Stop Asking For Ideas

May 25, 2011

I recently gave a presentation on innovation for a company that sells travel packages online. The presenter who preceded me was the executive in charge of creating the technology that automatically sends follow-up e-mails to prospects who visited the site.

A few minutes into his presentation, he displayed a slide that showed the typical e-mail used in their follow-up campaign. The audience of 50 executives immediately shouted out ways of improving the e-mail. This went on for over 30 minutes. The problem was nearly all of the ideas had been tried before, were not practical, or were inappropriate.

Everyone in your organization will have an idea. They will have suggestions on how to improve the business. And they will have opinions on what to do differently. You don’t need more ideas.

Albert Einstein reputedly said, “If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute finding solutions.” Unfortunately, most organizations are running around spending 60 minutes finding solutions to problems that don’t matter.

To accelerate your innovation efforts, you need to get better at solving challenges, which if implemented, will create massive value for the organization. It involves seeking solutions instead of suggestions. One of the greatest skills an organization can possess is the ability to ask the right question, the right way.

Asking the right question the right way means identifying the real opportunities for the organization. It also requires you to articulate the question in a way that increases the likelihood of the challenge being solved.

BP discovered that asking a question the “wrong way” can result in idea overload. After the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon well, they created an online suggestion box that encouraged concerned citizens to submit ideas on how to stop the flow of oil. They received nearly 123,000 submissions. On the surface, this might sound like a huge success. But out of all of these ideas, only a dozen or so were deemed as having any value. This means that 99.99 percent were duds. The amount of energy required to process this many bad ideas is massive.

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Don’t Present What Can Be Pre-Sent

May 24, 2011

Being a professional speaker on innovation, I attend a lot of conferences and meetings.  And I am always amazed at how poorly most meetings are run.

One things in particular disturbs me…

When meeting time is used to present things that could have been sent via email.

Don’t do it!

Meeting time should be viewed as a huge investment in the attendees.  If you present information, status reports, or anything other static information that could be distributed before the meeting via email, you are wasting everyone’s time.

Next time you are holding a meeting.  Look at the agenda.  Decide what information can be disseminated in advance.  Then use the meeting time for conversation, networking, experiential learning, action planning, and other activities that can not be accomplished easily through electronic means.

When done properly, meetings can provide great value with a limited investment of time.

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How Focusing On The Big Picture Can Help Grow Your Bottom Line

May 23, 2011

This article was published on the American Express OPEN Forum.  When I sent in the article, I called it “If you focus on the hot dog, you might go hungry.”  Clearly they didn’t like that title :)

Regardless of how you feel about Trump’s now aborted run for President, you have to give him credit for creating a cult following to some rather engaging television since early 2004. Trump’s show has a business slant to it and at times provides useful insightful tips for businesses of any size. I am reminded of an episode of the Celebrity Apprentice that applied some particularly valuable innovation concepts.

The task for the week was to see which teams, split up by men and women, could sell the most hot dogs to raise money for charity. This particular episode opens with Trump informing the celebrities that they’re all “commodities” and should leverage their “personal brand” to help them.

The first challenge was to establish the price of the hot dogs: low enough to sell large volumes yet high enough to maximize margins. This is a challenge that all companies face when pricing their products or services.

Each team started selling their dogs for about $5. As they progressed, they began up selling their customers using a variety of creative gimmicks. Their plan appeared successful so they continually increased the selling price by bundling in extras (e.g., pictures with the celebs).

Each took a slightly different approach. Omarosa, the lead for the women, didn’t think her team should use their celebrity status in the task and should instead focus on skill. They primarily focused on “traditional” business techniques, selling as many high priced hot dogs as possible. In the end, they sold about $17K.

The men’s team, headed up by Stephen Baldwin, begins using their celebrity status right out of the gate. Gene Simmons, one member of the team, calls a collection of his elite group of friends asking them to visit their stand. Instead of selling $200 hot dogs, they sold $5,000 hot dogs to their high-roller friends. The result? Over $52K in sales. Over three times the profit of the other team.

This winning team figured out something quickly. The hot dogs were not the end game—they were a means of getting to the objective: raise the most money for charity. They effectively took Trump’s advice to creatively leverage their “brand” as well as their connections.

This highlights one of the mistakes that organizations make when thinking about innovation…

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Tactics For Captivating Your Audience

May 18, 2011

I just returned from a fantastic weeklong cruise to the Southern Caribbean and noticed that it was structured similarly to others that I have enjoyed in the past.

Immediately upon arrival, there is much fanfare: champagne as you board; a band rocking out tunes on the pool deck; the captain and crew shaking hands and kissing babies. This is proceeded by an evening chock full of parties and gala events, including a black tie dinner. As the week progresses, the nights seem to be more low key. While there are still planned events, there is little in the way of hoopla. As the cruise nears completion, they pull out all the stops: another black tie dinner; a flaming Baked Alaska parade; headliner performances in the theater; numerous parties and celebrations.

The structure of the cruise got me thinking about a motto we have in the speaking profession: start your speech with your second best story and close with your very best.

Regardless of whether you are running a weeklong cruise experience, delivering a 45-minute keynote speech, selling a product or handling a customer service call, this is a great model for engaging customers. Start powerfully and end on a high note.

This process makes sense. By starting powerfully, you draw in your audience quickly, compelling them to listen. You then close in such a memorable way that they are left wanting more and are inspired to tell their friends. Be sure to create an experience—not just another conversation.

How can you accomplish this for all of your interactions?

First, plan your opening remarks. Don’t just wing it. If you are a speaker, have a compelling story crafted that you can deliver flawlessly each and every time. Or better yet, have several so that you can choose from one that will resonate with your audience. Grab their attention immediately by jumping right into the story. Ditch the “Thank you,” “Hello,” or “It is great to be here in Detroit.”

When crafting your opener, engage your audience. Don’t just speak at them. Use the word “you” more often than “I” or “we.” Patricia Fripp starts her opening story by saying, “I wish you could have been there.” This is an inclusionary tactic that increases engagement while reducing any potential creation of an egocentric view of the speaker. Another effective technique is to ask, “What would you have done in this situation?” This shifts the audiences from spectator to participant. These kinds of inquiries cause them to think, and thus engage.

These same techniques are not exclusive to the speaking world. Instead of just welcoming a customer who is browsing in the electronic section, you could start your dialogue with a fact: “Did you know that more customers buy xyz stereo than any other brand?” But use something more personal in nature.

If you are in a call center, what can you say that will engage the customer within the first second? If you are on site assisting a consumer, how can you build rapport with them instantly?

Once you have a strong opening, you can then engage them in appropriate dialogue about the product or service. This will take as long as necessary.

As you near the end of the customer interaction, close with your best material. Skilled speakers don’t end with “Thank you for your time.” They end with a story that leaves the audience on an emotional high. Give them something they will remember forever and will want to share with their friends. Even if they forget the rest of the speech, it is crucial that they remember the last few minutes.

What can you do to create a powerful closing experience? Is there a story you can tell? Can you make your customers feel uniquely special?My favorite story from the book Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive by Goldstein, Martin and Cialdini, is one where waiters were told to give customers mints with the check. This action increased tips slightly. But when the waiter left the check and mints, walked away and returned minutes later giving a few extra mints and saying, “I really like you guys,” the tips went through the roof.

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7 Strategies For Running Your Business While Pursuing Your Passions

May 13, 2011

People often live by the saying: if you want to get something done right, you need to do it yourself. While I have heard people toss this phrase around like a badge of honor, there is no philosophy more toxic for an organization, especially small businesses. Businesses of any size are complex and it is unrealistic to think that a small number of individuals will have all of the necessary expertise. So how do you determine where to focus your attention?

To illustrate an example of what not to do, let’s take a look at how I used to run my own business.

When sales were slow, I would put all of my energy into selling. Once the sales pipeline was full, I would then focus 100 percent of my time conducting speeches and advising clients. This meant, of course, that my sales pipeline would eventually dry up and I would need to refocus on selling once again. At some point, I would realize that my products were no longer innovative—and no amount of selling will increase sales. Therefore, I would shift my efforts and deep dive into R&D mode, creating a new book, speech or product. And the cycle would continue over and over again.

This is what happens when you do everything yourself. It is inefficient. And worse, it is exhausting.

If you are a small business owner, you need to focus on the activities that are at the intersection of your passions, skills and value. That is, what do you love to do, what are you good at, and what creates value for others. For everything else, find suitable partners who can help you execute.

Start by making a list of all of the activities that your business needs to do: new product development, sales, marketing, customer service, order taking, fulfillment, IT, HR, etc. Go to whatever level of granularity feels right.

Then, for each activity, rate its passions, skills and value quotient from low to high: high passion activities are those you love to do; high skills activities are those where you have the necessary expertise to execute effectively; and high value activities are those that are strategic to your business.

Time Management Framework

The result gives you seven different targeting strategies:

Strategy 1: Target high passion/high skills/strategic activities

This is the sweet spot of your business. “Target” these areas and put most of your energies here. If this is your core business, then you have chosen wisely.

Strategy 2: Outsource low passion/low skills activities

If you neither like nor do an activity well, then outsource it to someone who enjoys it and has the skills to execute it at a higher level. This can be done through bartering, hiring employees, using contractors, summoning friends and family, revenue sharing or other creative collaborative strategies. Employ this strategy regardless of the value dimension.

Strategy 3: Minimize low passion/high skills/strategic activities

If you don’t want your job to become work, you probably want to outsource these capabilities as well. If you are starting out and finances are an issue, you may want to continue doing these activities for now then outsource at a more appropriate time. Given that they are strategic in nature, someone has to do them as they are critical to your businesses success.

Strategy 4: Learn high passion/low skills/strategic activities

If you love doing these activities, then you may wish to acquire the necessary skills. This can be done through a variety of means including training, mentoring or researching. If you anticipate a steep learning curve, consider finding a partner during the learning process who possesses these talents. This will help you move forward while gaining the necessary skills.

Strategy 5: Extend high passion/high skills/tactical activities

If you are passionate and skilled in a particular area and it is not currently strategic (i.e., tactical), consider how you might “extend” that capability. How can you make this a strategic part of your business? How can you create extraordinary value for customers by leveraging this expertise? Perhaps one way is to offer this service to others who are in a similar business. For example, professional speaking is my core business. However, something that I am both skilled at and passionate about is securing business with large corporations. I could offer this as a service to other speakers as a source of additional revenue.

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My Next Book

May 10, 2011

I am happy to announce that my next book will be published by Portfolio Penguin on September 29, 2011.

The title?

Best Practices Are Stupid:
40 Ways to Out-Innovate the Competition.

This book contains 40 bite-sized tips and tricks for creating a culture of innovation.

Most are quite counterintuitive or irreverent.  For example:

  • Asking for Ideas is a Bad Idea
  • Don’t Think Outside the Box; Find a Better Box
  • The Difference Between a Pipeline and a Sewer is What Flows Through It
  • You Get What you Measure, But Will You Get What You Want?
  • Hire People You Don’t Like

And 35 other unconventional ways to make your organizations a nimble, innovation machine.

I will share more, including the book cover, as soon it becomes available.

Stay tuned!

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Why Edison Was Wrong

May 9, 2011

Researchers often throw around the Edison quote, “I have not failed 700 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”

Researchers use this quote because it “validates” the iterative development innovation process, which is the cornerstone of most R&D departments. They have convinced themselves that they learn as much from their failures as they do from their successes. Call it what you want, the 700 attempts were failures.

This viewpoint goes counter to the concept of open innovation (external crowdsourcing). When some R&D people look at open innovation, they see it as linear rather than iterative; post a challenge and get a solution. This seems inconsistent with their belief in learning from failures.

Perhaps the value of iterative development is overrated.

What if Edison found a solution to the light bulb challenge on the first try? Would that be bad? Would he have continued to find the 700 ways that did not work? Did the 700 failures really add that much value? Can R&D organizations afford to fail 700 times? Not in today’s competitive environment.

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