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Getting Teams to Think Differently

If innovation thrives on questioning with an intent to discover, it dies in the hands of the obvious.


Frustrated by the obvious?

Have you ever asked a simple question that in your mind was of a profound kind, but ended up receiving un-profound answers such as – “Oh, that’s a solved problem”, “Let’s not invent wheels”, “The usual practice is to…”, Etc.

For example –

Question – “Do we need a login screen?”.
Answer – “Of course we do”, or, “Otherwise how will we login”, or, “If you don’t require login, the application will be used for malicious purposes.”

A question that was posed as a way to explore possibilities has got smothered with answers, opinions and solutions without getting its due consideration.  The obvious thoughts prevent people from thinking further.  Fear of the unknown stops them from considering the alternatives.  Unless someone gets really serious about understanding all the possibilities for the question, it maybe lost. And, the team gets back to doing what it is best at doing – Not innovating.

How do we fix it?

Why does it happen?  How can teams develop a culture where questions are not trivialized, where decision-making is not limited to rules of the thumb, where people feel the need to go beyond their comfort zone to think through their opinions?

#1 Hiring

While it’s great to have everyone in the team clued into the process of innovation, in the real world most teams would be happy to have one or two people who can guide the innovation agenda.  In the face of passive resistance of the kind seen above, where answers are spoken faster than it takes to frame the question, these people would need to possess the clarity of thought and ability to see beyond the obvious.  Standing one’s ground, seeing through a lot of fog and steering the discussion back to the set objective are abilities that will help these innovation drivers derive meaningful conclusions from such free wheeling discussions which would otherwise end up going in circles around familiar themes.

It’s important to look for such traits among new recruits, especially at senior levels.  Freshers and younger recruits can be trained for this kind of creative thinking.  But at senior levels, with set behaviors and attitudes it’s critical to look for such traits that will help the organization set the innovation tone more credibly.

#2 Culture

Every organization defines its culture both explicitly and (more so) implicitly.  Are questions encouraged in meetings, or is the accepted norm to take questions off-line.  Do team members feel comfortable diving deep into issues, or is it considered rude to ask too many questions.  These expectations need to be set in a top-down manner.

Management sets the benchmark for the rest of the organization in the way questions are posed and answers are received or rejected.

#3 Process

In every team, there will be some members who have the innate ability to see through a situation and identify potential improvements or problems.  These are the ones who come up with incisive questions.  Others may not be as well versed at this sort of thinking.  But it is possible to develop these skills among the rest of the team members by introducing processes and by rewarding suitable behaviors.

The process of thinking disruptively to arrive at unobvious solutions needs to be demonstrated and practiced over and over.  Rules need to be set and followed for how to ask questions respectfully, and yet ruthlessly.  Senior team members need to demonstrate how tough questions can be taken gracefully, and possibilities discussed.  It should be fairly clear to all that no one is expected to know the answers, because the answer has not been discovered yet.  But everyone is required to participate in the discovery.

By regularly practicing this kind of disruptive thinking, people will be encouraged to free up their minds to other possibilities.  They will realize that this kind of thinking can be learned like a skill.  When it becomes an organizational habit, ideation can become easier, quicker and more fun.

#4 Boundaries

At every stage, it is important for everyone to understand that while brainstorming it’s okay to come up with ideas that may not be feasible.  It’s okay to present an idea that may lead to problems in other areas.  Every idea that comes for discussion is not bound to be implemented.  So, it’s okay to speak up.

Also equally important is to differentiate between ideation and execution.  Ideation offers many degrees of freedom to think. But during execution, a lot of that freedom must be curtailed to ensure timely and systematic progress is made.  Questioning decisions during execution is as expensive as staying silent during ideation.

Who needs these skills?

Questioning with an intent to discover needs to be matched with a team skilled at exploring the various possibilities.  Trained to think differently.  That’s when innovation happens.  Unobvious ideas take shape.

Danger with the unobvious ideas is that, while in the works these will look counter intuitive to the team members who are not aware of the reasoning behind such choices.  Teams that have not bought into the idea, will likely still go ahead and do their bit, but with no knowledge of the intent.  They will do it because they have been asked to do so.  That’s a sign of trouble.

Therefore, it’s important that everyone in the team is familiar with this kind of thinking.  People should be able to appreciate positive deviations from set practices.  Also, they need to be skilled at productive ways to question choices they disagree with.

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