“When you are looking for new answers into new questions, it is knowledge itself that blocks purpose. It is knowledge that creates real ignorance, just as wealth creates poverty. Knowledge creates real ignorance. Every time a new discovery is made, enormous new areas of ignorance are opened up.”
– Marshall MacLuhan
Seniority and responsibility often correlate in the workplace, government, and academia. But did you know that seniority and problem-solving ability are also closely related? Years of experience come with wisdom and limitations.
As people become more senior in their careers or their field, they are entrusted with more and more innovation responsibilities. It is often up to those with the most experience to solve the biggest problems. But a person’s years of experience doesn’t necessarily make them the most creative. If that person is used to doing things a certain way and sees no need to change a formula, they aren’t likely to do it.
The limit on creativity here is our proximity to our own experience. The more you know about a subject or organization, the more your thinking can be constrained. For example, it took an intern working at Shreddies to come up with a creative campaign that would revive the brand in a way that no one more senior could have imagined. It took a group of kids brainstorming ideas on water conservation to develop an entirely new sidewalk system for the city of Amsterdam, one that so impressed civil engineers that they decided to start prototyping.
Whose Input Do You Value Most?
For many years, career advancement in organizations would look like this: start in the mailroom, prove your gumption to the higher-ups, get promoted to assistant, then manager, then director, and finally CEO. Companies celebrate these kinds of success stories, and as a society, we admire them. Everyone loves an underdog whose hard work pays off.
The underdog learns every side of the business on their climb to the top. They become the most knowledgeable and experienced team member, and that gives them a lot of influence. Other staff look to them for mentorship, new ideas, and guidance on projects. When we are faced with a crucial decision or major roadblock, we seek their counsel. When deciding the direction the company should take, we don’t move until we get their input.
We value the wisdom of the underdog-turned-leader. They know the people who have come and gone, the ins and outs of the company, and the products, promotions, and projects that worked ten years ago, seven years ago, and within the last eighteen months. We trust their knowledge of the past to solve our challenges of the future.
You may not have a former underdog on your company’s leadership team, but you certainly have senior leaders who play the same role within your organization. They steer the organizational ship to the destination that they think offers the best outcome for shareholders, staff, and customers. They often define the appetite for risk within a company.
When presented with a new idea or emerging trend, a senior person in a company can be the first to say, “We tried that three years ago and it flopped,” or “The CEO will never go for it because our competitors tried it and failed,” or “That’s too much risk. We’ll get mud on our face.” These senior staff might instead focus on one approach that has worked for them for the last five years. Their proximity to the company’s past failures keeps them looking in one direction for solutions. They may not be able to look beyond their organization to consider the small ways the customers or business environment has changed. What once might have seemed ludicrous is now a viable option.
Every Year of Employment Puts More Constraints on the Problem-Solving Ability
A person who is very senior in a company can have too narrow a view to solve problems effectively. They can be too close to the work – and to their tried-and-tested ways – to see the big picture or consider tackling a problem from a different angle. Staying within a certain proximity to what’s worked in the past minimizes risk and protects the company’s money and reputation. It also protects the senior staff member’s job.
While it makes sense from a stability standpoint to stick to the tried-and-tested approach, it can stilt the company’s growth. Leaders know that companies need to evolve to stay relevant, particularly in this era where dynamic start-ups are giving long-established businesses a run for their money.
Until we take a step back and accept a certain amount of risk, we’ll never see the alternative routes to grow and evolve.
One amazing example of this paradox at work is the 45-degree turn that Post Foods Canada Corporation made with one of their brands, Shreddies.
Strategies for Creating Distance from Your Own Experience
While you can’t shut off your proximity to your own experience, you can create an environment that encourages the new blood to contribute ideas. We’re not just talking about the younger staff; anyone from a different department or background, or a new employee who came from a different organization or industry, will look at your company’s problems in a way you never can.
Be Prepared to Accept Change
Tenured staff may not see any reason to invest more time and money in the marketing budget or to come up with new ideas when the old ones work just fine. Hone your change management skills to help others be open and receptive to new ideas. If the culture isn’t fully on board with a new person making changes, the changes won’t stick, and the person won’t stick around. Before long, the company will resume its old ways.
Match-Make Within your Organization
Pick the next project or problem to solve, and instead of putting it on the desk of an expert, create a tag team. If you’re considered the expert in that project, recognize that you won’t be able to innovate freely, and then find someone who can. Work together to combine their fresh ideas with your insight to develop some alternatives to your normal course of action.
When match-making experts and innovators, consider your entire team, regardless of their role or their seniority within your company. While it might not typically make sense within the company culture to have a junior designer working as an innovator with a senior production manager, when the goal is creativity, it can bring new ideas and energy to a project.
The combination of different staff members can also speed up the implementation of an idea. We’ve all worked on projects or products that are great in theory or that we’ve spent ages planning, but they fall flat – or never get off the ground – because they weren’t properly executed. Assigning an innovator to an expert relieves the pressure on the expert to do everything themselves, or of shouldering all the responsibility when things don’t go to plan.
Assign Roles in Team Brainstorms
When you host a team brainstorm, are there a few big personalities who steer the discussion? Do participants defer to the most senior person in the room? Do some people sit on their hands while others draw on the walls?
People have a certain brainstorm style, and when they consistently revert to the same old style, it can create a group dynamic that limits the diversity of thought. To combat this problem, try assigning roles to participants.
This person is often the flag bearer for the challenge. They can clearly define the problem and take others on a journey to solve it, painting a picture of where we’ve come from and the grand potential of where we might be able to end up. The Motivator inspires others to take action. They bring the most value through their passion, not necessarily for their contribution of ideas.
This person may be the quiet one in the room. Their problem-solving process starts with mulling over the problem, researching it, reflecting on it, and exploring different perspectives. They often use brainstorms to take in new information, but they do their best ideation independently. The Contemplator can easily support their idea with a well-thought-out rationale.
This person can think on their feet. They thrive when the pressure is high and timelines are tight. In the brainstorm room, they’re often the ones vibrating with ideas that they cannot wait to unleash on the world. The Inventor isn’t afraid to push for big ideas or multiple concepts, but they don’t always invest the time to fully understand the finer details surrounding the challenge.
This person is the marathon runner of concept or product development. They have the stamina to shepherd a project through every phase. In the brainstorm room, they get the group to build on promising ideas. When the dust settles, they continue to test out the chosen idea and explore different applications. When it’s time to execute and others have grown bored with the project, the Maker still has the energy to bring the idea to life.
When scheduling a brainstorm, assign different roles to participants – one that is different from their normal brainstorming style. Get big personalities to try the Contemplator role, get the senior leader to become a Motivator – you get the idea.
Hold a Seeding Brainstorm
One way to identify innovative and creative thinkers in your company is to host a Seeding Brainstorm. Depending on how ambitious you feel, present your problem to a department or to the whole company. Upcoming marketing campaigns, customer events, product prototypes, philanthropic initiatives, and company retreats are all good topics for a Seeding Brainstorm. Tell your staff what kind of solutions you are looking for; you can be specific or broad depending on the type of ideas you’re hoping to get back.
Hand out cards to everyone and request that they write, draw, or glue something onto the card. It can be anything that pops into mind when they think of your project. Ask staff to tack their ideas up on a designated “idea wall” in the lunchroom or another common area. If you work with a remote team, share the challenge on your employee intranet or simply ask people to email their ideas to you to post on their behalf.
Make sure team members sign their cards so you know who is seeding each idea. It will give you a good indication of who’s interested in ideation because they will participate fully and seed a lot of ideas to the wall.
The heavy seeders are prime candidates for the innovator role in future match-making exercises, as they bring a lot of enthusiasm to projects.
You’ll also learn who seeds the really different, out-there ideas. While their suggestions might not be viable for this particular project, stay connected with these folks. When you’re stuck on a creative problem, you know the out-there-idea people will help you consider some new angles and shake some new ideas loose.
Hold a Junior Consulting Day
Consultants, for the most part, play an important role in a company’s ability to innovate and problem solve. They can help you see new ideas and think about your business in different ways. They are also not hindered by the same company politics or past transgressions. Junior employees have the same qualities, so take advantage of their untainted outlook while you can.
Try holding a Junior Consulting Day or challenge. Give your junior team permission to evaluate your organization or department as a whole. Invite them to provide recommendations in the same way that a paid consultant would do so. You can evaluate their input and have your team implement any winning ideas.
Here are a few simple steps to host a Junior Consulting Day:
Build a team by cherry-picking junior staff from different departments.
Task them with one specific challenge. Quality of product, ideas, budgeting, planning, or structure are all prime areas for a Junior Consultant to consider. You might also want to issue an open call for general recommendations on improving the organization or department.
Brief them on the specific challenge. Let them know if there are any areas that are off-limits (for best results, however, avoid setting limitations). Give your co-workers a heads up – Junior Consultants may want to meet with them to gather feedback.
Hold a question storm. After the briefing, invite the Junior Consultants to ask as many questions as they want. Be as open as possible when answering, and try to keep any of your own biases in check.
Give the consultants time to work. Protect their schedules and give them a private space to work together, conduct their analysis, formulate ideas, and prepare their recommendations.
Hear their findings. Ask Junior Consultants to present their findings and recommendations to you and your department. Invite your supervisor to listen in – it will help everyone take the recommendations seriously and avoid the “We’ve tried that before” and “It won’t work” excuses.
Your proximity to your own experience is often what limits your creativity and problem-solving ability. Don’t be afraid to implement new structures and strategies if you want to create a culture of innovation. Look out for a case study on a company that achieved great success by shaking things up.
Spoiler alert: This concept will is tackled more deeply in our book, The Proximity Paradox