In Harvard Business Review this month, Professor Roberto Verganti of Politecnico di Milano argues that innovation isn't about ideation and deferring judgment. Criticism, he argues, plays a crucial role in helping to create breakthrough ideas. I don't think it's either/or. In my view, great innovators combine the principles of brainstorming/ideation with good practices of constructive conflict. They defer judgment at times, making it safe to generate many wild ideas. At other times in the creative process, they engage in healthy dissent and debate. In all circumstances, the key is for leaders to create a safe environment for both wild idea generation as well as constructive critique. Verganti argues that innovation often comes from working with a "sparring partner" to sharpen your ideas. The concept makes good sense. Here's Verganti:
The peer acts like a sparring partner, providing a protected environment in which the person can dare to share a wild or half-baked hypothesis without being dismissed... The first daring experiments in impressionism, for example, were conducted in pairs—by Claude Monet and Frédéric Bazille and by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley, and later by Monet and Renoir. Farrell also mentions the authors J.R.R. Tolkien (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings) and C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia), who discovered that they shared an interest in what Lewis called “Northern-ness.” Recent history is full of pairs who created legendary companies: Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, to name a few. I’ve found that pairs can also play a key role in the innovation process at established organizations.
What does it take to find a good sparring partner? Trust and respect between the two individuals is a must. A prior working relationship often helps, because that provides a foundation of interpersonal trust and understanding. Some degree of difference in background and perspective can be helpful, in that it generates cognitive diversity. A thick skin is crucial. You don't want someone who has a hard time taking criticism. You want someone who isn't going to play it safe, afraid to hurt your feelings. Finally, you are looking for someone who has similar motivations and objectives. Are you on the same page in terms of what you are trying to accomplish?