A better alternative to a ‘return to normal’

Wharton professor Adam Grant shares how business leaders can pivot after the threat of COVID-19 subsides

2020 was a year in which we were forced to do a lot of rethinking. We asked ourselves questions like, ‘Is it safe to eat indoors in a restaurant?’ and ‘Can I be productive when I can’t be in the same room as my colleagues?’

2021 and beyond is an opportunity for us to rethink more proactively and deliberately. What does it take to be an effective rethinker – somebody who questions opinions, assumptions and knowledge – and how can you make that part of your organisation’s culture? I had a recent discussion with WeWork CEO Sandeep Mathrani about this at the WeWork Innovation Summit.

Create a culture of psychological safety

Psychological safety is that sense that you can take a risk without being punished. You can say ‘I don’t know’, or ‘I made a mistake’, or you could ask for help. 

We have extensive evidence that when teams have that psychological safety they’re actually less likely to make errors. We also know that psychological safety is a big driver of innovation, because when people feel like they can take risks, they let their ideas fly. When they feel like they can’t, they stay silent.

Think about a boss who says, ‘Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.’ That’s a dangerous philosophy, because if people only speak up when they have a solution, you’ll never hear about the biggest problems that are too complex for any one person to solve.

The foundation of psychological safety is creating an environment where the canaries in the coal mine feel empowered to raise issues – even if they don’t have the authority, expertise or resources to tackle them. That’s the beginning of creating a culture where people are willing to think again.

Surround yourself with disagreeable givers 

Givers are the people constantly asking, ‘What can I do for you?’ They’re constantly sharing knowledge and solving problems. Givers are willing to do things that are not in their job description but are critical to the effectiveness of the team.

Takers, on the other hand, are the people who want to know, ‘What can you do for me?’ Takers like to hog the interesting, visible projects, dump the grunt work on everyone else, and get the lion’s share of the credit for collective achievements.

But there are also personality traits called agreeableness and disagreeableness. Agreeable people are warm, friendly, polite. Disagreeable people are more critical, skeptical and challenging.

Agreeableness or disagreeableness is your outer veneer – how pleasant it is to interact with you – whereas giving and taking are your inner motives – your values and intentions when you interact with others. 

Agreeable givers may seem like the best possible members of your support network because they love to encourage, reassure and root for you. The problem is that agreeable people don’t like conflict, and often shy away from telling you what you need to rethink.

In order to think and rethink effectively, we need disagreeable givers in our network. These are the people who are gruff and tough on the surface, but they’re doing it because they’re trying to help. They challenge because they care. They ask hard questions and give us the critical feedback we may not want to hear but need to hear.

Build a challenge network

Your challenge network is the group of people you trust to tear your ideas apart. It includes disagreeable givers, the people who give us that accountability that we need to reexamine the way we’ve always done things.

If you bring a practice, idea or decision to a disagreeable giver, they will tear it apart in the service of making it better. Not only are they more passionate advocates for new and unconventional thinking, they’re also more credible advocates.

In the last few years, I’ve contacted my most thoughtful critics, the best disagreeable givers in my professional life, and I’ve said, ‘Hey you may not know this, but I consider you a founding member of my challenge network.’ 

I’ve told them that there are times when I haven’t taken their feedback well. Sometimes I’ve been defensive. Other times I saw it as a distraction, so I dismissed it. But I’ve always appreciated the way they pushed me to do better.

‘And if you ever hesitate to tell me what you really think because you are worried you’ll damage the relationship or hurt my feelings, don’t,’ I’ve told them. ‘The only way you can hurt my feelings is by not telling me the truth.’

That conversation empowered these people to give me much more thoughtful feedback than they would have otherwise. 

Question best practices 

The very idea of best practices scares me a little bit. Because the moment you declare a practice ‘best’ is the moment you declare there’s nothing that could possibly improve. 

Instead of best practices, we might want to look for better practices. One way to do that is to stop thinking like a preacher or prosecutor, and start thinking more like a scientist.

When you think like a preacher or a prosecutor, you spend too much time proselytising your own ideas and trying to prove your case when somebody disagrees with you. When you think like a scientist, you don’t let your ideas become your identity – and that can give you a lot more flexibility to rethink things.

It means that when a product or service launch doesn’t work, you say, ‘All right, my hypothesis was wrong, or my experiment was not successful. Now I need to rethink my product, service, my market or strategy’ – and that flexibility allows you to try something that’s more likely to work.

The beauty of thinking like a scientist is that it motivates you to look for reasons why you might be wrong, not just reasons why you must be right.

Abandon brainstorming in favour of brainwriting

Of course you want to make sure you’re getting the best ideas on the table. And the way most of us do that is to say, ‘Let’s brainstorm’.

But we have over 40 years of evidence that you get more ideas, and better ones, by letting people work independently on their own. We consistently see three things going wrong in brainstorming meetings:

1. Production blocking: you can’t all talk at once in a group, so some ideas get lost.

2. Fear of looking stupid: People bite their tongue on their most original ideas. 

3. The HIPPO effect: this stands for ‘highest-paid person’s opinion’ – and as soon as that’s known, people jump on the bandwagon and you end up with too much convergent thinking and not enough divergent thinking.

The simple solution to all of these problems is to shift from brainstorming to brainwriting. Give people the prompt in advance and then let them think independently, knowing that individuals generate more variety and more brilliant ideas than groups do.

Then, once you have all the ideas on the table, you let the group do the selection and refining. Use the wisdom of crowds to work out which ideas are really worth developing.

Virtual technologies were designed for brainwriting. The chat window on a video conference is perfect for it. I bring people into a meeting and say, ‘We’ve got something we want to rethink. Let me give you 10 minutes to think about this and then submit your ideas in the chat window. Then we’ll all review them and go around and talk.’

Ideally, the leader doesn’t voice her opinion until everybody else has shared theirs, and that way they’re less likely to feel pressure to conform to the HIPPO.

Practise intermittent collaboration

My colleague Anita Woolley studied virtual software teams working remotely and found that there were two dominant patterns of communication: 

1. Low-frequency, high-intensity: the teams were not in touch every day, but when they were in contact, they had messages flying back and forth.

2. High-frequency, low-intensity: when teams were in touch much more regularly, there weren’t quite as many messages per hour.

And the data showed that intensity, not frequency, ends up predicting productivity, creativity and remote collaboration. The low-frequency, high-intensity teams were able to fall into a pattern that’s known as burst enos – their collaborations are literally bursting with energy and ideas.

Engagement is higher when you’re synchronised in time with the people on your team, so with these bursts, teams are engaging in intermittent collaboration.

They might be working independently for a few days, generating lots of ideas. And then they have not just shared meeting time but also shared work time where they know their colleagues are online, ready to jump in if they have a problem or need some help.

When you give people a chance to collaborate intermittently, you’re letting them do individual work and then dedicating a separate time when everybody’s available for group work.

In the coming months, business leaders – from startups to enterprise companies – will continue to ask themselves, ‘How do you bring a group of people together and make them more than the sum of their parts?’ These ideas get at the answer.

Adam Grant is a professor of organisational psychology at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, bestselling author of Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, and the host of WorkLife, a TED Original Podcast.

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