Drop the Anchor and Innovate

When I’m working with a group of leaders who are looking for the secrets to innovation, I ask them two questions:

  1. True or False?  The population of Turkey is 7 million.
  2. What is the population of Turkey?

Let me guess.  You were expecting something more exciting.  Perhaps you haven’t thought very much about the population of Turkey.  In fact, for a particularly sorry, and funny, example of how little some people have thought about certain countries, check out this video from “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader” (hint: NOT this person!) 

The truth is the above questions about the population of Turkey have a lot to do with how you innovate. 

Consider the groundbreaking research published in the journal Science back in September of 1974.  Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman wanted to test a hypothesis.  So, they asked two groups of people a slightly different question about Turkey’s population.  To one group, the population in the true/false quiz was stated as 5 million.   For the second group, it was 65 million.

Researchers demonstrated that the number presented in Question #1 (True/False) greatly influenced the response to Question #2.  In fact, the second group when presented with the higher figure in Question #1 (65 million) guessed the population to be twice as large as those presented with the smaller figure.  This is a phenomenon that the researchers called “anchoring”.

The same phenomenon plagues our attempts at innovation today.   We host brainstorming meetings under time pressure.  As ideas are offered, we latch on to one of the first ideas that seem interesting.  We might even discuss its ease of implementation.  To get things back on track, the facilitator will ask, “OK.  What other ideas do you have?”

But it’s too late.  The group has already anchored on the idea that was discussed, innovation slows to a halt and the remaining ideas tend to stay similar to the idea that was discussed in detail.

If you would like to overcome the negative effects of anchoring in your organization, try these helpful tips during your next idea generation session:

  1. Avoid Clarification – When ideas are offered during brainstorming, you may be tempted to ask someone to clarify their idea.  Instead, move on to the next idea.  Discussion is the precursor to anchoring, and you must establish clear separation between time devoted to offering ideas, and time devoted to discussing them.
  2. Set A Goal – During your brainstorming sessions, establish a goal for how many ideas you would like to generate.  This will keep you focused on speed, and reduce the likelihood you will stop and discuss the suggestions.  For even complex problems, 30 ideas in ten minutes is certainly achievable.  
  3. Beware the “Fallacy of the Deadline” – When time is tight, brainstorming seems like a frivolous activity.  Anxiety increases and we tend to latch on to the first idea that sounds feasible.  The truth is, once a problem is well-defined, idea generation does not take much time.  Set aside specific time for “out of the box” idea generation (15-20 minutes) where anything goes, and assure all of the “Nervous Nortons” that discussions of implementation and action planning will soon follow.

If you are looking for other ways to develop innovation in your organization, just give us a call at (800) 386-5611.  We would love to hear from you.







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