“Innovation and entrepreneurship happen at the edge of reason,” Scott Belsky said in describing the importance of pushing outside convention to find new ideas. It’s only in those edges – ones that we expect to someday become the center – that innovation truly occurs. Because if the answer sat squarely in the center today, someone else would have already done it.
And yet, many of our common practices in fostering innovation push us towards the center. The typical brainstorming session may generate a lot of ideas, but few of them really push the envelope on innovation. More often, they yield a bunch of recycled thoughts and designs by committee.
You’ve been in these meetings. There’s an overzealous facilitator at the front of the room, likely plagiarizing Tony Robbins. The mouthbreather next to you slightly rephrases the last idea, pawning it off as his own. And everyone feels compelled to speak, even when it’s abundantly clear that they have very little to say.
It’s as though everyone read Sarah Cooper’s satire and thought it was a self-help manifesto. You’re about to let Bryan (with a “y”) from marketing know exactly what you think about his latest “breakthrough” idea, when someone reminds you that, “there are no bad ideas in brainstorming.”
No bad ideas? Are you kidding me? Where exactly have you been for the past hour? This place is a factory of bad ideas. If bad ideas were a product, we’d of hit our quarterly numbers in that first fifteen minute riff on reviving mini discs.
Bad ideas are everywhere. Especially when it comes to innovation.
But this isn’t the problem. The problem is that we’re all too nice to challenge them.
Criticism Doesn’t Kill Creativity – It Drives It.
“Too many of us think of ideas as being singular, as if they float in the ether, fully formed and independent of the people who wrestle with them,” wrote Ed Catmull in one of my favorite business books of all time. “Ideas though, are not singular. They are forged through tens of thousands of decisions, often made by dozens of people.”
In Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull tells how every Pixar story starts out inherently flawed. Brilliant movies like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Monster’s Inc., all started out as terrible stories. It was only through candid feedback and constructive criticism that they became the wildly successful films that they are.
We tend to think of ideas as either good or bad – successes or failures. And to get good ideas, we first need to generate a lot of bad ideas.
And there’s something to this. The more ideas you create. The better you become at creating ideas. Seth Godin covers it well when he says that “once you get enough bad ideas, then some good ones have to show up.”
But innovation is more than just parsing good ideas from bad. It’s more than playing the percentages in the hopes of an eventual winner. It requires challenging the bad and seeing which ones can improve into worthwhile options.
Which is why so many brainstorming sessions and innovation projects tend to fall flat on their face. Without criticism – without challenging those bad ideas – few of them get the chance to improve.
And we’re left with ten flip charts full of unusable chaff.
Truly innovative ideas need to test the boundaries of unexplored areas. Expecting them to do that without having initial flaws and problems is unrealistic. And while it’s often easy to recognize the presence of problems with an idea, it’s much more difficult to isolate the sources of those problems.
The practice of positively building on ideas is helpful, but without accompanied criticism, we lose the opportunity to identify these root sources. People don’t isolate the flaws. And further efforts to develop the idea fail to turn it into an effective solution.
The alternative – constructive, candid feedback – is what moves ideas forward. It’s this challenge that brings the causes of problems to the surface and encourages the team to address them. As Catmull described the Pixar process,
“Creativity has to start somewhere, and we are true believers in the power of bracing, candid feedback and the iterative process – reworking, reworking, and reworking again, until a flawed story finds its throughline or a hollow character finds its soul.”
Criticism doesn’t stifle creativity – it drives it. Instead of hiding from the contrasts that come with dissenting views, we need to leverage them.
Criticism is a Tool. Use it Well.
“He has a right to criticize, who has a heart to help.” – Abraham Lincoln
There’s a difference between criticism and constructive criticism. Just as there’s a difference between those who happily point out problems and those who do so with the intent of developing solutions.
Any loser can throw out potential reasons that something won’t work. And people that invent ridiculous hypotheticals to counter others’ ideas are a dime a dozen. This type of criticism is easy.
And it’s not helpful. At best, it’s an unnecessary distraction. At worst, it shames people into keeping their ideas to themselves.
The challenge is to identify potential issues in a way that will encourage everyone, especially the idea generator, to develop a better solution. As Frank A. Clark put it,
“Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots.”
The key lies in placating that deep-seated insecurity that sits just below the surface in all of us. The moment someone’s idea is criticized, they become defensive. And their willingness to keep an open mind to alternate solutions immediately diminishes.
One option to combat this reaction is to start with an agreement. Not the whole idea, but maybe a part of it. Look for something that you consider worthwhile and start with a positive aspect. Then follow it up with a concern and an idea for building upon it.
You’re no longer simply criticizing; you’re recognizing the value in someone’s idea and helping to drive it forward.
Another option is to change the framing. Tell people, “that’s an interesting idea, let’s test it.” Everyone likes to have interesting ideas – they’re much better than uninteresting ones. And in the process, you’ve changed it from someone’s personal thought to a collective hypothesis. And hypotheses are meant to be tested and challenged.
The key is to help bring problems into the open without causing defensiveness. It’s a fine line to balance, one that only works with shared empathy and the feeling that we’re all in this together. Mainly, each comment and suggestion needs to reinforce that we have a problem. And only we can solve it.
Drive Innovation through Criticism
“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” – Winston Churchill
Imagine working in an organization that never provided any criticism. It might seem nice at first, especially if your current boss believes punishments are motivational. But without criticism, there’d be diminished opportunities to identify problems. And there’d be less opportunities to grow.
Employees frequently associate a lack of feedback as a common complaint with poor managers. People generally want to improve, and they’re hungry for criticism that helps them do so.
Innovation is no different. Just as few new hires show up on day one as perfect employees, few ideas are born flawless. And unless we’re willing to challenge and test these ideas, they’re unlikely to develop into the breakthroughs we need them to be.
It needs to be done correctly – too harsh and people shut down, too soft and we fail to drive the required urgency. But when we can balance candid, constructive feedback with empathy and a collective mission, criticism quickly becomes a driving force behind innovation. And bringing those edges into better focus.