Podcast: Interview with Author of “The Antidote”

December 7, 2012

Today I am thrilled to share with you a 45 minute conversation between me and Oliver Burkeman, the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.

I met Oliver several years ago. We got connected through a book review he did back in 2007 for the Guardian newspaper in England.

He opened his review by saying, “One of the most stress inducing books I’ve ever read is called GOALS!, by the management expert Brian Tracy.”  Reading this, given my contrarian perspective on goals-setting, I knew I was going to like this guy.

Oliver concluded his article by saying…

“Contrast that with the insight of Stephen Shapiro, whose book Goal-Free Living makes the case that you can have some kind of sense of direction to your life without obsessing about the specific destination. ‘Opportunity knocks often, but sometimes softly,’ he says. ‘While blindly pursuing our goals, we often miss unexpected and wonderful opportunities.’ That sounds a lot more smart to me.”  (For those in the goal-setting world, you will appreciate his last point as being a poke at the SMART goals, advocated by many)

After reading this, I immediately wrote Oliver, and soon after we met up in a pub in London. I quickly discovered that he has a contrarian perspective on so many aspects of personal development. And he has a great (dry) sense of humor.  I knew we would get along great.

Fast forward 5 years (after several meetings in pubs on both sides of the “pond”), Oliver wrote The Antidote. I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited to read a book. And I was not disappointed.  After devouring it on my Kindle, I asked Oliver if he would do a podcast with me.  Fortunately he kindly agreed. We did not discuss anything in advance. He did not give me questions to ask and I didn’t prepare any.  It was a totally goal-free, in the moment interview. I think you will agree, he has some pretty incredible perspectives.

You have three ways to enjoy this interview:

  • Listen to the audio (streaming): 

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

Please share this with your friends.  I am sure that after listening to this, you will agree that this interview can have a profound impact on anyone who is addicted to positive thinking.

The Walk More, Wait Less Innovation

August 20, 2012

Think about this problem.

You run an airport.  It takes on average 8 minutes for luggage to go from plane to baggage claim.  Customers can walk to baggage claim in one minute, resulting in 7 minutes of impatient waiting.  Complaints are high.

What do you do?

Conventional wisdom says, speed up the process.  Use more automation.  Hire efficiency experts.  Hire more baggage handlers.

But according to a recent New York Times article, this isn’t what they did in Houston’s airport.

Instead of speeding up how quickly bags arrive in the claim area, they slowed down the speed at which passengers arrived. They moved the arrival gates so that they are further away from baggage claim. This increased the walk time so that waiting in the baggage claim area was reduced to almost nothing. Complaints also dropped to almost nothing.

This innovation highlights a key point in innovation:  solve a pain.

In this particular case, the pain is the waiting.  The walking is not perceived as painful.  It is productive time.  Waiting is not.  Disney does a great job of helping people pass the time in their amusement parks while waiting an hour to get on a ride.

I wrote about the concept of the perception of time back in 2006.  I talked about how time passes at different speeds when stuck in traffic versus when moving quickly down the highway.  I started the article with a favorite quote of mine from Einstein…

“When you sit with a nice girl for two hours, it seems like two minutes. When you sit on a hot stove for two minutes, it seems like two hours.”

Time, and hence customer satisfaction, is relative.

Traffic is pain.  Waiting is pain.  Unproductive time is pain.

I wrote several articles on the power of solving a pain, versus creating a gain.

One article is about financial investments: people will take massive risks to protect what they have because loss is perceived more powerfully (pain) than a financial gain.

I also wrote an article on why a blizzard was the key to the ATM’s success: although people were not interested in the convenience of cash machines, when a blizzard prevented them from getting money elsewhere, ATMs became an overnight success.

When innovating, look at the pain points of your customers.  Be sure to look at the perceptions of pain, not your guess as to the pain.

Waiting is more painful than walking.  Unproductive time is more painful than busy time.  Driving slowly on back roads, even if it is takes longer in the end, is perceived as being a better option than sitting in traffic on the highway.  Financial losses are felt more deeply than financial gains.

Design your business to reduce the pain.  The perception of pain.

P.S. I provide other examples of the pain/gain concept in my book “Best Practices Are Stupid.”

The Performance Paradox on IdeaConnection

March 16, 2011

The second half of my interview with Vern Burkhardt from IdeaConnection was recently posted. Here are the first few paragraphs of this much longer interview.

“We can conclude that creativity is about being present, just as pit crews changing the tires on a Formula 1 car need to be present.” Stephen Shapiro

Vern Burkhardt (VB): While living in England for four years you worked with a Formula One race team. Would your Personality Poker playing card tool be useful in selecting the pit crew and drivers? (Vern’s note: see last week’s article for a detailed discussion about Personality Poker)

Stephen Shapiro: I’m not sure it would be useful in picking the pit crew members or the drivers, but I did learn a lot about how teams collaborate while watching Formula 1 pit crews.

There are some simple principles that pit crews use. One is each person is playing to their strong suit. Everybody understands completely what they must do. The person changing the lug nut on the front right tire does it better than anyone else. If I’m one of the two removing the rear left tire, we will do that better than anyone else.

The second principle is to make sure all positions are covered. If the person who is supposed to be fueling a car – back when they fueled a car in Formula 1 races – decided not to show up, you’ve got a serious problem that will cause the race to be lost.

The same thing applies to all organizations. They will have problems if they’re not “playing with a full deck” – that is, they don’t have all of the different positions or thinking styles addressed.

Another analogy to the card game we didn’t talk about last week is dealing out the work. It means we want to use a divide and conquer strategy. Everybody doesn’t do everything. They know how and when to pitch in.

Finally, from time to time we want to shuffle the deck to create some tension without having to have groupthink all the time.

The pit crew was a good model for creating high-performing innovation teams.

VB: The people who are the pit crew have to be present; they have to be focused on exactly what they are doing. Their brains can’t be wandering or thinking about anything else. Would that be fair to say?

Stephen Shapiro: That’s fair to say.

You bring to mind an interesting phenomenon that I call ‘the performance paradox.’ A study done by one of the pit crews found that when people did not focus on the stop-watch – on how fast they were working – but instead focused on being present, they actually completed the tasks faster even though the pit crew members thought they were going slower. They were encouraged to think about being ‘smooth’ if they were changing the tires or doing the other tasks.

We see the same thing happening inside organizations and, in particular, in the creativity space. When we tell people to be creative, and measure them on their creativity, the result often is less creativity. The process of focusing on the extrinsic measure of creativity paradoxically has the impact of worsening or lessening the level of creativity inside the organization. We can conclude that creativity is about being present, just as pit crews changing the tires on a Formula 1 car need to be present.

VB: Was it a difficult decision in 2001 to leave your job at Accenture, where you led that company’s Global Process Excellence Practice, to become a writer, speaker and consultant?

Stephen Shapiro: It was somewhat of an easy decision.

The launch of my first book, 24/7 Innovation, was on October 10, 2001 and my last day with Accenture was October 11, 2001. I had been speaking to audiences on behalf of Accenture for 8 years, and I felt it was time to try something different by promoting the book while still doing speaking engagements.

I quickly learned an important point about innovation when I launched my own business. There’s a difference between being a great speaker and having a great speaking business. I believe I was and still am a great speaker, but in the beginning I had no work. Just because I had a book published didn’t mean people were going to bang down my door so I had to be creative about how to find work.

For a lot of organizations you need to be creative about the way you market and sell because those are as important to the growth of the business as having a good product. Peter Drucker once said, “since the purpose of business is to generate customers, only two functions do this: marketing and innovation. All other business functions are expenses.”

I learned very quickly that he was right and marketing is king. The best product that no one knows about is not going to sell. Having said that, the ability to develop new products, services, and business models is also important and I don’t want to downplay their part in the success of a business.

VB: What do you do to psyche yourself up before you speak to a large audience?

Read the rest of this interview on the IdeaConnection website

How Can Goals Enhance Creativity?

August 4, 2010

Innovation Targets and CreativityIn my previous blog entry, I discussed how goals can either enhance or detract from performance.

Over the years, I have written numerous articles on “The Performance Paradox” that show how an obsession with the future reduces performance in the present.  And typically, creativity is significantly diminished in the process.

But given that businesses are driven by goals, how can we leverage them as a tool for enhancing creativity?

One way is to use stretch targets.  REALLY stretch targets.

For example, one client that I was with last week has a target of doubling their business over the next 5 years. I know MANY organizations that have exactly the same goal.   That equates to a 14% growth rate each year (assuming compounding).  I’m sure, with hard work, they could hit those numbers, even though it would certainly not be easy.

But what if they set a target of growing by 50% a year? It might have a fundamentally different impact on the organization.  That level of growth is unprecedented. It will certainly stretch the way they think.  A 14% improvement can most likely be attained through conventional thinking.  But a 50% growth target would require some breakthrough thinking; radical ideas.

It might also have an interesting psychological impact on the organization.

Because a 14% growth rate is viewed as doable, it might create an attachment in the minds of the executives and employees.  “We should be able to hit these targets.  Therefore it we don’t, there is something wrong.”

But a 50% growth rate is unheard of.  Clearly no one in the organization would be “attached” to that outcome.  Surely the executives would not expect employees to deliver on those targets.

As a result, the 50% target becomes a “game” without attachment.  Everyone knows it is designed to shift their thinking and to help create enthusiasm.

The future gives them the present, rather than present giving them the future. (to learn more about what I mean by this, be sure to click the link and read the article)

As long as everyone in the organization believes they are playing a game which is designed to get them energized today, and it is not specifically about hitting the target, I can assure you that people will be more motivated.  Creativity will be stimulated.  And even if the company does not hit 50% growth rates, they will certainly have a better chance of hitting the 14% improvement than if they focused on that as the goal.

Goals that are not goals, can enhance creativity.

Simple Not Simplistic

April 30, 2009

People who play Personality Poker tell me that they love its simplicity.  But what they find most amazing is how this simple “game” can generate profound insights.

During a recent event, one participant commented that she learned more about herself and her team in 15 minutes than she had in her previous 15 years.

In today’s age of data-driven analysis, it is easy to fall into the trap of believing that more data and more complexity lead to better results.

This is not always true.

I was chatting with Michael Wiederman, Professor of Psychology at Columbia College, this morning.  Michael did a fascinating podcast with me a while back.  Be sure to check it out.

When discussing the simplicity of Personality Poker, he responded:

“Simpler is good, as long as it’s valid/useful.   As an analogy, I recall a published study from several years ago in which a battery of all of the widely-used depression inventories were administered to the same group of people, along with some other questions. The best predictor of who was depressed?  The single question: ‘Are you depressed?’ So much for complexity.”

Common Innovation Myths

Where else do we fall prey to the belief that bigger is better?

  • More Ideas = Better Ideas.  Although free thinking is useful during the generation of creative ideas, if you are solving the wrong problem, all the ideas in the world won’t make a difference.
  • More Data = Better Customer Insights.  Data mining is the rage.  Unfortunately it only allows you to study your customers.  Quite often the greatest insights come from those who are not your customers — or those who were and no longer are.
  • More Goals = Better Results.  Goals are useful in moderation.  However, an obsession with outcomes often results in taking your eye off the present.  The result is worse performance.  Read my article on “The Performance Paradox” for more.

As mentioned in a previous blog entry, I am a big believer that “Simplification is Innovation.”  Don’t confuse complexity with quality.  The greatest ideas are often the simplest.

P.S. I am reading Made to Stick…finally.  It is an excellent book on the stickiness of ideas.  Once again, we see that often the simplest ideas are the ones that stick best.

New Innovation Article

April 18, 2008

Although I have written about this many times before on this blog, we have created a formal article on “The Performance Paradox.”  This is part of an eBook being published by 21 professional speakers.

You can find this, and a dozen other articles in my “innovation articles” section of the website.

2007 Innovation Lesson

December 14, 2007

Every year at this time, Chuck Frey at innovationtools.com asks experts/readers for the most important lesson learned during 2007 regarding innovation, creativity or brainstorming. Here is my response:

Over the past couple of years, I have observed something I call “The Performance Paradox.” This paradox looks at the relationship between motivation (goals, targets, and management) and performance (physical, intellectual and creative performance). Interestingly, the relationship between motivation and performance is not linear. It is not even exponential. It is parabolic.

Low motivation equals low performance. I’m sure this comes as no shock. As motivation increases, performance increases…to a point. The sweet spot of performance. Then, as you become more goal obsessed and task driven, performance paradoxically decreases.

This paradox holds true in all areas of performance including physical and mental performance. However, the paradox is most pronounced for creative endeavors. Goals increase stress and fixate employees on the future rather than the present. It has been proven that creativity diminishes when individuals are rewarded (externally motivated) for doing their work.

The more you measure and motivate based on innovation, the less likely you will have a truly innovative culture.

Another interesting component to the Paradox is the fact that people will take great risks to minimize (or reduce) their pain/losses, yet will play it safe when the option is to increase their pleasure/gains.

When your organization’s change/innovation plans are utopian visions of a grandiose future, your employees move to the wrong end of the performance curve: high motivation, low performance. They become cynical about success and feel as though you are not addressing their present moment pains and frustrations. Instead, fix immediate problems first. Then begin to address, more strategic visions.

For too long, well intended organizations have used the wrong motivation tools for creating cultures of innovation.

An article by me on The Performance Paradox is schedule to be published by the American Management Association in early 2008

How to Swim Faster

July 3, 2007

At a recent workshop on creativity, I discussed “the performance paradox” – the concept that trying harder produces poorer results.

Afterwards, one executive in the audience came up to me and told me his own story.  He said…

“When I was a kid, I went to summer camp.  One of our daily activities was swimming.  We were told to swim our laps as fast as possible.  As we did, the camp counselors timed our speed.  We did this over and over, each and every day.

“As expected, our lap times improved the more we practiced.  However, about half-way through the summer, our improvements stopped.  No matter how hard we tried, we could not go any faster.

“It was at that point that the counselors told us they would no longer evaluate us on our speed.  Instead they were going to rate us based on the quality of our stroke.  We discovered afterwards that we were still being timed.  Surprisingly, by focusing on style rather than speed, we all went significantly faster.  When we stopped trying to go faster, we went faster.”

Reduced performance is often the result of focusing on a “goal” rather than being “present.”

In what areas of life can you improve YOUR performance by focusing on what is in front of you rather than worrying about the result?

Where, in the past, have you improved your performance by being present?

How to Perform at Optimal Levels

May 6, 2007

In the early 1900s, Robert Yerkes and J. D. Dodson developed the aptly named Yerkes-Dodson Law. The premise is that performance increases relative to motivation (they call it “arousal”) only to a point, after which performance drops. It is typically drawn as an inverted U-shaped curve.

You will notice that I superimposed three “goal” concepts on this graph to give you a sense of how they (roughly) relate.

If you are goal-less, you have no sense of direction and no motivation. Therefore, your performance is low. This is not surprising.

As your motivation increases, your performance increases. Being goal-free – having a sense of direction and purpose, without specific deadlines and limitations – can increase performance…to a point.

Then, as you become goal-driven, performance paradoxically decreases. Goals increase stress and focus you on the future rather than the present.

This phenomenon has been documented in numerous places throughout this blog. Race-car pit crews who increase performance when they are not worried about the stop watch. Students who perform better on exams when they are not as focused on grades. Sales people who sell more when they are not driven by sales targets.

Yerkes and Dodson suggest that different types of tasks require different levels of arousal (to use their word). To improve concentration, intellectually challenging tasks require lower levels of arousal for optimal performance while physically demanding tasks require higher levels. This may explains why professional athletes tend to be more goal-driven. However, even then, goals can limit performance. Listen to my interview with Dr. Doug Gardner, former sports psychology consultant to the Boston Red Sox.

Goal-Free Living is NOT about eliminating your goals. You can have goals and still perform at optimal levels. They key is to have the RIGHT goals (ones that “pull” you forward and don’t create stress) and be PRESENT to what you are doing (being detached from the desired outcomes).

Do you have examples of where you performed at optimal levels by freeing yourself from the stranglehold of rigid goals?