Ever since it was first invented by Alex Osborn in the 1950s or so, the fundamental rule of brainstorming, and just about every creative thinking method, has been, “Though shalt not criticise ideas.”
Mr Osborn never made it entirely clear why it is so bad to criticise ideas, though it is implied that you might hurt people’s feelings, inhibit creativity and possibly emotionally scar someone for life. Clearly then it is best to welcome all ideas with compliments, even if they are stupid, and never, ever criticise an idea. At least, that was the assumption
No one dared question this assumption for more than half a century − until 2008 when a couple of bright sparks at Berkeley University, Matthew Feinberg and Charlan Nemeth*, decided it was time to ask some questions. They conducted a study in which they put volunteers into teams and divided those teams into three three groups. One group followed traditional brainstorming rules. The second group were also told to follow brainstorming protocol with the exception that they were actively encouraged to criticise ideas. The third group was the control group. They were just told to come up with ideas any way they wanted to do.
So, what happened?
The control group’s outcome was the least creative. Only moderately better were the traditional brainstormers. By far the most creative group was the group that had been encouraged to criticise ideas.
This surprised a lot of people, especially people involved in creative facilitation. Their fundamental rule had been proven to be, well, completely wrong. Many professional brainstorming facilitators simply denied the results rather than accept their method might be flawed.
Others tried brainstorming and other ideation methods in which we actively encourage criticism during the ideation. I certainly did. And, I found it was surprisingly effective. In my experience, results are far better than when criticism is forbidden.
I believe there are several reasons why this is so.
- Blindly praising every idea encourages mediocrity. Why be bold when your boring ideas get praise?
- Criticising an idea starts a conversation about the idea as well as your needs, restrictions, assumptions and more. When ideas cannot be criticised, you cannot delve into them. You cannot really discuss them. You certainly cannot build upon them until you’ve discovered the weaknesses that need improving.
- Criticising an idea gives it importance. When all ideas are “great” the compliment becomes meaningless. When someone stops to listen to an idea, thinks about it and addresses its weaknesses, she is saying, “this idea has meaning to me. I want to talk about it.”
- Criticising ideas gives guidance. If an idea is criticised, debated and rightly found not to be viable, this tells people to think in a new direction.
No Downward Spiral
Brainstorm fans often worry that allowing criticism of ideas will lead to a downward spiral where everyone is negative and no new ideas are developed. In my experience, this does not happen. I believe it is because when a group of people in an organisation are trying to build ideas, they have a common goal in building a relevant idea that achieves their needs. Bring relentlessly critical will not get them to their goal. Being productively critical will.
In anticonventional thinking (ACT), an alternative to brainstorming that encourages criticism, there are three rules.
- Always criticise boring, conventional ideas. You do not want them.
- Criticises the idea is OK; criticising the person is not OK.
- Once you have criticised and idea, shut up and let the originator of the idea, or anyone else, defend it.
I have found these rules, together with encouragement to criticise ideas, ensures that critical discussions are meaningful and feelings are not hurt. Ironically, several people have told me after ACT sessions that criticism of ideas makes them feel freer and less constricted than when they cannot criticise ideas.
Go On, Give It a Try
If you run brainstorms and have always adhered to Mr Osborn’s rule that you must withhold criticism, I suggest you experiment with ideation that welcomes crticism and see what happens. Mr Osborn surely would not mind. After all, he was a fan of creativity and trying out new ideas. Moreover, I believe you will be pleasantly surprised by the results.
The official recognition of the renminbi as a global reserve currency is more than just an important milestone for the Chinese currency; it has significant, game-changing effects on the rest of the world’s markets, Standard Chartered said.
Within slightly over a decade, China’s extensive reforms have propelled the renminbi from being non-existent on the world stage to becoming a currency in the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) Special Drawing Rights (SDR) basket.
Bill Winters, Group Chief Executive, Standard Chartered, said: “The inclusion of renminbi into the SDR speaks volumes about how much China has accomplished since it embarked on its reforms in 2004. The speed of development has been striking and today marks the beginning of another new chapter.”
Benjamin Hung, Standard Chartered’s Greater China and North Asia Chief Executive Officer, also noted: “We are expecting further steps to include flexible cross-border investments and remittance, expansion of free trade zones and greater opening up of capital account. We are confident that China will remain committed in promoting its currency in a steadfast and well-paced manner, on track to meet our forecast of becoming a G3 currency by 2020.
Benjamin Hung added: “In the interim, there will inevitably be uncertainties and volatilities across financial markets, be it greater two-way USD-CNY variability or financial flows as international investors and reserve managers adjust their portfolio over time. It is important to brace ourselves for these developments as it takes time for market participants to rebalance against a new reserve currency, which will eventually bring positive changes to global financial markets across FX, rates, fixed-income and other asset classes.”
After the SDR review, Standard Chartered expects a gradual pick-up of diversification inflows into renminbi assets from international investors and reserves managers, of which the latter would be a critical underlying support for the CNY in the coming years. Global central banks may reallocate 1 per cent of their reserve investments into Renminbi assets annually. Standard Chartered expects inflows of US$85 billion-US$125 billion from global central banks in 2016, with at least 5 per cent of global reserves being denominated in renminbi by end-2020.
Central banks are likely to favour products such as renminbi bonds issued by the Chinese government, Policy Banks, high quality corporate bonds and Supranationals; and at the shorter-end of the curves, T-bills and bank deposits. Standard Chartered expects rising usage of the renminbi by corporates, financial institutions, and investors alike. From trade to investment to now becoming a global reserve currency, the renminbi has embarked on an irreversible journey.
In a competitive marketplace, developing a reputation as an expert is one of the best forms of career insurance. Having a blue-chip personal brand is powerful for international thought leaders, who can leverage it to command exorbitant speaking fees. But it’s also helpful for professionals who work inside corporations, where a great reputation can bring coveted promotions and opportunities. Here’s how you can become recognized for your expertise inside your company.
First of all, it’s important to recognize that you don’t have to start out as a worldwide expert. Too many people discount their value. You can coach others on writing better business memos even if you’re not Shakespeare, or lead an office running group even if you’re not Usain Bolt.
Michael Leckie was a vice president of human resources for a prominent research company when he developed an interest in coaching. Although the subject was related to his job, it wasn’t part of his actual responsibilities—he simply began studying it because he wanted to. He started out as a novice, compared to worldwide authorities, but he quickly grew to be one of the most knowledgeable people about talent development within his company. “When you start building your brand in a corporation, it’s a confined space,” he told me in an interview for my new book, Stand Out. “You don’t need to be the best in the world; you just need to be the best one there. You can be a big fish in a little pond, and if you’re the biggest fish in that environment, you get bigger and can then start to do things outside the organization.”
In these early stages, it’s important to be clear about what you know and what you don’t. If you try to prematurely position yourself as an expert who can compete with industry giants, you risk losing credibility when you’re faced with a question or challenge you’re unsure about. But if you’re honest about where you are in the process – experienced with some facets and still learning others – then others are likely to respect you for your superior knowledge and not hold it against you if you don’t know everything.
As your profile grows, it’s also important to ensure that your company understands the value of your public brand. This is especially important if, like Leckie, you’re cultivating expertise on a subject that isn’t part of your core responsibilities. “My world is [the firm], so I need to have my brand aligned to what matters to them,” says Leckie. Developing his coaching brand began to raise Leckie’s professional profile in general, which eventually to led to an invitation to give a keynote talk for a client’s conference of technology leaders. The keynote was an exciting opportunity for him, but his superiors could have viewed it with suspicion (Why is he getting all this attention? Why isn’t he concentrating on his real job?) if he hadn’t taken the time to show them how it was relevant to the company’s business objectives.
“With outside things, you have to make sure you’re explaining them [in terms of] what matters in the organization,” said Leckie. “Otherwise, they start to look, to some, like a distraction.” He didn’t assume his boss’s boss would understand why it was important for him to speak at the conference – rather, Leckie explicitly articulated the keynote’s business benefits to him. “What he’ll be excited about is great interactions with the client,” Leckie said, “and that I’m out there developing business and increasing the relationship they have with us.”
Finally, it’s important to recognize when it’s time to expand what you’re known for strategically. “Sometimes your brand is more happenstance than thoughtful,” says Leckie. “It may be about things you like, but it’s not necessarily leading you where you want to be moving toward.” Leckie realized he’d been so successful at building his expert reputation around coaching and talent development that those skills — even though they were valuable for an HR leader — were beginning to overshadow others that were deemed more critical inside his company. “My brand got established and it opened the door, but it also began to shut other doors. It became clear to me that while I was really good at building and driving a team that got great business results, when people were talking about me, it wasn’t about business results; it was about the more unique elements of my brand [such as coaching].”
That’s why he decided to make coaching a “sub-brand.” In other words, he didn’t abandon it, but he started emphasizing it less in favor of talking about his ability to drive the bottom line. “It’s giving people a language of how to think about you subtly,” he says, by shifting the topics you discuss and by enlisting friendly ambassadors to highlight your relevant accomplishments. That’s been especially important to him as he’s risen in the ranks of his company and now holds a broader leadership role.
It’s slightly trickier for professionals to build a strong personal brand inside a company, as compared to entrepreneurs or other free agents. You have to balance the unique mix of your skills and interests with your company’s needs and sensibilities. But when done right, cultivating a brand as a “local expert” inside your company can enhance your professional reputation and ensure you’re valued the way you should be.