and listen’.

A few years ago, I worked as a youth worker in a local high school. One day, during our basic counselling training, the facilitator shared that one of the best skills to learn is intentional listening. Often, a person’s first comments are merely the tip of the iceberg of their thoughts and dreams, yet interruptions or critical speaking can stop their sharing at a significant level. The next day at school, I decided to put this to the test.

The results were mind-blowing. Whenever a young person paused or finished a sentence, I would wait or encourage them to ‘go on’. What followed was a fresh depth of conversation, with teenagers painting vivid pictures of their dreams, frustrations and struggles – and often would lead to them suggesting options for themselves to follow. The more I listened, the more they shared, engaged with their own ideas and developed their own solutions. 

One of my colleagues tells of his first day in a new management position. One of his employees came to him with a problem that had been plaguing the organisation for a decent period of time – and one that was outside of this new manager’s expertise.

Literally speechless as he tried to come up with an idea that would prove his worth – he ended up sitting back and looking at the employee as he racked his brain. The silence proved so uncomfortable that the employee started to suggest ideas – ideas they had held on to for a long time, but had never been able to be heard.

This manager encouraged the employee, helped them think critically through the possibilities of each idea – and then empowered them to go achieve this solution. It sounds simple, but it is amazing how many ideas lie latent in an organisation due to a culture that does not encourage listening.

When a company learns to cultivate listening, encouragement and refrain from critical thinking in the early ideation stages, they uncover a wealth of ideas and a more motivated staff. New Zealand and Australian organisations need to learn the value of optimistic, active listening in innovation, and will reap the benefits that open ears can bring.

Jeremy Suisted is an innovation consultant and trainer through Creativate

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