Constant Critic or Creative Colleague?

woman with thumbs down

image via gordontarpley on Flickr

Whether in meetings or on committees or a colleague, I’m sure most people know a person who almost always criticizes every idea put forward. They ask questions like “why do we need this?” or “what if…?” This person can often be frustrating or looked at as someone who is opposed to change. They can also be your biggest ally in making meaningful change.

Berkeley professor Charlan Nemeth says that “dissent stimulates new ideas because it encourages us to engage more fully with the work of others and to reassess our viewpoints.” In a study, he divided people into groups who did brainstorming and groups who debated each other. The debaters came up with significantly more solutions. Through conflict and repeated examination their brains were activated in different ways, and they had to work harder. People who simply agree all the time aren’t going to come up with the best solutions.

Another example that David Weinberger gives in his book Too Big To Know (pg. 70), is that of JFK’s extremely bright and educated White House advisors. They all were Ivy League educated, but they were also all white, male, early middle aged and from the East Coast. This fairly homogeneous group were a big factor leading to the US getting into the Vietnam War. Weinberger goes on to say that diversity of opinions  is important or else we can easily move into a groupthink mentality.

For our own libraries are there ways that we can foster constructive criticism? Are there ways that we can bring a greater diversity of opinions into our discussion and our decision making? Maybe at some staff meetings we could invite student workers to participate or bring in faculty members to share their thoughts. One important  lesson though is that a colleague who regularly criticizes may not be a bad thing. They could be that creative spark that stimulates deeper examination.

How do you try to get more diversity and dissenting opinions into your discussions?


New Ideas: Separating The Chaff From The Grain

a scythe on grass

I enjoyed both Karen Schneider’s post and Meredith Farkas’ follow-up post about devil’s advocates. They talk about new ideas and how they require a lot of experimentation and iterations as well as people to challenge them to make them stronger. I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while, and I think it’s a very important one for people in the library profession to think about, especially those in leadership positions.

Like I mentioned in my last post I am reading the book What Technology Wants. In this book Kevin Kelly relates a story about a missionary in China introducing a new technology which serves as an excellent parable about the resistance to new ideas:

“The missionary wanted to improve the laborious way the Chinese peasants in his province harvested grain. The local farmers clipped the stalks with some kind of small hand shear. So the missionary had a scythe shipped in from America and demonstrated its superior productivity to an enthralled crowd. “The next morning, however, a delegation came to see the missionary. The scythe must be destroyed at once. What, they said, if it should fall into the hands of thieves; a whole field could be cut and carried away in a single night.” And so the scythe was banished, progress stopped, because nonusers could imagine a possible — but wholly improbable — way it could significantly harm their society.”

Devil’s advocates are useful people to have around, but they can also stop new ideas in their tracks. If we try to imagine every negative thing that can happen with a new idea it will surely die. Often devil’s advocates imagine unrealistic or unlikely situations that have little chance of happening. Looking at something new as a threat leads to no new ideas.

A new idea is a very fragile thing. It needs a healthy environment to germinate and time to grow. We as librarians and people in leadership positions should try to cultivate this environment among our teams and in our workplaces. There is a place for devil’s advocates and looking at possible challenges that a new idea could face, but it seems that should come later in the process. Libraries are desperately in need of new ideas. Just as in the case of the scythe in the story above, if we only see the negative aspects of an idea or technology we will become really good at maintaining the status quo.

So when people are proposing new ideas, listen first instead of criticizing. Bobbi Newman shared an excellent sentiment recently about contributing more than criticizing and it very much applies here. I know at times when someone is proposing a new idea I think to myself, “that’s stupid, it’ll never work.” But instead of dismissing it or nitpicking it, the more productive course of action would be to contribute to the idea to refine it or make it better. Not every new idea is a polished gem, but there may be the beginnings of something great in it. We just have to give it the proper environment to let it flourish.