John Cage once said: "I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I'm frightened of the old ones."
This notion kind of struck me while I was watching a movie about Charles Darwin who had, and developed, one of the world's biggest ideas – one that, even now, creates much spirited conversation. I suppose in that context (and in those times) there may have been much to fear. After all, Darwin's big idea was one that challenged people to rethink their whole existence. Nonetheless, it was important to human growth and understanding to entertain it because without the exploration that comes from new ideas, I suspect we would simply all fade to black eventually... or die of boredom.
I think this is also true of business organisations. Now, more than ever, businesses are having to rethink their product and how they deliver to market. A number of longstanding companies that failed to do that are now either out of business or in some serious bother because they have found themselves being outpaced by technology and consumer demand for ever-evolving applications.
So, the question is: how do we build organisations that actively value idea creation and development?
Some companies say they have processes in place that encourage people to offer their ideas. I would argue that creating mechanisms through which to feed ideas is not enough, no matter how sophisticated the process.
To really engage people in sharing and developing new ideas, we have to create cultures that will support it. That's a bit trickier.
So, how? Here are some of my ideas:
Give people the opportunity to deeply understand the purpose and vision of your organisation. People who have a clear grasp of why their organisations are in business and what they hope to achieve in the future will tend to set their brains in that direction when searching for solutions to existing problems or anticipating future ones. Perhaps too, they will be more likely to use their creative juices to pre-empt organisational issues before they arise.
Build a safe environment for idea sharing. Putting forth a new, possibly even bizarre idea takes a lot of courage. People have to see the risk as one worth taking and operate in the knowledge that they will not be judged, derided or punished in any way for sharing their ideas. Not all ideas are going to be good but among them, there are bound to be some great ones that might not have surfaced if the working environment is such that it values censorship over creativity.
Learn to encourage and value diverse opinion. People look at things based on their own experiences and biases. If we all thought alike or hired only people who thought like us, we would no doubt miss a great deal. To generate ideas that are future oriented we must invite diversity into our conversations. That means letting go of the reins of our own strongly-held opinions long enough to listen to the possibility that there might be a better way.
Challenge ideas, not people. While this is part of building a safe environment for ideas to be shared, in the heat of a moment, it is easy to slide criticism away from the idea and onto the one who brought it up so I think it bears repeating.
Acknowledge, acknowledge and acknowledge some more. Acknowledgement is integral to building an organisation that values idea generation and development. I think we all know that. I'm just not sure how many of us provide it. It really doesn't have to come in the form of fancy recognition programs. It just has to be sincere and timely in its delivery.
Shift the perspective of knowledge as power. We have become used to the notion that knowledge is power so we'd better hang onto it. So many of us are reluctant to share what we know because we fear loss of leverage of some kind. In this new century though, the power comes from the collective. Business success lies in our ability to collaborate, not hoard. That means building organisations flexible enough, daring enough, strong enough and, perhaps even Darwinian enough to invite people to rethink their whole corporate existence and use the ideas that come from it to move them confidently into the future.