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Managing Creative Risk in Your Company

How crazy can you and your colleagues safely go before you run the risk of being thought crazy, unbusinesslike or worse? This is not a crazy question! The answer is critical to your organisation's innovation potential. If people cannot get crazy in their thinking, no one will ever suggest a really outlandish idea that seems daft at first, but eventually becomes the spark of a great innovation.

If you are an innovation manager in a medium to large organisation, the chances are high that your colleagues are not regularly coming up with crazy ideas with potential. If they were, your CEO would not have felt compelled to create an innovation manager position and put you into it! But do not feel put out! Your CEO put you in the innovation management position because she believes in you and I do too!

So, what can you do to encourage people to play with crazy ideas? There are a handful of actions you can take.

  • Acknowledge that a lot of crazy ideas will not be viable.
  • Provide a safe place for people to be crazy.
  • Respect the people who are being crazy.
  • Intelligently criticise ideas from the beginning.
  • Have a process for developing creative ideas that includes the realistic possibility of implementation.

Acknowledge that Many Crazy Ideas Will Not Be Viable
The thing about crazy ideas is that most of them will come to nothing. That's okay. But a few of them will have potential to become sexy innovations. Encourage people to dream up crazy ideas, play with them and share them. It is through sharing that the gems with potential will eventually shine. But before people can do share ideas with colleagues and especially their managers, they need to feel they are in a safe place to be crazy.

A Safe Place to Be Crazy
Very likely, most of your colleagues will not feel safe proposing crazy ideas during regular staff meetings. These meetings are probably perceived either as a time to discuss serious business or a pointless waste of time. Neither is particularly conducive to craziness. Ironically, brainstorm sessions, particularly if they are not professionally facilitated, are often unwelcoming to crazy ideas. No matter how much the facilitator might claim, "all ideas are welcome", if you are sitting in a brainstorm, listening to your colleagues shout out buzzword ideas and uninspiring suggestions, you are unlikely to propose anything particularly outrageous, are you? In spite of the brainstorm title of the event, the ideas are clearly business-as-usual and that does not include craziness.

Instead, the usual meetings and internal brainstorms, get teams out of the office and into unbusinesslike places to build crazy ideas into crazy visions. You can use methodologies like anticonventional thinking (ACT) which actively encourage people to reject conventional thinking in favour of crazy thinking. You can also do preliminary exercises and activities to make people feel comfortable about being crazy. Lastly, you can hire facilitators who are a bit crazy to run creativity events.

Better still, get your CEO to establish a skunkworks which is a business unit that is encouraged to experiment with crazy ideas, is allowed to have lots of failures and is empowered to develop ideas without going through the typical approval processes that tend to reject crazy ideas.

On a smaller level, teach people to say things like "Just thinking out loud here", "I have a crazy idea", "I have not had a chance to think this through yet, but what if..." Simple phrases like these enable people to feel more comfortable suggesting crazy ideas, because they acknowledge that the idea might be crazy.

Respect the People
Although I have not seen any research on the topic, I believe it is safe to assume that the primary reason people do not want to share crazy ideas at work is the fear that they might be ridiculed and perceived as crazy. Past experience being ridiculed or seeing colleagues being ridiculed will only reinforce this feeling. Your colleagues want to be respected, trusted and given autonomy.

This means that it is critical to respect and trust your colleagues and to do so visibly. If they feel respected and trusted, they will be comfortable sharing crazy ideas without fear of being labelled crazy people. Needless-to-say, you must always differentiate between the person and her idea -- and you must ensure your colleagues do this too. When commenting on or criticising an idea, always compliment the person behind the idea, recognise the fact that she contributed an idea and encourage similar thinking even if you think her idea is absolutely bonkers.

Intelligently Criticise Ideas from the Beginning
Thanks to brainstorming and creative problem solving, we have this twisted notion that you should not criticise ideas -- or at least reserve judgment on ideas -- because criticising ideas will damage the ideas and cause all kinds of havoc, possibly including the end of the world as we know it. This is ludicrous and places the importance of ideas higher than the importance of people. Look at it this way, imagine you propose a crazy idea to your boss. How would you feel about each of these outcomes?

  1. Your boss says it is a very good idea. However, nothing more happens with it. You mention it to your boss again and she again says it is a very good idea. Still nothing happens.
  2. Your boss laughs at you and says nothing.
  3. Your boss thinks about the idea for a moment and then gives five reasons why she believes the idea will not work as stated.

All three of these actions are rejections of your idea. While criticism is never as nice as a compliment, I believe most people would prefer the third scenario in which the boss offers thoughtful criticism. Why? Because intelligent, thoughtful criticism demonstrates respect for the suggestion and the person who suggested it. In effect, the boss is saying, "your idea is worthy of my time and consideration. It may not be viable, and here are some reasons why, but it was a worthy idea."

The second option, of course, is the worst. Being laughed at is a humiliation, particularly if no reasons are given. Dismissive behaviour which criticises the person is just as bad.

The first option may seem the best. However, if the boss merely compliments ideas, but ignores them, she is not respecting them. People soon work that out and stop making crazy suggestions. Indeed, they may stop suggesting ideas all together.

In fact, I recommend a process I call the The Cs: consider, compliment and challenge. It is a better, more motivating way of delivering criticism.

Have a Viable Development and Implementation Process
The one thing that can really and truly encourage people to share crazy ideas and develop them into creative visions is a belief that their vision might actually be realised. Even if you get all of the steps above right, if people do not believe their crazy ideas could ever see the light of day, they will not be particularly motivated to share and develop their ideas. I've written about a process for implementing creative ideas. And that is a start. However, if you can work with top management to lay down a crazy idea development and implementation process suitable for riskier, crazier ideas -- this is better still. Such a plan should keep a distance between the idea and approval committees, address risk issues and be easy to back out of if it does not work.

If you can implement these steps in your organisation, people will start feeling more comfortable about sharing crazy ideas. But be patient. This transition will not happen over night. It will take your colleagues time to absorb, accept and eventually exploit your new approach to craziness. But the pay-off, in terms of innovation potential, is enormous.



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Jeffrey Baumgartner
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Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium




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