Every month, I host a “business book club” at my house for a group of 15 people. Each month, we choose a business book – the most recent was Daniel Coyle’s book “The Talent Code” – and discuss it, accompanied by catered food and a few bottles of red wine.
It works extremely well, for two reasons.
First, we have people from diverse professional backgrounds – including mining, aged care, education, the arts, marketing, financial planning, accounting, and IT. We also have diversity in other areas: both men and women, different ages and generations, and from different cultures. We didn’t design it that way, but it’s a big advantage.
Second, we have a clear focus (the book of the month). Our conversation always extends beyond the book itself, but it’s a common starting point for everybody.
The group always generates a variety of interesting insights and new ideas. I always walk away with something new I can apply to my life, and I hope the other participants feel the same way.
I facilitate the meeting, and we capture our thinking in different ways. Last month, we used sticky notes on a whiteboard, like this:
Even if you can’t read the details, I’m sure you can see the variety and breadth of ideas.
This is the core secret to sharp thinking.
Our recipe for success has two ingredients: Diverse backgrounds and a clear focus. That’s the ideal combination for sharp thinking, which leads to innovation.
Combining diversity and focus in this way gives us four options:
All of them have their purpose and use, so let’s explore them in turn …
Similar Backgrounds + Vague Goal = Fixed Thinking
This is the default mode in most workplaces, where people mostly do routine work (and – if you’re lucky – with occasional flashes of brilliance). It would be harsh to say they are “plodding along”, but they are definitely not innovative. They bond through their similarities, and might not have specific goals, so there’s no need to stretch or think differently.
That doesn’t sound very inspiring – and it’s not – but most people aren’t doing inspiring work all the time. Fixed thinking and routine work are important. Fixed thinking only becomes a problem if it’s the only kind of thinking you have.
Similar Backgrounds + Clear Focus = Narrow Thinking
Many leaders try to break people out of fixed thinking by giving them a clear focus – at an individual, team or organisational level. That will definitely narrow their thinking, and this often creates positive results. In fact, that’s the way most projects work: You set a goal, share that goal, and then work towards it.
Narrow thinking is useful for project work. But it’s not so good for innovation, because it can lead to groupthink, where you end up with bad ideas just because everybody agrees. Innovation is not a popularity contest!
Diverse Backgrounds + Vague Goal = Wide Thinking
Alternatively, instead of narrowing their focus, you might try breaking out of fixed thinking by increasing the diversity of thinking in your team. You can do this from natural sources (diversity in age, gender, culture, and so on) or by artificial means (creativity exercises, off-site retreats, flexible workplaces, and the like).
This widens the thinking of the group, and can be extremely useful for generating new ideas. But it runs the risk of just creating a talkfest, where you get lots of ideas but not many results.
Diverse Backgrounds + Clear Focus = Sharp Thinking
Finally, we get to the best option for innovation, which combines the previous two areas. To get the best ideas, take a diverse group of thinkers and give them a clear focus. That’s sharp thinking: The diversity generates more ideas, and the focus means you narrow them and sharpen them towards specific goals.
Ideally, you will build a diverse team and continue to encourage diverse thinking, so that innovation becomes a natural part of your workplace. If you’re not there yet (and most teams aren’t), work on those two areas:
- Encourage more diverse thinking in your team.
- Channel their ideas into clearly-defined goals and projects.