Prove It!

Roger Martin has posted a useful blog on HBR about how managers squelch ideas daily with just two words – “Prove It”.

Of course, it’s not only managers who do this. We all do it at different times, both to other people, and ourselves, when we have an idea and hold back because we don’t yet have concrete proof it will work or will be safe.

I think of this as clay, or skeet, shooting. You throw an idea up, and someone shoots it down. They suggest a different idea and you shoot it down. Eventually everyone gives up having ideas and starts blaming each other.

This happens when we react without thinking clearly. We have a well-developed biological system to scan the world for threats and opportunities. It’s very useful when the threat or opportunity is real and easy to identify from our library of past experience. We do it in nanoseconds. Unfortunately the system has a safety bias, so it doesn’t like ideas it can’t make sense of quickly, and it treats apparent and real threats the same.

If something is genuinely new – outside your experience – and a surprise, your system assumes it’s a risk. It’s worse if it looks even remotely like something you personally might be uncomfortable with. And it’s more likely to happen when you are stressed and tired. If it’s just you involved, you can choose to ignore it. But if someone else wants a response, what are you supposed to do when what you feel like saying is ‘prove it?’.

A useful first step is to notice your frustration and give yourself time to think. A great tactic is to say to the other person “OK, tell me more about your idea”. It gives you the time you need to refocus, and they might just tell you something that changes your mind in a useful way. At the very least people won’t accuse you of not listening.

And then you have time to manage your threat/opportunity scanners:

  • Consciously ask questions to find out more about the facts and the opportunities, including how this new idea might help to achieve goals already on your to do list
  • When you notice problems, ask a question instead of making statements e.g. “We can’t afford this” becomes “how can we fit this into our budget constraints?”. Or “Prove it” becomes ‘how can we create a small experiment to test the concept?”

Notice this is not flipping from rejecting every idea to accepting every idea. It is testing the reality of any idea to find it’s potential, and it’s also teaching everyone to handle innovation and change more constructively.  This is at the heart of that buzzword of the moment – agility.  Agility is not just doing the same old things faster, it’s flexing how you respond to novelty, deal with difference and make progress.  And it starts with the simple act of responding differently next time someone turns up with a new idea.

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