Want your employees to generate more ideas? You’re not alone, but it’s not as easy as clicking your heels together or sprinkling idea pixie dust all over your employees. (In fact, don’t ever do that. It’d be super weird for you to sprinkle idea pixie dust — or any kind of pixie dust really — on your employees.)
Ideas don’t happen in a vacuum; they have their genesis within individuals, and those individuals often find themselves on teams within organizations. It makes sense, then, to think about what sort of environment awaits those ideas when they make the long trek from the corner of someone’s mind to the whiteboard during a team meeting. Is it an environment that really, truly encourages new — and even borderline crazy — ideas? Or does your workplace more closely resemble a cubicle cluster where ideas go to die?
Here are few, simple things you can do to provide an environment more conducive to idea-generating and avoid being a leader that squelches innovation:
1. Listen. (Not as nice version: leaders need to shut the heck up sometimes.) Smart leaders neither blindly accept the ideas of others nor stubbornly refuse to consider opinions opposed to their own. British philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead said, “Almost all really new ideas have a certain aspect of foolishness when they are first produced.” To encourage folks to share ideas within a collaborative environment, be sure to hear them out, even if you don’t necessarily agree at first blush. Your asking your team for ideas will seem like a load of hooey (that’s a fancy academic word for you) if you don’t actually listen to them when they do.
2. Consider odd sources. If you’re a leader looking for great ideas and wanting your team to do the same, be open to looking in non-traditional places for them. This could mean any number of things — watching a movie might spark an idea about something, or perhaps standing in the baggage claim area. Encourage your team to look all over the place for ideas on how to make themselves, the team, or the organization better.
3. Sometimes it’s better not to consider the source. Sometimes humans find other humans annoying. Or irritating. Or arrogant. Or whatever other adjective you want to use. It’s in our wiring. Thing is, you can’t let that get in the way of really considering a great idea. It’s tempting to ignore an idea outright sometimes because of who gave the idea, but we have to resist the urge to do that. Not only is it a little childish, but it also begins to put your interpersonal issues ahead of the collective good of the team.
4. Push for more than one idea. If you find yourself sitting in a room and everyone’s just nodding and smiling at an idea, it may be time to push a little deeper. Resist the urge to run with the very first idea that seems decent; instead, make it an expectation that the team provide alternative ideas. This is super important because rarely is the first idea perfect.
For example, if you come up with an idea, and everyone is telling you they love your idea, ask them why they love it. What specifically do they love? If they had to change it just slightly, what would they do? If they were forced to come up with an alternative to the idea, what would that look like? This not only ensures that they’re mentally engaged, but it also shows that you’re more interested in what they actually think than just whether or not they agree with you.
5. Make it feel safe. Now before someone pitches a fit and suggests I’m saying to handle everyone with kid gloves, that’s not what I’m saying (in fact, I often say that teams actually need to fight more). The point I’m making is that while it’s important to push against ideas, kick the tires, propose alternatives, and the like; it’s also important to realize that ideas, and the people who give them, are humans. And all humans, including you and me, have insecurities, baggage, issues, past experiences, and the like. So do the hard work of knowing your people well so that you can do what’s necessary to provide an environment that feels safe in that regard. People will only keep throwing out ideas if they sense that it’s safe for them to do so.
6. Check your ego. This is not breaking news (and if it is, boy, are you in trouble), but your ideas won’t always be the best ones. So embrace humility and don’t take it personally when your team does exactly what you’re wanting them to do and brings up ideas that might not be the same as yours. The point is not for you to swoop in with your magnificent idea, drop it on the table, and then wait for your team to start chanting your name in adoration and sprinkling rose petals in front of you as you walk out the door following your display of genius. If they’re disagreeing with you, count it as a good sign. They feel like it’s OK for them to do that, which is exactly what it’s supposed to be like. When a group of humans can feel vulnerable and open with each other, and their leader does the same, folks will be more apt to jump in with their ideas.
What do you think? What other things can leaders do to be more idea-friendly?