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Generating and recognizing original ideas

Generate a lot of ideas. Quantity creates a greater pool of ideas, some of which are going to be really good. The thing is: people (even creative geniuses) are terrible at predicting the quality of their own ideas. If we just refine a few ideas we think are best, the chances are much less that we’ll actually make something original.

Seek feedback from peers. We are too invested in our own ideas to estimate their quality. Managers and test audiences make too many false negatives — they look for conformance to existing templates, missing out on work that breaks the mold. Our peers are best judges. They’re open to new ideas and can recognize great ones, but are critical of them.

Procrastinate strategically. Deliberately stop halfway through the process, to let new ideas incubate in our minds, and to promote divergent thinking. If you rush too quickly, you’ll get stuck with the first good-enough idea. (Procrastination is bad for productivity, good for creativity. “Productive mediocrity”)

Immerse yourself in a new domain. Broadening our experiences leads to more original ideas. Be a generalist, swap roles, have hobbies, live abroad, read books.

Voicing and championing original idaes

Communicate your ideas more. Agents of change tend to under-communicate their vision. It’s like tapping out melodies on a table. We hear more in our minds than we actually communicate.

Mere exposure effect. Exposure and familiarity causes us to like things more. If you want to spread an idea, seed it. Mention it briefly at first. Then mention it again, and again — 10–20 repetitions seem to work best. Make the mention short, mix it in with other communication, and add delays to let ideas incubate. Connect it with ideas already understood. Then pitch and push it for real.

Be a tempered radical. Use a trojan horse to champion unconventional ideas. Present the idea by appealing to beliefs and values people already hold. Frame it through the lens of a more moderate, conventional goal. Position it as a means to another end. (Suffrage movement and alliance with the temperance movement)

Highlight reasons not to support your ideas. Lead with downsides. Express uncertainty. It makes you sound smarter, trustworthy, and intriguing. People put up their guards when you’re overly optimistic. They feel like they’re being sold something, that they need an armor for weapons of persuasion. If you list reasons why your idea might suck, they have to work hard to come up with more reasons (so it must not be a big deal). Then list a small number of key benefits and they’re easy to appreciate (small number of things = must be important)

Behavioral economics and risk aversion. If a new idea is safe, highlight the benefits of doing it. But if it feels unsafe, that won’t work. You have to first destroy the status quo by highlighting the bad things that will happen if you don’t do it. If you want people to take risks, an inspiring vision isn’t enough. First, cultivate frustration and dissatisfaction. Make them fear certain loss.

Managing emotions

Motivate yourself differently when you’re commited vs uncertain.

When you’re set on a goal, be a defensive pessimist, and look at the progress left to be done. Pessimism makes you aware of potential problems and forces you to mitigate them and prepare yourself.

Only when commitment is wavering, when you stop beliving yourself, switch from “stop” to “go”. Look back at the progress already made, think of something exciting, seek encouragement from outside.

Focus on the victim, not the perpetrator. Anger is a strong emotion and can be put to productive use, but only when you’re angry for someone, not at someone. (Empathetic anger)

Cut ties with frenemies. Ambivalent relationships are worse than enemies. They are unpredictable. They cause us more stress than foes we know we can ignore.

Building cultures of originality

Ask for problems, not solutions. Inquiry before advocacy. Let the problem incubate, and promote divergent thinking. Focusing on solutions too early locks you into uncreative ideas.

Celebrate dissent. Groupthink is the enemy of creativity and a killer of organizations. You need to welcome critical opinions. Dissent is useful even when it’s wrong, because it breaks the consensus and encourages more divergent thinking.

People are more creative when there’s dissent — as long as there’s the feeling that people are looking out for each other (that they’re not enemies).

Unearth devil’s advocates. Assigning devil’s advocates is a good idea to break groupthink, but people don’t take it seriously, because it’s a role. People respond best when the dissenter genuinely belives in their ideas. Again: celebrate dissent, and welcome criticism.

Hire on cultural contribution, not cultural fit. Companies are most likely to succeed when they hire based on commitment (shared values)… until they don’t. Once successful, they become blind, overconfident in their abilities, and likely to fall into groupthink. Hire based on how can someone improve the culture and diversify the company’s thinking.

Culture, not cult of originality. Bridgewater. Have values and principles, but encourage everyone to question them. Above all, promote the expression of original ideas and welcome criticism. Never become blind enough to think you got it right.

Sparking original ideas

A few random exercises for organizations:

Picture yourself as an enemy. Imagine that you are your competitor and you have to destroy your company. Come up with ideas on how to do it, and then reflect on how to defend yourself and strike back.

Hold an “opposite day”. Divide into groups, and have each take an idea widely taken to be true, and make a presentation on why or when the idae doesn’t hold

Run an innovation tournament. Call for proposals to solve a problem, then have peers evaluate one another’s ideas.

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