“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes
a touch of genius—and a lot of courage— to move in the opposite direction.”
E. F. SCHUMACHER
Organizations should be great places for innovative, creative thinking. They have people with varied experience and biases. They have the energy to grow even difficult concepts into phenomenal solutions. They should be hotbeds of creativity.
Sadly, the real world doesn’t work that way. Most organizations are shackled by their own bureaucratic inertia. Simple changes are painfully difficult; breakthroughs are unbearable. As we discussed in the last chapter, creative problem solvers have learned that good ideas can be dangerous and are best selfishly pursued on the outside. This is not good for organizations or for the conceivers of ideas. Organizations need great thinking. Problem solvers need the power of organizations. It should be worth the effort to neutralize organizational barriers to nontraditional thinking.
This chapter is devoted to people with power over others who will conceive nontraditional solutions to problems. Innovative, Einstein-like thinking is messy and difficult, but if you don’t foster it, the ideas and their rewards will go elsewhere.
MANAGING EINSTEIN THINKING
“It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things.” NICCOLO MACHIAVELLI
Executives must make two changes to take full advantage of their organization’s intellectual resources. They must learn to value employee ideas along with employee labor, and they must get over the waste and mistakes involved in creating superb new solutions.
“When the effective leader is finished with his work, the people say it happened naturally.” LAO-TZU
In the Industrial Revolution, management’s function was to organize and direct the workers’ hands to create a profitable output. This attitude is still prevalent in many organizations— managers think and their subordinates do. The boss was the boss because he had the ideas. Many managers still feel threatened if someone on their team has a good idea. They believe that the boss should be doing the thinking, not the subordinate. And managers feel outraged at the waste when a subordinate comes up with a bad idea.
But in our postindustrial economy, an employee’s creative ideas are her most vital product. Organizations cannot afford to waste the brainpower of their people. They need everyone’s eyes, everyone’s experience, and especially everyone’s ideas to stay competitive and achieve their objectives.
Managing a creative environment is not easy. It is much more difficult to foster an environment of innovation and problem solving than it is to keep the assembly line moving. Managers whose people are not producing ideas are wasting their potential. But many man- agers would rather waste brainpower than admit that a subordinate had an idea they hadn’t thought of. This is completely wrong.
Managers should be recognized for encouraging and supporting problem solving by their employees. A manager’s job is to organize and direct the intellectual output of employees. When ideas are being conceived and developed, the manager is doing well. He or she should be promoted, not replaced by a creative subordinate. Managers should be asked about the creative contributions of their subordinates. What ideas have they had? How is the manager foster- ing problem solving? If managers are not evaluated on the ideas of their team, then most find it too easy to waste those ideas.
Get Over It
“There is no way to find the best design except to try out as many designs as possible and discard the failures.” FREEMAN DYSON
Breaking rules leads to mistakes and waste. There is no avoiding it. Growing ideas into successful solutions takes time and money, much of it spent learning what doesn’t work. Organizations are not sympathetic to waste. They want solutions without mistakes. Executives must get over their concerns about the costs of problem solving. It is an investment that historically has paid off handsomely. A great new idea will probably be paying your organization’s bills ten years from now. You must accept the necessary mistakes as crit- ical to your success. Get over your concerns about waste. Mistakes are a vital overhead expense, just like you.
Google has often encouraged its engineers to spend 20 percent of their time on company problems that interest them personally. This practice is of course costly, but it generates a wealth of poten- tial solutions much more cheaply than big research projects.
Give employees the latitude to do small experiments and encourage the successes. Organizations often do new things in big ways and, as a result, make massive mistakes. They have so much bureaucratic inertia that only big changes get high-level approval. Mistakes don’t have to be wildly expensive. Use small changes and limited trials to increase solution generation. You can make small mistakes faster. And limiting the scope of failures will make them more palatable.
PROMOTING EINSTEIN THINKING
“Don’t tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” GEORGE S. PATTON
After management understands the need for subordinates to think and is reconciled to a certain amount of waste, organizations need to do three things to promote Einstein Thinking in the ranks. First, opposition to status quo thinking must be sanctioned. Second, new thinking must be encouraged. And third, heretics must be handled judiciously. These are not tidy programs. They require an organization to deal with contradiction, absurdity, and confusion, just as Einstein did in creating his discoveries. But the rewards can be incalculable.
Question the Status Quo
“Mediocre minds usually dismiss anything which reaches beyond their own understanding.” FRANCOIS, DUC DE LA ROCHEFOUCAULD
Organizations must foster a culture that questions the status quo. There is a dangerous human tendency, often called group think, to ignore information that contradicts the current plan. People will go to great lengths to not offend their cognitive biases. Information that doesn’t fit is rejected.
Group think is doubly dangerous. First, the popular idea may not be the best idea. Closing your thinking to other information will not correct that error. Better ideas are often obscured by pop- ular rules.
Second, even the best ideas are imperfect. They share at least one similarity to a kite—they both need resistance to soar. Opposition highlights weaknesses and forces action to correct them. Albert Einstein was a perfect example of strengthening new ideas through resistance. He unintentionally made great contributions to quantum mechanics by opposing it. He devised a number of thoughtful challenges that he thought would invalidate the idea of uncertainty. Instead, as scientists found answers to his challenges, the whole theory was strengthened and advanced.
A healthy opposition will keep your deliberations honest. As good ideas are exposed to tough challenges, your thinking will grow and evolve to answer those challenges. Here are some tech- niques for encouraging opposition to traditional thinking.
Clearly Define and Communicate Key Organizational Problems
Clearly defining a problem is always the first step in creating a solution. This is especially important in an organization. Too often there is little agreement about what the key problems are. Everyone assumes they know, and everyone’s assumptions are different. Few organizations define and communicate desired solutions for their problems.
To foster Einstein Thinking, communicate the key problems in your organization. Keep the definitions at a high level to allow plenty of latitude for creative solutions. Make your problem definitions clear to everyone. You never know where a good idea will come from. If your problem is how to grow revenue by 15 percent annually, then “15 Percent Annual Revenue Growth” should be posted in every office. Anyone who is asked about the organization’s key problem should respond, “15 percent revenue growth.” Divisional and departmental objectives should be linked to this key objective. A customer service group may define its objective as “Reduce service-call hold time to two minutes to support growing revenue by 15 percent.”
Organizational problem definitions need their own carrots and sticks—the rewards for a problem successfully solved and the down- side if it is not. Risks and rewards are not recognized as keenly by organization members unless they are in personal terms.
Create an Alternative Plan
Develop alternative plans to foster new thinking in your orga- nization. The alternative plan should be based on a different set of assumptions from those used in your current thinking. If you believe prices will fall, assume the opposite. If you assume light competition, develop your alternative plan for heavy competition. Create options that account for these alternative assumptions. If you have already narrowed your choices to one, hold a brainstorming session to broaden your alternatives. Think broadly again with the information you have gathered in pursuing your current course.
In the late nineteenth century, everyone was excited about electricity. Electric lights and motors were well on their way to revolutionizing society—except for one problem. It was difficult to transmit the electricity over a distance. Proponents of electricity like Thomas Edison had resigned themselves to putting a power station in every neighborhood to solve this problem. One would be near you today but for George Westinghouse.
Westinghouse had an alternative plan or, more accurately, an alternating plan. He proposed using alternating current instead of tra- ditional direct current. Alternating current voltages can be increased for efficient transport over long distances and then decreased for safe home use. His plan was not well received at first. There were huge technical problems to AC electricity. And the public referred to AC as “electric death” because it used high voltages. AC electricity seemed dead on arrival.
But over time, Westinghouse was able to solve the problems of his less-promising alternative plan. The problems of commercial DC electricity remained, although it is interesting to note that they could be easily solved today. It was Westinghouse’s AC electricity that electrified the world. Today we all benefit from Westinghouse’s alternative plan.
Don’t rule out an alternative because it initially looks too difficult. Consider carefully how each objection can be overcome. It may be that no one has really tried to address key problems associated with the solution.
Organizations can be grim places. Humor is an excellent resource for breaking the habit of old thinking. It was one of the key idea- synthesis techniques we learned in pattern breaking. It is equally effective for deflecting scorn from infant ideas.
If you have an idea that violates important rules, introduce it to your organization as a joke. If someone else’s infant idea is in danger of being cut to shreds, play with the idea to redirect its critics.
Humor can make even the most intolerable ideas palatable. In 1969, Eastern Airlines’ Flight 7 was hijacked to Cuba, but the passengers didn’t seem to mind when the pilot made the announcement. They thought it was all a big joke because Allen Funt of Candid Camera had been recognized as one of the passengers. Everyone laughed all the way to Havana, except for the crew and Funt who knew it was no joke.
Freedom of Speech
Free speech is the primary emancipating political innovation, the idea that no one should be punished for expressing his opinion. It makes all other political improvements possible. And when freedom of speech disappears, so does political progress and innovation.
Free speech is equally essential to innovation and progress in an organization. When people are afraid to speak their minds, good ideas wither and bad actions go unchecked. To encourage Einstein Thinking in your organization, make certain no one is punished for speaking his mind.
Organizations also have a need for efficient communication. Time is money. No organization can provide unlimited opportunities for communicating divergent ideas. A good compromise that preserves free speech and efficient communication is to restrict the duration of communication but never restrict its content. Set limits like one minute or half a page. Ideas that fit within the restriction must be heard uncensored. And they must not be dismissed. Make freedom of speech a key element of your culture.
Remember the Value of Chris Concepts
New thinking should be encouraged not only because it may succeed, but also because even failed new ideas are useful. Chris Concepts provide the raw materials for ideas that do work. Pemberton’s Pick- Me-Up was a failure as a medicine. But mixed with carbonated water it became Coca-Cola and is worth billions. New think- ing ensures a steady supply of both good solutions and their raw material—bad ideas. Never forget the value of Chris Concepts. Try putting a picture of Columbus in your conference room. Tell the real story of Columbus to your colleagues and remind them that even wrong ideas can be great solutions.
Designate a devil’s advocate to encourage questioning the status quo in more ordinary discussions. The devil’s advocate’s job is to challenge existing thinking. He is mandated with trying to break the rules when a group is solving a problem. A devil’s advocate challenges procedures and regulations that are getting in the way, asking why they can’t be ignored. He questions the assumptions behind a decision. He finds and tries to break the rules that are clouding the problem-solving process.
If a choice has a heavily favored alternative, a devil’s advocate should ask people to switch sides. Assign the most vocal support- ers of the favored solution to sincerely oppose it. This may not change their mind, but it will broaden it. As they defend the other alternative, they will be forced to really consider it, perhaps for the first time.
Shift the responsibility of devil’s advocate periodically. It is a fun job and everyone can learn from it. It may also be useful to designate a more senior individual as your devil’s advocate on critical issues. Otherwise, she may use her influence to dimin- ish the devil’s advocate’s effectiveness. Be sure to remind devil’s advocates that they should encourage new thinking, not blast still undeveloped ideas.
Get an outside opinion. Remember that outsiders feel much less constrained to speak their minds. The outsider should feel confident that he won’t be hurt in the future by speaking his mind, especially if it is his job. Make it clear that you are looking for some fresh thinking, not a validation of insider conclusions.
Seek your outside opinion as far from your field as possible. If you had wanted a flying machine built in 1900, you probably would have hired an experienced balloonist. Balloonists were the experts on flying. But the best choice was a couple of bicycle mechanics outside the fraternity of flight.
Pay attention to more casual outside opinions. Listen carefully to what your friends, acquaintances, or rivals are saying about your problem. The rest of the world may be wrong, but listen to what they are saying anyway. They don’t know what you know, but they are also untainted by your unique biases and will not be held back by your knowledge and expertise. Don’t discount any input because of the source.
Hiring outsiders can help institutionalize innovative thinking. Hire people with skills different from the organization’s core competency. A company of technologists could use some accounting- oriented thinking, while consumer products ideas wouldn’t hurt an oil company. Outsiders are more sensitive to the stupid rules that trip up homogenous organizations. They should be listened to and understood, even if what they say seems to make no sense. Outsiders should be valued for the ignorance that scores of industry experts cannot supply.
Support New Thinking
“It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.” ALBERT EINSTEIN
It is a tough world out there. Most ideas enter this world weak, undeveloped, and ready to be dismissed immediately. Ideas are like children. They must grow before they are viable. As you would with your own ideas, you must support the infant ideas in your organization until they have grown enough to be evaluated on their merits. Otherwise, your organization’s best new thinking will either be stillborn or vanish out the door. Here are some techniques for preventing idea infanticide in your organization.
Innovators should be rewarded for their trouble with a hear- ing. Always be ready to give one minute to a new idea. Nothing encourages new thinking more than knowing it will be heard and considered. If you don’t listen to wild ideas, people will never bring you their brilliant breakthroughs. So listen!
Let the creator know up front that they have one minute to state their idea so they can be succinct. Don’t pass judgment on the idea on its first hearing. In the one minute it takes to relate his idea, the creator will often think of at least one improvement to it. Ask the creator to think about it and give you another one-minute sum- mary later. You may discard most of these ideas, and that is to be expected. But it only takes one brilliant idea to profoundly change your organization.
In addition to new ideas, your employees and colleagues have important observations and opinions that you need to draw out. Arrange to talk with each of them, one at a time. Make certain that you schedule enough time to draw out their honest opinions. Prepare some questions to get the conversation rolling, and let your guest know the topic in advance so that he is prepared as well. When you meet with him, just listen. Commit in advance to only asking questions. Don’t make statements. Don’t rebut. You will be tempted to defend your past actions or to push for your own ideas. Don’t! Listen and you will hear what you need to know.
Listening is an obvious way to increase new thinking about your organization’s problems. But if it is so simple and obvious, why aren’t you doing it more? When was the last time you listened to a subordinate tell you how the business could be improved?
Decentralize Idea Management
Einstein developed some of his best ideas while working in the patent office. As long as he did his regular work, no one cared how outlandish or revolutionary his physics ideas were. The development of new ideas should not be the exclusive domain of the functional group charged with related activities. That kind of logical organization only kills new ideas. Studies of creativity have shown political fragmentation and instability to be the most important external factor in spawning creativity.
Societies that are chaotic are much more innovative than stable societies. New ideas do not survive when there are few idea czars. Great thinking emerges when no one can kill a new idea because it doesn’t fit his or her agenda. Universities have traditionally been great sources of solutions because it is impossible to cut off funding for all of one’s rivals around the world.
To increase good ideas in your organization, decentralize authority to sponsor new ideas. Let people consider solutions that have nothing to do with their jobs. It is good for someone in manu- facturing to think about a marketing idea. She is as likely to create a revolutionary marketing concept as someone in marketing, perhaps even more likely.
Decentralization increases the odds that a good idea will find shelter with a believing sponsor until it can grow to viability. Even smart people reject revolutionary ideas most of the time. Allowing employees and managers throughout the organization to embrace and champion new thinking outside their responsibilities increases the odds that brilliant concepts will survive.
In an organization with real decentralization of ideas, everyone is free to pursue good ideas some of the time, even if just a few minutes each week. They can grow ideas that were not part of their group’s charter. These innovators will certainly waste some time reinventing the wheel or developing bad ideas. But the value they create in personal growth and great solutions will more than compensate.
New Idea Champions
Designate someone in your group to champion new ideas. Charge the idea champion with arguing on the side of new ideas as they are raised. This shields the champion from appearing ridiculous and losing credibility when new ideas flop. You will still discard most new ideas, but they will get a fair hearing. Every new idea need not survive, but they all must have a chance.
Ideally, a champion should be one of the more influential members of a group, like the boss. New ideas need strong defenders. Innovation thrives when the king sponsors new thinking. Martin Luther’s revolution would never have happened without the strong support of local princes; never mind that their motivation was more economic than religious. Someone powerful should protect innovators from losing their heads.
An open mind is also vital. The idea champion should regularly remind himself that many of history’s greatest ideas were dismissed as impractical, stupid, or ridiculous. Idea champions can also be devil’s advocates, although idea champions need more clout to be successful.
Erect Protective Barriers
Foster new ideas by separating them from the traditional activities of the organization. Einstein had a tough time fitting in at universities until he became a science superstar and was allowed to do as he pleased. He created his greatest innovations when isolated from the opinions and criticisms of fellow researchers. You can give the same benefit to your innovators.
Use off-site sessions or idea sabbaticals to give the creators of an infant idea the opportunity to develop it before time pressures and traditional thinking crush it. If an idea shows promise, bring it back into the workplace with some additional physical protection. Allocate time and space for the participants to grow the concept to viability.
Sometimes just ignoring discreet projects is enough to protect new thinking in your organization. If an innovator appropriates a few minutes here and there to work on an idea, let her. But be certain that new thinking is protected until it can stand on its own.
Einstein Thinking will never flourish if new ideas are consistently killed off by entrenched thinking when the two conflict. Even the best innovations can’t stand up to ingrained rules. The first time concepts clash, the innovation ends up in the trash. New ideas must be given their chance to grow. When a new idea is in conflict with old thinking, try one of the following techniques to give the infant solution a fighting chance.
Common Ground: Look only for common ground, not differences. Both sides are too familiar with the points of contention. Have them work together to construct a list of everything that they agree on. Avoid more conflict. List an item only if both sides agree.
Add Players: New thinking is frequently rejected because it cannot find enough support in the immediate organization. Try adding players with needs and interests that allow the new and old solutions to coexist. A three-way deal often works where a bilateral compromise will not. To identify potential new partners, make a list of everything that each side brings to the table that the other party is not interested in. Make a second list of the things that are needed but not supplied. The two lists are a description of your ideal third partner.
Narrow Your Scope: If the conflict between old and new ideas seems too big to resolve, try to fix just a portion of it. List all of the issues involved, and pick from one to three points that could be isolated for independent resolution. Resolving part of your conflict will build momentum and trust to help with a more complete solution.
Start Over: Sometimes a conflict becomes too complex, the feelings too emotional, or the sides too inflexible for the current participants to find an answer. Try starting over with only the original problem stated in its simplest form. It will not be easy to discard all of the baggage that has accumulated, but if you can reduce your problem to one crisp sentence, you have a chance.
Handling Heretics Judiciously
“A man has no ears for that to which experience has given him no access.” FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE
In any organization, innovative thinking will occur in direct proportion to the quality of the reception a bad idea receives. If a bad idea is rejected out of hand, there will be few new ideas. If a bad idea is considered fairly, people will innovate. And if bad ideas are recognized as valuable efforts, your organization will be flooded with new thinking. A few concepts will be priceless. Organizations must handle heretical thinking carefully to ensure a continuous stream of innovative ideas.
Einstein was probably not an easy man to manage. When it came to his science, he did what he wanted or waited until he could do what he wished. Organizations cannot afford to do this with more than a few people. So it is important to create an environment that supports heretical genius without total organizational chaos. Below are ideas for keeping innovators happy while maintaining some order.
Recognize and Reward Bad Ideas
Recognize the courage of people who espouse novel solutions that either don’t work or that you do not pursue. Radical, nontraditional ideas are not always good, but when they are, the benefits are enormous. Play the odds and encourage even bad ideas so that you don’t miss out on the good ones. You could present a heretic with a symbolic burned-at-the-stake award. Acknowledge that he took a big chance in championing a novel idea, and that while you have decided not to pursue it, you would like to see more expansive thinking in the future. This strategy gives innovative thinkers the credit they crave and assures that they will break the rules again.
Preserve Rejected Ideas
You can’t pursue all options, particularly if you are successful at generating many raw ideas. But even when an idea isn’t pursued, preserve as much of it as possible. Chris Concepts are invaluable. When you can’t pursue an idea, assign the idea’s advocates to continue looking for opportunities where their idea could be tried again. They will be happy about that and encouraged to create again. If you need to discard an idea, write it on a three-by-five- inch card. Save the card. Encourage your creator by assuring him that his thinking wasn’t completely wasted. You might want to keep a stack of discarded idea cards in your conference room to provide raw material for future ideas.
ENABLING EINSTEIN THINKING
“Nothing, not all the armies of the world, can stop an idea whose time has come.” VICTOR HUGO
Regardless of whether you are breaking rules or just want to encourage good ideas, recognize the bias that always exists against new thinking in organizations. You must prevent idea infanticide and satisfy innovative thinkers even when their ideas cannot be fully pursued. You need solutions, not martyrs. Keep those creative minds working for you.