March 10, 2014 / BEST DAY EVER
March 10, 2014
So here’s what went down: You went into the office, all fired up for the big meeting. You pitched that great idea that popped into your brain last month and have been working on non-stop ever since. The thing is, though, that it didn’t really turn out the way you’d imagined it. The audience didn’t smile all the way through. Their faces didn’t change from quizzical to delighted to beaming. The ovation at the end was polite, but not rousing. Oh, and it was a long, long way from “standing”.
And the questions! You didn’t really plan for questions, did you? Not apart from “How did you think of such a brilliant idea?” Instead, people were questioning each and every one of your assumptions. They doubted that key parts of the idea would be accepted by the users. THEY ASKED WHAT WAS TRULY NOVEL ABOUT IT! Bastards. That’s what you get for working in an uncreative organization…
OK, now hold that thought. I’m willing to bet that if you’re reading this, you’re the kind of person that can relate to the story above. You might even have lived through it, and thus feel entitled to calling your organization any number of not-so-nice names. Well, time for some reality therapy. You’re wrong, dead wrong. Sure, your organization may lack a certain je ne sais quoi in the innovation department, but the story above isn’t proof of it. On the contrary.
Most every organization bemoans their lack of ideas, yet they are often overflowing with and positively awash in ideas. The problem is that the same organizations that are bursting with ideas great and small are at the same time preternaturally good at killing these same ideas.
You see, the story at the start wasn’t about organizations killing ideas, but the very opposite of that. What that story was about was critique, about people listening to your idea and engaging with the same, about them asking follow-up questions, inviting you to argue for your idea. That’s not a bad thing. That’s an excellent thing. That’s the best thing ever.
Many organizations do get creativity wrong a lot of the time. Most of the time, even. Far too many think that creativity is all about sunshine and lollipops, and perversely think that a creative environment is one where people are constantly smiling and where every idea is met with high-fives and applause. But this isn’t the hallmark of a creative organization at all. In fact, I think it sounds an awful lot like hell.
The real measure of a creative culture is not that it’s exceptionally uncritical and populated by Prozac-drones. The real measure of a creative culture is that it cares about ideas, and sometimes criticism is a beautiful way to show that you care.
Think back to the original story once more. What is the worst response you could have received? Think about the possibility of you giving a passionate talk, presenting your idea and then… nothing. Just blank stares. A barely masked yawn. A shrug of the shoulders, and that’s all she wrote. Worse than questions? You betcha. Guess what? There’s another version of that silence. That’s the version where everyone listens, smiles, even applauds. But still remain mostly silent. Say things like “Nice!” or “Yeah.” or “Love that.” Where someone ends the whole thing by saying “Well, you’ve given us lots to think about.” That, my friend, is indifference in disguise.
You think questions are bad? Questions are wonderful! And critique is amazing! They’re both proof that people are prepared to engage with your idea, that they respect you and your thinking enough to connect with it, that they’re willing to take your idea through a trial of fire—as that’s what you do when you want something to develop and grow. The most creative organizations aren’t the ones that applaud every idea, but the ones that respect ideas enough to challenge and critique them.
The very best creative organizations understand, on a deep, cultural level, that respect for ideas means engaging with them, and that engagement isn’t just pats on the back or cheerful smiles. They understand that asking questions is a way of saying “I see you, fellow dreamer, as worthy of my attention.” They understand that creativity flows from friction—not just passively nodding along to each and every idea—and from pushing budding ideas towards something greater. They scoff at the people who think that creativity is best captured in one of those sad brainstorming affairs where “every idea is wonderful” and questions are banished. They build a culture of forceful, natural critique, filled with individuals who can both dish it out and take it in turn, who cherish the engagement that is the hallmark of truly creative cultures.
So your idea got trashed at the meeting? Good. I’m happy for you, and I hope you remembered to say “Thank you.” You were given a gift, although you might have missed it. Your colleagues showed that they’d listened. They challenged you to let you shine. They showed your idea love by trying to help it be all it can be, and they invited you in to the real dance of creativity; a dance where you get to flex your muscles, go beyond your comfort zone, step up and fight for your idea. Both you and the idea got a chance to become something bigger and better than you were before the meeting. You both had the best day ever.