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How do you usually behave when someone puts forward an idea for doing something new and different, especially if you're not convinced it will work in practice? Do you point out all the flaws or start making suggestions for ways in which it might be improved?

Both approaches have merit. In fact, both are encouraged by well-known organisations as working methods that help teams evaluate creative ideas and – ideally – improve on them.

Killing ideas off

The first approach is ideal if you want to kill off an idea. That might sound counterproductive – especially if you're trying to build a creative culture – but setting idea-death as an aim is an excellent way to root out all the possible flaws in a concept and push it to its absolute limits. In doing so, you'll gain a clear idea of whether the idea's worth pursuing and, if so, how it might be improved.

The simplest way to be an idea-killer is to play devil's advocate: you adopt an extreme position and deliberately express opinions, worries and concerns that are at odds with the person presenting the idea.

Of course, it's a good idea to tell them you're adopting this stance! Otherwise, receiving such a barrage of what might go wrong, important gaps in thinking, risks that have been overlooked and potential undesirable consequences could be too much to bear.

If you want to kill off ideas on a larger scale then you might want to steal an idea from the US Military and convene a murder board – a group of people who haven't been involved with the development of the idea who identify all the reasons it won't work in practice.

This can be done live in a meeting or, if the board are too busy to meet, you can post information about the idea in a physical or online space and ask people to drop by for just 5 minutes, leaving their comments before the end of the day.

Whether you dabble with a bit of devilish extremism or set up a full-on board of idea assassins, the aim is either to kill the idea off (if it is fatally flawed) or make it more robust.

If the idea survives, you can be confident it has a good chance of working in practice. Plus, you'll have identified many of the questions and concerns that might be raised when you're trying to win support for it in another context (for instance, when asking for approval and investment from senior management).

These approaches only work, however, on an idea that has been developed a little. Sharing information about how the idea would be implemented in practice, along with its goals and any assumptions and risks, means you'll get the most out of the process. Using unformed ideas gains little, because they're just too easy to shoot down and people may take the feedback very personally. So choose your murder-board moment well, or you'll discourage people from putting ideas forward in the first place.

Plussing ideas

The second approach is known as 'plussing'. It's commonly used in the movie production company Pixar, where staff are only allowed to criticise an idea if they're able to make a constructive point afterwards.

Unlike a murder-board meeting, a discussion full of plussing is likely to be more motivational, since all criticisms are balanced with positive suggestions for developing the idea to overcome them.

This focus on building shared ideas (rather than tearing them down) keeps discussions open-ended, which means ideas can be refined at speed. Entirely new ideas might therefore spring out of a plussing session too.

As with idea-killing, the deep involvement of other people means that the final idea (if it survives) will have buy-in from all those involved in critiquing and developing it.

Both situations force people to feedback on ideas from a specific stance, which may differ from their natural behaviour, but which can add value to creative discussions. For instance, even if you support an idea, playing devil's advocate might help to make it even better. If you hate an idea, plussing it might mean you see it from a new perspective and reframe your view.

So next time someone presents an idea to you, will you play the plusser or the killer?

Anna Faherty is an author for accountingcpd. To see her courses, click here.

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