Do You Really Think for Yourself?

August 15, 2013

The question, “Do you really think for yourself?” isn’t as easy to answer as you might think. When a challenge or problem arises at work and you’re unsure of an answer, you probably rely on the judgment of others. But what if you know the answer to the problem? How likely are you to be swayed by other people’s opinions?

Countless studies illustrate we may indeed deny our own senses to conform with others. One old yet timeless experiment was designed by psychologist Solomon Asch. He asked participants to determine which of the three lines from the second image is the same length as the line in the image on the left.


While the answer is obviously C, his studies showed that people who would otherwise be certain of their convictions could be “manipulated” into questioning their beliefs. This was not done through coercion, peer pressure or even incentives. Nine experiment participants were shown the above image and were asked to call out which line on the right was the same length as the one on the left. This was done 12 times. Only one of the nine participants was actually being tested. The other eight were “plants” and were told to purposefully call out incorrect answers.

The result? Seventy-six percent of participants being tested denied their own senses at least once, choosing either A or B. And one-third of the time, across all the trials, the one who was actually being tested conformed to what the crowd thought.

In a nutshell, when people are in a group, individuals tend to provide similar responses, even if they believe something different. There are a variety of reasons for this, including fear of disapproval, self-consciousness and not wanting to stand out or be different.

Individuality and Group Think

We see this phenomenon take place in the world of innovation. It’s called “group think.” In group situations, it’s easier to fit in with the crowd than it is to take a strong stand for your own beliefs. And of course, in some cases, people really do subconsciously alter their opinions based on what a crowd believes. It’s harder than we anticipate to think independently.

This is why, when brainstorming (or using other forms of collaborative innovation), it’s often best for individuals to write down their own solutions before seeing what the group thinks. (The article Why Brainstorming is Stupid dives a little deeper into this idea.) But even outside the world of innovation, it’s useful to recognize this phenomenon.

The reality is, in many of our day-to-day situations, we already know the answer to our challenges but we just don’t want to admit it to ourselves. Should I get a business loan? Should I buy a new car? Should I end a difficult relationship? In these cases, we often seek advice from friends and colleagues first. Maybe we don’t trust our “gut.” Or maybe we want to find scapegoats to blame in case our decision turns out to be a bad one.

Lay Out All the Facts

A technique I use to help others make tough decisions is by flipping a coin. No, the coin flip does not determine your fate. Instead, you check how you “feel” the moment the result is revealed. Were you relieved or disappointed? This instantaneous response illustrates how you really feel at a subconscious level, and what you truly believe to be the right decision.

Although you want to be clear on your own beliefs, you need to avoid being overly dogmatic. Otherwise you might succumb to something called confirmation bias—the psychological phenomenon where we find evidence to support our beliefs, and ignore the information that refutes them. As a result, we often get attached to beliefs that may be irrational, preventing us from seeing what’s really in front of us.

The point of all this is that we are more susceptible to the influence of others than we might think. Get in touch with your beliefs. Don’t assume them to be true. But then again, don’t assume that others are right either. Use critical thinking. Ask why you believe what you believe. Groups can be quite influential at a subconscious level, causing us to change our minds without thinking.

I don’t believe there are bad decisions or good decisions. There are only consequences. When we understand this, it can help remove some of the pressure associated with trying to “get it right.”

This article originally appeared on the American Express OPEN Forum

Pilots Are Not Experiments

July 16, 2013

In previous blog entries, I discussed why you need to make your innovation a form of experimentation.

Doing this redefines the meaning of failure. Experiments (and as a result, innovation) only fails when you don’t have enough data to support or refute your hypothesis.

Disproving your hypothesis is success because you can kill the project (or specific solution) and stop making more investments in a losing concept.

All too often, companies confuse experiments with pilots. They are not the same thing.

Typically, a pilot is not designed to test a hypothesis but rather to test the scalability of a solution. You want to make sure everything works as expected before rolling out to new divisions, geographies, or departments.

Pilots have a reasonable likelihood of success. You may identify some modifications and tweaks to your original solution. But the odds are that you will move forward with the plan.

Experiments, on the other hand, (should) have a high likelihood of disproving your original hypothesis.

If your experiments frequently support your hypotheses, you need to consider the possibility that you are doing something wrong.

  1. Maybe your experiments are really pilots. Experimentation typically starts earlier in the development cycle.
  2. Maybe your team is suffering from “confirmation bias;” you subconsciously look only for evidence that supports your hypotheses.
  3. Maybe your experiment is not well-formulated and is resulting in false positives.

In the world of innovation, there is no such thing as a “perfect” experiment. No amount of analysis or testing can predict what will happen under real world circumstances.

But when done right, experiments can help you improve your innovation ROI by identifying the “bad” ideas early in the process. Therefore, embrace the fact that good experiments disprove hypotheses more often than not.

Study Failures, Not Successes

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.

Focus on Usefulness, Not Validity

December 4, 2012

About 10 years ago, I developed the Personality Poker® system.

Since then, I gathered a mountain of anecdotal evidence supporting its value.  But one question remained in my mind: Is Personality Poker truly valid? That is, do the words actually measure what they are supposed to measure? Or is it just a fun game?

To help assess the situation, several years ago I decided to hire an expert on psychological testing. The perfect person for the job was Michael Wiederman, professor of psychology at Columbia College in South Carolina.

I mentioned to Michael that people found Personality Poker to be extremely simple and valuable. It provided deep insights in a short period of time, while being very easy and intuitive to play.

The question I had was, “Could something so simple also be scientifically valid?”

Michael response: “Simple is good, as long as it’s useful.” And just because somethings is valid, does not mean it is useful.

He went on to recall a study published several years ago in which a battery of widely used depression tests and methods were administered to a group of people, along with some simple questions. Although the tests administered were complex and supposedly scientifically validated, the most accurate predictor of depression was the single question: “Are you depressed?”

So much for scientific validity!

Complexity does not equate to value.  And scientific validation does not imply usefulness.

The real world is only what matters.  And sometimes the simplest solutions are the most useful.

Innovators need to stop relying on spreadsheet, statistics, lab tests, focus groups, surveys, and other attempts to “validate” a solution.

What works in the “laboratory” may not be the best solution for the real world.

Sometimes you need to get out and see what really works.  See what solves a customer’s pain.  Discover latent and hidden needs. And keep it simple.

As Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince, once said, “Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add but when there is no longer anything to take away.”

Our left-brained society seems to value things that are complex and “proven.”

But never confuse “validity” with usefulness. And never think that a complex solution is better than a simple one.


Stop Calling it Innovation!

June 18, 2012

A potential client asked, “What is the best way to create a culture of innovation?”

My response: “Stop calling it innovation!”

Innovation has become the word du jour.  Is it important?  Of course.  But the term has been used and abused by so many people that it means nothing. I am seeing a backlash against the word.  Inside many organizations, there are antibodies waiting to kill anything called “innovation.”

If you want to have a chance at innovating, call it something else.

Although this is an old fashioned term, I like: “problem solving.”  It is calling it what it really is.

Yes, maybe the problems when innovating seem bigger, like business model changes or the creation of new product lines.  But you are still solving a problem (ok you can call it an “opportunity” if you prefer).

If you have an innovative idea and if doesn’t solve a problem, it will not be valuable.* (see footnote)

When starting an “innovation” program (excuse my perpetuation of the word), I ask the leaders of the organization (top executives, P&L owners, Business Unit/Lines of Business leads) to give me their three most important issues; ones that if solved would be incredibly valuable.  These problems/opportunities could be related to improving productivity, developing new service offerings, stimulating sales, addressing changing market conditions, or dealing with commoditization.  We look for leverage points; things that will create exponential value.

Everything ties back to an issue, challenge, problem, or opportunity.

Once the challenge is identified, we use the best method – brainstorming, skunkworks, open innovation, outsourcing, alliances, etc – to find solutions.

After doing this with the senior leaders, we can then engage the entire organization in identifying and solving pressing challenges.  This starts the cycle.

Every organization wants to know if they and their ideas are “innovative enough.”  Who cares?  The more important question is, “Do you know which problems, if solved, would create substantial value for your organization and your customers?”

There are many companies that produce unsexy products with few “breakthrough” technologies (they are not considered “cool” like Apple, 3M or Google). However, these organizations adapt and grow at incredibly fast rates.  Does it matter that others don’t consider them to be innovative?

Explosive and continued growth is the name of the game.  By calling it innovation, you may in fact be killing what you hope to create.

Look for important problems to solve and then find the best means for sourcing solutions.  This is what you really want.

* FOOTNOTE: Please note that this does not mean that the problems/opportunities needs to be known/understood by consumers or others.  Focus groups and surveys are poor ways to identifying problems as they only tap into conscious beliefs.  For more on this, read my tip, “Your Market Research Sucks” in my Best Practices Are Stupid book.

Expert Advice? Why You Should Be Skeptical

March 26, 2012

We are constantly bombarded by expert advice from advertisements, books, magazines, TV and the Internet. But how much of this information is actually true? From my experience, there is reason to believe that little of it is accurate. People (often unknowingly) make claims that are exaggerated or in some unfortunate cases, blatant lies.

I remember giving a presentation to a group of eager individuals who were either launching or advancing their speaking careers. During our 90-minute discussion, I provided dozens of tips and techniques for growing their business.

At the end of the evening, one attendee asked, “What is the most important tip?” I thought about this for a minute and replied, “I don’t know.”

Although this answer may sound like a cop out, it is in fact the truth. No one really knows what made them successful. More importantly, they have no idea how others can replicate their success. They may be able to look at a series of events that led to a particular outcome, but most likely the “most important tip” is something completely different than what is seen on the surface.

Several years ago, I attended a “book marketing” conference. It was led by a well-known author who sold millions (and millions) of books. His promise was to share the steps and tools that made him successful so that others could replicate and reap the same rewards. Over the years, thousands of people have tried his “formula,” and as far as I can tell, no one has come even close to his level of success. And those achieving some modicum of success mainly did so by leveraging this author’s name and network.

I am not implying that these experts are misleading or malicious. Not at all. The issue lies in our inability to find the correct correlations between cause and effect. Too many hidden factors play a major role—ones that we might never consider or notice.

Many experts use anecdotal evidence to support their conclusions: It worked for me and a few of my buddies, so it should work for you. This isn’t the most sound reasoning. Maybe the expert’s 10 Steps to Financial Wealth were not the true causes of their success. Maybe success was coincidental. Without more data, it is impossible to know. If 100 people tried the same 10 steps and each got the same results, then you might be able to claim a correlation. While there may be wisdom in anecdotal evidence, you shouldn’t blindly accept it as the truth.

There are many, harder to measure factors that often play a substantial role. Your attitude plays a larger part than you might think. Your Rolodex of contacts (for the younger readers, this is where the old-timers stored our addresses before computers) can be a huge factor in the equation. Being in the right place at the right time has launched many businesses, including Microsoft. Or sometimes, plain old dumb luck is the real cause.

So, how can you separate the accurate from the invalid? One way is to understand the difference between causality, correlation and coincidence.

I recall a study that claimed, “Individuals with greater wealth are happier.” Assuming that this statement is true, it is a correlation. Wealth and happiness are related. However, after reading this, some immediately jump to the conclusion that “money makes people happy.” This statement is causality suggesting that money is the cause of people’s happiness. According to this study though, this is not true. The research indicated that money did not make people happier. Happy people attracted more wealth into their lives. Money is correlated to happiness but is not the cause of happiness.

Beyond causality, correlation and coincidence, there is another factor: conditions. Just because something works for one company does not necessarily mean it will work for yours, even if there truly is a cause and effect relationship.

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

Making Connections

December 14, 2011

One of my favorite topics is to discuss how breakthroughs are generated by looking for someone who has solved a similar problem in a different space.

Some examples I talk about in my “Best Practices Are Stupid” books are:

  • A company developed a new type of whitening toothpaste by studying the way non-bleach laundry detergent works
  • A gas pipeline “sealing” system was developed by studying the way the capillaries in the finger coagulate blood and heal themselves
  • An office supply company found a way to get customers to return used toner cartridges by studying Netflix’s DVD service

And there are so many more interesting case studies.

While giving a speech on this recently, a client shared another wonderful example.

The company is in the computer simulation space.  They are able to build incredibly realistic models of what might happen in the real world by creating simulations in the virtual world.

When working for a medical device company that made angioplasty equipment, they wanted to create a computer simulation that would predict how the “balloon” would expand.

Where did they turn for an accurate computer model?

In the past, they worked with car manufacturers and built statistical models that simulated the expansion and contraction of airbags.  This proved to be a wildly accurate way of predicting how a balloon catheter would operate.

When you are working on your next business challenge, ask yourself: “Who else has solved a similar problem.”

In doing so, you might significantly accelerate your innovation effort.

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.

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.

When You Sit on the Fence, You Get Splinters in Your Ass!

June 1, 2011

This article was published on the American Express OPEN Forum.  The title you see here on this blog was rejected by them and replaced with “The Art of Decision Making.”  I decided to retain the original.

A couple months back, Accenture released the results of a survey of more than 3,400 professionals in 29 countries showing that fewer than half of all respondents are satisfied with their current jobs. I suspect these less than glowing findings are far from surprising.

Reading the results reminded of a conversation that surfaced during a Q&A section of a workshop of mine a while back. One of the attendees asked, “I work in a cubicle in a well-known technology firm and I am unhappy. How do I know if it is me or if it is my job? Do I need to change myself or change my job?”

I queried the audience to get their responses and the answers ranged from, “Stay at your job while you explore other options,” to “If you are really miserable, find another job quickly and quit this job,” to the most outspoken (and comedic) within the group, “Quit your job now! How could you work another day for the evil empire?”

After collecting the various responses, people looked anxiously to me for the “correct” answer.

My perspective was a bit different than the masses. My response was four words: “It doesn’t really matter.”

Very simply put, with the right mindset, any decision is the right decision. If you sincerely believe that the path you are on is the right one, then it is. Quitting your job doesn’t change things. You can switch jobs all you would like, but without the right attitude, it won’t make a bit of difference. Conversely you can alter your attitude and find new opportunities in staying where you are today, without ever changing jobs.

We often fail to make progress in life and in business because we postpone action until we feel as though we have the “right answer.” We painstakingly research all the facts, consider every angle and study each relevant detail. However, this quest for the “right answer” has us sitting on the fence in limbo, often without end.

Instead of answers, perhaps what we need are decisions.

Sadly, many of us suffer from a mild form of “decidophobia“—the fear of making decisions. No, I didn’t make up that work. It was coined by Princeton University philosopher Walter Kaufmann in his 1973 book, Without Guilt and Justice.

It is human nature to avoid putting ourselves into circumstances that we see as being risky, uncomfortable or scary. Therefore, we often decide to not decide. Many relate to decisions as having a “right or wrong” with an associated set of risks and rewards. By postponing decision-making, we mistakenly believe we are avoiding or minimizing the pain and risks of a wrong decision. However, indecision is a no man’s land with no direction, no progress and often more angst.

Without decision, there is no commitment. If you stay in a job yet do not commit to it, there is no way you can be satisfied. You will always be looking elsewhere. If you stay in a relationship but have one foot out the door all of the time, there is no hope for the future.

Should I change my job? Should I stay in my relationship? Should I buy a new house? What should I do with my life? These all seem like pretty big decisions. And for most people, they are.

We think “Oh, it’s so hard to make these big decisions,” when what’s really hard is the indecision.

In life there are no right or wrong decisions. There are only decisions. When we come to a fork in the road, we tend to overanalyze it. We might say, “I have an opportunity to create this new business venture BUT…” These are the considerations that have us stay upon the same path. Or how often do we choose a different path and then rethink our decision.

One of the reasons we worry so much and wonder whether we are on the right track is that we often see decisions as long term, semi-permanent decisions.

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

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