One of the keynote speakers at this year’s PLM Connections in Orlando was Erik Wahl. It was my favorite session of the conference. It was very different from past keynotes that I can remember – it didn’t focus on how some company used PLM to make something better or more efficiently or some cool new technology… Erik focused on creativity… how we all have it, and how it gets squelched over the years by various factors including our educations, our human desire to conform and our fears.
He opened with a very dynamic and exciting sequence where he rapidly painted an original portrait of Bono while U2’s “It’s a Beautiful Day” pulsated throughout the ballroom. When he was done, he asked the audience “who is an artist?” and gestured to a blank canvas on the stage, right next to his newly completed Bono. The previously energized ballroom became instantly still, for fear the Erik might select them to come up on stage and *gasp* be asked to paint in front of the crowd. All of us were afraid to be different, afraid that we might have to go on stage and risk embarrassment in front of our peers.
We protected our egos and conformed to the “normal” response. No one risked being different and admitted to being artistic. For some people in the audience, it was undoubtedly true, but for others who were artistic, their desire to conform overcame their authenticity. Unfortunately, this tendency to conform is detrimental to coming up with innovative ideas and products. Einstein recognized this and said “It is important to foster individuality for only the individual can produce the new ideas.”Conformity breeds mediocrity.
This propensity to conform is part of the human condition, it turns out. There are numerous fascinating studies including the Asch Experiment that showed that in groups of 4 or more, about 75% of us are likely to give answers that we know are wrong in order to conform the group’s decision.
Ask yourself this… how many times in company meetings when asked your opinion, have you simply parroted back an answer that you knew to be “safe”?, when you really wanted to say something potentially audacious? Something that didn’t conform? Something different? I know I do this from time to time. This makes my life easier in the moment, but is it in the best interest of the company? Does it result in a better decision? Probably not…
So, how do we overcome or at least mitigate our human desire to conform? Here are some things you can start doing today, next time you are asked for your opinion in a meeting, be audacious enough to present a new perspective. If simply telling yourself to do this isn’t going to be enough motivation, try giving yourself a time bounded task to “play devil’s advocate” in a meeting within a week. It helps to write it down in a place where you are going to see it while you are at work, for example, you can create an Outlook task for this and then give yourself a week to complete it. Make sure to turn on the “To-Do” Bar and Task List. Once you are successful, set another “non conformance” goal and keep it going. This type of focused, documented task will help motivate you and lead to behavioral change over time.
I’ve also found that it helps to prepare for meetings (I know, it may seem obvious to prepare, but I think reality is that many of us just show up to the meetings and then improvise). Think about what you want to say beforehand. Write it down and also say it out loud a few times if you are especially concerned about delivering a potentially audacious message. Once you’ve rehearsed, it will much easier to resist conformity and deliver your unique message.
Hopefully, these techniques will help you speak up (although I am sure that many of you need no encouragement) and respectfully present your most authentic creative ideas. You will feel empowered and your company will be better for it as well.