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Creating an Idea-Friendly Culture

~ Why we should ask for, and then listen to, everyone’s ideas.

Jun 22, 2008

How many of us have ever made a decision that directly affected one or more persons? Haven’t most of us, or even all of us, been in that position? Whether we recognized it or not, at that moment we were exercising leadership. We may not have thought that we were a leader, but if our decisions affected others, the results were at least partially our responsibility.

From this point of view, leaders come in all shapes and sizes. Even brothers and sisters in a family, who might otherwise never consider themselves to be leaders, often find themselves in a “pecking order.” An older brother peremptorily ordering his younger brother around is taking on the position of a leader. A man working as a dustpan holder in a dirty laundromat, if given an assistant dustpan holder, will suddenly become the assistant’s leader. As he shows the assistant the correct way to hold the dustpan, leadership is thrust upon him.

The decisions that leaders make affect all of us, even if we ourselves are leaders. A CEO riding in a limousine down Fifth Avenue is affected by decisions made by the municipal leaders who organized the timing of the blankety-blank traffic lights that are making him late for his shareholders’ meeting, where he might get the boot because of the company’s decrease in profits, even though he has spent hours trying to get them to listen to his new ideas and long-term strategies.

How many of us have sometimes felt frustration that our leaders weren’t listening to our ideas?

Sometimes a segment of society finds itself in thrall to the dictatorship of tradition. Individuals who buck social trends confront an invisible mindset that is extremely hard to influence. In this situation the members of the group share the leadership responsibility for the maintenance of its social customs. If members of the group realize their collective responsibility, they may be able to break free of harmful traditions. To do so, they need to be willing to listen to new ideas, no matter who presents them.

Listening to new ideas is surprisingly difficult for both leaders and followers. Members of a group may scorn an idea when it is presented by a fellow member, but enthusiastically endorse the same idea if it is presented by one of the leaders of the group whom they hold in high respect. Other ideas may get shot down until they are successful. Then, proverbially, people say that they supported the idea all along.

Many leaders are perfectly willing to listen to ideas from their fellow leaders. Yet they often fail to solicit ideas from the rank and file in their own organizations. Since few organizations are run democratically, bosses may feel that it’s unnecessary to seek the opinions of employees. In the rush of chasing the bottom line, the process of unilateral decision making is faster and easier than the complex task of seeking for a consensus or groundbreaking ideas. While the daily solicitation of employees’ opinions may be impractical in many cases, would it not benefit every organization to ask for and listen to new ideas on a weekly, monthly, and quarterly basis?

There are often hidden reasons for the rejection of new ideas. Anthony J. D’Angelo, the founder of Collegiate EmPowerment, a nonprofit specializing in seminars and educational resources for students, stated that “the people who oppose your ideas are inevitably those who represent the established order that your ideas will upset.” Rocking the boat and upsetting the apple cart are not popular activities. Whose power base or turf or profits will be affected? What will people say, after all?

Roger von Oech, the author of the book A Whack on the Side of the Head, stated that “new ideas … are not born in a conforming environment.” One has to be willing to risk to entertain new ideas. Jimi Hendrix wasn’t shy when he said, “I don’t give a damn what others say. It’s okay to color outside of the lines.”

Luckily for Jimi Hendrix, his innovative musical ideas were presented in the wild decade of the Sixties. He found an audience, and wasn’t burned at the stake. Far too often, radically new ideas are considered heresy by the guardians of the status quo. Heresy is defined by the Random House Unabridged Dictionary as “any belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established beliefs, customs, etc.”

English novelist Graham Greene took another tack when he said that “heresy is another word for freedom of thought.”

As much as self-aggrandizement tends to repress ideas that challenge the status quo, a more insidious motivation to reject the ideas of others is based on a misunderstanding of the value of all human beings. Do we really consider all human beings our equals? Who is the dustpan holder in that dirty laundromat? Is he a member of the Untouchable caste in India? Is he a servant of a great house in England? Is he a lower-class worker in a Confucian society? Is he an uneducated migrant worker in East L.A.?

He might be any of those things, or he might be a medical doctor from Cambodia who can’t work in America because we don’t recognize his credentials. He might also be no one special at all, except for the fact that he has a golden heart and spends all of his days loving people with kindness and compassion. Upon his death, he may find himself in a very beautiful area of the spirit world, surrounded by other saintly people from all walks of life.

We tend to listen to others’ ideas when we consider them to be valuable people, or when they have knowledge or position. The stratification of people is at least partially influenced by the question of identity. Who are we, as human beings? Are we just physical creatures with limited life spans, or are we spiritual beings who temporarily inhabit physical bodies? Answering this question impacts the foundation of one’s viewpoint about the value of human beings.

A secular view might define certain classes of people as “valuable” based on any number of physical or technical criteria. A spiritual view tends to look deeper than external attributes, and often finds humans valuable because of transcendent reasons that tie their identity to a common Creative Source.

I prefer to believe that we are all children of a God who looks at each one of us as we will be in the future, after we have grown into maturity. If one agrees that love is the motivating factor in the creation of the universe, then it must be love that gives true value to human beings. Since we all have the capacity to love unselfishly and creatively, we all have the inherent status of being “co-creators” with God.

We all create in some way, all the time. We think and feel and have ideas. Where do our ideas come from? Robert Louis Stevenson said that his plots came from the “little brownies.” Inventors may be receiving their ideas from scientists in the spirit world under the inspiration of God. How else can one explain the explosion of innovation in the last hundred years? People in previous centuries were just as smart. Why was there so little progress? Was it because scientific knowledge was held in check until humanity as a group reached a certain level of ethical and spiritual maturity?

Many people believe that our ideas come from the mind of God first, and then are received by us. When a minister prays to have God “speak through him,” or “write through him,” who is the author of the sermon? I confess that when I write or give a speech, I pray that I can write or speak with God’s words, not my own. It is a conundrum that I want to be humble and say that God gave me an idea, while simultaneously being nervous that I can be accused of hubris if I say that God gave me the idea! Who am I to receive an idea from God? What byline should I put on my essays? It is indeed a complex issue. Thus, my essays are appended with the phrase, “Deus est auctor amoris et decoris.” (“God is the author of love and beauty.”) I write it in Latin, in a tiny attempt to be subtle.

It seems undeniable to me that every person, including our long-suffering dustpan holder, is a child of our magnificent God. Whether educated or not, all people participate in the reality that God’s spirit lives within them. Every person has access to truth on a soul and heart level. Common sense is available to all.

The primary rationale for an idea-friendly culture flows from the invisible identity of humans as creative spirits who are all connected to the limitless knowledge bank of the universe. Everyone can receive creative inspiration at the level of a genius, because everyone is inherently connected to the same source of wisdom.

Thus, for the improvement of our world, our companies and organizations, and our society, we must ask for, and then listen to, ideas from everyone. Leaders need to implement policies to actively solicit ideas from their members, employees, or constituents, from every level of the rank and file. Individuals who may not consider themselves leaders must also eagerly solicit ideas from those around them, for in that way, society will improve and avoid the dreadful curse of stuffy conventions that say, “It just isn’t done, you know.”

There are many ways for leaders to seek input and listen to others, from the time-honored suggestion box to the ancient and yet cutting-edge technique of “calling the circle,” as espoused by the book Calling the Circle, the First and Future Culture by Christina Baldwin. Baldwin uses the term “PeerSpirit” to describe the attitude of mutual respect that is engendered when individuals gather in a “sacred circle” to discover new ways of solving problems. In PeerSpirit circles, every participant acts as a leader and offers their input in rotation.

In the book How to Think Like Einstein, Scott Thorpe, in the chapter entitled “Einstein Thinking in Organizations,” states:

In any organization, innovative thinking will occur in direct proportion to the quality of the reception a bad idea receives. If a bad idea is rejected out of hand, there will be few new ideas. If a bad idea is considered fairly, people will innovate. And if bad ideas are recognized as valuable efforts, your organization will be flooded with new thinking. A few concepts will be priceless. Organizations must handle heretical thinking carefully to ensure a continuous stream of innovative thinking.

Thorpe also writes:

Free speech is the primary emancipating political innovation, the idea that no one should be punished for expressing his opinion. … Free speech is equally essential to innovation and progress in an organization. When people are afraid to speak their minds, good ideas wither and bad actions go unchecked.

Good ideas will flower in an atmosphere of respect and love for all individuals. Since we are all God’s children, including the CEO and the dustpan holder, we are all peers. As peers, we have no caste, and can sit together in a circle as equals who all have the right and the leadership responsibility to make the world better.

I believe that it is the world’s destiny to become a global culture of geniuses and saints. We can safely assume that at the very least, the creation of an idea-friendly culture will have an immense impact on our world.


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Peter Falkenberg Brown
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