Last week, I watched The Power of Introverts, an excellent TED Talk by Susan Cain (she also has a book out on the same subject called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking).
In her talk, which has been viewed almost two million times since it was posted last month, Susan makes a compelling case that the open, collaborative world we embrace today is not always set up to harness the best work from introverts.
As we’ve moved toward more open office plans, collaborative processes like design thinking, and into a digital world now dominated by the word “social,” Susan wonders who is looking out for the introverts? Should introverts feel guilty about wanting to do their thinking and working alone? And can introverts do great work in group settings?
I spent more than a decade working in the inherently collaborative world of open source software. I regularly lead brand positioning and strategy projects as open, collaborative, social exercises involving entire communities of people in the process. So Susan’s talk made me ask myself a tough question:
By emphasizing a collaborative, social process am I risking leaving introverts—and their best ideas—behind?
It’s no secret that I am a life-long introvert myself. I am much more comfortable writing or reading a blog post in my living room and discussing it via comments or Twitter than I am sitting and talking about it with someone over coffee or, worse, at a social gathering like a party or a conference.
So I get where Susan is coming from. Deeply.
In her TED Talk, she at one point pleads, “Stop the madness for constant group work.” When she said this, it hit me pretty hard. The first thing that came to my mind was the one gazillion design thinking ideation sessions I’ve either run or participated in over the last 7 or 8 years.
I’ve personally never had much trouble speaking up during ideation/brainstorming sessions. But I also suspect I am a relatively mild introvert compared to others I know. I started to wonder what the hard-core introverts were thinking during these sessions (and if you were one of them, feel free to tell me below in the comments).
Did they feel like they were being talked over by extroverts? Did they feel like they were out of their element, or needed more time to process their thoughts before blurting them out and having them recorded on the wall? Would they have preferred to contemplate on their own instead of thinking socially as part of a group?
Then another thought stuck me: I’ve met a lot of software engineers over the years, and while not all of them are introverts, many of them are. Frankly, I don’t think too many extreme extroverts could stand to sit in their office and stare at a computer screen all day. But for some introverted software developers, this is bliss.
Yet open source software is developed in a collaborative, social process… run in many cases by introverts.
Why does that work?
For me at least, the answer comes down to the difference between virtual and in-person collaboration. Open source software developers do much of their collaborating online. Often this is because they are geographically dispersed around the world. But I’ve also seen developers sitting two feet away from each other communicating via instant messages or email.
Online collaboration has two key advantages over in-person collaboration for introverts:
1) It allows them to avoid stressful in-person social interactions.
2) It allows them to take their time, contemplate, and think deeply before responding.
Over the past two years at New Kind, I’ve personally been doing less and less in-person design thinking ideation sessions, instead hosting more open, collaborative sessions online. Sometimes they are efforts like the hackathons I’ve run for the Management Innovation Exchange that involve hundreds of people collaborating from all around the world. Other times they are client projects where the collaborating happens via Basecamp or another online tool.
I’ve found I enjoy facilitating sessions online much more than in-person sessions, and I think it suits my personality better. Because the collaboration happens asynchronously, I can take my time crafting thoughtful responses and generating ideas. I can wait until I’m in the right frame of mind to participate, and most importantly, I can work with others, yet be alone at the same time.
I suspect some of these same advantages also translate to participants in online group sessions as well. And for this reason, perhaps many introverts are more comfortable in collaborative projects online than in person. Some of the best ideas I’ve seen emerge from online collaborative exercises come from people who usually remain completely silent in meetings.
In many cases, online collaborative projects provide the best of both worlds—you can collaborate and build off the ideas of others, but still take the time to process your thoughts before you add them (and as a special bonus, you don’t have the stress of in-person social interaction).
If you consider yourself an introvert, I’d love to hear about your experiences participating in collaborative projects online vs. in person. Do you agree with Susan Cain’s assessment that collaborative group projects are not designed to get the best out of introverts? Do you find yourself making better contributions and contributing more in online projects? Or are online collaborative groups just as bad for you as in-person sessions, and you’d rather just work completely on your own?
I’d love to hear what you think.
One of my business partners at New Kind, David Burney, is an exceptional facilitator of design thinking sessions. David introduced me to design thinking and the work of IDEO (where many of the concepts behind design thinking were developed and applied to the business world). David taught me everything I know about facilitating projects and sessions using a design thinking approach.
At the beginning of any design thinking project, David shares a set of rules that help get every participant on the same page. The rules apply to everyone (including executives) and help create an optimal environment for creativity. If you are planning to run a project using a design thinking approach, you might want to consider sharing these rules with your group before you get started. I’ve used this list many times, and I promise, it really helps keep things on track.
1. Avoid the devil’s advocate: The devil’s advocate is someone who (purposely or accidentally) shoots down the ideas of others without taking any personal responsibility for his actions. The devil’s advocate often begins his objection with the phrase “Let me be the devil’s advocate for a second…”. The devil’s advocate often intends to be helpful by pointing out flaws in an idea, but ultimately this focuses people’s attention on what won’t work rather than exploring unexpected ways that it might work.
2. Make agendas transparent: Every participant should make their personal agendas as clear as possible.
3. Leave titles at the door: No one person’s ideas are worth more than anyone else’s.
4. Generate as many ideas as possible: During ideation, you are not trying to generate the best ideas; you are trying to generate the most ideas.
5. Build on the ideas of others rather than judging them: If someone else has an idea you like, build on it. If you don’t like an idea, share another one rather than critiquing.
6. Stay on time: Don’t let your ideation session spiral out of control. Each ideation session should be timed and should have a clear ending point.
7. State the obvious: Sometimes things that can seem obvious reveal great insight from their simplicity.
8. Don’t sell or debate ideas: Selling and debating ideas takes time away from generating new ideas.
9. Stupid and wild ideas are good: Sometimes the craziest ideas lead to the best ideas.
10. DTA stands for death to acronyms: Avoid acronyms—they are exclusionary because people who don’t know what they stand for will quickly be lost. If you must use an acronym, write what it stands for somewhere everyone can see it. Keep a running list of all acronyms used during the project or session.
11. Always understand in which stage of the process you are: When you are ideating, you are not critiquing ideas. But when ideation is over and you begin the process of selecting the best ideas, you’ll need to discuss the merits of each idea in a more traditional, analytical way.
12. Play is good, have fun: The more fun you are having as a group, the more creative ideas you’ll generate.
If you’d like to learn more about design thinking and how you can use it in your projects, I recommend any of the following books.
From the amazing team at IDEO:
– The Art of Innovation by Tom Kelley
– Ten Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelley
– Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation by Tim Brown
Other great books to consider:
– The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage by Roger Martin
– Design Thinking: Integrating Innovation, Customer Experience, and Brand Value by Thomas Lockwood
If so, you can find more tips about how to employ a collaborative approach to building brands in my book, The Ad-Free Brand (not an advertisement, mind you, just a friendly suggestion:).