December 19, 2013
This is the first in a series of bi-monthly articles I will be writing for Forbes.com.
In an attempt to stop the flow of the oil after the Deepwater Horizon oilrig explosion, the Unified Command turned to crowdsourcing to find a workable solution. Concerned citizens were invited to submit ideas. And that they did. They reportedly received nearly 123,000 submissions, of which only a dozen were deemed as having any value. This means that 99.99 percent of the time spent thinking about the problem, submitting solutions, and evaluating them was a waste of time.
They learned that asking for ideas, is a bad idea.
A major UK bank tried a similar approach, asking their employees for suggestions on how to improve the business. After receiving several thousand ideas, and implementing none, the entire innovation team was fired. Many other organizations met a similar fate using this type of suggestion box approach.
There must be a better way.
Innovation is the buzzword du jour. Although nearly every executive says they want it, there is rarely a clear definition of “it.” The mandate to innovate is ambiguous and confusing at best.
As a result, companies are drowning in a sea of bad ideas, irrelevant investments, and wasted energy. Most innovation efforts yield a painfully low return.
What if you could boost your organization’s innovation ROI ten times over the traditional methods?
You can. In my Forbes.com column, over the coming months I will share some radical perspectives on innovation that provides equally radical results. For example, I will explain why:
• ‘thinking outside the box’ reduces levels of creativity.
• expertise is the enemy of innovation.
• making innovation everyone’s responsibility can dissipate your investments.
• a reliance on big data and analytics can give you misleading information.
• a myopic focus on organizational goals paradoxically reduces your ability to achieve them.
The Idea Antidote
So how can we better define this nebulous concept of innovation?
It is an organization’s ability to adapt, evolve, and change repeatedly and rapidly. Unlike common misconceptions, it is not about new products, new processes, new services, or new business models. These contribute, but are not the end game.
And as we learned from the opening examples, innovation is certainly not about ideas, opinions and suggestions. Everyone has an opinion. And most are not very useful or valuable.
The antidote is challenge-centered versus idea-driven innovation. Instead of starting with an idea, the innovation process should begin with an issue, problem, challenge, or opportunity. Once this has been clearly defined, good solutions can follow. This focuses your energy on what matters most, giving you results quickly with minimal wasted effort.
Stated another way, to find the best answers you first need to make sure that you are asking the right question. What problem do you really need to solve? What is important? What will have the greatest impact on your organization? What will set you apart from the competition?
As human beings we are wired to jump to solutions. We want to get things done as quickly as possible. However taking the time to construct the right question in the right way will be critical for long-term success. So, for now, ditch your suggestion boxes and brainstorming sessions. These have little leverage and rarely product exceptional results.
The Three-Step Innovation Formula
Asking the right challenge is only the first step toward increasing your innovation ROI tenfold; you must also ask those questions the right way to the right people.
Step 1: Ask the Right Challenge – The ‘right challenge’ is one that is strategically aligned. That is, if you solve this problem/opportunity, it will create incredible growth for the business. The key is focusing on opportunities that set you apart from the competition. In other words, “innovate where you differentiate.”
Step 2: Ask the Challenge the Right Way – 10x innovation also requires you to “frame” the challenge in ‘the right way.’ If your question is too abstractly defined, you will end up with abstract (and irrelevant) solutions. Conversely, if the question is too narrowly focused, your solutions may be inconsequential. As 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.”
Step 3: Ask the Challenge to the Right People – The last part of the formula is about ‘finding’ solutions the fastest way possible. Although we typically turn to experts to develop solutions, quite often domain expertise is the very thing that prevents breakthrough thinking. Studies prove that connecting with different areas of expertise is what drives breakthroughs. For example, learning how laundry detergent makes whites whiter led to the development of a new type of whitening toothpaste.
Over the coming months, we will dig deeper into specific examples and techniques for increasing your ROI. But in the meantime, bury those old, inefficient methods. Instead of an idea-driven approach, adopt a challenge-centered one and watch your innovation efforts thrive.
November 5, 2013
Imagine you are a company that produces products for consumers. It could be toothpaste or soft drinks. You decide that your differentiator is your marketing. (Read one of my articles on “Innovate Where You Differentiate“)
Given this, you might assume that the marketing department is the most important part of the business.
This assumption would be wrong.
There is no “most important” department in any organization. Each contributes to the differentiator in their own unique way.
To determine how, you need to dig deeper.
What aspects of your marketing sets you apart? Is it really just about your advertising or brand recognition? Or is there more to it?
For example, maybe it’s your scientifically proven marketing claims that set you apart – “Our laundry detergent cleans whites 50% better than the competition.” For marketing to promote these facts, you of course need to have an R&D team that can create these products. Although (in this example) R&D’s primary role is to support the company’s marketing efforts, this does not mean the marketing function is more important. Everyone is equally important. For example, packaging becomes critical for highlighting claims. Product distribution may impact how a package is displayed on the store shelf. Technology that supports the acquisition of intellectual property may play a major role, as will the lawyers who secure the IP.
But maybe your marketing is not about scientific claims but is instead about clever promotions. Your products target a younger demographic. Therefore you create competitions that appeal to these individuals. Product development now shifts from creating the “best” product to potentially one that responds to consumer suggestions (think Mountain Dew flavors created by customers or M&M colors voted on by customers). Manufacturing needs to get in the act of making sure these new flavors/colors can be produced. The technology that runs competitions and sifts through consumer recommendations quickly and efficiently will help facilitate the customization.
Of course, recruiting makes sure you hire the right people for all of these “marketing” roles. Training makes sure that the critical skills are in place. And so on.
The key is to cascade your differentiator down to every individual.
It is critical that you innovate where you differentiate. But differentiation is not a department or function. Each employee in every department directly contributes to your differentiator. In order for them to know how to make the greatest impact, your differentiator needs to be translated in a way that helps individuals prioritize their work.
Innovation is everyone’s job. But everyone should not be innovating everywhere.
August 12, 2013
Jake Sorofman, a Research Director at Gartner, just reviewed “Best Practices Are Stupid.”
His review started…
Don’t let its compact size—or snarky title—fool you. It’s a worthwhile read.
Unlike so many other books in this particular genre, it doesn’t disguise otherwise straightforward concepts with overwrought explanation. Shapiro gets straight to the point with 40 often counterintuitive tips on how to strengthen your innovation muscles, served up with respect for your time and intelligence.
March 19, 2013
Here’s the transcription of my ABC News interview posted on my blog yesterday…
Tory Johnson: Best practices are supposed to help your business be more efficient, but our guest today says that your company guidelines could be wasting your time and stifling your growth. Stephen Shapiro is the author of “Best Practices are Stupid: 40 Ways to Out-Innovate the Competition.” All right, Stephen, so you are stomping on conventional wisdom here, right?
Stephen Shapiro: Trying a little bit, yes.
Tory: Trying a little bit, okay. Well, you certainly are with this. Your first point is stop asking for ideas. Why?
Stephen: Well, as you know, everybody has an opinion or suggestion. The problem is if you’re trying to innovate and you ask for everybody’s opinion, you end up with a lot of noise like BP did (with the oilrig explosion). 123,000 ideas on ways to stop the oil flow. Only 12 proved to be slightly useful. That’s a lot of wasted time and energy.
Tory: But how do you know which 12 are going to be great? Why not ask everybody and sort of see what you get? What happens when you don’t ask?
Stephen: What you really need to do is take the time to frame something that’s going to be solvable. If BP were to do this over, I would have them actually step back and say, “Well, what are the components and aspects of the problem?” Then we can deconstruct and ask for specific solutions. Something very broad and fluffy tends to lead to a lot of fluffiness, which leads to a lot of wasted time.
Tory: So, if you’re a boss, you don’t just say, “Give me your ideas.” But you want to instead channel everybody. “Give me ideas around these particular parameters,” in order to get the best ideas.
Stephen: Absolutely. You get fewer ideas, but you get higher percentage of solutions that are implementable.
Tory: Okay. So this one everybody, I think, is guilty of. You say it is a dad idea to think outside the box.
Stephen: Yes. We say think outside the box, but in fact what we find is that when we create unbounded situations, there’s actually lower levels of creativity, partly because we create more noise. So if we define a good challenge, we can get people to rally. Imagine if I gave you a blank sheet of paper and asked you to come up with some ideas, you’re going to be stuck.
Tory: Doodling, right?
Stephen: Right. But if I actually gave you some structure, you will now be able to develop things more quickly. So giving people some structure actually enhances innovation.
Tory: So that goes hand in hand with the kind of ideas you ask for. Think of the ideas within this particular box.
Stephen: Absolutely. You don’t want to think outside the box, you want to define a better box. Or as Einstein said, “If I had an hour to save the world, I’d spend 59 minutes defining the problem and only 1 minute finding the solution.
Tory: All right, fair enough. Next you say, “Hire people you don’t like.” Again, totally against conventional wisdom.
Stephen: Well, think about how we recruit. We hire people who fit the mold.
Stephen: So, what ends up happening is that we hire a lot of people who are very similar. The word “culture” is actually related to the word “cult,” which means you have everybody who thinks the same way, acts the same way, talks the same way. Divergence is needed for innovation.
Tory: But what about the idea that we have to like the people that we work with? We work so many hours so closely with other people. Don’t we have to like the people that we work with? Do you say, “Too bad”?
Stephen: Well, I’m a little tongue-in-cheek in terms of saying hiring people you don’t like. You want to hire people who aren’t like you. Here’s the reality though, people who aren’t like you will often annoy you. I’m a creative, wild person. Very analytical or very logical planning-oriented people drive me crazy. I know they add the most value to me though.
Tory: Got it. Okay. So it’s really about understanding the needs of that particular position versus everybody who has the exact same skill set, exact same way of thinking. Diversify in that area. It creates a better team.
Stephen: Exactly. Appreciate what they bring to the table.
Tory: All right. This one is going to drive a lot of people crazy, but you say, “Stop recognizing people for just doing their job.”
Stephen: In organizations, if we want to create innovation and we want to create change. If we only recognize people for what they’re hired to do, we’re reinforcing the status quo. Instead of praising somebody for doing what they’re supposed to do, praise them for taking a risk. If they always work with their team, praise them for going externally and partnering with someone they might not, or trying something that they wouldn’t normally do. That does not allow you to reinforce the status quo. It actually allows you to reinforce the new values and new perspectives.
Tory: And what about the people who say, “You know what? I need some feedback. I enjoy a good pat on the back for just doing my job.” Just sort of not always going the extra mile, but there’s something to be said for someone who’s just kind of rock solid, does their job. Not too many pats on the back?
Stephen: Well, there’s a difference between a private pat on the back and a public pat on the back.
Stephen: So what we want to do is make sure we’re recognizing people who took the risk and did something different publicly. That creates massive change inside the organization. Of course we want to praise people for doing a good job.
Tory: Got it. So you’re not saying forget about just doing a good job but different types of praise, different types of promotion.
Tory: Okay. And finally you say, “Expertise is the enemy of innovation.” Why is that?
Stephen: If you look at almost every single major breakthrough, they were rarely solved by somebody in the domain of expertise in which the problem was framed. Expertise limits your peripheral vision and has you focus on solutions that are in your knowledge base. But a lot of the breakthroughs actually come from different disciplines or multidisciplinary teams. It’s that combination . . .
Tory: So give me an example.
Stephen: A very simple example. A toothpaste manufacturer wanted to create a whitening toothpaste. They had the toothpaste experts working on it. What they realized was a breakthrough already existed in their laundry detergent division. Because they put bluing agents, a blue dye inside their laundry detergent, they put it inside the toothpaste, and it instantly created an instant whitening toothpaste. So you need to look to someone else who has solved your problem in a different discipline or in a different area.
Tory: Got it. So that really speaks to sort of everything about not hiring like-minded people, diversifying the efforts, really defining what the problems are so that you bring together the best minds to be able to create the best solutions.
Stephen: Absolutely. Innovation is about appreciating and bringing together divergent points of view.
Tory: All right. Well, there’s so much more in the book. Thanks so much for being here Stephen. Once again, his book is called “Best Practices are Stupid: 40 Ways to Out-Innovate the Competition.”
January 29, 2013
An article of mine was just published in the European Business Review. It is a concise summary of my overall innovation philosophy.
Here’s the introduction…
In today’s fast-paced business environment, the ability to innovate is not enough. You need to innovate efficiently, quickly, and with less risk. Tradition innovation methods, such as asking employees or customers for ideas, have proven to be a bad idea. Instead of “thinking outside the box” you want to define a better box. This article describes a five-step process that will help you accelerate the way you innovate. You will learn how to ask the right question, the right way, to the right people, in the right way, while implementing through experimentation.
December 13, 2012
I decided to get with the 21st century. Starting today, in addition to my regular writing, I will be recording videos for this blog. Today’s video is a rant about a topic that has been on my mind lately. Although, this covers content from earlier blog entries, I am going into a bit more detail here.
Today’s video provides my single best piece of advice: ignore all advice!
December 11, 2012
Sacha Chua, a “sketchnote artist and experimenter-at-large” from Toronto, developed this very cool infographic of my Best Practices Are Stupid book. And she was kind enough to allow us to share it under the Creative Commons Attribution License. So spread the love, and visit Sacha’s site to show your appreciation. (click on the picture to get the full size image). Thank you Sacha!
December 10, 2012
I recently attended a meeting where we were going to be taught the secrets of becoming a “7-figure” professional speaker. That is, we would learn how to make $1,000,000 a year. The presenter is part of an elite group of speakers who earn at least this much every year. His presentation was based on the lessons extracted from this successful group.
In the audience, listening to him, were about 60 professional speakers, ranging in experience from novices to highly accomplished individuals.
He shared ideas like, “Be controversial; say things that others are not saying or are afraid to say,” or “Don’t just speak; have a process.”
Listening to these words of wisdom, I have to say what others were not saying or were afraid to say: “His premise on how to be successful is flawed.”
The truth is, he has no idea how he really got to where he is. He only thinks he does. And no, he was not intentionally being deceitful. Not at all. He was just not applying critical thinking to the process.
Here’s the mistaken logic of so many people…
If we study a lot of successful people (companies) we will know what to do in order to replicate their success.
This is faulty logic for so many reasons.
One reason is “the undersampling of failure.”
When trying to learn what to do, we study those who are successful. But we rarely study those who tried the same things yet were not successful in achieving the same outcome.
I bet if we studied the speakers who make more than a million dollars a year, we will find that all of them shower every day. We could potentially therefore conclude that showering is the key to making a lot of money. Although I suspect that if you never shower, it will indeed impact your success, I do not believe that showering will make you successful. Why? Because there are many people who also shower yet are not as successful. This is the undersampling of failure.
For every million dollar speaker who “is controversial and says what others are afraid to say,” there are 100 who have done exactly that yet were not successful. But we never study the people who never made it, because we don’t know who they are (unless they were colossal failures). Their “failures” were not sampled, and therefore we wrongly conclude that this attribute leads to success.
My latest book is called “Best Practices Are Stupid.” The undersampling of failure is one of three reasons why it is dangerous to blindly follow what others do.
Any time you receive advice, be skeptical. Any time you read a book, don’t follow blindly. Any time you study a best practice, carefully consider if it is right for you and if it truly will give you the results you want.
P.S. My hypothesis of why he was really success will be shared in a later blog entry (and he confirmed it without coming out and directly saying it). It has to do with how to “manufacture serendipity” as a means of creating non-linear success. And to be fair, listening to the speaker, I did gather some nice tactics for improving my business that I will be implementing. I only questioned his premise on how to be successful.
August 10, 2012
Best Practices Are Stupid is now available in Portuguese. One version is for Brazil and the other for Portugal.
July 27, 2012
I just received my copy of “Best Practices Are Stupid” in Dutch. More translations are on their way!