How to avoid Idea Averaging

Let only the best ideas through

Posted by on January 4, 2016

Ideation skills are super important for effective team work. Collaborative ideation is the process where you tell me an idea, I try to identify any weakness or missing piece, augment the idea and hand it back to you. I have a good friend that I love to ideate with. We often will grab beers and just start riffing on startup ideas, technology ideas, or any crazy ideas. Single threads can pass through many topics and often aren’t bound to any objective, so it is more brain gymnastics than anything else.

One time we had a third person with us that didn’t have much experience collaborating this way. Instead, everytime he would suggest an idea, we would polish it one way or another and pitch it back to keep building the idea. But he started to get sooo frustrated. Finally he came out and said what he was feeling. He felt like we were “stealing” his ideas and just “repeating” back what he already said. So instead of falling into the rhythm of ideation, he setup something of an idea blockade. I kid you not, the night ended with him being escorted out of the bar. Lesson(s) learned.

Idea Averaging

There is another, less obvious, type of behavior that can at times negate the value of good ideas. It is something I call, Idea Averaging. Here is how it goes,

  1. I have an idea.
  2. I pitch my idea to the group
  3. Someone comes back and says, “Great idea, but what if you did it this way?”
  4. I decide we can just do both ideas at the same time.

What I’ve just done is averaged our ideas. Instead of giving the two options a throrough and objective review to select the best way forward, I’ve averaged them. Now, you might be thinking, “Hey, sometimes both ideas are better together”. Sure, they are, but to make them work together takes that polish step of the ideation where you actually will blend and create a new, third idea.

Don’t average, have the confidence to ideate.

Idea Averaging makes everyone feel okay, but will almost never get you the full value of the best idea. I only say okay because really good team members probably wont feel great with Idea Averaging. Great collaborators will have a feeling that the ideas weren’t evaluated completely, that somehow an optimal solution was missed. With an averaged idea, your final output is going to be bigger, or slower, or take longer to execute than either individual idea alone. Even worse, if you make Idea Averaging a norm, you will build a team around average ideas!!!

The root of Idea Averaging

One potential cause of Idea Averaging is hedging. By averaging two different versions of an idea, you gain the advantage of not having to fail by choosing one. But there are better ways to avoid that problem. I believe Idea Averaging actually comes from good intentions. We do it because we feel like all parties have the potential to contribute great ideas, so why block any of them? I’m not sure, but I bet some really great communities can be built around a culture of Idea Averaging, but they probably don’t execute their best possible ideas.

In reality, people feel more rewarded by having their ideas objectively evaluated, even if ideas are ultimately rejected at times. Through objectively evaluating ideas, ideation becomes communal, contributors are pushed to improve and provide feedback for other’s ideas. There is no shame in pointing out flaws with ideas as long as it is done in a collaborative framework where everyone wins by selecting the right path forward.

How to avoid Idea Averaging?

One of the easiest ways to avoid Idea Averaging is to create a strong culture of feedback. Giving team members settings where they can point out flaws in current projects will help shift their mind into critical thinking mode. Feedback also gives you a tool to help measure, detect, or predict the failure of a project. In this way, the ideas you choose to act on are never set in stone, they are constantly being re-evaluated and rethought.

The second way to avoid Idea Averaging is very related to the first, be experimental. By “experimental”, I simply mean don’t be afraid to assess an ongoing project and kill it. Be humble and willing to accept when your own experiments fail. An experimental environment also makes ideas feel less binary, instead they are living and always ready to be changed. Selecting one right one today doesn’t mean that we can’t revisit and pivot to the second tomorrow.

Finally, practice identifying Idea Averaging. You’ll see it pop up all over the place. Idea Averaging is great for a communal feeling of getting all ideas in. Be careful not to allow ideation to isolate members of your team, ensure humble and honest discussion goes on around ideas. It is a stronger community when you can consider ideas and evaluate openly which are the best one to move forward with, even if it means some ideas will be left on the drawing board.