Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Hitler, Al Qaida, Donald Trump, and Vegas: the Context for Innovation

As I write the words “Hitler,” “Al Qaida,” and then any positive word in the same sentence (e.g. Hitler used innovative tactics), I am stricken with a sense of foreboding that permeates from the keyboard with every click.  The dread infects me, slowing my typing as my brain spins up, considering the risk I am taking by permanently carving these words into the internet.  Are government sentiment analysis engines trolling through my blog and permanently flagging me?  Will I piss off someone whose family has suffered tremendously from one of the parties I mentioned?  These are the thoughts that kill innovation.

It is impossible to be fully creative while filtering your mind at the same time.  Brainstorming and creativity is not about saying the right thing or finding truth.  The early spark of creativity is not something to debate about.  Creativity is about open inquiry, poking around to find new analogies and metaphors that could yield unique ways to view (and eventually solve) a problem. It is important to be able to think and say things like “The nazis used a brilliant logistic management system for their concentration camps that we could use...” without earning any disapproving looks.  

Morality does matter of course.  As creators, it is our responsibility to consider how the things we build will affect people.  But we should make those judgements on our actions, not our thoughts.  Our minds must be unfettered and allowed to think awful thoughts so that we can explore new and wondrous avenues of possibilities.  Only then, after the fodder has been gathered should we apply a critical mind to judging them.  Let’s allow ourselves to think about shock collars for kids.  Let the idea come, go, lead to other ideas (like electric outlets with negative audio feedback when prodded) without attacking the people who utter them.  It’s only if we are seriously developing an idea that we need to consider the PR and ethical impacts, and consider them seriously we should.

Context matters.  Everyone should be able to think whatever awful thoughts they want.  Have you ever walked along a ledge and thought about throwing yourself over it?  Have you ever thought about steering into oncoming traffic?  Of course you have.  This “death urge” is totally natural and does not mean you are suicidal.  Neither does watching “Game of Thrones” make you a homicidal maniac.  However, if you are speaking publicly as a role model or an advocate, then you should absolutely filter what you say.  For instance, responsible members of the news media avoid sensational stories about suicides to prevent a spread of copycat suicides.  And while we enjoy hearing muppets sing about how Everybody’s a Little Racist, it is completely another thing to have policy makers who encode their values into law make racist comments.  Politicians like Trump should be allowed to freely brainstorm ideas that can come off as bigoted or racist.  There is no need to be politically correct behind closed doors.  But speaking at a public event is not a brainstorm.  It is a statement of the intent to act, and in that situation, you must consider the impact of your words as they are representing your judgement and that of your constituents.

But is there a safe place between private thoughts and public speaking?  Absolutely, and creating this space is critical for innovative teams.  Individuals must feel that they are free to express opinions freely without social repercussions (shaming, disapproving looks, direct attacks) in order for honest exchanges to occur.  This “Psychological Safety” is a critical aspect of all teams (as shown by a data-driven Google study done on actual work teams).  I could (and likely will) write many posts on this subject.  But if there’s one thing you can easily implement now, it’s the famous “Vegas Rule”.  

Try this exercise with your team in your next brainstorm.   At the beginning, announce that for X minutes (at least 20) you’re going to start with a “stupid ideas” where the goal is to produce the stupidest, most inappropriate ideas possible.  Propose that for safety, “What is said in this room stays in this room.” (Vegas Rule).   Make sure everyone agrees to this.  Then kick it off with the most inappropriate thing you can think of.  You’ll be surprised how this becomes a reverse competition and how fun it can be.  Most importantly, these horrible ideas often have a core of insight and will lead to new “good” ideas later in the brainstorm.  Enjoy.