Innovation is a team effort.

In 1989, Graeme Joy with 2 other leaders led an international team embarking on an expedition to the North Pole. Graeme Joy became the first and only Australian to ski to the North Pole.

Needless to say, the Arctic expedition was a volatile and risky affair; as an effective leader, Graeme relied on his team heavily during this journey.

In fact, Graeme depended on his team’s creativity to overcome many unpredictable challenges during the trip. It was a time when having an idea assassin on your team could be detrimental.

There are a lot of similarities between Graeme’s adventure and the business environment that we operate in today. Both are risky and both require constant innovation to achieve results. It is not surprising at all that both need to deal with idea assassins. 

Who are idea assassins?

Idea assassins are people who are unwilling to operate outside their comfort zone and often reluctant to trial new ideas when facing a problem.

Idea assassins are not necessarily illogical or irrational. On the contrary, they often have a valid and intelligent argument. However, they are so set in their way that they become naysayers.

How to manage idea assailants?

No doubt we all have encountered idea assassins, but what should we do with idea assassins when we know that today’s business environment demands innovation and constant adaptation? These 3 tips may just get you started. 

1. Forget about good ideas

Stop setting the bar so high and demand only “good” ideas to be heard. As soon as you assign quality to an idea at the inception phase, self-doubt and hesitation inevitably follows as people have the perception that their ideas are never good enough.

Demanding for good ideas not only kills creativity; it also provides a platform for naysayers to be negative. So watch out for the language here. Instead of asking for good ideas, we simply ask for ideas and we ask for many of them. This is a time when quantity trumps quality and creativity wins over perfection. 

Building innocation culture in the workplace | Dr Suzi Chen

2. No Spanish Inquisition

Many people don’t share their ideas for the fear of receiving harsh criticism. In his 2012 book, Creative Strategy: A Guide for Innovation, Columbia Business School lecturer William Duggan talks about how having a Spanish Inquisition culture, which aims to squash away any “heretics”, can stifle any hope of possible innovation. In fact, as Duggan puts it, “it makes everyone conform to conventional wisdom …”.

So make sure to remove the fear associated with harsh criticism by sending a very clear and positive message to idea assassins that idea generation is paramount to the health of your creative process.

If you are yet to build a supportive culture in your workplace when it comes to innovation, perhaps it’s time to go back to the old school and use the suggestion box techniques. But it’s not just about putting a label on the box and expecting people to start using it. It’s about creating and celebrating an innovative culture.

Instead of setting up a suggestion box in the corner of the office that no one will ever visit, why not have a mobile suggestion box and simply pass it around during a brainstorming session? What about taking a step farther?

Maybe decorate this suggestion box, make it colourful and outrageous and make it fun. Create a positive psychological association that you should be celebrated every time you put an idea into this box.

This exercise fosters idea generation in a safe and yet celebratory environment where idea owner can choose to remain anonymous. Ultimately, you want to create a culture where people can confidently share their ideas with others openly.

3. Focus on the silver lining  

In the world of innovation, there is no such thing as a bad idea. An idea that may not work now could easily be picked up by others and flourish in another environment or on a later date. Large companies often fall into the bad idea trap with many “BUTs”.

“… but that’s not what we are about.”

“… but it is outside our scope.”

“… but we don’t offer such a service.’

This habit of rigid thinking means companies can gradually lose its competitive edge in a fast-moving business environment.

So what do we do?

If you can accept that there is no such thing as a bad idea, then before dismissing any idea, ask yourself, “what is the silver lining in this seemly ridiculous or irrelevant idea?”.

If you can’t find the silver lining, find someone else who can.

Unless you have found one good thing to say about the idea that you are about to toss out, you don’t throw the idea away.

This exercise forces you to avoid the conventional and rigid mindset and really critically examine all suggestions that you have received in a positive manner.

Take home message

Innovation doesn’t always come easy; it is a culture that needs to be cultivated. Having the right strategies to manage idea assassins will help you kick start your creative process. 

This article was originally featured on Find A Consultant.



6 Replies to “How To Build An Innovation Culture In The Workplace”

  1. I love this idea and the tips you give for overcoming the idea assassin in the workplace. Maybe a follow-up on how to kill your own inner idea assassin, you know, the one that shuts people down before they even get around to thinking about sharing ideas? It seems to me, the more ideas business leaders put out there, the more others will be encouraged to do so. Where you go, they will follow. NASA did a very interesting study and narrowed down what made their genius-level employees so smart. It came down to one skill…divergent thinking. That is exactly the part of creativity you are talking about in this post, the part that brainstorms all these crazy ideas. If we don’t do that part of the work, we don’t have any raw material to work with when it comes time to find the best solution. Unfortunately, the same study found that while all 5-year-olds have this skill in spades, it is educated out of most of the population by the end of high school. So how do we undo the damage? Having the courage to embrace and own our own crazy ideas makes it easier to embrace the ideas of others too. https://ideapod.com/born-creative-geniuses-education-system-dumbs-us-according-nasa-scientists/

    1. Love your feedback, Marla. It is so true that if we don’t exercise our divergent thinking, we won’t have much “raw material” to work with. Your comments have given me some more ideas about future articles. Thank you heaps.

  2. I never looked at it this way before. But looking back I can see where I have held back from suggesting ideas as I think they will not be good enough! This is something I will implement when building my team! To create a space where everyone can contribute.

    1. Esther, it is so common, isn’t it? In fact, when I ask around, most people have the same experience – the fear of not being good enough. As such, we tend to stay quiet without really giving our ideas (and ourselves) a chance.

  3. I like your idea of a mobile suggestion box. My team and I use a special channel on Slack to brainstorm ideas. The back and forth conversation really helps ideas to get flushed out and also new ideas to emerge.

    1. I like Slack, Elise. I use it every day with my teams as well. Slack is great with a team that is confident enough to voice their opinions.

      I find I do need to pay more attention to and intentionally create a space to enable those among us who may not yet feel comfortable speaking up and sharing their thoughts and ideas. Hence the “nameless” mobile suggestion box :).

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