By Jai Thade, Head of Content
Have you heard of the old Indian fable of the three blind men and the elephant?
In the story, three blind men encounter an elephant for the very first time and are forced to use their sense of touch to understand what’s in front of them.
Each man touches a different part of the elephant’s body – its trunk, its side, one of its tusks. Then, they describe to each other what they think is in front of them. What they find surprising is how their descriptions are completely different from one another.
Many lessons can be drawn from this story – the challenge of grasping the bigger picture using our limited individual experience, how others can have contrasting experiences to ours that are equally valid and worth paying attention to, how we all bring our unique perspective to the same problem, etc. As a result, this fable provides an excellent metaphor for the process of idea generation.
Generating new ideas is an integral aspect of work. When this process is done effectively, it allows us to better solve problems, improve our products & processes, and ultimately achieve better business results.
So, what separates effective idea generation from ineffective idea generation?
One element is the absence of “groupthink”. Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group, where the pressure for conformity (or desire for harmony) results in poorer, more irrational decision-making. It’s been regarded as a contributing factor to some extremely costly (both financially and in terms of human lives) fiascos: from the 2008 Financial Crisis to the 2nd Iraqi War to the Enron Scandal.
Why does this occur?
Like in the story, each one of us has different blind spots based on our experiences. People who think similarly and have similar backgrounds tend to have similar blind spots. Conformity also breeds unjustified confidence. The antidote is having diverse viewpoints involved in idea generation and decision-making, and having a process that allows for different or contrarian viewpoints to be expressed. In other words, we need a more diverse & inclusive ideation process.
So how can we ideate more inclusively? Here are a few suggestions.
- Diversify your input
Ideation requires us to first collect information such as data and opinions. Auditing whom we reach out to when generating ideas, and making sure we are reaching out to a diverse set of stakeholders will ensure you bring different perspectives to the process and minimise the risk of blind spots. These stakeholders can differ based on aspects like their age, their professional and educational background, their gender, their cultural background, etc.
- Don’t steer, sail!
When it comes to leading discussions, it is useful to begin by gently guiding collaborators to think through the problem and their proposed solutions in different manners, without offering your own judgement or solutions initially. This can be accomplished by asking open-ended questions that allow others to elaborate themselves. This activity can be compared to gently guiding a sailboat according to the direction of the wind, as opposed to steering or rowing it in a particular direction. Challenge yourself to ask only open-ended questions for the duration of a brainstorming meeting. You can even tell others about this intention and request them to gently call out when you stray from asking questions.
- Create creative constraints
Don’t shy away from applying particular rules or constraints for particular aspects of the idea-generation process. As opposed to shutting us off from possibilities, this creates a designated space to talk about them freely.
What kinds of constraints?
One example can be to apply the “Yes, and” principle, a tool picked up from the world of improv comedy. In improv comedy, you never reject the idea someone else puts forth, instead, you try to build upon it – a “Yes, and…” rather than “Yes, but…”! So, schedule a specific chunk of the idea generation process to put your “Rose-Tinted Glasses” on. Even if the ideas that emerge don’t sound feasible or optimal, they are worth experimenting with.
This can create powerful insights. For example, when individuals at Intel’s marketing team initially proposed the idea of marketing computer chips directly to consumers, the idea seemed absurd. This was a time when consumers weren’t familiar with using computers, let alone understanding what a computer chip is. But this idea was built upon and eventually morphed into the incredibly successful “Intel Inside” campaign!
Ideating inclusively is important to not just avoid costly issues. We can also be proactive about it to see its benefits. Moreover, ideating inclusively helps more people feel engaged and included. It is an investment in employee engagement efforts, one that can reduce our dependence on other reward-related aspects like pay hikes and bonuses. Make the process just as enjoyable as the outcome!