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Your Product Needs Original Thinking

Barb Natali-Sherman Barb Natali-Sherman 4 min read

I recently happened upon Organizational Psychologist Adam Grant’s TED2016 talk on “The Surprising Habits of Original Thinkers,” and well, it got me thinking about how product teams can foster more original thinking.

At DesignMap, we often work with product teams who are shaping world-changing experiences. The kind that keep companies and communities secure or empower healthcare providers to give better, more proactive care. But the reality is that these spaces are usually complex and crowded. 

In a sea of great products, how can product leaders empower teams to craft something that is different from the rest? 

Grant’s TED talk surfaced many habits that we strive for and espouse—both within our own DesignMap teams and when working with clients—to encourage original thinking.

Let’s dive in. 

Originals are non-conformists. Grant explains that originals not only introduce new ideas—the kind that go against the grain—but they also take action on those ideas to make them more than just a dream. 

Product leaders can enable non-conformity by creating a culture and rituals that regularly question the default to generate alternatives by asking: “what can we do better?” and “why does this default exist?” Here are a few other ways to foster a culture of non-conformity: 

  • Embrace diversity. Welcome diversity in teams, including diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives.
  • Flag and challenge assumptions. Model behavior by explicitly identifying your own assumptions, and asking probing questions to encourage team members to do the same.
  • All the mortems. Run pre, mid, and post mortems during projects to make space for questioning the default.
  • Host brainstorms instead of suggestion boxes. Instead of a suggestion box, run a team brainstorm. Collect a bunch of novel ideas and identify the best ones. 

Originals are quick to start, slow to finish. They give themselves time to think and develop ideas and are reluctant to close themselves off to new ideas, according to Grant.

Now, I know this one is tough to accept with so many deadlines constantly crashing down on product teams. “Slow” is not often part of the product vernacular, but try to remember that done is not better than done right. Product leaders need to weigh the tradeoffs of speed vs. creative outputs on projects and find ways to balance them. Here are a few starters to build in time for idea incubation:

  • Make “slow down” time part of the process. Build enough time for “slow thinking” into projects. Dedicated ideation time (like workshops) are also effective.
  • Start. Stop. Return. Have team members ideate, work on something else, and then come back to ideation. Taking a break in the middle of brainstorming gives ideas time to incubate.
  • Encourage downtime, rest, and exercise. Encourage team members to take breaks and rest. Gentle exercise is also helpful in improving cognitive functioning, reducing stress, and increasing wellbeing, which can help spark creativity. 

Originals motivate themselves by doubting their ideas (not themselves). It is good to doubt ideas because that often leads to meaningful experimentation and testing; however, Grant cautions people to avoid giving into self-doubt (which is more likely to inhibit originality). 

Product leaders can foster a productive culture of doubt by focusing on the process of ideation and problem-solving, rather than on the individual or their perceived abilities. A few other ways to do this include: 

  • Think like scientists. Encourage the team to treat emerging ideas as a hunch or a hypothesis and test them with data.
  • Emphasize that ideation is a process. Help team members understand that not all ideas are good, and that the process is designed to identify the best ones, rather than to judge individuals.
  • Self-critique and group-critique ideas. Ask team members to highlight the weaknesses of their own ideas in addition to asking for constructive criticism from the group.

Originals embrace the fear of failing to try. Failure is not action, but inaction. Grant says that original thinkers fear failing to try vs. a fear of failure itself.

This is only possible if product leaders motivate team members to try, even if they may fail, by creating a culture of psychological safety. Product leaders must help team members understand that they will not be penalized or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or even mistakes.

  • Celebrate successes & failures. Create a culture where failure is viewed as an opportunity to learn and grow, rather than something to be ashamed of.
  • Emphasize learning. Emphasize that failures are opportunities to learn and grow. Encourage team members to experiment, try new things, and take calculated risks.
  • Teach and enable a growth mindset in teams. Teaching and preaching that abilities and intelligence can be developed through hard work and a willingness to learn (vs. are fixed) can trigger effort in individuals and teams. 

Originals have lots and lots (and lots) of bad ideas. As Grant explains, lots of bad ideas are needed to get a few good ones.

The best way to encourage this on product teams? Don’t just say bad ideas are welcome, recommend them and share them from the top down. You could even have some fun with it and ask people to share their “worst” ideas then talk about how you might make them better. Other ways to support bad ideas include: 

  • Make bad ideas ok. Set expectations that there are no bad ideas in brainstorming. Help team members understand that generating bad ideas is how good ideas develop.
  • Create dedicated brainstorming time. Set aside time for the team to brainstorm. Making the time and space for this activity can help facilitate it.
  • Push the team to triple the number of ideas they generate. Encourage the team to have lots and lots of bad ideas by setting an arbitrary number to hit.

Everyone has the potential to be an original thinker, but too often, the pace of work and fear of failure leave little room to explore and realize the kind of ideas that make products standout among the crowd. 

I’m not suggesting your speeding train of innovation needs to come to a screeching halt to make way for originality. However, I am suggesting you rethink where the train is headed and whether making a few stops along the way might allow some new thinking to come aboard. 

So, go ahead and take 15 minutes and 16 seconds to watch Grant’s inspiring talk on original thinkers. You won’t regret it.