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Great ideas: Strategy 7 – don’t prejudge your ideas

Graphic. Centre circle 'How to have great ideas'. Smaller circle 'Don't prejudge your ideas'
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We’re shifting focus slightly in this post, to look at a strategy that will keep our thinking and idea generation as broad and open as possible. This is one of the most vital keys of the thinking process: don’t prejudge your ideas. This approach is a perfect companion for the strategies we’ve already covered: having lots of ideas, reading, watching and listening broadly, carving out blank space, involving others, knowing nothing and being curious, and using a theme or vision to focus our thinking.

The "one right answer" bias

So much of the way that our society is structured, from the very first days of school (and even before that!) is based on the idea that there is “one right answer”. And for some things, that’s true. One plus one does equal two. You wouldn’t want your pilot or accountant to throw out the usual rules of maths! But in fields as subjective as literature or history, we were graded, judged and assessed on whether we came up with the “one right answer” that the teacher had in mind. Accordingly, we get stuck in the mindset that there is only one answer to every question.

But, for many aspects of life, there is no “one right answer”. Imagine that you’re in the market for a car, and are choosing between two options. There is no algorithm to tell you the right choice. Both will have benefits and drawbacks. And like most things in life, we have to weigh them up as best we can, then make an educated guess.

Yet in so many instances, we think and act as though only one option will be perfect. And then we judge everything else against this theoretically perfect option. This act of judging is one of the quickest ways to squash creativity and interrupt idea generation.

Quote: 'So many things begin to change when you come at the world from the perspective of more than one right answer' Dewitt Jones

What happens when we prejudge our ideas?

To prejudge is to interrupt the flow of thinking

The effect of a negative evaluation

Envision this scene – you’re in a brainstorming session and your mind is overflowing with ideas. You’re throwing them out like lollies at a lolly scramble, and someone else says “That’s a stupid idea”. What happens? If you’re like most people, you freeze. You think, “What just happened?”. You try to remember what you just said. Then you try to figure out why it’s a stupid idea… and you might end up agreeing that it is.

What’s the most likely outcome of this scenario? Are you going to offer up the other ideas you thought of? Or will you be overanalysing them, trying to figure out if they too are “stupid” ideas? You’ll probably clam up, and you might even start judging other people’s ideas.

The effect of a positive evaluation

Interestingly, a similar thing happens when we positively evaluate an idea. Assessing something as a great idea is likely to narrow your (and everyone else’s) thinking afterwards. It also results in the same comparison dynamic as when we negatively evaluate an idea. We assess our next idea against the “great” idea and we’ll only volunteer it if we think it’s as good as, or better than, the earlier one.

The general effects of evaluation

Regardless of whether your evaluation has been negative or positive, you’ve interrupted your flow of thinking and ideas. And it takes quite some time to get back into it (if you ever manage to, that is!).

The interruption of flow then gets multiplied across everyone in the room, dragging down the quantity and quality of ideas. If we’re trying to have as many ideas as possible, it’s important not to prejudge our own, and other people’s, ideas as they come up. Aim to treat everything as equal during the idea-generation phase.

To prejudge is to create limitations

When you prejudge your ideas, you’ll automatically place limits on your thinking. You’ll discard the far-out, over-the-top, left-field ideas, because you’ll be looking at them through a lens of criticism and cynicism. Or, if you think you’ve already had a great idea, you’ll find that your thinking gets “anchored” to that idea, so subsequent ideas tend to closely resemble it. (This is known as convergent thinking – what we usually want at the idea generation phase is divergent thinking).

So, when you prejudge, you place limits on the possibilities available to you. Imagine if Richard Pearse and the Wright brothers had decided that making a plane was actually a bit over-the-top, and decided to continue on their quests to make better bicycles. (As an aside, I find it quite curious that both Pearse and the Wright brothers spent time on bicycle design before they successfully built and flew planes.) While we might have even more amazing bicycles, so much of the last 100 years of human history would look quite different!

From "prejudge" to "defer judgement"

It is, of course, impossible to completely suspend our judgement when we’re thinking and hearing others’ thoughts and sharing our own. We absolutely do need to judge our ideas at some point. Otherwise we’d be trying to apply every idea, which is likely to make things much, much worse, not better! However, we don’t want to judge them too soon – there is a time for everything.

If we set an intention to defer judgement, and use techniques to help us do that, we’ll create “elbow room” for all of our ideas, including the weird and wonderful. It can help to take the position of knowing nothing, and being curious. When we deliberately take on a beginner’s mindset, we are more open to possibilities. This allows us to defer judgement and keep generating great ideas.

Three techniques to defer judgement

"Yes, and" instead of "no, but"

This comes from the dramatic arts, particularly improv (a.k.a. theatresports). The rule of improv is that you never say “no”, you create collaboratively by saying “yes, and”. So each action or new idea is generative, building on what has come before. This doesn’t mean you have to agree completely with the previous speaker, but you commit to building up rather than tearing down.

Of course, you’re also welcome to suggest a completely different idea that others can engage with on a “yes, and” basis, or can follow with a different idea of their own. Whichever way it unfolds, the key is not to prejudge, but to defer any kind of assessment or evaluation until the right time.

The Six Thinking Hats of Edward de Bono

The ‘Six Thinking Hats’ is an excellent framework to structure our thinking. Each hat relates to a specific type of thinking. The full suite of hats helps individuals and groups think critically and creatively about any situation, problem or challenge.

Each hat is used in turn, with everyone using the same hat at the same time. This focuses the group’s energy in the same direction, which makes a big difference to the process and outcomes.

In idea generation, you’ll focus mostly on the green (creative) hat, with support from the red (heart) hat, and the white (factual) hat.

The black (judge’s) hat is all about judgement and evaluation, so you want to stay away from this one when you’re generating ideas (but it will come in handy when you’re looking to move from ideas to action).

Note: having an experienced facilitator who is familiar with the Six Thinking Hats approach will add significant value to your idea generation. They’ll take care of the blue (conductor’s) hat, leaving you and your team free to focus your attention and efforts on the other hats.

Screenshot from debono.com showing the Six Thinking Hats and their definitions
Image source: deBono.com

Remind yourself and others that there is an evaluation stage, but this isn't it

As I said earlier, there is a time to evaluate ideas, but the idea-generation phase is not it. So if you (or someone else) is tempted to prejudge an idea by jumping into evaluation mode, remember that you’ll have plenty of opportunity to do that at a later stage. If you’re using the Six Thinking Hats approach, you’ll be in the black hat phase for evaluation, so ask everyone to return their focus to the current hat (usually green, white or red).

And avoid the temptation of noting down the reasons for your evaluation. When you do this, you are still in “prejudge” mode, rather than “idea-generation” mode, and you’ll experience the same flow-interruption as if you’d given your evaluation out loud.

Less judgement = more generativity

That’s this post in a nutshell: less judgement = more generativity. The more we can step away from our innate desire to prejudge, and work from a mindset that all ideas have merit, the more creative, abundant and free-flowing our thinking will be. We generate more, and better, ideas when we leave the black hat on the shelf until the proper time.

Progress check

We’re now almost three-quarters of the way through this series on “How to have great ideas”. So far, the strategies we’ve covered are:

  1. Have lots of ideas
  2. Read, watch and listen broadly
  3. Carve out blank spaces
  4. Involve others
  5. Know nothing, be curious
  6. Use a theme or vision
  7. Don’t prejudge your ideas (this article)

There are three more strategies in this series. If you’d like to read up on the eighth strategy, jump over to the series page, or scroll down to the bottom of the page to browse my recent articles.

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Graphic. The word 'Progress' in blue, with arrows pointing up, ranging from short green arrow on left to tall red arrow on right.
Image sadly uncredited; please let me know if you know the creator



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