Want Great Ideas from a Team? Flip the Script

When you lead a team, great ideas are the lifeblood of innovation and productivity. Let’s say you have an idea that you’d like to toss out to your team. How can you get the folks to speak up and help you discern the idea’s viability? Nobody wants to waste time on a stinker of an idea. Here’s a process from business executive Bob Richards, who has been a long time client of the People Equation. Bob says when he’s leading an ideation discussion (whether it’s his direct team, a cross-functional team, or a board of directors), he enacts the following process to surface great ideas from a team. He starts in an unlikely place: ask them to say why an idea won’t work.

A Simple Process for Fully Exploring Ideas with Teams

  1. Put an idea on the table. 
  2. Ask the team to list all the reasons why the idea won’t work. List them. 
  3. After you list all the “reasons it won’t work” ideas, flip the script. Ask the team to list all the benefits of the idea. List those.
  4. Compare and contrast the two lists, looking for the most feasible idea to emerge. Bob says as you consider the ideas’ merits, you’ll notice that ideas naturally sort themselves into those that are the most feasible because you have looked at both sides of each idea.

Why This Process Works from a Human-Centered Standpoint

Negativity, first?! In business in general (and American culture in particular) there’s a bias towards positivity. The “can do” spirit looms large in meeting rooms and video calls across the world. So, imagine when the natural skeptics on the team get a chance to critique it before discussing the benefits. They get to go first! And, they were asked to offer negativity. It’s empowering for people who might otherwise be silenced for their pragmatism.

Novelty sparks interest. Research shows that the unexpected gets our attention — and holds it. People are rarely asked why an idea won’t work, especially if a leader proposes it. Discussing “why it won’t work” functions in two ways: the surprise of flipping the script and the signal that the boss is open to hearing why they might be wrong.

The Benefits of This Input Gathering Process

Bob tells me that this process has served him well because “it helped the team sort the good ideas from the bad. It also helped us implement the most solid idea. And, by paying attention to the ‘why it won’t work’ list, we could put countermeasures in place to ensure a stronger chance of success for the idea.”

All people have good ideas, they just aren’t always given the chance to express them.

Bob Richards, Business executive

Another step that Bob pointed out to me as part of this process: the importance of giving credit to the people responsible for the idea. Bob says he always circles back and lets the people who gave input know if the idea was used, and the ways in which it was successful. He also communicates to all decision-makers the names of the people who had a hand in vetting the idea. He says, “When you use this type of an open process, word gets around that you’re the type of leader who listens to ideas and cares what people think. And I do care. All people have good ideas, they just aren’t always given the chance to express them.”

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