Drop the Anchor & Innovate

By: Scott Dannemiller, Chief Learning Officer, Executive Development Associates, Inc.

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.

No offense to our Turkish brethren, but the odds are good that you couldn’t care less about the population of their country.  But the truth is, these questions 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.

The result was described as “anchoring,” whereby the answer to the second question was greatly influenced by the number presented in the first.  In fact, the group presented with the higher figure guessed the population to be twice as large as those presented with the smaller figure.

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 ones that seems 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, and innovation slows to a halt.

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

  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 Nellies that discussions of implementation and action planning will soon follow.

*Originally published by Action Management Associates, Inc.

About the Author:

Scott Dannemiller is Executive Development Associates’ Chief Learning Officer and developer of our acclaimed Critical Thinking Boot Camp. A highly skilled facilitator who consistently receives exceptional reviews for his engaging, high energy workshops, Scott is an expert at teaching practical skills using interactive learning methods to help individuals improve their critical thinking, problem solving, and decision-making skills.