In one of our meetings I pulled out a couple anecdotes that, at the time, seemed unrelated but in hindsight are definitely connected with regard to how teams tackle strategy, approach problem solving, and drive innovation. The two brainstorming approaches I am referring to are:
"What keeps you up at night," and "Imagine a world."
Both phrases were, by all intents and purposes, brought forth to organize the team's thoughts around very complex problems. Both sought to achieve results. Both phrases can actually be very useful in getting a diverse team to focus on the same critical issues of a challenge.
But what I find most interesting is what differentiates the two approaches.
"What keeps you up at night" can align a team. It can focus the group, most specifically on risk mitigation, while developing solutions to complex problems. And although framing a problem with this statement is undoubtedly better than not steering a team at all, it does have some significant drawbacks. Here are a few I thought of while reflecting on the approach over the past few days.
1. It is reactionary - Framing a problem in this manner has the team reacting to an environment instead of shaping it. Of course there is value in knowing the world you are operating in but in the long run there is only so much value to be gained in risk mitigation.
2. It is a pessimistic lens - How do you mobilize your team? I know I like to lead and to be lead with an eye on what we can possibly accomplish, not on what can possibly go wrong.
3. It doesn't drive you into the unknown - This third point is really a derivative of the first two. How innovative is your team going to be when you are focused on avoiding or minimizing what can go wrong. Sure there are some innovations that are derived from mitigating risk. But when comparing "what keeps you up at night" to "imagine a world" it is easy for me to see which one gets my heart pumping. I think what truly differentiates good enough from great is a truly passionate team and I just can't see people rallying around a focus on what we fear.
Many of the downfalls of the "what keeps you up at night scope" are the very reasons I gravitate towards the "imagine a world" approach.
1. It is proactive - "Imagine a world"elicits goals and a unified vision from the team. It focuses the group on where we are going, not what may be coming at us.
2. It is optimistic - It figures out what the team wants to create without the hindrances of how to get there. Setting the vision without boundaries prevents the team from self eliminating. Once the vision is locked in the team naturally accepts the accountability to get there.
3. It promotes innovative thinking - When you aren't focused on what could go 'wrong' and you are focused on what you want 'right' to look like you will naturally think more creatively.
4. It unifies the team towards a set of goals - Enough said.
These were just a few of the many examples that reinforced to me the importance engaging teams in focused critical thinking. It is very difficult to quantify the benefit focused critical thinking. It is not the type of lesson you would read explicitly in a textbook or within the framework of a management philosophy, however anyone who as ever engaged in the activity while tackling a truly complex problem will undoubtedly see the value. The next time I start a project or a new venture I plan to start with the "imagine a world" construct. I really haven't found a more inspiring way to unify a team around what is truly important in an endeavor.