Jonathan Bendor: Use Rubrics To Guide Innovation

An interesting interview from May 1, 2015 with Jonathan Bendor, a Stanford professor, who suggests that firms use rubrics to guide innovation so that criticism becomes less personal and more consistent and constructive. What follows is an edited transcript with some additional commentary.

Creativity and Criticism: The Yin & Yang of Innovation

Q: Does criticism kill creativity? Can they coexist?

Bendor: I think not only can they live together, they have to live together, because without the two of them you’re going to have some really severe problems in any firm that’s R&D intensive or innovation based. Innovation is required at a rapid rate these days in all high-tech firms and many other firms. But most new ideas are bad–that’s empirically supported in virtually any study of R&D or innovations that I’m aware of.

Most New Product Ideas Have Flaws

Bendor: If you look at a product design firm like IDEO they come up with literally thousands of product design ideas every year. But only a handful, a few dozen, make it to market. IDEO realizes that most new product designs are flawed. often in some serious way.

Entrepreneurial firms must manage two kinds of errors:

  1. The danger of criticism killing off creativity: not generating or pursuing good new ideas, which would be breakthroughs or at least substantial improvements either in products or processes that firms are involved in.
  2. The mistake investing too much in a bad idea. Entrepreneurship and innovation by definition involve uncertainty and no one knows whether the idea that’s being kicked around the table is actually going to turn out to be fruitful to create value.

We tend to focus on the first type of error and less about the second type of error.

It’s Hard to Evaluate Your Own Idea

Bendor: We think our ideas will be fruitful but it’s very difficult to be tough-minded about your own ideas. It’s easier for me to be tough-minded about your ideas and for you to be tough-minded about my ideas. My ideas are like my mental children. I have two real children, whom I love and nourish and cherish, but my mental ideas I love and nourish and cherish. I have never met anybody who actually likes their ideas being criticized.

Apply A Consistent Rubric to New Ideas At Your Firm

Q: How do you create a culture where criticism is less personal and more productive

Bendor: One approach is to a rubric–which is a set of criteria or dimension regarding technical possibility, regarding market potential and so on, that any new idea has to be scored on. This makes the criticism less of a personal matter. I could have come up with a new idea that’s promising on four of the six dimensions, but I didn’t consider dimensions five and six, so my design is deficient on those.

This often happens when you are designing new alternatives because it’s hard keeping a large set of evaluation criteria in mind. In one case a designer just forgot dimensions four and six, so the project idea was not very good on those two dimensions.

Let’s suppose that the design could be fixed in dimension four with elaboration–almost all new ideas require elaboration–but on dimension six not so much. The rubric of the six dimensions has shifted the design process away from ego and personality and toward the nature of the problem itself. Now temperatures stay cool and you can focus on what needs to be done.

Constructive Criticism

Q: How does good criticism advance innovation?

Bendor: The good criticism will help the problem solver figure out why they’re stalled and what they can do about it. A global criticism of, “This is no good” doesn’t actually provide directive feedback so that the designer does not understand what needs to be fixed or have any suggestions to incorporate into the next iteration of the design.  Of course sometimes an organization can be under a lot of time or competitive pressure and they simply need to pull the plug on the idea: in that context good feedback is fairly blunt.

Smart Leaders Know Anyone Is Fallible–Even Themselves

Q: What happens when a leader is isolated from criticism?

Bendor: It doesn’t matter how high up you are: everybody in the organization is fallible and should be  subject to the authority of evidence.  Smart leaders know how to create organizations that protect themselves from themselves.  They minimize status differences so that, for example, everyone eats in the same cafeteria and has similar offices because it’s those status differences discourage employees from bringing evidence of problems.  If the leader doesn’t create the kind of organization that will correct anyone’s errors, they could lead the firm right over a cliff.

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