Many years ago I played a dirty trick on a group of managers inside a particular business unit of a fairly large organization.
Through my consulting work I had discovered that a group of about a dozen individuals of the command-and-control type were causing some fairly serious issues.
In one part of the operation, I discovered that a number of ideas by customer service representatives had simply never seen the light of day—ideas that would have made customers’ lives easier. In another part of the operation, some extremely lucrative opportunities had been dismissed, each with a high lost opportunity cost.
I reported in my findings that a prevailing climate of what I termed “ideacide” existed, meaning a number of managers (including some of the senior managers on the panel that had hired me) would not allow their subordinates to have ideas. They had various ways of shooting ideas down.
They panel took issue with my report. They argued vehemently that “that’s not our culture,’ that “our people are our greatest asset,’ that “we value all ideas,’ and that I was way off-base.
Luckily, an upcoming off-site outing presented me with the opportunity to prove it to them, because I got to design part of the agenda.
At the off-site, there were about 120 people of varying degrees of seniority and rank. We had a dozen table rounds, and I put an organization cross-sectional slice of people at each. In other words, at any given table, there might be a management trainee or administrative assistant sitting next to senior manager.
I gave the assignment, one of those widely available group priority exercises whereby you rank a list of items individually and then, as a group, compare results; sort of a “wisdom of the crowd” exercise to show that “we” is smarter than “me.”
We called this exercise “Survival on the Moon.” The players had to rank the 25 items with which they crashed on the moon in relation to how important they were to survival.
NASA had compiled the correct ranking, so there was a right answer, but only I as the facilitator had it.
Except that I did the exercise with a twist. I put a ringer on each table. I gave the lowest-ranking or least experienced person the answer. It was their job to convince the highest-ranking and most senior people that they knew the right way to go.
They could or say anything they wanted, short of telling the table that I had given them the right answer -- that they used to work at NASA, that they had done the exercise before at another company -- I didn't care. They just couldn’t tell anyone the secret. During the group part, not a single table got the right answer.
After debriefing the exercise in the regular way, which of course proved the point—but knowing the aha! would be lost on the offenders—I had the ringers stand up. I announced that these individuals had the right idea, because I had given it to them, but that their ideas were stifled, victims of ideacide.
I wish I had a camera to catch the red-faced managers. My contract ended shortly after that. But I made my point. Ideacide is a great way to kill creativity. There are many ways to perform it.
Harvard Business School professor Youngme Moon, the author of Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd, has a great video called “My Anti-Creativity Checklist,” which she promises will “stifle imagination, innovation, and wacky out-of-box thinking.”
Here’s what’s on it:
- Play it safe. Listen to that inner voice that tells you not to stick your neck out.
- Know your limitations. Don’t be afraid to pigeonhole yourself.
- Remind yourself: it’s just a job. Keep telling yourself you don’t get paid for ideas.
- Make skepticism your middle name. Show everyone why that idea won’t work.
- Be the tough guy. Demand to see the data.
- Respect history. Always give the past the benefit of the doubt.
- Stop the madness before it can get started. Crush early-stage ideas with your business savvy.
- Use experience as a weapon. Been there, done that.
- Keep your eyes closed. Your mind too. Hey, this social media thing is just a fad.
- Tell yourself there is no problem. It’s not us, it’s the economy.
- Underestimate your customers. If they’re not asking for it, don’t go there.
- Give sound advice. Steer your employees toward safe shores.
- Be suspicious of the creatives, the lunatic fringe. What do they know anyway?
- When all else fails, act like a grown-up. Stop playing around, there’s work to do.
It’s a great list, designed specifically for people who, as Yongme says, “want nothing to do with disruptive change, pie-in-the sky innovation, or crazy flights of imagination.”
Matthew E. May is a design and innovation strategist. You can follow him on Twitter @matthewemay.