The advance of knowledge requires the collision of ideas. Good ideas survive deep skepticism and intense competition. Look at the United States Constitution, which is a collection of ideas that were fiercely debated and challenged before it was adopted. Those ideas have stood the test of time.
Stress-testing ideas exposes their weaknesses and highlights their strengths. Organizations that adopt this principle gain the advantage. Innovation happens when people are encouraged to put forward their best thinking, no matter their status, power, or tenure.
I recently heard Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO and chairman, speak at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. He attributed a lot of Google’s success to implementing the competition of ideas principle. Google embodies this ethos and approach to innovation in X Development, its semi-secret research and development innovation lab that works on new moonshot technology, such as Google’s self-driving cars. The lab celebrates failure and gives bonuses to teams that successfully kill their own projects by disproving their hypotheses.
Easy to understand but difficult to implement.
Most of us enjoy seeing our ideas adopted and don’t like watching them be criticized. When you combine this self-protective tendency with the hierarchies that develop in organizations, you can unintentionally protect bad ideas. You have likely witnessed a situation at work where no one wants to criticize an idea because it’s a pet project of someone who holds power in the organization. In addition, most organizations are filled with people who have misaligned incentives, competing agendas, biases, and blind spots.
Shutting down criticism is dangerous.
Surrounding yourself with people who think like you do blinds you to flaws in your thinking. The search for truth, knowledge, and innovation requires a free and open exchange of ideas. Seek out people with diverse viewpoints and invite criticism. Allow the best ideas to grow and let the bad ones die. Natural selection has been implementing this principle since life on earth began.
Learn to embrace failure and argue constructively.
Innovation requires failure. As profiled in Entrepreneur magazine, British inventor Sir James Dyson spent 15 years creating 5,126 versions of his dual cyclone vacuum cleaner before he found the right design.
Criticize ideas not people. The competition of ideas only works if people share their best thinking. No one likes to be attacked or disrespected. Not all ideas are going to be good. However, people need to feel safe and supported to share their ideas. Here are a few ways to frame conversations and to argue productively.
Five ways to argue productively
1. Identify the goal. Why are you having the conversation? Can you agree on a desired outcome? For example, if you are discussing a contentious issue, such as rent control in San Francisco, start by finding agreement on the goal. In this example, the ultimate goal is affordable housing — not rent control. Affordable housing is needed to support the local economy and enable key workers such as teachers, firefighters, police, and service personnel to live in the city.
2. Steel man the opposing view. The steel man argument (or steelmanning) is the opposite of the straw man argument. If you disagree with an idea or someone’s view, start by re-expressing your understanding of the other person’s position as clearly as possible in the most fair and favorable light. Identify all the points you agree with and highlight anything you learned from their idea and viewpoint. Only after summarizing the most charitable version of their position do you identify your points of disagreement.
3. Listen actively. Listen with the intent to learn. Most of us are guilty of thinking about our response while someone else is speaking. Instead, intently listen and try to understand the other person’s perspective.
4. Have fewer strong opinions. How many subjects are you really an expert on? If you are honest: not many. Yet most of us — including me — are guilty of holding strong opinions on many topics. What is your opinion on nuclear energy? Immigration? Climate change? To have a truly well-informed opinion on these topics would require hundreds of hours of intense study, exposure to diverse viewpoints, and review of the scientific literature.
5. Let the data decide. Often the best way to choose between two opposing views is to run an objective test. Software and the internet allow many kinds of tests to be completed quickly. For example, if your marketing team disagrees on the best message to promote a new product, run a comparison A/B test and see which campaign performs better.
The search for truth, knowledge, and innovation requires a free and open exchange of ideas. Stress-test ideas to expose their weaknesses and strengths. Do not shut down criticism that can expose your biases and blind spots. Embrace failure and learn to argue constructively. Follow the five steps above to create productive conversations and drive innovation.