Over time we can get very comfortable in our ways. We do things as they’ve always been done. In this state, sometimes we can find ourselves constraining new ideas or stifling new possibilities as they come to us.

Why Not Go For the Banana

Once there was a study done on monkeys where a group of the primates were gathered together and one of the monkeys was let loose to go fetch a banana. If the monkey touched the banana, the monkey who touched it plus all the monkeys in the group were sprayed with cold water. In repeat experiments, when the monkey was let loose to fetch the banana, the other monkeys in the group began to hold the monkey back so he couldn’t go. Soon the monkey stopped going for the banana entirely.

Then a new monkey was rotated in for the loose monkey. The rest of the group had experienced the cold spray, but this new monkey had not. The group held him back consistently, and soon the new monkey, surely confused at the resistance of the group to a nice banana, stopped going for the banana entirely.

Rotations continued one by one until eventually the whole group had been swapped out. They continued to hold each other back. No monkey went for the banana, yet not a single monkey in the group had ever received a spray of cold water.

I read of this study in a book recently. The author wrote that he went to find the original study for more learning and found that the story of the study wasn’t even real. People were repeating it when it had apparently never happened. Ironic? And yet there is something striking about this story that does bear repeating.

Why We Constrain Ideas

So why do we constrain ideas? As illustrated, this desire for the status quo can come quite naturally and even illogically. Things have always been done that way, we say, and things have turned out all right for us.

Perhaps we don’t understand this new thing. Who knows what the unintended consequences are? Perhaps we’ll fail at it. Perhaps it’ll be worse than what we have.

Perhaps we or someone else already tried something like that before. Perhaps it didn’t work out well for those involved in the place that it was attempted.

Perhaps we feel like we’re betraying old ideas and customs. Perhaps we feel like we’re admitting we are wrong or were misguided in the past.

We might just like our current ideas. We were in the group that thought them. We’ve built great things with them. We feel ownership of these ideas and the results.

If something new begins to take over, perhaps we’ll lose relevancy. We may feel threatened.

Letting Ideas Live

What can we do to let new ideas live? Perhaps we don’t need to strike them down quickly as “bad”. We can let them linger, hear and learn more. With a growth-oriented mindset, this can become more natural. Things are always changing.

We can realize that perfection is rarely achieved. That means that things could be better. We can really live in a mode of continuous improvement instead of just giving it lip service.

We can separate ourselves from our ideas or our way of doing things. We don’t want to say or think of ourselves as “the guy that thought of that”. We can let ideas stand for themselves, using language such as “the idea of how we…” versus “the idea that Jake had was…”.

We can cultivate an inclusive way of doing things. We can invite participation from all. We can encourage diversity of thought through listening and acceptance. We can take ideas from wherever they come from and not be predisposed to dislike certain sources.

We can forgive ideas we didn’t agree with in the past and allow people to voice new ideas of potential virtue.

We can be willing to try, really try, out the new idea, and let results speak for themselves.

Are there ways that you can identify where you have seen yourself or your organization stifle new ideas? What could you do to help these new ideas live and potentially see value from them? Are there new ideas that you’ve heard recently that you could help support and investigate?