Website Updated

November 16, 2011

You may have noticed that we redid this website.  The content from has been moved here.  We now highlight all 5 of my books on the top as well as more prominent links to buy them in the right sidebar.  And the overall design has been cleaned up and simplified.  I welcome ANY comments.  Thanks!

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Ask a Different Question, Get a Different Answer

November 14, 2011

Today I want to test your mental muscle with an activity I conduct with my clients.

If you are a college sports fan, you will most likely be familiar with the NCAA basketball playoffs. 65 teams in total compete. The games are organized into brackets like the one illustrated here. Teams compete with the hope of making it into the “sweet sixteen,” the “final four,” and then ultimately being crowned the champion. The tournament is single elimination – that means that after each game, the winner advances to the next round and the loser’s eliminated.

With the NCAA tournament, the two lowest ranking teams compete against each other to get the 64th slot in the bracket.

The question is, “How many games need to be played in order to determine which team is the champion?”

The only way most will be able to find the answer is to draw out the full bracket and count the number of games in the chart. As a result, when I ask groups this question, it takes quite some time for everyone to answer correctly.

However, consider this.  If I were to phrase the question differently, I can guarantee that you would find the solution instantly.

Instead of asking, “How many games need to be played in order to determine which team is the champion?” what if I asked, “How many games need to be played in order to eliminate all of the losers?”

The answer should now be obvious. If you have 65 teams playing, 64 teams must lose. Since the tournament is single elimination, 64 games need to be played to eliminate all of the losers. Therefore 64 games need to be played in order to determine which team is the champion.

This simple exercise makes an incredibly important point. The way you phrase a problem will lead you down the path of a particular thought process. This, in turn will lead to a particular solution. How you ask the question will impact the manner in which you innovate.

A company who brainstormed, “How can we more effectively use 360 degree feedback?” completely missed alternative methods for addressing their larger management issue. If they had asked, “In what way might we create powerful leaders?” they would have found very different solutions.

An office supply company that asked the question, “How can we more effectively sell our products to school administrators?” completely missed the fact that the teachers were the real buyers and that that the administrators merely filled out the paperwork. In this case they should have done their homework to understand the real buyer first before looking to find solution.

Or when NASA wanted to “create a zero gravity laundry system” for space travel, they missed out on possible solutions that involved other methods for cleaning clothes or creating a material that does not require cleaning.

Asking the right question – the right way – is the surest way to accelerate your innovation efforts and for finding better solutions. Just as the NCAA tournament example showed, sometimes a very small change can have a significant impact on the way you view the problem.

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I Won’t Work for Money

November 10, 2011

The other day I was asked to speak for a company that had a limited amount of money and could pay me only 15% of my speaking fee.

Today I was asked to speak at a company in exchange for my receiving bicycle in lieu of cash (as you may guess, they manufacture bicycles).  The value of the bicycle is less than the cash the other company offered me.

Which gig, if any, did I accept?  What do you think?

Interestingly, I immediately turned down the cash offer yet accepted the barter deal.

Does this mean I am crazy?

No, actually, it means I am human.

I recently presented at an event where another speaker, Francois Gossieaux, quoted research done by Dan Ariely.

In a nutshell, when a dollar value is assigned to a task, people weigh the effort against the financial return.  But if no dollar amount is specified, we evaluate it differently.

For example…

  • If I asked you to do me a favor, you might be inclined to do it simply to help me out.
  • If I offered you a gift (e.g., a nice dinner) in exchange for your help, the gift may not weight heavily in your decision making process.  You would probably still do it to help me out.
  • But if I offered you $100 cash, now you would then evaluate if your investment of time is worth that much money.
  • Interestingly, if you say, “I’ll give you a gift worth $100,” you now evaluate it the same way as you would cash.

This has interesting implications for a company’s innovation efforts.

If you offer cash rewards, people will determine if their efforts are worth the extra money.

Giving a gift without assigning a value will be a greater motivator.  But if you assign a value to the gift (e.g., gift cards), you may reverse the positive impact of giving a gift.  Giving “points” that can be accumulated and exchanged for prizes is a nice middle ground that avoids a direct value assignment.

From my experience, the best “extrinsic” motivators are the “priceless” rewards.  These are things you can not buy – extra vacation days, a prime parking space, or dinner with the CEO.  These can not be assigned a dollar value.  And in the case of dinner with the CEO, this also taps into another motivator – status.  After the dinner you can taunt your friends, “Guess who I had dinner with last night.”

By recognizing the way people make decisions, you can find more effective – and often less expensive – ways of motivating them.

You now also know more effective and less expensive ways of getting me to help your organization innovate.  I wonder what I will be offered next.

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The Invention of the Mouse

November 1, 2011

Malcolm Gladwell has an excellent piece on how Apple created its first computer after visiting Xerox parc.  In particular, he discusses how the mouse was developed.

After Jobs returned from parc, he met with a man named Dean Hovey, who was one of the founders of the industrial-design firm that would become known as ideo. “Jobs went to Xerox parc on a Wednesday or a Thursday, and I saw him on the Friday afternoon,” Hovey recalled. “I had a series of ideas that I wanted to bounce off him, and I barely got two words out of my mouth when he said, ‘No, no, no, you’ve got to do a mouse.’ I was, like, ‘What’s a mouse?’ I didn’t have a clue. So he explains it, and he says, ‘You know, [the Xerox mouse] is a mouse that cost three hundred dollars to build and it breaks within two weeks. Here’s your design spec: Our mouse needs to be manufacturable for less than fifteen bucks. It needs to not fail for a couple of years, and I want to be able to use it on Formica and my bluejeans.’ From that meeting, I went to Walgreens, which is still there, at the corner of Grant and El Camino in Mountain View, and I wandered around and bought all the underarm deodorants that I could find, because they had that ball in them. I bought a butter dish. That was the beginnings of the mouse.”

This is a simple, yet powerful example of how a well-defined challenge can transform an industry.  What challenge can you frame that will help you redefine your industry?

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