When you have an exciting new idea, it’s easy to focus on all its benefits and jump to action. But doing so can lead to failure. Your limited perspective may mean you’re not seeing potential hurdles — and you may be leaving other promising options unexplored.
If you want the best ideas to flourish, you need to open your mind to different perspectives — from people beyond your team, whom you don’t usually talk to — and ask open-ended questions. After presenting your idea, ask: What stands out for you, and what’s missing? What would our critics say? Consider the failure of your idea: What would your premortem reveal? Consider other people outside the room and ask: What would someone on the frontlines say? Finally, put yourself in your competitors’ shoes. What flaws or weaknesses in your idea would they celebrate if you were successful?
It doesn’t take much for us to be energized by new things, whether it’s a product we’re working on, a book proposal, or a process in need of revitalization. Elated by shiny new ideas and excited to move fast, we grab the opportunity to think big and go big. We gather our teams and plunge into action, presenting only the benefits of our brainchild and creating a plan to deliver on its promise. Our goal is to dazzle and persuade while blinding ourselves and others to possible downsides.
But in doing so, we court the perils of limited perspective. Isolated in our own echo chambers, our drive for fast impact can hit a snarl. We may encounter unexpected hurdles at the last minute or leave other promising routes unexplored. Our work is prolonged or crashes and burns altogether.
If you want the best ideas to flourish, then instead of languishing in the confines of your own head, open your mind to different perspectives — from people beyond your team, whom you don’t usually talk to. Ask them open-ended questions to illuminate how they think. The following questions can help you expand your horizons.
What stands out to you?
When we present ideas or propose a path forward, most of our work precedes the conversation as we prepare our pitch. After we speak, the idea rests with the collective. Instead of guiding the conversation closely, discover what others have already absorbed by asking this question. Your audience may have picked up on your main threads, or they might underscore a completely different angle. An additional benefit of asking this question is feedback on your communication. Perhaps no one mentions the one item you really wanted to emphasize. By sincerely soliciting your listeners’ impressions, you invite them on the journey with you. When our ideas incorporate others’ ideas, they have a greater chance of achieving the objective.
We may think we’ve examined a problem from all angles and covered every eventuality. But people with different backgrounds or areas of expertise are likely to notice different gaps. By asking what’s missing, we signal openness to feedback and willingness to relinquish control. We catch errors well in advance of a final output or even gain a significant advantage in the marketplace.
What would our critics say?
Despite our best efforts, colleagues might be hesitant to honestly criticize our work. During a C-suite meeting for one of my clients, the CEO posed this question. The chief medical officer, typically reticent to voice disagreement, immediately provided three comments by channeling potential critics. As the meeting progressed, we learned that the CMO herself agreed with two of those objects. By starting in a hypothetical critic’s voice, she was able to name the concerns and then claim them. Removing the personal, first-person narrative frees everyone to speak more objectively and receive constructive criticism more openly.
What would our premortem reveal?
Research psychologist and decision-making expert Gary Klein recommends teams conduct premortems where they project themselves a year ahead and imagine their project failing. Teams write the story of how that project failed. It’s only natural to be excited by our ideas. But pausing to paint a vivid picture of what could go wrong can very well avert that path.
What would someone on the frontlines who doesn’t have our context say?
Another way we limit our perspective is through the curse of knowledge. As experts in a field or as senior managers, we assume others understand what we do and have bought into why we chose a certain path. Accordingly, we shortcut our communication. We roll out new initiatives to a fanfare of eye rolls from those on the frontlines who haven’t spent months immersed in these ideas. Checking our assumptions and ideas, especially with those who will be affected, doses us with the reality that the way forward isn’t just expertise-based, but also rooted in the experience it creates for others.
How would our competitors celebrate if we were successful?
We are often mired in internal politics, working hard to lobby for our positions with higher-ups and curry favor with favorites. Looking beyond our internal, organizational echo chambers to how our competitors think can expand our perspective. Don’t just ask how the competition would celebrate your failures, but how they might celebrate what you perceive as success. One of my clients decided to really explore this question. Well before the release date of their newest product line, they created an announcement. They then invited a dozen insiders to pretend they were the competition. These people were asked to imagine they were around a conference table at the competitor’s offices; they even placed the competing company’s logo on the conference room wall! Bubbly drinks were passed around and each person was asked to toast the shortcomings of the new product. Instead of ideating how we might beat our competitors, we can simulate it by imagining how they would critique our best work.
Ideas abhor isolation. The intended audience for our ideas is seldom just ourselves. The process by which we bring our ideas to life requires hearing from many differing perspectives to give them shape, shine, and shelf life.