"I'm just playing devil's advocate." We've all heard someone say this in brainstorm meetings. The result will inevitably be a sudden halt of group momentum and flow. The original idea is killed almost as soon as it is brought up. Worst of all, others in the room are discouraged from bringing fresh thinking to the table.
Companies are filled with devil's advocates; people who are closed to new ideas and who'll chip away at anything that disrupts the status quo. The underlying motivation for a devil's advocate is usually insecurity or fear of change. This can have dire consequences for organizations.
While the majority of chief marketing officers state that innovation is crucial for their business, the reality is that creating a culture of innovation is difficult. That's why today's leaders need to fill their team with 'Ideas Advocates'; people who are curiously open-minded and proactive in developing new ways of thinking.
When introduced to an idea that may not quite work, instead of shutting it down immediately, Ideas Advocates will continually seek alternatives or suggestions to make it work. I've adhered to five principles to create a team of Ideas Advocates.
Unconventional casting fosters diversity
When assembling ideation teams, I aim for deep-level diversity — i.e. people with different personalities, values, attributes, and abilities. Research suggests that cognitively diverse teams tend to generate more original and useful ideas. A team could include, for example, the graduate intern who is brimming with fresh ideas and the office manager, who is the eyes and ears of the company's culture.
Personal agendas stay outside meetings
Brainstorming successfully means that personal agendas are left out of the room. So, I begin ideation sessions with a reminder to "leave your business card at the door." Egos and personal motivations need to be absent. We are all creative human equals, regardless of official job titles.
My favorite football team in my home country of Australia is the Sydney Swans. During the early-2000s, the Swans were on a huge losing streak, with young inexperienced players and a limited budget to buy better ones. The new head coach at the time famously said, "We're implementing a no-d*ckheads policy," and removed anyone that had an ego-driven agenda. He focused on building strength in the culture and unity of the team. The Swans went on to win the AFL grand finale.
"Yes, and" replaces "Yes, but"
I've placed a total ban on momentum-killing words including no, but, can't, and that-won't-work. I'm not suggesting that ideas shouldn't be challenged. They absolutely should. Otherwise, we'll end up with innovations like the Colgate TV Dinner. Instead, I encourage Ideas Advocates to rely on the phrase 'Yes, and' — a common technique borrowed from improvisational comedy. 'Yes, and' encourages teams to think divergently, free from limitations.
Curiosity leads to breakthroughs
My two-year-old son loves caterpillars, goes ballistic over rainbows, and is obsessed with ducks. Remember when we were that age? Everything was curiously fascinating. But guess what? Life drums this curiosity out of us. We're told to conform, to not ask questions, to accept that we can't have spaghetti for breakfast (I'm still trying to figure why not!). I encourage my team to embrace their inner toddler and be curious again.
Kaizen is best lived professionally and personally
Kaizen is a Japanese word that means 'continuous improvement.' Coming out of the rubble of World War Two, Japanese industries needed a way to compete on the world stage again. Toyota famously applied Kaizen in its 'Toyota Way' manufacturing processes. The idea is simple; you could have the perfect financial year, product, team or idea but there's always a way to improve on this by 5%.
This is the opposite of the tried-and-true "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Encyclopedia Britannica had this approach in 1995 and it didn't work for them. I've made Kaizen the philosophy for my professional and personal life.
I've found that creating a culture that supports Ideas Advocates requires strong leadership that doesn't view innovation as purely a technology play, but rather as a cultural one. It also needs systems that incentivize trial and learning from mistakes. And it requires a team of people who are curiously open-minded, with a strong desire to keep trying until something works.
Adapting these principles for yourself could help you nurture the Ideas Advocates in your organization. Just make sure the devil's advocates don't talk you out of it.
Jeff Tan is managing director of product and innovation, Dentsu Aegis Network, USA and chair of DAN Innovation Center of Excellence.
Commentary written by Jeff Tan.
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