Suspension of Disbelief

Take a minute and think back to one of the recent meetings you participated in. Anything with more than three attendees is likely to suffice. Was there a moment when one person described an idea and was promptly shot down? I see this happening in all sorts of meetings, from the tactical ones about software approaches for solving problems, through marketing approaches, to strategic discussions in the board room. Steve Jobs said that we have to learn to say “no” to most things—but that doesn’t mean we should become trigger-happy with it!

It is far easier to spot issues in ideas than finding ways of making them work. My experience shows that this can happen to CEOs, investors, etc., but it is more widespread among those of a techie upbringing. I’m guessing that is due to the fact that we’re accustomed to pouring over lines of code for hours on end, trying to pinpoint issues and debugging problems. However, what is invaluable in front of an IDE is not always appropriate in a meeting. Cultures where everyone trying to assert their seniority are busy shooting ideas down are toxic for innovation.

There is a plethora of reasons why we allow this to become an everyday habit. One such reason is bad past experiences: As the old saying goes, once burned, twice shy. If your team members have been hurt in the past by allowing too many moonshots to take place, it is only natural for them to overcompensate by becoming more conservative. Another reason is purely about our egos and fear of failure. When the environment is not supportive of experiments, and people feel that every shot has to result in a hit, they will refrain from anything that involves risk. Third, it might purely be their way of asserting their dominance and displaying cleverness: “I’m so smart that I can find problems in all of your ideas.”

The Idea Tall Poppy Syndrome

Akin to the more general tall poppy syndrome, acting similarly when it comes to ideas and suggestions has a clear downside. Nothing great and novel can happen in such an environment. It ends up stymieing creativity and hurts diversity in most teams. Consider a workplace where those without enough political power quickly learn that voicing their ideas or concerns is futile. That happens when senior staff act as “idea gatekeepers.”

Further, any genuinely creative idea is not likely to be trivial or straightforward when first considered. That means that good ideas might be getting killed off before they have had the chance of reaching viability. All this is to say that I constantly find myself needing to help my clients take proactive steps to change their cultures and stop tolerating these attitudes.

Chutzpah vs. Disbelief

Now, those of you that have been following me for a while might be sensing a contradiction here. After all, I keep touting the benefits of chutzpah, as I did in The Tech Executive Operating System. Isn’t chutzpah all about enabling ICs to speak up and say when they believe ideas will not work?

No, because chutzpah is not a license to be cynical. No one needs a room filled with smart-alecks. When I urge open environments with chutzpah, it means that if someone spots an issue, they should say so and question it. But that should not be confused with shooting down ideas. For example, when the CEO describes a new reorg, it is perfectly fine to ask what really is the big difference from the previous state. Or, if you spot a Theranos-like behavior emerging, you should feel free to say so and demand clear answers. That is not the same as stopping new ideas dead in their tracks.

That is why I sometimes teach executives to wield the concept of the suspension of disbelief as a tool they use in meetings. So, if the CEO is presenting a new product category dependent on an innovative business model, or when the team is considering ideas for its next intermission, you might declare it a suspension-of-disbelief session. Doing so should make people spend their brain cycles, not on poking holes in the idea, but trying to start with the assumption that it can work and then finding a way to make it so.

It’s easy to be the clever person that finds issues with any idea you hear. Real cleverness is about making the impossible possible. There’s a reason my unit’s slogan in Unit 8200 was everything is possible. If you start believing that, you can make amazing things happen. Life is too short for constantly quipping at each other like dialogs from Friends. Can you create the right culture?