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How To Sharknado Your Way To Success: Overcoming Negativity Bias

“I know you're scared. I'm scared too. They're sharks. They're scary. No one wants to get eaten. But I've been eaten. And I'm here to tell you it takes a lot more than that to bring a good man down. A lot more than that to bring a New Yorker down.”

[Cuts a falling shark in half with the chainsaw] 

“Let's go show them what it means to be a hero. Let's go show them what it means to be a New Yorker! Let's go kill some sharks!” 

(Finn, Sharknado 2: The Second One)

The summer of 2016 saw the fourth sequel phenomenon known as Sharknado: The 4th Awakens—following Sharknado; Sharknado 2: The Second One; and Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! For the uninitiated, Sharknado is a made-for-television, satirical disaster series about a waterspout that transports sharks from the ocean—and deposits them on the unsuspecting citizens of major metropolises. As for its reception, one reviewer on Rotten Tomatoes summed it up perfectly: “Simply put, it’s one of those TV movies that’s so unapologetically bad that it is, in its own unique way, also pretty great.”

It’s so bad, it’s great. Now this is an interesting statement. It’s a fascinating example of taking a pervasive Cognitive Biasknown as Negativity Bias—turning it on its head, and going for the gold. Negativity Bias, in a nutshell, explains why we tend to hate our own ideas—and tend to poo poo others’ ideas, as well. It’s essentially a two-gate system for new ideas to either get:

  1. Discounted completely.
  2. Beaten into submission.

So let’s take a closer look at these two gates—and see how the Sharknado franchise leveraged them for success.

via GIPHY

“We are talking about shark-falling rates of two inches-per-hour…” 

The first way Negativity Bias affects new ideas is inside our own brain from the get-go. This bias causes negative thoughts/events to have a more prominent effect on us—even when we have an equal amount of positive things going on. For our brains, bad is stronger than good. It acts like a monkey in our heads—leading us to overthink until it effectively cripples innovative thinking. It comes in many different flavors:

  • Self-censorship: Despite the innovation mantra of “fail often, fail fast and fail cheap,” few would tell you that failure is in their strategy. People naturally like to succeed—and likewise are inclined to fear failure.
  • Self-doubt aka “I am not creative”: This type of thinking holds people back, kills the energy and participation, and usually results in transforming creation into critique. It’s passing the buck on a job everyone has a stake in.
  • Insecurity/Fear of looking stupid: Here we see the perpetual Apologist where every idea is preceded with, “This isn’t very good…” This type also tends to be uptight, and generally doesn’t want to participate in expansive thinking techniques or “wild” ideas.
  • Perfectionism: The perfectionist won’t share until it’s absolutely flawless. Meanwhile, they have a critical eye for imperfection—and rejects anything that’s not up to their impossible standard. Needless to say, little gets generated.

There have been quite a few interviews with the writer of the Sharknado screenplays, Thunder Levin. And pretty much everyone asks, “How does one come up with an idea like a weather system infused with flying, angry sharks?”

One article reports that Levin was handed the title “Sharknado” and was just asked to run with it. Negativity Bias might have stopped the show right there. But Levin’s circumvented it with his creative approach: “I just wanted to make sure everyone was in on the joke and they didn’t want me to write something that took itself too seriously…And then I just put myself in the shoes of the hero and thought, ‘What would I do if this crazy situation happened to me?’ As long as the characters remained immersed in the reality of their situation and never broke character, winked at the camera, or told jokes, I was pretty free to have almost anything happen to them.’”

“Hooooooly sh…aaaaaark!”  

The second way Negativity Bias works is in the way we react to other’s new ideas. The fact is, the human brain is well-attuned to nay-saying. One doesn’t have to go far to see this play out—whether it’s a colleague who criticizes everything, a family member who plays Chief Historian of Past Failures, or perhaps your own penchant for being a bit of a “budget monster.” Yes, for as much as we’d like to believe we are supportive and open-minded to new ideas…we are not.

Although the numbers clearly communicate some of Sharknado’s successes: 3.9 million people tuned in for the original Syfy broadcast—and managed to generate, according to the network’s press release, “one billion Twitter impressions”—critics still abound:

  • “By admitting up front that Sharknado is trash, Syfy divests itself of any responsibility for real cleverness or creativity.”
  • “…honestly, doesn’t have enough insane action to really say it completely works at B-movie escapism.”
  • “Bad acting, ridiculous plot, inane dialogue punctuated with cornball one-liners, and terrible production values add up to two hours I can never get back.”

But why do we, as humans, do this? It all boils down to an innate fear of failure—causing us to fall back to a self-preserving judgement mode, instead of allowing ideas that might be thought of as new, different, or flat-out weird to open us up new possibilities we hadn’t considered before.

via GIPHY

“Sharks! In! Space!” (Or, if David Hasselhoff can yell that line with a straight face, it’s also possible for you to turn Negativity Bias on its head.)  

While we don’t know the exact technique the Sharknado team uses to combat Negativity Bias, our years of generating fresh new ideas at Ideas To Go has led us to develop a helpful bias-fighting tool that anyone can use. You could say that it slays negative thinking like Finn slays sharks with only a chainsaw and chutzpah. We call it Forness® thinking—a mindset that encourages you to look at what’s good about an idea and find what you’re FOR. By deciding what you’re for first, you discover ways to think constructively about an idea and its merits. Once you know what you’re for, you can move on to list all the ways you would WISH to make it better, and positively push towards solutions. In this scenario, problems become areas of opportunity—instead of roadblocks.

When you look for the good in every idea, projects move forward faster, team members maintain momentum, and ideas stretch into new areas of thinking. We’ve found teaching the Forness® mindset has been the cornerstone for growing truly great ideas—no matter the industry, the business need, or the far-outness of the project brief.

Try it at your next meeting where people need to come up with ideas. You’ll find Forness® thinking sets the right tone when people know anything goes. But remember, the point is not to celebrate “bad” ideas, but rather to use them as building blocks for novel thoughts and fresh inspiration. Even if the initial idea would literally get you fired if you moved it forward, there might be an element, a benefit, an insight—or even a totally contrary idea that could lead to something great.

So the next time you feel overcome by the lure of Negativity Bias, consider making one small—yet powerful—change to your thinking. When you feel yourself immediately writing a new idea off as worthless, pause a moment and try to find what’s good about the idea—what you’re FOR. Once you’ve been able to identify positive aspects about a new idea, you can build them into really interesting, potentially even great ideas. Even if (you know we have to go there) that idea literally seems to have jumped the shark. Who knows, that idea just might not be as bad as you think. 

About the Author: Ed Harrington is CEO and Innovation Process Facilitator at Ideas To Go, an innovation agency that works with Fortune 500 companies in ideation and concept development to incorporate the voice of the consumer.

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