The Productive Dissident

Standard thinking in creativity – and for meetings designed to generate innovative output – is to create a climate where people can feel free to play with concepts, to risk their intellectual vanity and say things that might not make sense but might lead to novel ideas. The objective is to remove any negativity from the immediate environment, encouraging a playful stream-of-consciousness and flow of ideas.

To do this, a set of guidelines is usually proffered. The language varies but most of the rules are the same:

  • Defer Judgment
  • Go for a quantity of ideas
  • Seek unusual ideas
  • Combine ideas to make new ones
  • Every idea has value

The operative phrase for all of those guidelines is parceled up in the first rule: defer judgment. If you can manage to suspend the critic, it can help to generate a longer list of ideas. And, it’s often the ideas at the end of the list that are more intriguing. That’s for the divergent part. We also advocate the employment of affirmative judgment in the convergent steps of process, opting for a kinder, gentler selection of top items from the list. It takes a lot of energy to have an opinion, and in certain phases of an innovative process – or even just a discussion – strong opinions can also shut people down and thwart the process, killing wilder options too soon or without proper development. There’s good reason to ask for a more positive kind of evaluation.

But it is possible to err on the side of too positive, too blue-sky, too willing to set feasibility aside in service to the goal of achieving wild ideas. Good judgment is critical to innovation, too: the whole notion of choosing the root problem, the best or most provocative question, the ideas with the most promise, the optimizing path.

Judgment wears many hats and comes in different flavors.  It can be inhibiting during a creative process. It can also be useful.

At a recent workshop, there was a participant in the group who had a propensity to scrutinize. He wasn’t exactly judgmental, but he could have been. He always asked clarifying questions. He often raised his hands to disagree and probe a point that had been made. He spotted typos and discrepancies instantly, and didn’t hesitate to point them out. And yet he never harmed the process. He actually enhanced it with his precision and perseverance. He wasn’t disruptive, he was a productive dissident.

What was it he did that kept him from being disruptive?

His intention was honorable and authentic. He wasn’t interrupting with questions in order to get in the spotlight or to fuel his ego. His “buts” were all tethered to sincere intellectual curiosity.

He didn’t grandstand. No three-minute preambles and questions disguised as comments. He asked simple, direct questions. When prompted, he was willing to reframe a slightly negatively-phrased question into something more open-ended, using “How might we…?”

He was willing to suspend judgment during idea-generating. That’s when judgment hurts the most. A little critical analysis around making choices is useful, but it can grind any idea-provoking session to a halt. He employed his critical thinking at the points where it enhanced the process, not where it slowed us down.

He wasn’t a jerk. Too often judgment comes in mean packages with anger or contempt. You don’t need to be ugly to be deviant, you just have to thoughtfully express a different view point.

Deviance has an important place in the innovative process. We don’t challenge norms without a little (or a lot) of deviant thinking. And the single best way to discourage inventive, out-of-the-box deviance is to prohibit disagreement and probing questions. We need a little clarifying, critical judgment now and then.

The trick is to cultivate a culture of occasional and appropriate contrariness that is productive. This happens when people feel free to say “I don’t see it that way,” and ignite a discussion rather than issue a reprimand. This happens when people can joke freely with each other, unafraid of offending. This happens when critical thinkers learn to when to speak out (and how) and when to wait.

It’s important not to shut down the dissenters. They are valuable contributors to the creative process, and often the courageous voice in a room of hyped-up aspirations. The key is to help them express criticism with a helpful attitude and constructive language.  And when you find a productive dissident – one who can push back without raining on your idea parade – cherish that person and their important role in the process. Occasionally, you need a negative voice in a creative room.


Know further: Unpacking disagreement.   Suggestions for how to disagree without being disagreeable.  Research on disagreement in group decision making.  Use reverse brainstorming to turn negative comments into potential ideas.