February 20, 2013
Today’s Wednesday Work Wisdom…
Innovation is often discussed in terms of what we know about innovation. But sometimes it is useful to uncover what we don’t know. What are the things that might catch us off guard and ultimately reduce the long-term impact of our innovation efforts?
Some useful questions to ask to are:
- What don’t we know about a particular topic? InnoCentive ran a challenge to identify what researches didn’t know about Type 1 Diabetes. Doing this provided useful insights that improved the chances of finding a cure.
- What do we need to find out? If you are looking to attract customers that are different than your current ones, don’t just ask what you know about them. Identify what you need to learn; what you don’t know.
- What do we need to do in order to uncover what we don’t know? If you don’t know what your customers really need, don’t rely solely on big data. Instead try ethnography. If your customer surveys are giving misleading results, try techniques designed to uncover implicit/subconscious biases. Using different techniques will yield different insights.
- Who do we need to involve that is currently not part of the process? Who can help you uncover what you don’t know you don’t know? If you want to surface potentially disruptive market shifts that can kill your business, partner with a university or futurist. If you want to understand emerging economic shifts, seek out the council of an economist. Insights from experts outside of your company/industry will lead to better innovations.
- What do we need to stop doing in order to free up time to focus on what matters? Don’t get wed to your ideas. Be rigorous in killing anything that does not show potential in order to free up resources. Keep a crew of “devils advocates” who poke holes in your theories.
- Who’s our competition in the future? Assume that your current competitors will not be your biggest threat in the future. Look for disruptive technologies that may make your business irrelevant. Look for competitors in emerging markets that could offer services at a lower cost.
- What demographic changes may blind-side us? Sometimes your biggest competition is not a new company, but a new set of buyer values. For example, if you are an insurance company, your biggest threat may not be a new insurance company. It might be the fact that millennials (the next generation of consumers) are “present moment” focused. Getting them to save, invest in the future, or buy insurance will be increasingly challenging.
This is only a starter list of things that could catch you off guard.
Although you need to focus on what will make innovation a success, don’t forget to identify the questions that might create unexpected roadblocks. Be sure to uncover your blind spots so that you are not blind-sided.
What other questions would you add to this list?
April 6, 2012
I recently had a conversation with a colleague who is a professional speaker. She and her husband are debating if they want to have a child in the near future.
She said, “Right now my life is easy and I know if I have a child, it will be a lot more difficult.”
The implied question: “Do I want a life that is easy or one that is challenging?” Based on that question alone, many might go for the easy solution.
But maybe this is the wrong question. I asked her, “How fulfilling is your life right now?”
Her answer: “Although life is easy, it is not fulfilling.” She felt that having a child would make life more fulfilling.
A different question gives a different perspective which yields different solutions.
Because she eventually wants children, she wants to travel less. As a professional speaker, she currently only makes money when she is on the road. Therefore, to create passive income, she has been developing a number of “products” (books, CDs, DVD, cards, etc) that she can sell.
What she is doing again implies a particular question: “How do I create products that will generate passive income?” As it turns out, the creation of these products has required a lot of time and money on her part. And there is very little leverage since the margins are so low and the distribution channels are limited.
But what if she asked a different question: “How do I generate passive income that can scale with minimal effort and minimal investment?”
Now she has many more options including licensing, partnerships, sponsorships, technological platforms, etc. The work can be done by others rather than her. And given that others are selling to their networks, she can gain much greater leverage. The opportunity now is much larger.
If you ask a different question, you will get a different solution. And from my experience, most individuals and organizations are asking the wrong questions. And this will always lead to the wrong solution. A simple shift in mindset can fundamental shape your success.
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.
September 21, 2010
You hop on the plane and fly to your destination. After deplaning, you pull out your hotel reservation and type the address into the GPS.
And then, you realize…you have a problem. A BIG problem.
Although your destination airport was Buffalo, NY, the event is being held just over the border in Ontario Canada…and you don’t have your passport.
I am completely embarrassed to admit it, but this happened to me just last week.
My speech was in Niagara Falls. For some reason I believed that the event was on the United States Side. This was a BAD assumption.
A friend once described herself as a fire fighting arsonist. She was constantly putting out fires that she started. I was beginning to understand what she meant.
If you were in my situation, what would have gone through your mind?
During my 45 minute drive from Buffalo to the border crossing, I went through three distinct phases of thought.
Phase 1: “Oh $#*!” – Not a very useful phase, but I had to acknowledge the reality of the situation
Phase 2: What can I do to get into Canada? – I first considered swimming across Niagara Falls. If I were Michael Phelps, then that might be an option. But I am not. I then pondered begging and bribery as options. But I needed to consider more practical solutions. It is amazing what the mind can remember when it is pressed. I recalled the fact that I had once taken a picture of my passport and that the image was on my computer. I thought through all of my documents: contracts, hotel reservations, car rental agreements, and return airplane tickets.
Phase 3: What would I do if I couldn’t get into Canada? – Getting into the country was not guaranteed. Therefore I needed to think through what I would do to best serve the customer in light of this situation. I considered how I might deliver the speech via video Skype. Given that it was a Personality Poker session, I thought through ways of getting decks across the border. I even thought through a list of innovation speakers I know in Canada, which admittedly, is not a very long list.
After I went through all of this in my mind, I finally arrived at the border crossing.
I tell this (very embarrassing) story to make a point.
Your ability to solve problems is your key to success. The bigger the “game” you are playing, the bigger your problems will be. You cannot be stuck in “phase 1” and be paralyzed by the situation. Finding productive solutions is critical.
The same is true for organizations.
Some problems are obvious, like self-inflicted ones, pervasive quality issues, or those evident from an eroding market share.
But sometimes the most important challenges are in our blind-spots. These represent the biggest opportunities:
- Strategic opportunities for developing new products, services, or business models
- Marketing opportunities that would grow market share
- Process improvement opportunities that would create time for innovation
- “Cultural” issues that prevent innovation (e.g., not-invented-here syndrome, poor collaboration, etc)
Innovation is nothing more than identifying, prioritizing, solving and implementing your most important challenges in the most efficient way.
Mastering this one single skill will catapult your organization to higher levels. There are many articles on this blog discussing problem solving and challenge-driven innovation. And more articles will be written in the future.
You may be wondering how my personal story ends.
Fortunately I was able to get into Canada. It did not take too long and they were very friendly. They asked for most of the documents I had already catalogued in my mind.
Interestingly, I was told that if I were a Canadian trying to get into the US, it would be a lot more difficult and I would probably not have been allowed in.
The morning after my speech, I wanted to make sure I did not get stuck at the US border crossing, so I left my hotel 5 hours before my flight. Given it is a 45 minute trip, I figured that should give me enough time to deal with any kind of interrogation.
I get to the border crossing. The guard looks at my driver’s license. Asks me the city I was born in and lets me through. I got to the airport with almost 4.5 hours to spare.
My days of being a fire fighting arsonist are over. It is too much work and too much stress. I would rather focus on more productive challenges!
April 26, 2010
OK, after 2 weeks of sleep deprivation due to manuscript deadlines, I am now back in action here. The final version of the manuscript went to the publisher on Saturday. I then played Personality Poker in Memphis with nearly 100 representatives from Penguin’s gift sales on Sunday. These individuals sell books into non-traditional bookstores, gift stores, hospital gift shops, department stores, casino, and similar places.
Last weekend, I played Personality Poker with a couple hundred people at a conference in Canada.
After the event, over a dozen of us decided to go to dinner together. Half the people fit into taxis. After the taxis departed from the hotel, the remaining individuals went in two cars, one of which I drove. We had the address and a map. I, being Mr. Technology, plugged the address into the GPS. The other individual had the map, but also relied on directions he received from the front desk. I didn’t bother getting directions since I had the navigation system.
I was the first car out of the parking lot. After exiting the hotel, I turned left, just as the GPS told me to do. The other car followed, but not for long. David, the other driver flashed his lights. I kept driving. After a minute I realized David was no longer behind me. Instead of believing that I might be going in the wrong direction, I just assumed that the GPS was taking me there via a shortcut.
After taking a series of turns – left, right, left, right, left, right – the final turn led us to a dead end. In fact, this road was nothing more than a large pile of dirt. So much for taking a shortcut.
Since my technology was not going to get us there, we needed to rely on the map. Unfortunately, the map provided by the hotel only had the restaurant marked off. The hotel was not to be found. The reason we could not find the hotel on the map was because the map did not extend far enough to include it.
There we were, in the middle of nowhere, with a map that told us nothing – and a GPS that told us even less.
This got me thinking.
How often do we drive our innovation programs the same way I drove to the restaurant that night?
We create our plans for innovation and we start driving. There might be signals along the way (like the flashing lights of the car behind us) that something is not right. In the case of innovation, it might be signals from the customers, buyers, or vendors telling us we are going the wrong way. But all too often, we continue to drive forward, arrogantly believing we are right and that those signs are all wrong.
No matter how great your plans are, you need to keep your eyes open. Look for signs. Don’t assume others are wrong. Maybe your blueprint/map is incorrect.
Or, as Scott Cook from Intuit so eloquently said, “For every one of our failures, we had spreadsheets that looked awesome.”
There are no accurate GPS systems in the world of innovation. Your ability – and willingness – to adapt, evolve, and change your plans is critical to a successful innovation program.
If you don’t watch out for the signs and you blindly follow your plans, your innovation program will probably lead you to a huge pile of, um, dirt.
P.S. We did eventually get to the hotel. We did what any sane person would do…we asked for directions.