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Get the Best Out of Bad Ideas: How to Criticize Effectively

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You want your team to be cohesive and innovative, even when they disagree on what constitutes a great idea, decision, or solution. Yet, you know if you accepted and praised every idea—good, bad, or indifferent—buy-in would be impossible and you would have too few resources to successfully implement any idea. To criticize effectively, the most basic rules are to:

  • Establish rules of polite, respectful disagreement ahead of time.
  • Confine criticism to the idea, not the person.
  • Build on ideas before rejecting or accepting them outright: assuming that the idea has some potential, can it be improved?

Employing these rules requires the following SMaRT strategies which apply whether you are the individual receiving or offering criticism.

Agree on the Benefits of Criticism

Generating ideas without ever criticizing them encourages mediocrity because all ideas are equally great—so why press on? It also ensures that potentially great ideas never receive the feedback and analysis they deserve to reach their potential. One study showed that teams who debated ideas generated 25% more ideas than teams who did not debate.

The following techniques provide a framework for effective, supportive criticism that encourages rather than stifles ideas:

  • Ask for specifics. “I don’t like it” or “it needs more work” are not helpful statements; instead, give or ask for a specific reason or suggestion for improvement.
  • Encourage the feedback sandwich, which consists of a positive statement, a suggestion for improvement, and an explanation of the positive result expected from the improvement.
  • Determine whether the idea itself or the situation is the problem; for example, time limits or regulatory controls might mean that a good idea has to be abandoned.
  • Clarify assumptions. Let’s say the criticism is based on time limits. Find out what the time limits are and whether any action (for example, changing priorities to create more time) or any compromise (for example, implementing the idea in stages) would make the idea feasible.

TIP: Having to deal with some constraints, such as time or budget limits, stimulates creativity; consider a constraint as an opportunity to generate creative ideas and possibly get around the constraint or turn it into an asset.

Distinguish Poorly Stated Ideas from Bad Ideas

Part of your leadership role is to encourage participation in group decisions and problem-solving and ways to criticize effectively. However, some people have trouble communicating their ideas. They may articulate better in writing than in speech, in a calm environment than under pressure, and so on.

When an idea is poorly stated, it is susceptible to misunderstanding and to criticisms that miss the point being made or center on difficulties that are not true deal-breakers. The following actions encourage someone who has difficulty communicating their ideas: 

  • Restate what you or the team have heard to make sure there is a true misunderstanding.
  • Give or ask for the time to respond to criticism and clarify.
  • Provide or seek opportunities after the meeting for either written or one-on-one follow-up on the idea.

TIP: Avoid overwhelming a person with feedback, positive or negative. Concentrate on one or two key points and, if possible, give an example that clarifies the feedback.

Prioritize Goals 

Satisfying personal preferences may be the goal of decisions and solutions that are entirely in your control; but in group decision making and problem-solving, those preferences may stymie the creative process and prevent individuals from building on a good idea. In addition, a problem solving or decision-making process that puts equal emphasis on too many goals (fast and cheap and high quality) is in danger of meeting none of them.

  • Set realistic goals. To criticize effectively, avoid the impossible goal of satisfying every customer or stakeholder at all times in every way.
  • Understand the goal. What is meant by “high quality”? How cheap is “cheap”? What can be sacrificed if the other goals are met and by how much? Again, the clearer the goal, the more sense criticism will make and the easier it will be to use it constructively.
  • Make sure your ideas are in line with overall team or company goals. You and your team may spend hours developing a great idea only for it to be rejected if it doesn’t fit the company mission.


Distinguish Stress Reactions from Criticism

Stress reactions may occur even if you criticize effectively and supportively when, for example, a member may be unable to take criticism gracefully, an idea suddenly requires substantial change, other deadlines are encroaching, or the time available for implementing an idea is rapidly narrowing. 

Stress reactions may include anger and impatience, silence and refusal to contribute, an insistence on choosing any idea no matter how poor, and accusations of discrimination or bad leadership. To ensure that ideas and criticism are the result of not stress-induced:

  • Take a break. Any break gives time for everyone to reset and for creative juices to start working again.
  • Try the 30% Feedback rule. If an idea is 90% finished, a different level of criticism is warranted from an idea that is only 30% finished (that is, in rough draft). If you criticize a 90% idea with the same detail and attention to minutiae as a 30% idea, you will generate stress and cause creativity to stall in its tracks. 
  • Consider whether any ideas or criticisms have—even inadvertently—attacked the team’s or your own self-image or core beliefs. For example, a software solution might cause stress if it threatens your role or it seems to interfere with the team’s dedication to highly personal customer relationships.
  • Accept that criticism, like ideas, may be rejected for valid reasons and should not be pressed to the point of making people angry and defensive. Part of knowing how to criticize effectively is knowing when to stop.

TIP: If you or a member of your team consistently reacts with anger or sarcasm to criticism or suggestions, professional help may be necessary.

Ask for What You Want

The clearer you are about the criticism you expect both to give and receive, the more you will support the creative process and the overall goal to criticize effectively. You will boost effective, supportive criticism if you:

  • Define the type or amount of criticism warranted by progress so far. Institute and follow the 30% Rule. 
  • Prepare for multiple iterations or even starting over again at idea generation. As time goes on, you may discover the idea cannot meet the goal or live within required constraints.
  • Thank those who provide ideas and those who criticize effectively. Set an example of gracious, supportive criticism as both recipient and giver.


Develop the Potential in Rejected Ideas

A potentially good idea may not be fully thought out. It may not be on target for the specific problem or situation being faced right now. It may not be within the reach or mandate of your team. 

Now is the time to mentor or receive mentoring on how to: 

  • Conduct further research and consult with others who may have considered that approach.
  • Make specific tweaks that might align the idea better with the team’s goals and mandate.
  • Submit a proposal to other leaders or teams with more ability to follow through.

By encouraging a novel but a rejected idea, you encourage your own and your team’s future innovation and creative thought.

Key Takeaways

Effective, supportive criticism and discussion helps to hone ideas and spur creativity. You criticize effectively when you are specific, clear, and collaboratively and when you align your criticism with the stage of idea generation and implementation and with the level of stress in the group.

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