News & Perspectives

The Value of “No” People: Breaking Your Idea in Order to Strengthen it

The Value of “No” People: Breaking Your Idea in Order to Strengthen it

Skeptics are a vital part of your innovation team, if handled right.
Perspective// Posted by: Christine Mason / 8 Oct 2015
Skeptics are useful to innovators

To be an entrepreneur or innovation leader involves necessary delusions.  If every entrepreneur heeded the naysayers, they might not make any move at all. There is an inherited conservationist tendancy in culture- why fix what’s not obviously broken? - in some people it’s an almost genetic resistance to change!  This resistance can impinge creativity and demoralize innovation.  My friend Paul Elio, founder and CEO of Elio Motors, says that if, at the outset of beginning a project, you think about all the battles you are going have to fight to make change happen or to create a company, you might just stay in bed!  So, as a product or organization builder, you learn to ignore the skeptics - you just deal with what’s in front of you, meet one milestone at a time, and soon you’re climbing mountains.

But that doesn’t mean you don’t need, or can’t make use of the NO people.  Those that push and prod and doubt and question can be your biggest allies in creating a more comprehensive strategy.  The friction they bring can be invaluable in forging the best idea possible – if they don’t get in the way of forward motion.

No people come in two forms:  the strategic naysayer, and the saboteur.  Strategic naysayers help you to investigate weak points in your own arguments and plans.   Saboteurs demoralize the team and slow down progress.

If you have an uninvited skeptic on the team, or you encounter one in the flow of work, the trick is to use their questions or disbelief to instigate your own discovery. You turn their skepticism into questions that can be answered based on true data.  For example, if someone says “that’s never going to work”, delve a little deeper into why they think that.  “Americans will never buy a three-wheeled commuter car, they like to fit in too much.”  Ask your questioner if they can think of any examples when Americans have chosen smaller or more economic vehicles, or strangely shaped vehicles.  Then use this skepticism to frame a question:  Are people afraid to drive something that stands out and looks strange?  Will that be a deterrent to purchase?  How can we speak to the positive aspect of standing out? And find out the answer.  It may change your sales projections or marketing message.

If this person is on your team, you can coach them to do the same transformation – how to turn a doubt or negativity bias into a measurable inquiry. You can teach them DAI:  Doubt Assumption Inquiry.  DOUBT: I have a hunch or a concern that this element of the plan is going to be specifically challenging or even possibly a fracture point in the model.  ASSUMPTION:  What’s behind the doubt? At the heart of this are three assumptions or concerns.  INQUIRY: Turn each of these into a question that can be validated, and test them.  By training your teams to be in DAI mode, the aren’t afraid to derail the forward moving train, but become ongoing idea quality testers.

If you don’t have skeptics, you actually may have a problem.  Do you only allow yes people in the building?  If your ideas aren’t getting stress tested, their weaknesses aren’t revealed.  In this case, you can actively seek out critics by asking people to tell you:  What’s wrong with this idea?   What’s wrong with this plan?  Can you see any weaknesses in this plan?

Of course, seeking criticism means that you have to be confident enough in your own vision to be able to accept challengers.  As an entrepreneur, you have to do a little bit of Jedi knight activity here in order to hold your center. One thing that might help that is to remember that prognosticators- negative or positive, are often wrong.  Negativity bias says it’s never going to happen.  For example, the infamous prediction by the head of IBM that there “might be a demand for maybe 6 computers in the world”- that was a negativity bias in the face of potential world changing technology.  Positivity bias causes us to overestimate the impact of a thing- it’s a positive delusion (“The Segue will change transportation forever”).

Be fearless in the creation of change – let the challenges come freely, and learn and strengthen the vulnerabilities.   Try to break your idea in order to strengthen it.

Christine Mason
Christine maps new markets for emerging technologies, scouts for strategic expansion opportunities, and guides internal innovation strategies for leading companies.