Critique Is Not the Enemy

06 November 2016, posted by Alf Rehn

We’ve all been there. The setting is corporate, the fluorescent lamps bright, and the coffee is stale. We’re in a conference room, and facilitator in charge has decided to throw all caution to the wind, and states that it’s time for a brainstorming session. Almost instantly, a sense of foreboding and dread comes over the room. “Let’s just throw out any idea out there, and remember – no criticism!”

No, this isn’t yet another moan about how brainstorming doesn’t work. It can, sort of, although not nearly as well nor as easily as its proponents tend to claim. But that’s not why I’m writing this. The key problem in the scenario above, for me, is the last half-sentence; the by now routine and ritualistic condemnation of criticism in the context of idea generation.

Sure, the thought behind it is kind and not altogether misguided. In order to get people to comfortably share their ideas – their genuine, authentic, raw and not always fully formed ideas – it’s important to create an atmosphere where they aren’t afraid of being ridiculed or denigrated. Still, as so often happens when an idea is embraced by a community, this basic notion has gotten turned into a dogmatic notion.

Generations of facilitators and executives have been taught that questioning is the enemy of idea generation, that all criticism should be set aside, and, in the words of Chairman Mao, that one should adopt a “policy of letting a hundred flowers bloom.” The problem? This doesn’t lead to better ideas. In fact, it can stifle idea generation.

Back to the conference room. Egged on by the facilitator, the group is proposing ideas. Some are incisive and novel. Some less so. Quite a few are half-baked at best. At times, the person proposing an idea seems as unsure about what she’s talking about as the rest of the room. But hey! No criticism.

Regardless of what’s proposed, the response is the same. “Great!” says the facilitator. “Interesting!” he coos. “Challenging!” he offers, with a great, big smile. This is what goes for encouragement these days. Unbeknownst to our eager and well-intentioned facilitator, energy is in fact dissipating in the room, at an increasing pace.

For what happens when every idea is met with the exact same response, and when this response is just a variation of “Great!”? In short: Ideas and the generation of the same is turned into a meaningless, ritualistic exercise, one where the participants become more and more aware that ideas are tolerated and mollycoddled rather than respected and engaged with. After a while, people will pick up on the fact that ideas are met not with interest but with a pre-packaged response, a plastic smile and a pat on the back, and since they are smart, they’ll realize they’re being patronized.

For critique isn’t the enemy. On the contrary, to critique an idea is to take it seriously, and to take an idea seriously is to show it and its progenitor respect. The average brainstorming session turns this idea on its head, and becomes a glaring example of how to not take ideas seriously, and how to disrespect both the participants and their ideas – if for the very kindest of reasons.

What we need in our modern organizations is not less criticism, but better cultures of critique. Cultures where respectful disagreements are an everyday occurrence, yet rarely or never descend into pathological squabbling. Where giving criticism is seen as a sign of care, and where a person will be praised for her skill in receiving and taking of critical comments. Critique is not the enemy, and the absence of criticism is not a virtue. We don’t need more vapid brainstorms, we need more cultured critique.

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