Loving Other People’s Ideas

25 Oct

Much in the air today is this idea that we have to grow ourselves away from factory-workers and towards entrepreneurial, experimental, discovering, inventive, innovative, restless creators. Because that’s how we’ll do well in the era of globalization and radical technological and cultural change. I believe it, and I wanted to draw attention to a related detail.

A consequence of innovating is that we will have to do a better job of loving each other’s ideas.

If we start asking people to experiment and innovate, they are going to begin coming up with and expressing all sorts of ideas. That’s logical, right? That’s a part of the creative process: a flow of thoughts, hypotheses, new ways to look at things, questions about curious points, alternative assumptions, some banal, some naive, some interesting, some earth-shattering? In fact, the whole point of this new way of being is to encourage a flow or sluice of variegated thought so that from it we can pluck the occasional gold nugget?

Well then we have a little problem. In my experience the last thing we generally wish to hear from another person is a new idea. We are perhaps worse at knowing what to do with someone else’s idea than we are at about anything we do. We use every sort of frown, grimace, disparaging remark, sigh, or attack-hidden-as-helpful-suggestion to quash the idea and punish its owner and separate it and its threatening goofiness from us and our calmness or our own particular initiatives.

Years ago my colleagues and I used a wonderful little artifact we found on the web, called “How to Kill Ideas,” which was developed by the Cambridge Tire Company, and which seems to have been captured on this bilingual site. Tell me who hasn’t heard these commonplace phrases mentioned a dozen times a day? Who hasn’t said them her- or himself a thousand times over? Who hasn’t even gone beyond attacking the idea to (be honest) occasionally disparage the idea-haver, particularly if they won’t stop proposing all sorts of new things?

Even the creative types, the artsy-people, the touchy-feelies (like me), who passionately and deeply love creativity, generative thought, the notion that people and organizations and the world exist to make beauty and to develop and to grow, and not to remain stagnant, and so on, even we use these phrases. Even parents, even teachers, even ministers, any who would go to their deathbed swearing they would never do anything to repress or constrain or restrain or begrudge or occlude or proscribe the gurgling brook of a child’s wondrous whimsy, even they do, too.

So it’s tough not to squish ideas. I noted when I was looking for the document linked above that there are about 10,000 web pages dedicated to this point. So everyone knows we need to stop slapping the wrists of people with ideas. Otherwise our hopes for innovation are fairly well doomed.

But how do you do it? How do you love other people’s ideas? I have some thoughts. Basically, I think, it’s about not putting yourself in contention with the idea-haver. You have to act as a friend of the idea, not a force to be overcome. And if you do that, you might get a little innovation out of your people. But how to become a friend of the idea? I propose a few steps, with one rule: use the minimum number of steps: only do step 1 if you can get away with it; add step 2 only reluctantly, and so on.

  1. Train yourself to be happy during the hearing of the idea. At any point you realize an idea is being sprung on you, you must train yourself to instantaneously adopt a zen-like Buddha stance and encourage the expression of the idea with smiles and nods, head tilted compassionately to the side, eyes aglow with excitement and interest, pupils dilated. What about the next meeting you need to get to? What about the email you wanted to send? Suppress them. Make it known in your organization that ideas take precedence. Then you can say “I was encouraging the expression of a new idea,” as you come in late to the meeting; everyone will applaud.
  2. Don’t say anything. You noticed all the kinetic and expressive, but word-free gestures of step 1, above? That’s because you must say as little as possible. Why? Because it’s not about you, it’s about the bearer of the idea, whom you are attempting to grow into the kind of person who will produce ideas in a constant sluice. No matter what you say, if you’re talking, they aren’t, and you’re therefore blocking the flow, which is the sacred thing you must preserve. Just be patient: a) you’ll get your chance to contribute thoughts sooner or later and b) your thoughts are ultimately unnecessary, really.
  3. Clarify. At a certain point the flow will dwindle and the idea-haver will have tired and may be ready to hear some things. This is like that moment in the film Buck where you can give a little slack because the horse gave a little slack. You can ask a question or two to make sure you understood what was said. Here’s the kicker though. Your clarification must be offered as a kind of appreciation and not as an attack; you have to ask things innocently and not with an ulterior motive. After each answer to your question, say “Ahhhhh,” as if you were witnessing fireworks.
  4. Praise. You probably guessed this one. Yes, if your idea-haver is still there, you will now need to say what you like about the idea, and it needs to be genuine. No Polyanna-ish silliness. It can’t feel like empty, formal, required praise. You really have to insert yourself in the speaker’s mind and try to capture what excites them about the idea, and feed it back to them. I know you’re thinking: “I pride myself on being direct and straightforward. I never lie. This feels like a lie.” It isn’t a lie. There is always something to be praised about an idea; we as a species have just forgotten how to do it. Skip the praise at your own peril: people who feel like nobody likes their ideas will soon stop having them, or will take them to somebody else who does like them. And no innovation for you!
  5. Imagine it happening. Some people want more, though. So if your idea-haver is expecting additional feedback you can move on to this step. Here’s where I break from the Ladder of Feedback that I’ve mostly followed heretofore. The Ladder calls for expressing concerns at this stage, followed by recommendations. I think once you even say the word “concern,” you’ve killed the idea, and a recommendation is almost as bad. Both tend to put you in contention with the idea-haver. So I suggest instead that you simply pick up the idea, put it on a stage, and stand back to look at it with the idea-haver. What do I mean? Well, you just imagine what it would be like to do it. “Let’s imagine what it would be like to do it,” you might say. Or, “What would it take to try this out?” Or, “What if we tipped it like this?” And, “What if we turned it like this?” The trick is that when you start talking about ideas in this way, the idea-haver feels like you’re on his/her team. And all the various objections that could come up, do, naturally, eventually, to the idea-havers themselves. And you don’t have to say anything, which is the holy grail of idea loving.
  6. Let it stew. The best thing about a good idea is it won’t go away. And as it bounces around in your head and others’, it grows, shapes, reforms, etc. Don’t be in a hurry to either squish it or write it up or promote it to some kind of implementation. Let it percolate; think about it overnight. Nothing more rewarding for the idea-haver if someone comes back to them a day or two later and says “I was thinking about your great idea . . .”
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