The mistakes we make in groups that stunt innovation

April 21, 2023 — by Elizabeth McGee

The Earth spins on its axis at the same rate it always has. However, today’s life is faster, quicker, and more complex. Rapidly advancing technology, climate change, struggling economies, and global politics drive these changes. This complexity affects the work each of us does, demanding constant innovations. In the past, people could hone and perfect ideas before presenting them to a wider audience. But today, innovations need to occur faster than ever before. How do we best innovate? Through group innovation.

Research emphasizes that groups outperform individuals. In his book “The Wisdom of Crowds,” James Surowiecki discusses the importance of collective wisdom. The book opens with Francis Galton’s story describing a crowd at a county fair guessing the weight of an ox more accurately than any single individual, even cattle experts. Authors and scholars have increasingly explored collaborative, engagement, and participatory processes over the last two decades. Companies and organizations acknowledge the value of teamwork and group innovation, investing resources accordingly.

I actively worked, volunteered, and consulted for agencies that involved their staff in participatory decision-making processes. Anyone who has been on a debate team knows the logical fallacy, ad hominem. Someone discrediting an idea based solely on their character and not on the merit of the idea constitutes a fallacy. Group innovation shape our culture and workplaces. What went wrong?

So, how can we effectively leverage the value of group innovation to facilitate innovations?

1.    Dismantling defensiveness

I remember once, as a kid, I showed my father a card trick and had practiced the trick extensively and was excited to show him. I positioned my cards, did a few shuffles, a flashy abracadabra hand gesture and, ta-da, his card was revealed! His first response was, ‘it would have been better if you executed your hand slide smoother’. Me remember yelling in defense of my card trick and running out of the room in defeat. My mother scolded my father, ‘you should have just congratulated her on doing the trick.’ Who was right? Perhaps both. I think my mother’s sentiment was right in recognizing the importance of ensuring people feel supported and encouraged. Acknowledged for the time, effort, and thinking they have put into an idea.

On the other hand, I remember when I returned to my room after my father’s critique, I immediately took to my cards, practicing the trick over and over until I had mastered it. Without my father’s perspective and feedback, my trick would have remained a good trick, according to one person – me. As individuals working in groups, we need to acknowledge that our own ideas, however great, have one significant limitation: we only see them from one perspective – our own.

It’s important to be open to the feedback people give in response to our ideas. If our only goal in a meeting or brainstorming session is to defend our own ideas, we are missing the point. Turning existing ideas on their head, mixing them together, and stirring them up drives innovations. Innovators do not hold onto their ideas and refuse to subject them to outside perspectives.

2. Building your pyramid

Too often, when we bring an idea to a group for feedback, we go into the meeting with the wrong goals. Typically, we try to present our idea, with the hope of receiving the least amount of feedback possible. Our education systems have trained us to think this way. We interpret less feedback to mean that we made fewer errors and we, therefore, seek solace in the assumption that our idea must be good because we didn’t make errors.

This is extremely flawed logic! And it is this way of thinking that causes us to look at innovation in the entirely wrong way. Innovation does not come from having an OK idea with limited mistakes. Rather, innovative ideas are often rooted from countless mistakes. Your individual idea may be good, but the goal of group work is not to get an individual grade showcasing that you did a good job. The goal is for the collective to land on the very best possible idea.

I advocate a strategy: consider the ideas you bring into a meeting as the base of a pyramid. The meeting’s intention is to build the rest of your pyramid. If fact, even if you wanted to build the rest of the pyramid, you won’t have the tools to do so. You may have spent days preparing the base of your pyramid or even a year, because however great your groundwork. It is inherently limited because it only represents your ideas, your perspectives.

Anyone who contributes new ideas or feedback to the meeting should automatically see them as blocks added to your pyramid. This includes the ideas that you can’t currently use or ideas that contradict one another. It doesn’t matter. They too become bricks that help the pyramid grow tall and robust. How? Why? Because these ideas offer an alternative viewpoint to your groundwork and are now a perspective you have, that you didn’t have before coming into this meeting. Think of it this way: we don’t see all the blocks in a finished pyramid, but we know that they are all needed to build a structurally sound pyramid and keep it erect.

Re-conceptualizing our feedback process to become one of collecting new ideas and perspectives, rather than to receive a stamp of approval will open doors for more effective group work and promote collaboration. This will leverage greater opportunities for innovation. Furthermore, as ideas evolve and change, you will find the great value of revisiting the cache of ideas and alternative viewpoints you have built. An idea that was initially set aside six months ago might now be a vital insight that can move your project forward.

3.    Equalizing ideas

Anyone who has been on a debate team knows the logical fallacy, ad hominem. The fallacy is when Someone discredits an idea based solely on their character and not on the merit of the idea. Hierarchies permeate our culture and the places where we work. People in positions of authority, including higher-level managers, shape our perspectives, and we tend to listen to them most attentively. But ideas do not live in hierarchies. We need to place ideas in a space where they can be fluid, interact with other ideas, and be safely stored in case they are needed later.

However, we often miss great opportunities for group innovation when we place ideas into hierarchies. People typically tie the value of an idea to the position of the person who generated it. Leaders and non-leaders alike should give all ideas equal weight, regardless of who generated them. Ranking dilutes the impact of collective wisdom.

I facilitated a brainstorming session involving two managers and two non-managers. One of the managers was taking notes. They immediately recorded each idea they had as they shared it with the group innovation. Similarly, when the other manager would offer an idea, the note-taking manager would immediately write the idea down. Though, when the non-managers shared ideas, the note-taking manager would instinctively look to the other manager for approval prior to recording anything. The note-taking manager only wrote down the non-managers’ ideas after the other manager approved them.

Why did the non-managers’ ideas need to go through a two-person vetting process? Why weren’t the non-managers ideas immediately recorded like the managers? Although subtle, this behavior sends a powerful message to staff that their ideas are welcome, but will not hold as much weight. I often think that people rank ideas subconsciously because they are used to working this way. Ranking ideas, whether intentional or not, treats group members’ ideas as tokens to be tossed aside, affecting their membership within the group itself (tokenism).

Collecting collective wisdom

As collaborative and participatory process become a more normalized way to perform our organizational work. It is important to critically think about how we accumulate collective wisdom. We need to recognize our natural tendency to protect our ego by defending our individual contributions to work and address this failing. Need to recognize the importance of obtaining multiple ideas as a way to strengthen our innovations from the ground up. We need to ensure that all perspectives are treated equally and not filtered through the hierarchies that permeate our workplaces and culture. These factors are all essential in creating a space to nurture decision-making and innovation. What are you waiting for? Build your pyramids! Innovate now.