Groupthink Kills Big Ideas

It’s easy to convince a group of people to follow you when you’ve got a great idea that you’re passionate about. Passion is like a highly communicable virus, easily spreading from one host to another. Something funny happens, though once enough people are on board with an idea: new ideas become less infectious over time as if the group has built up antibodies against risk. It’s always unfortunate to see this happen since most organizations are initially brought together by an idea that was so risky and so contagious that everyone wanted to be a part of it. Eventually, if an organization is not careful, it becomes a place where Big Ideas go to die, a sort of idea graveyard.

Kathy Sierra explains it best:

Any time a new idea is brought to the table, especially a Big Idea, the group acts like white blood cells, attacking the Big Idea as if it were a foreign invader, reducing the idea to a benign and much less exciting version of itself. The end result is something that no one can really get all that excited about. It may get the job done but it certainly doesn’t inspire anyone.

It’s really difficult to fight off this group tendency. It’s much, much easier to say no to something than yes, especially when there’s an established status quo. Once a group (company, club, team, non-profit, whatever) feels safe, group risk aversion magnifies problems into insurmountable barriers. Kathy Sierra (boy, do I miss her blog!) talked about this too, avoiding risks leads to the safest route, but the safest route, ultimately will only yield incremental improvements:

In most cases, the barriers preventing new Big Ideas from being achieved are no bigger than the barriers overcome by the group when it formed. The main difference is that there’re more people to get over the wall now than when it was just you and your Big Idea which brought the group together.

As a group it’s important to fight risk aversion which is often reinforced by groupthink. It’s a difficult job, but if growth and innovation are goals, taking risks is an essential part of success. Figuring out how to work with Big Ideas rather than fight against them (and in turn deal with risk as an organization) makes it easier to jump the wall as a group when and if the time comes. Delegating is a great way to build practice taking risks If you’re able to trust someone else to do something that you could reasonably do yourself you’re on your way to letting others run with their Big Ideas.

As an individual with a Big Idea, it’s important to quickly figure out whether your idea is something that has legs or whether it’s something better left to the back burner. Seth Godin’s The Dip has some simple advice but ultimately it’s up to you to determine. If you yourself are not prepared to pull each and every member of the group over the wall that is blocking you from realizing your ultimate vision then it may not be time to unveil your idea to the group.

Both the group and the innovator have a part in killing a Big Idea or making it fly. Recognizing that you have to work together is the first step toward achieving greater success.


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