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How to avoid killing ideas before they become good


Early in my teaching career, when I was a more brash and outspoken young educator, with a tendency to rock boats that didn’t need rocking, I approached my principal with a problem. When our school had a two-hour weather delay, we handled it by simply cutting first and second period, starting the day with third period. This created a problem when we would have several late starts in a row, first and second periods started getting quite behind.


I drafted a schedule for having all the periods on a shortened day, and approached my principal with it, arguing it merited consideration. She listened, and presented me with an extensive list of problems that still needed to be worked out, including: the impact on shared staff between buildings, students in advanced math classes that had to coordinate with the high school schedule, and teachers that taught multiple grades.


I kind of smile when I think about that meeting, because what she was really saying was, “I don’t have time to work on this, but if you can figure this all out, we’ll talk more.”


Years later, as I studied creative thinking processes, I realized why that was quite effective at promoting psychological safety.

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“Possibility Thinking” was the mantra of the popular televangelist Robert Schuler. I won’t lie, that sort of philosophy has profound implications on creative thinking as well.


Ideas aren’t born fully-formed. One of the things I do as a creativity coach is teach people how not to kill ideas before they have a chance to develop into good ones, which happens way too often. Waaaaay too often.


One of the building blocks of my coaching is the Creativity Formula, Creativity = Psychological Safety + Curiosity + Divergent Thinking. Psychological Safety is the ability to freely express ideas without fear of reprimand or punishment. Basically, if you’re afraid to give ideas, you just won’t – it’s that simple. If people say your ideas are bad, if they’re not good enough, and you’re never given a chance to pursue them, then why give ideas at all?


However, the desire to prevent bad ideas from being implemented is completely understandable! In some businesses, millions of dollars are at stake, as well as the livelihoods of the workforce.

How do we balance these two competing desires – the need to freely give ideas while also protecting the business and the workforce? In education, how we balance the need to freely give ideas while demonstrating mastery of standards?


Here’s a few key principles:


Look for the good first

In every idea, first look for what’s good about it first. Don’t shoot it down right away because it doesn’t strike you right, or you tried something similar twenty years ago that failed. Maybe the idea is unique, presents a new twist, or derives from the person’s passions.


Looking for the good first promotes psychological safety by encouraging the free exchange of ideas, with both parties knowing that anything is up for discussion. In addition, when we do get to criticism, it helps both parties focus on the idea and not the person who gave the idea. When the person feels dumb, that’s what hurts the most. Looking for the good keeps the conversation focused on the idea.

Turn problems into possibility statements

After discussing what’s good about the idea, then discuss problems. Again, keep the discussion focused on the idea, and not the person.


But here’s the key: turn the problems into possibility statements that invite solutions.


“It’s too expensive,” becomes “How can we do this within our budget?”


“It doesn’t work with our current software,” becomes “How can you do something like this using our current software?”


“That violates our customers’ privacy,” becomes “Is there a way to do it without violating our customers’ privacy?”


“Retraining everyone would take too much time,” becomes, “What are some ways we can make sure teaching this doesn’t take too much time?”


“We tried that ten years ago and it didn’t work,” becomes, “What are some ways we can overcome the problems it had ten years ago?”


By turning problems into possibility statements that invite solutions, it hands the problems back to the person who created the idea, and gives the opportunity for further strengthening of the idea. Rather than a quick shoot-down, now the idea can be improved and strengthened.


If the idea was a bad idea, there are absolutely legitimate reasons why, and you shouldn’t just go with an idea just this creativity blog you read said you need to create an environment of psychological safety.


But, by starting from a standpoint of possibility, you’re able to affirm the effort of the person or team that created the idea, keep the discussion focused on the idea and not the person, and maybe, if those problems can be overcome, it could actually turn into a good idea!


Ideas aren’t born fully-formed. Many ideas aren’t even born good. Ideas need development, and a chance to become good ideas. By approaching ideas from a standpoint of possibility, you give the ideas a chance to become good, while creating psychological safety for your workforce.

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I never finished the two-hour delay schedule. Turns out, I didn't have time to work on it either! But, by not killing my idea right away, and but turning the problems into possibility statements that invited solutions, I was free to continue to be creative and suggest more ideas as they came.


Which I did. Hopefully that's been a good thing!


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The book "Activate Your Genius Mode" is all about building your creative mindset. Gain practical, one-page tips to building your creative mindset, one page at a time. Visit the Conjunction Media Store to purchase.

For more tips on how to practice creative skills, to hear more, contact Creative Dave to book a workshop or motivational speech for your school or organization before his roster is full for the year!

And, check out the new, "Activate Your Genius Mode: School Edition," the complete guide to implementing creative practices inside the classroom.

Contact David about speaking or workshopping at your school or business event.

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