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Encouraging the Naysayers

How Questioning the Status Quo Encourages Innovation

Posted on February 05, 2016


Fail First, Succeed Later

If you are looking for hilarious YouTube videos, few can rival this footage of man’s early attempts at flight. Set to the triumphant soundtrack of “Eureka!”, the video features bold inventors, pioneers, and daredevils attempting to fly using the most ridiculous methods imaginable. A personal favorite is the giant bird machine at 2:39.

As you might imagine, in some instances the operator was fortunate to have survived the experience (they all did). Considering the dire consequences of failure in attempting to fly, one has to wonder, where were this person’s friends to suggest, “Maybe you want to try this with a test dummy first.”

But besides being hilarious, the video underscores the point that invention and innovation are not always pretty, and bold breakthroughs require failure. Innovators have to be bold and determined to power through setbacks and, as a consequence, often fall in love with their ideas. This is a good thing because their efforts drive progress forward.

The flip side of this is that failure is extremely painful and potentially catastrophic if not checked with valuable critical feedback before release. When the naysayers, or those who point out the flaws in a plan, are shunted aside or otherwise ignored, very bad things can happen.


The Danger of The Echo Chamber, Yes Men, and Confirmation Bias

It’s a point Art Markham makes in his recent column in Fast Company, “Why You Should Encourage Naysayers of Your Best Ideas.” In the article, Markham cites the Segway as an example of a product launched with a lot of hype and lack of critical pushback. Launched as a game changer in 2001, the Segway achieved moderate success with tour companies and people whose jobs require a lot of walking but fell short of predictions of being “as big a deal as the PC.”

It appears few in the Segway organization asked a question that was obvious in retrospect, “Why would anyone pay thousands of dollars for a product that helps them accomplish something they already do for free?” Insiders in the Segway organization uniformly agreed with one another that the product was going to revolutionize the world and those who disagreed were not welcome.

Such is the danger of the echo chamber, yes men, groupthink, and confirmation bias. These cognitive biases have been at least partly to blame for massive debacles such as the 2007-2008 financial crisis and the dot-com bubble of the late 90s. When everyone is saying the same thing and evidence that runs contrary to this prevailing wisdom is ignored, an organization or industry can develop blind spots to the weaknesses of their beliefs. The results of this systemic failure can be enormous.


The Devil’s Advocate, Debbie Downer, and Constructive Criticism

Adversity and debate, properly used, can uncover flaws and weaknesses in one’s argument. It was for this purpose the Catholic Church created the role of “Devil’s Advocate” in 1587 in its canonization process. Before a candidate was confirmed for sainthood, the person appointed Devil’s advocate would take a skeptical view and look for holes in the evidence.

The process, with the Devil’s advocate in place, was rigorous and ensured only the candidates of the highest quality were named saints. Before the ordination of Pope John Paul, only 98 were named in the 20th century. After Pope John Paul abolished the office in 1983, the number of saints surged to 500 during his time.

It’s important to differentiate Devil’s advocates and naysayers from contrarians. The latter are the Debbie Downers of an organization - the ones who make unproductive and ineffective arguments, such as outright dismissals (“This idea is stupid”) without offering any supporting evidence or specific reasons.

Naysayers, on the other hand, are the challengers of a company. They are the people who play Devil's Advocate, who want to push everyone to think outside of the box. It’s the naysayer’s job to instead ask leaders the hard questions necessary to ensure success.

This functionality is built into the core of Vocoli employee suggestion software. Because the software functions to enable collaboration, when users post an idea, co-workers can respond and ask the tough questions. Subjecting an idea to this rigorous questioning ensures only the best ideas and solutions are the ones that are implemented and disasters like the giant bird machine are avoided.

If you’re team is ready to start asking the tough questions about your innovations and ideas, then it’s time to call the Vocoli Team at 888.919.5300 or click here to sign up for our Live Demo.

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