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Intelligence is not enough
A high IQ does not automatically translate to good ideas. It helps, but it’s not sufficient. Smart people generate large volumes of ideas; some are good, but most are terrible.
Successful people do not rely only on their ideas. They surround themselves with friends, partners, and colleagues who can come up with better ideas and give open and unfiltered feedback, calling bad what is bad and good what is good.
Feedback and an open mind are essential for even the most talented entrepreneurs. They need to hear loud and clear if something seems off, and they need someone who can point that out with no hesitation.
If your organization discourages feedback and open communication, the chances of success are very slim. If, however, open sharing of opinions and ideas is made safe, then anything is possible.
To make it safe to be open and candid, but still get the most out of ideation, the culture you want to foster is one where people are hard on ideas and good on people.
A good way to create such an environment is to declare a simple rule of engagement at the beginning of discussions and brainstorm sessions: “We are going assume good intentions. We are also going to be hard on ideas, and good on people. During this discussion, you are not your ideas, and the worst idea is no idea at all.”
Some rules of thumb to make people feel safe:
Make it safe to make mistakes
Do not shame somebody for mistakes they made. Talk openly about the mistake, and discuss what can be done to avoid them the next time. Keep the discussion around the technical aspects of the error. If there was human error, don’t blame the person, but blame the fact that no safety-guard exists (human make errors, systems need to be protected against human error).
If someone made a mistake for lack of understanding of the proper process, what is to blame is the clarity of the process. Assume good intention, and try to find the cause for issues, not in the person’s intention, but in the context.
Taking chances should be applauded and recognized.
Make it safe to come up with ideas
People should feel safe to come up with bad ideas. Clarify that the worst possible idea is no idea at all. When an idea is shared, be hard on it. Take it apart and try to separate the good from the bad. It is amazing what nuggets of wisdom often hide inside a “bad idea”.
Never make fun of a person for an idea they had, even jokingly. Not everyone takes jokes well, and you even if others do, you don’t want to instill fear that a bad idea will result in being made fun of.
Make it safe to show struggle, by offering help
In software engineering, we are faced with difficult problems, and struggling is normal. When it happens, capable teams offer to help. Offering to help demonstrate to everyone that it is OK to admit struggle, and it is not something to be ashamed of.
Look for signs of Impostor Syndrome, and find ways to reassure whoever is displaying those signs that they are very qualified for the job.
Make it safe to be vulnerable
There is no need to try to appear like unbreakable heroes, always strong and always ready for battle. Make it safe to say “I don’t know,” and to display weakness or vulnerability.
Admitting mistakes, admitting not knowing something, showing and celebrating the human side of people will allow them to take risks and give their best.
Create a culture of respect
To create safety in your culture, you need to create a solid foundation of respect for each other. When people respect each other and assume the best intentions, you’ll find that everything else falls into place.