I ran an innovation session recently for a client's senior management team that featured an exercise that a lot of people shy away from. There is a great tendency for lots of people to stress positivity – building on ideas, reducing criticism, etc. I can understand that – but it's also unrealistic to stay in that positive mode. It creates an unrealistic situation, but more importantly it means that ideas and proposals are not robust, the people owning them are unrealistically optimistic and that there are traps in store.
I liked this recent article in the FT: Employee ideas thrown to the dragons – real challenge to the ideas, once they've been put together and had a chance to hone them. I suspect that one of the elements of this that works is making the challenge fun, making it part of the game.
The exercise I used is a Cognitive Edge one called Ritual Dissent. As the name suggests, it works by making it all part of a ritual. My experience has been that, once everyone's over the initial shock of "no positive comments, just criticism", the process turns into one that's full of fun. People can give full rein to their inner cynic, people don't take offense at the criticism because they know that's "just part of the game".
The room the other week was full of laughter, challenge and, by the end, more realistic, robust ideas that had been through an initial picking-apart and already knew what elements needed further work.
And let's face it, it's not as if new ideas won't get challenged anyway once they're presented to senior managers to try and secure budget. If they've been living in a little zone of unrealistic positivity until then, that challenge will hurt…