Resolutions That Can’t Fail

December 27, 2013

It is that time of year when everyone sets their New Year’s Resolutions.

But only 8% of people are always successful in achieving the desired results. 92% fail!  (if you are interested in some fascinating statistics about resolutions, read this article: Interesting New Year’s Resolution Statistics)

But all is not lost. There is a better way.

Here is an article a wrote a while ago, but is timeless: Making Resolutions That Work

Or, if you prefer, you can read the variant of this article that appeared as a full-page article in the Wall Street Journal a couple of years ago (jpg).

The general premise is that instead of setting resolutions that are specific goals (e.g., lose 10 pounds, stop smoking, exercise 3 times a week), you want to create themes that help guide you and your decision making throughout the year.

These themes get me excited about the New Year.  They also make activities that might have seemed tedious, more enjoyable.

Starting today I am off for a week of reflection and contemplation. Early January I will share my themes for 2014.

What are your themes for the new year?

P.S. If you want to learn more about how to live a more “present moment” life, read Goal-Free Living

Stop Being an Order Taker

November 1, 2013

waterglassImagine that I am holding a glass of water. Here’s a question for you (you know this one)…

What is the difference between a pessimist, and optimistic, an efficiency expert, and an innovator?

The pessimist sees the glass half empty. The optimist sees the glass half full. The efficiency experts says, “There’s too much glass (in other words, fire half the people).” And an innovator asks, “Is someone thirsty? Is there a better way to deliver the water? Is water really the best liquid?”

Innovators ask a lot of questions. They get at what is really needed, not just what is requested.

Most employees are good “soldiers,” doing what they are told to do. They are brilliant at executing and getting things done. Unfortunately, being a good order taker usually means you are not a good innovator.

The issue is, people are not trained to push back. They aren’t skilled in asking questions. They’ve never learned to dig deeper or to understand what is really needed and why.

After a speech, a client executive asked me how she could increase the level of innovation on her team. I told her, train your people to ask better questions. They don’t need to “think outside the box.” It is not about creative solutions. It is making sure each person is working on things that matter.

Sadly, too often, employees (and companies) are focused only on solutions.

So, if you want your people to be more innovative, you need them to ask better questions.

Look for Purposeful Tangents

October 28, 2013

purposeful tangentsAccording to a recent Huffington Post/YouGov poll 28% of Americans did not read a book last year. As an author, I find this both disappointing and yet not surprising.

Fortunately most people read.

But is what you are reading enhancing your creativity, or just furthering your intellect?

Most people who read for business purposes focus on deepening their expertise. They read books, business magazines, and trade journals about their topic. For example, if you are finance expert, you most likely read primarily about money. The training classes you take are also most likely financially focused. And professionally, you probably hang out with other people in your industry.

Of course this is valuable. Deepening one’s skills is critical.

However, if you want to be even more successful, try broadening your horizons.

I am a professional speaker on the topic of innovation. However, less than 50% of my personal development time is focused on speaking or innovation.

Learning from fellow speakers and innovators can only take me so far. There are countless studies that show that true breakthroughs rarely, if ever, come from the domain experts. In others words, if I want to be the same as other innovators, learning from them is fine. But if I want to be different/better than other innovators, I can’t learn from them.

I recently signed up for a 6 day magic master class. I’m partly interested in it for the performance aspect; it will improve my speaking skills. Most good magicians do an amazing job at holding the attention of an audience. I am also interested in magic from the “brain science” perspective. Magic exploits various quirks of the brain, and I believe that understanding these helps me be a better innovator. Magic is about making the impossible possible. Let’s face it, most innovation programs have difficulty making the possible possible.

Although I read Harvard Business Review, I spend even more time reading magazines about the brain/neuroscience (e.g., “Scientific American Mind” magazine), psychology, and sports performance. I learn from entrepreneurs who are not involved in either speaking or innovation. And for pleasure, I read mysteries as they seem to strengthen my problem solving abilities.

None of these topics were chosen at random.

In addition to being topics I enjoy, they are what I call “purposeful tangents.” They are related to my areas of expertise, but they not the same.

Do you work in the gas pipeline industry? Learning from others in that field can of course be valuable. But you may gain breakthrough level insights from cardiovascular experts as they too deal with the movement of fluids through a vessel. In fact, there is a group in Houston called Pumps & Pipes; cardiologists and gas pipeline experts who share insights from their respective fields. These are purposeful tangents. They are related.

What are your purposeful tangents? What could you read/study that is similar to your area of expertise, but different?

Of course there are valuable lessons to be learned anywhere. But looking for insights in random places may lead to random value. It is less predictable and may dissipate your energies.

But again, focusing too much on your area of expertise only leads to incremental improvements.

Purposeful tangents can lead to breakthrough learning with a high level of predictability.

Diversity Doesn’t Work

October 11, 2013

poker bannerImagine two groups of problems solvers.

Group #1 is homogeneous. That is, everyone has similar personalities and areas of expertise.

Group #2 is diverse and comprises a blend of different styles and experiences.

Which group will perform better?

In times of crisis and on simpler tasks, Group #1 will always perform better. They “speak the same language” and therefore get things done quickly. Their solutions may not be as creative, but they will be more likely to coalesce.

But what about in less time-sensitive situations or more complex tasks?

According to research and my own experience, Group #2 will still – left to their own devices – underperform.


Although diverse groups may attempt a wider and more creative range of solutions, the differing perspectives can lead to harmful disagreement. For example, someone throws out what they think is a great idea, but it quickly gets shot down by someone who has had different experiences. In this instance, it might be creativity going in a head-to-head battle with practicality.

Diversity doesn’t work naturally. It requires one key ingredient: appreciation.

Our studies find that when diverse teams are given the tools to appreciate one another, they generate solutions with higher value and have a better chance of implementing them.

I’ve found that for diverse teams to work well, each person on the team needs to:

  • recognize that opposites do not attract (they repel) and therefore it is natural to avoid or disagree with those who are different
  • be aware of his or her limitations (each style has positive and negative implications)
  • discover where he or she contributes and detracts in the innovation process (everyone can’t do everything well; certain part of the process are handled by some better than others)
  • appreciate how others complement his or her limitations (each person provides different forms of value and “completes” you)

So yes, diversity can work. But it is not a natural act.

Anyone who says that opposites attract has not been paying attention to the bickering on Capitol Hill.

But opposites can collaborate effectively when everyone appreciates the contributions of those with different perspectives, styles, and experiences.

P.S. If you believe that my article titles are too controversial, read this article. Clearly, I do believe that diversity can work.

P.P.S. Personality Poker is designed to enable diverse teams to work effectively together. Learn more about this card-based system, book, and keynote speech.

What to Ditch to Improve Your Life and Business

October 7, 2013

You’ve heard it before: To get more done, work smarter, not harder. One business innovator reveals what 3 things you can eliminate to help you do just that…

For the past year, I’ve been experimenting with the concept of working less by telling myself that I only have one hour a day to get things done. This has helped me reduce the number of hours I work from 100 a week to just 20 per month. (If you want more details on how I’ve accomplished this, read my last article, “How To Work One Hour A Day And Have A Thriving Business.”)

If you’re looking for ways to effectively cut back, think about this: Sometimes the key to getting more done is simply to do less. Think about ditching these three things in order to free up more time:

Ditch Your Worst Customers

Admit it: You’ve got customers who generate less income than others, yet take up more of your time than they should. Maybe instead of trying to get more customers, it’s time to ask, “Which customers should I eliminate?”

For me, the customers who are price-sensitive tend to be the most difficult to work with. Oscar Wilde once said, “A cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” I no longer work with cynics. Instead, I give time to my value-oriented customers who prefer to focus on results rather than fees.

One strategy to consider: Ditch the 20 percent of your customers who are sucking up your time but not producing commensurate returns. This not only frees up some hours in your day; it also frees up your mental energy. I realize that when money is tight, cutting customers loose can seem like a risky proposition. But you intuitively know that attempting to keep 100 percent of your customers happy 100 percent of the time will keep you working 100 hours a week, limiting your true growth potential.

Ditch Your Lowest Return Activities

Look at the amount of work you do. Look at your to-do list. You will never get 100 percent of the work done, even if you had 200 hours in a week. And we know that, yet we still strive to get 100 percent of the work done….

Read the rest of this article on the American Express OPEN Forum site

Line Thinking at 3M

September 9, 2013

3mFrom my experience, 80% of innovations within most companies are “dot solutions.” That is, innovations are typically developed by individuals from a single domain of expertise. Deep expertise is valued. Dig deep wells.

(for more on my perspectives on dot vs line thinking, please read my article from a while back – this is a critical concept for innovation – I discuss it further in “Best Practices Are Stupid”)

While spending time recently at 3M, I learned that 80% of their innovations are “line solutions.” That is, multiple domains of expertise are involved. For example, they might blend expertise from adhesives with expertise from abrasives to develop a new solution. Although this may be unusual within other organizations, at 3M, this is the norm. They are masterful at connecting dots.

But is this connected approach valuable?

They shared with me some recent research they’ve been conducting. The results are fascinating.

In a nutshell, they found that…

Line thinkers within 3M – based on the number of patents they contributed to in different areas of expertise – contributed significantly higher financial returns for the organization.

In other words, the people who became exceptionally deep experts and never used that expertise to contribute to different parts of the business were less valuable than those who made contributions to a wide range of products.

The financial impact of line thinking is staggering.

And although this approach is not the norm in most organization, it can certainly be encouraged through shifting the culture to one that recognizes and rewards these types of contributions.

P.S. I’ll share more detail when the 3M research is officially published. But trust me, the results are impressive.

Do Not Develop Breakthrough Innovation

June 11, 2013

A client recently asked me why large companies never develop “breakthrough” innovations, and instead rely on buying small companies or licensing their technologies.

He felt that the game changing innovations were always the result of someone “tinkering in a garage,” like Michael Dell or Mark Zuckerberg.

He wondered how his organization could replicate the innovation style of start-ups as a way of developing these major innovations in-house.

I told him this was a bad idea.

For every Facebook, there are thousands of companies that invested millions of dollars, but were ultimately terrible failures.   But we don’t see those failures.  Why?

There is a concept (discussed here previously) called the under-sampling of failure. This theory states that we tend to focus on the successes produced, but rarely examine the failures. This occurs in part due to our limited exposure to those who have tried and failed.

As a result, we can’t predict which technologies or business models will be successful.

This presents a dilemma for large companies….

Because we can’t predict what will be successful, if you try to develop major breakthroughs in-house, you have to be prepared to fund all of the failures, as well as reap the rewards of the success.

Why is that?

A famous quote attributed to Thomas Edison, gives us a clue. “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.”

Because Edison could not predict which of the 700 filaments, he needed to try 700 variations.

The same is true for any new technology. We cannot predict which will be successful.

As a result, if you attempt to develop a new technology in house, you need to be prepared for a potentially long line of failures before you discover the one that works. This process is serial, meaning you try one technology until it fails and then you try another, working until you are ultimately successful. This can be an extraordinarily time consuming process.

serial conventional innovation

This model is expensive. You pay for all fixed costs of payroll and facilities. In a nutshell, you are paying based on the time it takes, not the value of the result.

Remember, this is a serial process.  Let’s assume that while you, Big Innovation Company, are attempting to create this new technology, there are 1,000 small companies also working simultaneously on the same problem, each investing in a different version of the technology. Most of them will fail, but one will most likely succeed. Given this, the odds are that someone else will discover a workable technology before you, because the 1,000 companies are working in parallel. We just can’t predict who it will be.

Because we can’t predict what will be successful, perhaps a better model is to postpone our decision until the market (the 1,000 small companies) sorts out the winning technology.

If we look at how this “market” actually works, you will see a parallel process of successes and failures (see model below). Everyone is working on the same problem with a different solution at the same time. Most technologies will fail. Many of the small companies will go bankrupt. It is (almost) a winner-takes-all model.

parallel innovation

If you have 1,000 companies with 100 employees each working on this at the same time, you have 100,000 people working on the problem in parallel. The amount of time and money invested in this market is enormous.

Are you, Big Innovation Company, prepared to pay these kinds of costs to replicate this market?

If you postpone your technology decision and wait for the market to sort out the winner, you can save yourself a lot of time and money.

With this strategy, the failures are funded by the market, not you (i.e., investors in the start-ups take the risk). And, when a successful technology is found, you only pay for the value created, not the hours it took to create the innovation.

Although your organizations should be investing in innovation, it should avoid internally developing radical/breakthrough innovations that could better be developed by the market. These types of “inventions” should be done leveraging open innovation, crowdsourcing, partnerships, or even acquisitions.



This post generated a fair amount of debate. That was my intention. I chose a provocative title for the article. It would be more appropriate to say “think twice before investing in breakthrough innovation.” I would never suggest that a company only invest in incremental innovation. But I also think that companies often underestimate the complexity associated with game changing innovation.

The undersampling of failure is a critical concept that is overlooked all too often.

If it costs a company $1M to successfully bring a new technology to market, you can be certain that the “market” invested at least $100M in failures. We know this to be true just by looking at a number of widely publicized open innovation competitions. The team that successfully developed the winning solution and won the $10M Ansari X Prize invested $100M in their developing their solution. We also know that many other teams invested a massive amount in developing unsuccessful solutions. The same is true with the Netflix Prize. Dozens of teams invested time and energy in ultimately unsuccessful solutions.

It is also important to discuss different types of innovations. There are two primary factors to consider: technical uncertainty and market uncertainty.

For market uncertainty, there are clearly things we can do in order to predict success. Having said that, often the winners in the market are not the best but rather the ones that somehow rose to the top. No one could have predicted that Facebook, for example, would end up dominating the social media market. Google has learned that even having the brightest minds (with a great product) does not guarantee market success. The market often decides; and the market is not always rational. But at least for innovations with market ambiguity, we can learn by conducting experiments (which, by the way, is very different than running pilots of proofs of concept).

For technical uncertainty, this can be more difficult. Many people are trying to develop new technologies (better batteries, new fuels, etc). Most attempts will fail, because it is impossible to predict which ones will give the best results. This is where you can leverage open innovation as a means of paying for success rather than time. This does not mean you can not attempt to put some of your energy into internal development efforts in these areas. However, don’t assume your internal efforts will be successful. Hedge your bets. If the technology is not in your sweetspot (your differentiator), then certainly consider looking externally for solutions so that you don’t divert your energies.

To be clear, I am not advocating M&A as an innovation strategy. That never works. However, I am a huge fan of various forms of open innovation, crowdsourcing, alliances, licensing and other techniques as a way of augmenting your internal innovation efforts.

I will be writing more about this concept in the near future. Stay tuned.

My SUCCESS Magazine Audio Interview

May 13, 2013

Today’s Monday Morning Movie is actually an audio file…

In the October 2012 issue of SUCCESS Magazine, there was a four page article by yours truly. You’ve been able to read the article online since it was published. (It is the cover article; “Innovate of Die!”)

However, unless you subscribe to the magazine, you will not have heard my 22 minute interview with SUCCESS Magazine’s publisher, Darren Hardy. It was on the CD included with the magazine, but not available anywhere else.

Darren was kind enough to give me permission to post the audio file here.

You have two ways to enjoy this interview:

  • Listen to the audio (streaming): 

    Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

  • Download the audio (mp3) (right click to save to your computer)

I will be posting the transcription of this interview sometime soon.


A Toast to Creativity

April 26, 2013

Today’s Friday Fun Fact…

In previous posts, I have shared a variety of activities that I engage in to still my mind and foster more creative thinking.  These include activities like walking on the beach, meditating or sitting in the hot tub.

Andrew Jarosz for the University of Illinois shares another way… drinking alcohol.

In his recent study, Jarosz found that a moderate level of alcohol “loosens a person’s focus of attention, making it easier to find connections among remotely related ideas.”

The study included 40 men, all of whom were social drinkers. 20 of the participants consumed alcoholic beverages until they achieved “an average peak blood alcohol level of 0.075 percent, just below the current 0.08 percent cutoff for legal intoxication in the United States.”  The remaining 20 participants abstained.

Men in both groups then completed a creative problem-solving task.

Compared to the sober group, the “tipsy” men solved their problems faster and were more likely to have sudden insights. Those that had been drinking solved about 9 problems correctly versus only 6 for the sober group.

Additionally, “it took an average of 11.5 seconds for the intoxicated men to generate a correct solution, compared with 15.2 seconds for sober men. The groups performed comparably on the test before the study began.”

Researchers say that it is likely the alcohol makes a person more relaxed and therefore, their brain is able to take in the bigger picture faster.

While I enjoy a glass of wine from time to time, I am neither condoning nor condemning the consumption of alcohol. However, this study provides one more data point confirming that a quiet mind is a creative mind.  How to achieve that – is solely up to you.

Be Alive; Be Creative

April 17, 2013

Here’s the transcription of my Monday Morning Movie

The other day I attended a small group session on creativity. Less than a dozen people were in the room, from all walks of life. Most of them weren’t from the world of business.

The facilitator asked the question, “What is creativity?” I decided to sit back and see what others would say.

I heard the types of responses that I would typically hear if I asked that question in a corporation. For example, it’s about new ideas. It’s about novelty. It’s about doing something different, doing something better, maybe problem solving.

I really took a hard look for myself. I decided that for me creativity, at its core, at the essence of what it is to be a creative human being, is about inspiration.

I purposely chose that word “inspiration” because it comes from the word “spirit,” and it technically means to breathe life into something. To me, that’s what creativity is about.

It’s not the same as innovation, which is a purposeful act of creating something that ultimately generates value.

Creativity is about tapping into our spirit. It’s about tapping into something deep inside of us. There are numerous studies that have looked at creativity levels as we get older.

For example, one claims that 98% of 5-year-old kids test as highly creative. 98%. Then, by the time they get to 10 years old, it’s down to 30%. When they’re 15, it’s down to 12%. The study showed that 200,000 adults over the age of 25, only 2% of them tested as highly creative. I’m convinced that it was the 2% that didn’t test as highly creative when they were 5-years-old and they went through some sort of metamorphosis through their life.

The point is, we are inherently as human beings, creative. We have it inside us. It’s how we are wired. But as time goes on, we learn a lot of things to fit in. We go to school at the age of five. We’re taught to regurgitate facts. We go to university. Instead of gathering and being inspired, we start to focus, narrow, and dig deep.

I think the opportunity for all human beings is to tap into that spirit, to tap into that creative part of us, that inspiration. It’s not so much necessarily, as an individual, about what it achieves, but maybe what it does for us as a human being. What does that creativity do for us?

So ask yourself, what are the things that you can do to tap into your creativity on a regular basis? For me, I love to go walk on the beach. That, for me, is my biggest source of great ideas/inspiration. Or I love to sit in a hot tub as often as I can, which isn’t very often. Maybe take a hot bath.

Sometimes it’s as simple as just quieting my mind or journaling. It is important, I think, for every individual, no matter who you are, to tap into that innate creative spirit that you have. This will be useful in so many different ways, not just in terms of achieving things in life, but generating passion and creating excitement. It is to me, the source of everything else that we do. It helps us be more alive when we’re doing our more left-brain/analytical work.

To me this is an important thing for everyone to do. I encourage you to find something that you can do every day, on a regular basis, that will help you tap into your creativity, tap into your inspiration, tap into what it is for you, as a human being, to be alive.

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