3.17.2006

RANT: When your boss can't just say no to your great idea

Bestseller author Kathy Sierra blogged - Tom Kelley--general manager of IDEO--believes that "devil's advocate may be the biggest innovation killer in America today." We've all been in a meeting where a passionate idea is put forth but someone plays devil's advocate and drains the life out of the room. Invoking "the awesome protective power" lets the devil's advocate be incredibly negative and slash your idea to shreds, all while appearing not only innocent but reasoned, balanced, intelligent... all attributes loaded with business "goodness". Whew! Thank GOD for the devil's advocate, or we'd all be off blundering with our stupid ideas, oblivious to the insurmountable problems we were too clueless to see... "What makes this negative persona so dangerous is that it is such a subtle threat. Every day, thousands of great new ideas, concepts, and plans are nipped in the bud by devil's advocates. Why is this persona so damning? Because a devil's advocate encourages idea wreckers to assume the most negative possible perspective, one that sees only the downside, the problems, the disasters-in-waiting. Once those floodgates open, they can drown a new initiative in negativity."

Part of the problem is simply the timing of the devil's advocate invocation; if the devil jumps in at the earliest stage, the idea never has a hope in hell, or ends up being having all of its sharp edges smoothed over. And there's a big difference between someone crushing an idea based on spinning out possible negative scenarios, vs. someone who voices a genuine concern backed with real facts.

But this is tricky and subtle... I've been known to be the one to "voice a genuine concern backed with real facts" without stopping to consider whether those "facts" were still valid. The old, "We tried that before and it didn't work." is probably the fastest way to stop an idea, but someone always needs to ask, "Are we sure we tried EXACTLY that?" and "Has something changed in a way that invalidates what we tried earlier?" Or even just this response when someone says, "We tried that...", "You tried what?" Maybe the thing that was tried before was different in some non-obvious but profound way.

The other tricky thing is that if you try to shut a devil's advocate down, then you're perceived as being "unwilling to hear criticism" or "can't handle any disagreement". And of course, for however dangerous the devil's advocate is, there's the equally-dangerous "angel of optimism". The "angel of optimism" is one who answers every genuine criticism with a cheerful and dismissive, "Oh, there's always someone thinking the sky is falling." This doesn't mean that being cheerful and positive is a bad thing (as one who is all too often accused of playing this role), but both the angel of optimism and devil's advocate can do damage when they shut down other solutions...

One thing I know for sure, whether playing devil's advocate, angel of optimism, or any other persona, I believe the emphasis should be on offering solutions, not just criticism. Yes it's true that one can know something is wrong without knowing how to fix it, but if people tried to adopt the perspective that "I'm going to try to always include possible alternatives and solutions when I critcize", it might make meetings a little more bearable.

Category: C++ Quant > Fix the Job You Got > Ordinary vs Extraordinary

1 comment:

  1. I agree about this, and posted on the topic a while ago : The No Instinct. It is tricky, because a manager needs to be responsible and keep the team on reasonable projects but doesn't want to stifle innovativeness.

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