Saturday, May 10, 2008

Good Ideas and the Lowest Common Denominator - What Do You Do When They Just Don't Get It?

What happens when you have one of those ideas, those concepts that are so revolutionary, so innovative, that the people you work with just don't get it? Do you hold on to it? Do you let it go? And how about the people that you work with -- how do they handle new ideas and concepts? Do they question anything new? And how about your corporate culture -- are you rewarded for innovative ideas? Is there an organizational path for digesting and implementing innovation?

One of my favorite books about creativity is Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool's Guide to Surviving With Grace by Gordon MacKenzie. Gordon worked for many years at Hallmark, and the book is a wonderful exploration of the challenges of dealing with creativity in the corporate world. I love the Hairball book, but my real life experiences tell me that most business cultures are not particularly receptive to fostering creative environments. In practical terms, what this means is that, as an idea engine, most of us frequently wind up in situations where the wheels are spinning but the idea doesn't advance. And if your work environment is a consensus culture, you probably won't get traction until you reach the lowest common denominator in terms of shared vision -- and that threshold may actually equate to the death of your concept.

Before you throw in the towel, there are a couple of things to keep in mind:
  1. Ideas that are impossible to implement may not be good.
  2. Your idea may improve during the process of explanation, analysis and consensus building.
  3. Lowest common denominator doesn't necessarily equate to dumbing your idea down -- it may simply require one bridge across a single gap in understanding to gain a wider grasp of the vision.
Remember, when you are looking for a shared vision, it isn't necessary for everyone to see the goal from your eyes, all that is needed is to see the goal, even if their vision comes from a different angle -- once you have a shared vision of the goal, you are simply debating about implementation.

If you come up with unique ideas, then you already understand that this process is never easy. In that moment of your idea, what you are essentially telling your audience is "here is something that you didn't know, that you didn't think of, or that you need to figure out how to interpret and understand." If the disconnect is like a joke, most people don't want to be the guy who doesn't get the joke, it's much better for them if the real problem is that the joke just sucks. And to make matters worse, they probably have a lot more at stake personally than whether they laugh. So, as you try to bridge these gaps in understanding, one key point is that the fewer number of conceptual leaps your audience needs to make, the more receptive they are likely to be.

To bridge conceptual gaps, it's important to understand where the gaps come from. One way of visualizing an idea is like a patchwork quilt. In your mind, you have connected one conceptual piece of cloth with another and another, forming a much larger fabric. The threads that tie those pieces together and the order that you have connected them are something that has taken place inside your mind. This is the magic of your unique idea. As others try to grasp your idea, they may be missing thread, they may be missing pieces of cloth, they may be missing the order -- or in some cases, they may actually see the whole quilt but think that it, like your joke, sucks.

The more of your vision that the audience already has inside of their head, the greater the likelihood that you'll be able to bridge the idea gap. So, if you are dealing with an audience of people who have a shared experience, it probably isn't a stretch to find commonality across the topic of that project (eg. 'maybe we should add an FAQ section to this document'). If, on the other hand, your concept is outside of those perceptual frames, you're asking your audience to assemble your conceptual quilt with a lot of missing pieces. This type of conceptual alienation is particularly easy to create when you're dealing with specialized topics or drawing from personal or cultural references.

Another big factor in bridging concept gaps is uniquely audience-based. Some people are more tolerant of ambiguity than others. I'll probably touch on this more in a later post (there are a wealth of great resources about this topic out there), but it suffices to say that tolerance for ambiguity is a key part of creativity, and that also means being able to make the leap to understand your concept. What this means is that, to find commonality, you have to understand your audience's ability to tolerate ambiguity enough to be able to shape how you guide them across conceptual gaps. This may mean adjusting your presentation or withholding chunks of information to avoid overwhelming your audience with too many points to connect. To add to the challenge, while creative people tolerate ambiguity, business tends to prefer organization and structure. This means that, as a marketer, you must constantly balance the business order with the creative chaos and translate the whole thing into simple elements with limited variables.

Finally, one other thing to keep in mind as you try to find common conceptual ground. The strongest ideas that people have are going to be the ones that they discover and experience on their own. Rather than presenting the entire structure of your idea, if you can help bring your audience to the point where they can turn on the light themselves, their belief in and endorsement of the concept will be much stronger.

No comments: