By Andy Boynton and Bill Fischer with William Bole
Conversations are building blocks of innovation, ways to move an idea from origination to application. But they often stall at the starting gate or become unproductive. To create successful conversation, make sure you’re sending the right signals to your conversation partners, letting them know you’re interested in a real exchange of ideas. Recent studies of how doctors talk to patients (often ineptly) are instructive.
One study published in 2008 tracked conversations between hundreds of cancer patients and oncologists. Researchers analyzed how the doctors responded to patients, categorizing their responses as either “continuers” or “terminators” of any given conversation. Doctors were said to continue a conversation when their remarks ran along the lines of, “I can imagine how scary this must be for you,” or “Tell me what you understand about your illness.” Such a response encouraged patients to keep talking and expressing their concerns. Doctors were said to terminate conversations when they made comments such as, “Give us time; we are getting there,” which signaled that there was nothing more to talk about. In this study of 400 doctor-patient interactions, physicians terminated the conversations nearly 80 percent of the time.
The finding had clear medical implications. That is especially so in view of other research indicating that when a doctor expresses empathy, a cancer patient is better able to cope with both the illness and the treatment, which can have positive medical results. (Denise Grady of The New York Times described the research, together with a personal account of the exceptional care given to her sister by such an oncologist.) But there are broader applications, as well.
Continuers invite honest discussion; they build ideas. Terminators pour cold water on conversations; they kill off ideas. And it’s very easy to chase away ideas that might flow from a conversation without being fully aware you’re doing so. Think of how many times a higher-up has responded to someone’s thoughts by saying, in these or subtler words, “I have a better idea.” A more productive response might be, “How could we rub our two ideas together and come up with something new?”
Other notorious terminators of conversation include, “We’ve been there, done that,” or conversely, “We’ve never done that before,” “That’s not going to work,” or “That’s Joe’s issue; he owns that one” (which is a particularly unproductive terminator when Joe isn’t, in fact, doing anything).
Charlie Hawkins, a specialist in small-group communications, has come up with a useful list of “idea busters” and “idea builders.” A buster might be “Great idea, but not for us”; its builder counterpart would be “Great idea—how can we make it work for us?” “It’s been done to death” would be better scrapped in favor of “Let’s do it better or differently.” And instead of saying, “It doesn’t solve the problem,” you might want to respond, “Let’s connect this back to the problem.” And so on.
There are also nonverbal ways of terminating ideas, such as with facial expression or form of body language that indicates dismissal out of hand. It’s better to pay attention to the speaker, show interest in the idea, absorb the thought, and mine the value of it—before responding.
More subtle terminators of ideas involve the context of a discussion or the status of the people involved. Leaders, in particular, have to watch out for the effects of rank on a conversation. It’s too easy to unconsciously pull rank, for example, by starting off a conversation with an assertion rather than a question. Stating, “I think the sales plan we talked about at the meeting is going to be the way to go,” is an idea buster. Try asking, “What’s your take on the new sales plan?” instead.
Producers of weekly television dramas and comedies understand very well that hierarchy must be neutralized if they want conversations to yield exceptional ideas. The scripts for those shows usually are crafted in what are called “writers rooms,” often a hotel room where the writing staff hammers out ideas for episodes. Though the participants are seldom of the same rank—they might include rookie writers, midlevel writers and producers, and the co-executive producers—the rule is that everyone has an equal right to contribute ideas.
Deric A. Hughes, a writer for the science fiction series, Warehouse 13, told of an executive producer who announced emphatically on the first day of work, “Here, inside the writers room, I don’t care about a person’s rank. I just want to hear good ideas. And if you don’t have any good ideas, I’ll find someone else who does.” Himself one of the mid-level writers, Hughes was quick to explain in a June 2010 interview with Marc Bernardin for science fiction blog io9: “Now, of course, he didn’t mean that you shouldn’t respect a person’s rank and history, but it should never preclude you from coming up with ideas and sharing them with the room. So when he said that, I think this immediately broke the ice and allowed everyone to relax, be themselves, and focus on coming up with great stories to tell.”
One of our premises is that all ideas should be welcomed, though not every idea can or should be acted upon. To arrive at a single innovation, you generally need bursts of ideas from all directions. Conversations are a prototypical way of triggering the crossfire of ideas, but an exchange will not bear fruit if people fear that their ideas will be declared dead on arrival, swept aside as wild, or denounced as dumb.
Excerpted from THE IDEA HUNTER: How to Find the Best Ideas and Make Them Happen, by Andy Boynton and Bill Fischer with William Bole (Jossey-Bass; hardcover; April 2011).
Andy Boynton is dean of Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. Before returning to Boston College, he was a professor of Strategic Leadership at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland, where he created and directed IMD’s global Executive MBA program. Boynton is the co-creator, with Bill Fischer, of DeepDive, a methodology for helping executives harness the power of teams to significantly improve problem-solving speed, innovation and results. For more information, visit www.AndrewBoynton.com.
Bill Fischer is a professor at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland. He previously served as dean and president of the China-Europe International Business School, a joint venture of the European Union and Chinese government, in Shanghai, China. He is the co-director of IMD’s innovation partnership with MIT’s Sloan School of Management and works exclusively with executives around the world. For more information, visit www.billunplugged.blogspot.com.
William Boleis a journalist and a research fellow of the Winston Center for Leadership and Ethics at Boston College.