6 tips for generating better ideas

Editor's Note: This article is adapted from William D. Eggers and John O'Leary's new book 'If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government' (Harvard Business Press, 2009).

Not all ideas are created equal. The pogo-copter was a bad idea. So was New Coke, the electric fork and Gerald Ford’s “Whip Inflation Now” buttons. Ideas matter.

Ideas are the first phase in the public policy process. You can’t have a successful result if you begin with a flawed idea. In Washington, when people think about ideas, they generally focus on ideology — they fight over whose worldview is right or whose ideas manifest the purest intentions.

We take a different tack. We look at ideas in terms of whether they are implementable and efficacious — that is, if they can actually be done and whether they will lead to the desired results. We look at ideas from a process perspective, focusing on the practical question of whether a policy idea put into practice will actually work as advertised. Evaluating ideas in this manner requires a review of the particular facts in a particular situation.

Consider, for example, the “idea” of deregulation, of using competition and choice in a market to drive efficiency. It would be foolish to judge that idea in a vacuum. Deregulation has worked well in the trucking and airline industries, less well in financial services and electricity provision in California.

Unfortunately, “facts” do not speak for themselves. In many cases, our ideologies and preconceptions color how we see the world — which facts we pay attention to and which we ignore. Flawed ideas generally become reality when we see only what we want to see and when we don’t expose our ideas to external criticism.

That phenomenon is called the Tolstoy syndrome, named for Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, and it’s the biggest trap involved in policy ideation. Tolstoy noted how hard it is for people to accept the most obvious truth if doing so would oblige them “to admit the falsity of conclusions…which they have proudly taught to others.” In other words, we become blind to inconvenient facts, facts that challenge our existing beliefs.

Former President Gerald Ford didn’t want to hear from the economists who told him "WIN" buttons wouldn’t control inflation. He was hoping the buttons would change public attitudes the way the “V for Victory” campaign had boosted morale during World War II. Unfortunately, inflation wasn’t caused by inflationary psychology but by an expanding money supply. The idea of a public morale boost in this case was an idea that wouldn’t achieve the desired results.

It’s easy to laugh at WIN buttons, but the Tolstoy trap is a serious problem in public decision-making. It occurs whenever people or groups shut off the voices of critics, of the naysayers. In technical terms, disconfirming evidence of a theory is discounted by those who cling to an idea despite mounting evidence that it is not working.

The Tolstoy syndrome can cause enormous problems when executing large initiatives. That’s because which policies we choose to pursue are based on ideas about how the world works, and execution depends on the quality of those ideas. Think of this as the public policy equivalent of the “garbage in, garbage out” principle.

The world of government technology, for example, is in the midst of huge, disruptive change. Cloud computing, Gov 2.0, green IT, software as a service, and service-oriented architecture are just a few of the big changes transforming how the federal government deploys and utilizes technology. If the ideas behind these initiatives are flawed, even the best implementation can’t save them. Given the high profile of large government IT failures, sorting through competing models for the best approach is critical.

So how can governments break free of the Tolstoy trap? The following strategies can help.

1. Fight confirmation bias. Too often, policy-makers begin with a theory and then seek the facts that support the theory while discounting any evidence that does not support it. A better approach is to embrace the ethos of the scientific method. Don’t ignore data that contradicts your preconceived notions. Actively test your idea with skeptics. Be data driven, and eschew policy-making by ideology.

Early in Mitt Romney's tenure as governor of Massachusetts, his policy team worked on a school construction program. The group reviewed the relevant data, formulated a policy and then sent it to the legislature, where it landed with a dull thud. It turned out that Romney’s proposal, prepared as it was in a vacuum, contained too much that the legislature didn’t like, and state lawmakers wanted to be included in crafting any reforms.

Then, in 2004, Romney decided to tackle health care reform in the state. Learning from the past, his team took a different tack. Members reached out early and often, approaching the health care reform effort with an open mind and an open process, while still adhering to Romney’s guiding principles.

After compiling a set of eye-opening data, Romney’s health policy SWAT team set up dozens of meetings with all the key players in the health care arena: advocacy groups, insurers, hospitals, doctor groups and legislators. Many were prepared to be hostile to Romney and his team. Instead of coming in with a plan, however, the team came in to share information and listen. Romney’s team presented its data and then probed for a response: Does this sound right to you? Are we missing any key factors in our analysis? What are your biggest concerns?

Particularly in the face of ideological differences, proactively reaching out, sharing information and asking intelligent questions helps break down preconceived notions. Sharing promotes trust. In the end, Romney signed some of the most far-reaching health care reforms in the country.

One technique for breaking people out of their pre-existing mental models is called assertive inquiry. Participants are encouraged to adopt the worldview of others (at least temporarily) in an effort to discover insights that would have been missed. Explains Roger Martin, author of "The Opposable Mind": “Its aim is to learn about the salient data and causal maps baked into another person’s model, then use the insight gained to fashion a creative resolution of the conflict between that person’s model and your own.”

2. Find the right, diverse people. Look to other fields and disciplines. Subject-matter experts should be joined with systems thinkers and other smart people with diverse interests — artists, scientists and engineers. If your problem is in transportation, ask: How can I involve non-transportation participants in my deliberations?

That approach helped break through the logjam in the late 1980s on the issue of acid rain, the biggest environmental problem of the decade. The debate had settled into two camps: the environmentalists, who wanted to stop all pollution, and business interests, who argued that heavy-handed regulation would kill jobs. Each side was locked into its worldview. The two sides didn’t just disagree with each another, they despised each other. They didn’t have debates, they had screaming matches. Seventy bills were authored in Congress to address acid rain. Not a single one made it out of the building.

Into this quagmire stepped two senators: Tim Wirth, a Democrat from Colorado, and John Heinz, a Republican from Pennsylvania. They broke through the logjam by bringing in new people to look at the problem. Those new people were economists. By bringing in their perspective, Wirth and Heinz took the debate out of the realm of the absolutists on each side. The economists developed a way to use the market to protect the environment without overburdening business.

The result: one of the biggest environmental success stories of recent decades. Sulfur dioxide emissions were cut by 40 percent at a 40:1 benefit-to-cost ratio.

3. Expand the idea pool through Web 2.0. Web 2.0 technologies make it easier than ever to tap into the potential of large numbers of “experts” — the customers and workers closest to the problem. The Transportation Security Administration has 43,000 workers on the front line. They have ideas about how both they and TSA headquarters could do their work better.

In 2007, TSA created an internal Web site called the Idea Factory that uses a wiki platform to allow leadership to tap into that pool of wisdom. The Idea Factory has become a kind of super-sized brainstorming session where agency leaders can put out questions to the organization: How can we improve morale? How can we improve the check-in process? What should our new uniforms look like? The Idea Factory allows TSA management to get unfiltered, unsolicited ideas from the front lines. Since the Idea Factory was launched, dozens of TSA policies have been changed in response to employee suggestions.

4. Transform data to information. Find skilled professionals who know how to move up the cognitive food chain — from data to information, from information to knowledge, from knowledge to wisdom.

Rather than a group steeped in the state’s health care culture, Romney’s health care reform team was composed of private-sector types from his investment banking circle: Tim Murphy, Kelt Kindick and Brian Wheelan from J.P. Morgan, Bain and Co., and Harvard Business School, respectively. They brought a different skill set, a different language and a different perspective to the problem. The new policy group didn’t have much institutional knowledge, but its members were familiar with examining organizational structures and looking at value streams, and they were used to dealing with complicated finances.

“Leaders coming into government from the private sector have to appreciate that one thing government does quite well is to collect data. There’s tons of it,” said Murphy, who would eventually become Romney’s secretary of health and human services. “The key is being able to translate that data into usable information. To do that, you need to have people who are experienced with analytics, people who understand systems and who can offer suggestions around process changes. Those skills tend to come from certain training grounds — management consulting, investment banking, operations managers.”

5. Get ideas from partners. Give the problem to someone else to solve. Let your network of partners, both governmental and nongovernmental, help develop new solutions to old problems. The Connect + Develop strategy used by Procter and Gamble, a leading manufacturer of household and health care products, focuses on establishing networks to leverage the innovation assets of others. When a technology entrepreneur in the company discovered that a Japanese firm was selling melamine foam (traditionally used for soundproofing and insulation) as household sponge, P&G purchased the product from an outside manufacturer and marketed it as Mr. Clean Magic Eraser in the United States and Europe.

P&G developed its elaborate system of scouts, proprietary networks, external networks and suppliers to search for adaptable ideas. The strategy explicitly recognizes that it’s a big world out there. Most solutions already exist — somewhere — and most problems are eminently solvable if you ask the right person.

6. Use mashups. Combine ideas from unrelated fields to create new solutions — free-market environmentalism, for example, to promote acid rain reduction. Another mashup is Virtual Alabama, which merged Google Earth 3-D visualization tools with emergency response data to create a state-of-the-art disaster response system. In our book, we used a mashup approach when we applied the process mapping tools of the manufacturing plant to the world of public policy, which provided valuable insights into the challenges facing government.

Overcoming the Tolstoy syndrome is all about listening. If we think we know the answer, we close off avenues of exploration. We ignore evidence that conflicts with our theories. We don’t invite people with different skill sets to apply their unique combination of knowledge, wisdom and experience to work with us.

Beating the Tolstoy syndrome means breaking across all kinds of boundaries: professional, psychological, organizational. It means economists weighing in on world hunger and management consultants reforming health care. It means letting your customers design your products, letting frontline workers set your policies and letting the private sector help solve public problems. It means the federal government allowing states to experiment, and it means Republicans working with Democrats.

Beating the Tolstoy syndrome requires being open to painful feedback. Doing so can prevent your idea from being tested very publicly in the real world with far more painful results. Thirty-five years later, you can still buy WIN buttons on eBay. Nobody wants that to be their legacy, do they?


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