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What is "greenhousing" and how it can help with idea development

  • February 03, 2021
  • Jules Eisenchteter
  • Workshop Design

“Plants are their most fragile when they are small and just starting to grow. That’s why gardeners use greenhouses. It’s the same with ideas”. It’s with those insightful words that WhatIf! introduces its explanation of the innovation concept known as “greenhousing” in their book Sticky Wisdom. How to start a creative revolution at work.

Greenhousing is an absolutely key concept that anyone wishing to boost the collaboration, innovation and collective intelligence of their team should be familiar with. It’s also one of the fundamental pillars we, here at Stormz, rely on to design, build and animate creative and groundbreaking collaborative sessions with our clients. If you’ve never heard of greenhousing, or if you’re not sure what it means exactly, this article will put things straight.

What is greenhousing?

Let’s get right down to it: what is greenhousing? As briefly outlined above, the creative concept of greenhousing is based on the analogy between plants and ideas: the younger they are, the easier they are to kill, destroy or smother; to truly develop, bloom and reach their potential, plants and ideas need time, attention and dedication.

In a business environment, greenhousing is an interactive, active and supportive behaviour that protects young ideas and allows people to get the most out of their initial thinking. Contrary to what many people would like to believe, genius ideas are not formed out of a split second of inspiration. Rather, ideas are progressively built, questioned, debunked, enriched, perfected, slowly morphing from a seed of idea into a robust concept. It’s a transformative process. In the words of ?WhatIf!, “greenhousing is the nurturing behaviour that helps teams grow strong ideas”.

Don’t let it RAIN!

This brief outline should be enough to make you aware how traditional business environments do not provide fertile ground for greenhousing, to say the least.

?WhatIf! writers describe its antagonist as the “Emergency Room” (ER) mindset, which proves incredibly damaging for the growth of ideas. What does the ER thinking style imply? Jumping on an idea to immediately find what’s wrong with, why it wouldn’t work or what kind of obstacles would keep us from implementing it; trying to convince our colleague (or ourselves) that the idea is wrong; applying immediate judgment without taking the time to consider all the facts or to understand exactly the intention behind the idea.

“Yes, but…”; We’ve tried it before…”; “We don’t have time for this right now…”; “That’s fine in theory, but it doesn’t work like that…”

Etc. Etc.

These are only a few examples of the most common reactions of someone in the “ER mindset”. Did you or some of your colleagues ever utter these words? Most likely, as the ER mindset isn’t just a tragic by-product of a high-pressure, high-stake business environment requiring immediate action and reaction, but is also deeply embedded in our culture, way of life, going all the way back to the early education system. Judging, criticizing, separating right from wrong and debunking are part of our intellectual and cultural DNA.

For ?WhatIf!, this thinking style can be summarized in the RAIN framework:

  • React: The first instinct is to react as quickly as possible and exercise our critical thinking and analytical skills;
  • Assume: As we react to the initial idea, our first - often misplaced - assumption is that we’re right, and the other (or the voice inside our head) is wrong.
  • INsist: Getting defensive, the one who gave the idea gets defensive and hits back with another set of arguments, kick-starting a narrow and defensive game where everyone insists on their own point of view without listening to each other.

The idea is still-born, killed and smothered in a split second. We’ll never know what it could have grown into.

Let the SUNshine in

Instead of getting soaked under heavy RAIN, you need to let the sunshine in. SUN, as the principal framework of the greenhousing mindset, stands for:

  • Suspend: Give the idea the benefit of a doubt, and temporarily suspend your judgment or any kind of prejudice you might have in order to dig deeper, without trying to score points or prove a point;
  • Understand: This “suspension of disbelief”, critical to explore and grow any idea offered to you, will give you time to understand what it’s all about, express empathy and grasp what kind of ramifications lie underneath the main idea;
  • Nurture: Suspending your judgment and understanding are not enough to build stronger ideas and unleash their hidden potential. That’s why the third phase of the greenhousing spirit is about nurturing the idea, either by making it better, looking at it from a different angle or finding positive alternatives to the original thinking.

In the SUN behaviour, you stop being a judge to turn into a detective, refusing to take ideas at face value to constantly look for the golden idea within the idea, building on the original premise to find the hidden value that can become a game-changer. You should positively engage with the idea as if it was a living organism still in its preliminary development stage.

“Tell me more”; “What would it look like?”; “Why are you so excited about the idea?”; “How did you get the idea and where did it come from?” These are all examples illustrative of the SUN spirit and greenhousing-type of reactions to grow your ideas.

How to greenhouse on a daily basis

Our current way of working, interacting and collaborating leaves very little room for greenhousing. Every day, any team will unconsciously kill dozens or hundreds of potentially interesting ideas without even being aware of the intellectual genocide taking place.

But greenhousing goes further than simply organizing a monthly creative session meant to throw new ideas and work on the most promising ones. It’s about a behavioural change and requires a new mindset to promote more inclusive, respectful and confidence-based relationships between everyone, and everyone’s ideas.

Evidently, this can go through targeted, or “formal greenhousing” techniques, like planning brainstorming sessions, including fixed agenda items in meetings or setting aside specific days every month for creative thinking.

But to truly make greenhousing a founding pillar of your organisation, the SUN mindset should become a daily habit. Individuals can learn how to implement a “temporary nurture bubble”, constantly switching between the ER and greenhousing thinking styles. While some situations require the ER/RAIN mindset (quick decision-making for instance), others call for deeper development. Both are complementary and should reinforce one another on a daily basis.

>> The splendid photo is by Sushobhan Badhai and available on Unsplash

>> Learn more in WhatIf! book: Sticky Wisdom. How to start a creative revolution at work. (this is NOT a paid Amazon link).

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