After reading the quote above, most of us would smile, if not outright laugh. Oh, the irony of Olson’s words for those of us living in the age of Digital Transformation, when most of us have moved beyond confining computers to our homes to carrying them wherever we go, as laptops, tablets and smartphones.
But 40 years of perspective weren’t necessary for Olson’s assertion to become ironic. Little more than five years after he uttered his declaration, more than 2 million Americans already had computers in their homes.
How could the leader of what once was one of the most respected business computer companies in the world have been so shortsighted?
We Dismiss Outside Ideas Because they Make Us Feel Uncomfortable
In Winning the Brain Game: Fixing the 7 Fatal Flaws of Thinking, consultant and author Matthew E. May blames something called “Not Invented Here” (NIH) syndrome. May features Olson’s statement, along with 10 other sardonically similar quotes, in a section of his book “NIH Through Years,” which serves as evidence that the tendency to dismiss ideas outside our circle of influence has plagued organizations for at least a century.
Why? As he often does in Brain Game, May explains using neuroscience:
“Science tells us that assimilating the ideas of others drains our mental banks of cognitive resources without a corresponding reward.”
According to May, that draining feeling associated with assimilating outside ideas is uncomfortable to us. So we avoid it.
NIH Effects Internal Teams and Decision Making
And like many uncomfortable physical states, this feeling can affect our decision-making during business interactions such as meetings. In fact, psychological research suggests that, the greater the perception of authority, efficacy or expertise a team holds within an organization, the more likely the group will resist ideas from outside its boundaries.
“Fear then creeps in if we feel as though others may perceive us to be somehow less of an expert,” May writes. “Especially if those others happen to be bosses, employers or clients.”
Sometimes this situation leads to the obstacle to efficient and effective collaboration we dubbed “Hijacking” in an earlier post. In short, one or more teammates feeling the pangs of NIH may “ignore an established meeting purpose and agenda and then use session time to address their own purposes or agendas” in an unconscious effort to feel more secure.
How Leaders Can Break Their Teams from NIH Thinking
So, the lesson here for transformative leaders and their colleagues is that NIH is a social syndrome. Close collaboration can hinder efforts to innovate and grow just as easily as it can help – unless teams take deliberate measures to seek input from outside the group.
Here are two ways to collaborate beyond the borders of your team inspired by May’s methods in Brain Game:
Taken at face value, the term “brainstorming” implies that, despite being part of a group activity, individuals should look within their own heads for ideas and then shower those thoughts on the rest of the team. Given what we know about the nature of NIH, this approach seems more likely to narrow thinking than expand it.
So, let’s apply one of the techniques May recommends for defeating fatal flaws of thinking: Inversion. As explained in the first post of this series, inversion is a “deliberate intellectual effort to turn analysis upside down.” In the case of brainstorming, we can invert the process by asking colleagues to search the “terrain” of the surrounding market or industry for ideas -- instead of scouring the interior geography of their minds.
According to May, A. G. Lafley applied a similar method as CEO of Procter & Gamble when he instituted a model dubbed “Proudly Found Elsewhere” or PFE. Lafley charged his innovation team with finding half of all new product ideas outside of the company. This technique may take some additional planning hours but need not require additional meeting time. Instructions for “terrainstorming” can be sent via email or described during a brief conference call. Lafley provided his team with an “array of outside innovators” in list form and turned them loose.
Despite the reference to modern computer programming in its name, the concept of a “hackathon” is not new. Leaders in many industries have gathered external groups of disparate thinkers to solve internal problems for decades. Why not expand collaboration within an organization in the same way?
Because a unified communications platform enables colleagues to connect and work together whenever necessary from wherever they may operate, a challenge facing the manufacturing department could be turned over to, for example, the marketing team. Marketing pros, in fact, may be more adept at cultivating solutions in a different area of expertise as they may be more familiar with idea-diversification techniques akin to terrainstorming.
By the same token, the accounting group may be more comfortable dealing with the vagaries of Big Data than the IT crew. Recall that, when coping with NIH, the shallower the specific expertise, the more likely the thinking will be flexible.
There are as many ways to configure terrainstorming or crosshacking as there are problems to solve in today’s rapidly shifting business environment. The key to finding one that fits your team is, of course, what we coined as “elegant collaboration.”
This post is part of our Brain Game series exploring insights into neuroscience and how our brains effect our collaboration at work.
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