"We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them."
- Albert Einstein
How to facilitate teams for generating and enacting?
There seems to be a growing acceptance that diverse experiences and perspectives correlate with better outcomes: greater financial performance results, improved risk management, greater innovation and employee satisfaction and engagement, see the recent McKinsey article, Why diversity matters.
And yet, neither diversity of experience, gender, ethnicity, gender, nor age guarantees that the best ideas will be shared, genuinely heard nor be accepted and implemented on their merits. In many recent experiences, I have seen culturally diverse teams conforming to expectations of the loudest, most senior team-member just like the best homogenous teams. Is this your experience, too?
What is really happening to the diverse potential of rich ideas?
For a long time, I’ve been interested in processes and methods that generate ideas and solve complex problems. I’m particularly interested in understanding ways to facilitate and encourage teams to examine issues or problems with an open mind, and help them reach beyond their own cognitive biases.
So, a recent Stowe Boyd blog grabbed my attention, Phil Gilbert on sidestepping cognitive biases in group design activities: When you give voice to more people, the best ideas win, not the loudest ones. Interesting. Boyd explained two key ways that information processing is disrupted by a team’s culture and psychology. Firstly, effective ideation can be impaired by sharedness bias:
Groups communicate predominantly about information, which all or most group members share before entering the discussion, and neglect unshared information, which only one or few members have initially. … group members individually judge shared information as more important, relevant, accurate, and influential than unshared information. This bias seems to have two reasons: First, shared information can be confirmed by more than one group member. Second, individuals evaluate their own information as more valid than information from other members. Thus, unshared information, even if mentioned in the discussion, is not seriously considered by other group members and therefore has less impact on the final decision than shared information.
Hence, with established sources of team knowledge and shared experience, groups tend to discuss, share and privileged information that is held in common. Novelty is rarely introduced within team meetings themselves. New ideas tend to be socialised with team members prior to any decision-making in meetings.
The second is preference bias:
Even when all information necessary to identify the correct solution is exchanged during discussion, individual group members often stick to their initially preferred wrong solution. People bias their information processing to favor an initially preferred alternative. Other studies show the same phenomenon at the group level: Group decisions can often be predicted by the initial preferences of its members. If a majority favors a certain alternative before the discussion, the group seldom decides to chose another alternative. Thus, frequently, group discussions are superfluous, and groups would be better off using a decision shortcut like an immediate vote or averaging procedure.
We preference our own preconceived views and information over others. In spite of new valid information, we tend to conform to initial opinions we have of an issue. We tend to be closed to other possibilities, rarely are we convinced of others’ arguments, and we privilege our own ‘objectivity’. This sounds familiar…
Boyd interviewed Phil Gilbert, IBM general manager of design, on how he applies design thinking, diversity and inclusion to team product ideation. Gilbert believes that the major issue to generating future possibilities, is exposing everybody’s ideas to the whole team: both encouraging all to contribute and hearing each idea.
At IBM, team workshops are designed to include a wide diversity of experience and backgrounds. Gilbert’s method is sticky notes and silence, as depicted in the diagram above. Everyone present is encouraged to write down all their ideas on separate sticky notes and post them on a wall, without judgement, comment or self-censure. Team leader(s) sort, group and arrange like ideas on the wall, while everyone observes and reflects in silence. Then, individuals may leave the room to discuss ideas, in person, by phone or by a team social media tool. The group returns after an agreed time brainstorming and socialising their ideas (minutes, hours, or days). Gilbert explains that the process usually generates a few dozen new ideas.
Phil Gilbert’s approach also aligns with Alex Pentland’s research, Social Physics, that I discussed in earlier post. Peak idea flow occurs in teams that iteratively work as individual’s generating novelty and team collaborators discussing, building and socialising these new ideas into practice, summarised in this diagram:
“Any useful idea about the futures should appear to be ridiculous.” - Jim Dator
Profound words. Futures requires a healthy amount of personal resilience in ourselves. What of the teams that are thinking about their future? Have we designed our methods so that participants, as individuals and teams, are able to bypass cultural and psychological biases to see and accept issues and information anew.
How can we promote genuine exploration, engagement and reflection with new ideas?
How can we design experiences that suspend judgement, cynicism and criticism?
How can we facilitate better futures?