Idea Diversity

2015-05-08

Hard questions. New ideas. Creative approaches. When followers challenge the status quo and rock the boat what do you do? Most leaders pretend to listen and then find a polite way to reject the idea. This is the path of least resistance. A few leaders actively, even violently reject idea diversity. “Don’t think. Just do your job.” The most effective leaders find a way to coach problem solving skills and welcome diverse perspectives.

There are just two responses when followers come to you with challenging questions, new approaches, and creative ideas: you can reject them or welcome them. How you respond to these inquiries has a profound effect on the culture you build in your group.

Rejecting Diverse Perspectives

  • Squelches Creativity and Innovation – By the very definition of these terms, creativity and innovation requires exploration and sometimes integration of diverse perspectives. Rejecting opposing views and different perspectives limits your group’s problem solving potential and innovation.
  • Limits Collaboration – When leaders reject new ways of looking at old problems (or new problems) they also limit the kinds of problems that need to be solved. When problem sets are limited there is limited need for collaboration. (This is only a short term issue, though. Eventually, the lack of collaboration will create a bigger problem that requires a leader who welcomes diverse perspectives.)
  • Creates Destructive Conflict – When leaders reject diverse perspectives, some followers catch on and play along. They just want to get their job done and deposit the paycheck. Others on the team, though, continue to ask questions and challenge the status quo. Destructive conflict will ensue between these two groups. Often, the questioners leave first, because the quiet ones know they can keep the boss happy with their silence (and keep their job).
  • Collects “Yes”-ers – The natural result of the above is that the team will eventually be dominated by those who are content to be an ideological clone of the leader. They may all get along, but they will also be a low producing team and will not be able to handle the crises that eventually arise.

There is another way. A better way. You can welcome diverse perspectives.

Welcoming Diverse Perspectives

  • Encourages Systems Thinking – When your team is trained in the art of looking at problems in new and diverse ways, they will become skilled at systems thinking. (Click here to see the several articles we’ve published on systems thinking.) If they follow the process outlined below for challenging the current thinking, they will become holistic problem solvers.
  • Activates Creativity and Spurs Innovation – When you welcome how different people see problems, you affirm their very being. Each person sees issues through the unique lens of their own experience and skills. When people do this together, creative problem solving and innovation occurs.
  • Builds Collaboration – In teams where diverse perspectives are welcomed, complex problems are welcome challenges that can be solved only by the skills sets of people working together.
  • Permits Constructive Conflict – The welcome exploration of diverse perspectives challenges people to argue about problems and ideas, not each other. Or, when the conflict is about people, the context is how we can work better together.
  • Builds a Diverse Team – The “Yes”-ers noted above don’t last long in teams that welcome hard questions, new approaches, and complex problems. They don’t perform well and move on (or are moved out) to other teams. This makes room for high-performing, and innovative problem solvers.

What can you do to encourage diverse perspectives, hard questions, and new ideas? Coach your followers to work through these steps and you’ll have strong ideas coming to you—ideas that you want to listen to.

  1. Concisely state the problem or issue to be resolved.
  2. Research the background and history of the problem. Find out what brought us to where we are.
  3. Engage multiple stakeholders to obtain their perspective on the issue.
  4. Research alternative approaches and build a supported argument for any viable option.
  5. Create a 5-minute summary or one-page memo (leader’s preference) of the above.

When your followers come to you with a researched idea, engage. Listen. Ask questions. Help them build and refine it a bit. Show them you are interested. Seriously consider the option and, where it makes business sense, invest resources into more research or into implementing the idea. Make sure you use teams (to encourage collaboration) and give that follower significant responsibility for the project.

I know some of you are thinking, “I’m going to get lots of bad ideas and I can’t possibly do this with all of them.” That is true. However, the process outlined above will help your followers weed out many of their own bad ideas. When they fail to weed out their own bad ideas, help them see the fault in their research so they can do better research next time.

I explained in my earlier article, Traffic Light Leadership, that your leadership has subtle and profound effects on others. How you handle challenging questions, new ideas, and creative approaches is another example of “traffic light leadership.”

It takes time, patience, and a lot of coaching to develop a culture that welcomes and effectively handles diversity of thought. The impact on performance is well worth it.

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.

Credits
Photo “love the variety” by Pleuntje. Available at Flickr.com Image modified for size and space.

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