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Innovation Insights by Stephen Shapiro

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Today is the final video in the “Ask” part of the FAST Innovation Model (Focus, Ask, Shift, Test).

With this, we sum up with WHY asking questions is so important. We discuss why you should not “think outside the box.” And we talk about the upsides of challenge-centered innovation over idea-driven innovation.

The next installment will most us to the Shift part of the model.

Be sure to watch the previous videos!


I’m going to wrap up the “ASK” part of our FAST model with a perspective.

In the world of innovation, we keep on hearing this expression, “Think outside the box.” But if you reflect on everything that I’ve talked about, this might actually be bad advice.

In fact, what I suggest is that you don’t think outside the box, you find a better box.

The issue is not the expansiveness of your thinking. Going back to the Goldilocks principle, thinking out of the box actually reduces the level of creativity, increases the level of noise, and actually increases the amount of wasted energy involved. The issue isn’t expansiveness. The issue is you’re looking into the wrong place.

If you spend your time trying to speed up bags, you’ll never think to slow down passengers. If you spend your time trying to get clothes clean, you’ll never try to think of ways to keep clothes clean.

Changing the question changes the solution. Don’t think outside the box, find a better box.

Here is the bottom line in all of these. In studies that we’ve done, we found that when we move from an idea-driven innovation process where we ask people for their ideas through a suggestion box or an idea management system, we move from that to a challenge-centered innovation process where we invite people to provide solutions to well-framed challenges, we improve innovation ROI a minimum of tenfold. The reason for this is that well-framed challenges can focus on a differentiator. We can reframe them multiple times, but also, and here is the really important part, ideas don’t have a home. They’re in a suggestion box. You need to get somebody to fund them.

Challenges, before you even get started working on them, they have owners, sponsors, funding, resources, evaluators, and clear evaluation criteria. So when you objectively find a good solution, you have everything in place to start implementation.

So don’t think outside the box, find a better box, move away from idea-driven innovation to challenge-centered innovation, and you will start to see a massive return on your innovation efforts.

In the next segment, we will move to the shift part of the FAST innovation model.

Choose Your Business Partners Carefully

Choose Your Business Partners CarefullyI am a big fan of business partnerships. My mantra is, “Innovate where you differentiate, and partner with others for everything else.”

There’s an important caveat to this. Be sure to choose your partners carefully.

Think about the bad experiences you’ve had with a company. Were they the company’s fault? Or was a business partner somehow involved?

I bought a sofa online through a major retailer. The sofa is great, but the delivery company broke it during the move. I did not realize this until the next day when I sat on the sofa. Not a problem. Accidents happen. I called the retailer to get the broken sofa replaced. They were fast and responsive. Sadly the same could not be said for the delivery company. They did everything they could to make the replacement difficult. I was getting no satisfaction. The retailer said they were doing what they could (short of finding a new delivery company which would have been nice), but the delivery company kept dragging their feet. One of the world’s largest retailers was helpless. This was the worst delivery experience I’ve ever had. I will no longer buy anything from this retailer if it needs to be shipped by a freight company. Their partner ruined my perception of the company.

I started doing business with a new bank. The experience was good at first. But once their business partners got involved, everything turned sour. There were major delays on some important matters. Although the bank worked hard to solve the problem, but the partner was in charge. Things ground to halt and all the bank could do was offer excuses and say, “It’s not our fault. We can’t do anything about it.” Blaming the partner is not the solution. My relationship with this bank will not last long.

When it comes to choosing business partners, choose wisely. The quality of those partners will directly impact the perception of your business. Your brand and reputation are at stake. Although you want to trust your partners, you have to have safeguards in place to override their actions when it will impact the customer experience.

Customers don’t care if your partner is at fault. In the end they will blame you.


Today we explore a page from Einstein and his perspectives on asking questions. The key is to avoid focusing on solutions and instead focus on the problem.

We are in the “Ask” portion of the FAST Innovation Model (Focus, Ask, Shift, Test)

Be sure to watch the previous videos!


At this point in the innovation minute, we’ve been talking about asking better questions.

I want to turn to a quote from Albert Einstein, at least it’s a tribute to Albert Einstein. He reputedly said, “If I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem, one minute finding solution.” Fifty nine minutes defining the problem, one minute finding solutions.

The reality is in most organizations, I find that people are running around spending 60 minutes solving the problem that don’t matter.

So if you ask better questions, if you ask better questions, you will get better solutions. Because better questions are those questions that help you differentiate coming back to the focus part of our FAST model.

They help you differentiate. You can reframe them multiple times. So, when we ask different questions, we will always get different solutions and usually more valuable solutions.


When you ask different questions, you always get different solutions. Here’s a fun story about an airport that had people complaining about baggage claim wait times. Their solutions on the surface seemed good. But it never really solved the problem in the eyes of the customer. But when they asked a different question, they solved the problem.

We are in the “Ask” portion of the FAST Innovation Model (Focus, Ask, Shift, Test)

Be sure to watch the previous videos!



We’ve been talking about asking better questions. Today, I want to give you a fun example.

An airport here in the U.S. asked his passengers, “What is your biggest complaint?” What they heard is that baggage claim took too long. It took on average 15 to 20 minutes from the time that the cargo doors open on the plane until the bags arrived at the baggage carousel.

So they took to the task of “speeding up the bags.” They invested a lot of money in conveyor belts, faster conveyor belts, more baggage handlers, better technology, and they got it from 15 to 20 minutes down to 8 to 10 minutes.

Now, if you think about it, that’s a huge improvement. Most people would be getting ready to declare success.

They then asked the passengers of the airport, “Now, what is your biggest complaint?” What do you think they heard? Baggage claim! From the traveler’s perspective, it still took too long… Continue reading >>


NASA has done some amazing innovations over the years. But when they tried to create a washing machine in space, it didn’t go too well. But changing the question led to different results.

We are in the “Ask” portion of the FAST Innovation Model (Focus, Ask, Shift, Test)

Be sure to watch the previous videos!



We are in the “Ask” part of my FAST innovation model, we’ve talked about the Goldilocks principle, and we’ve talked about examples of where the questions were too abstract/too fluffy and invited a lot of noise. We also discussed why asking for ideas is a bad idea.

Today, I want to talk about the flip side which is where questions might be too specific. I want to go to an example that comes from NASA.

NASA has done some fascinating innovations over the years, of course. They are amazing.

They waned to solve a problem. If you take your washing machine from here on Earth and bring it up to space, well, you got a bit of a problem because our washing machines rely on gravity. So they ran the “zero gravity laundry system challenge.” It didn’t work exactly the way that they had hoped. They didn’t get any solutions.

If you come back to the Goldilocks principle, that was probably too specific, too detailed. It was a solution masquerading as a question. It was a past-based answer, a washing machine… Continue reading >>


Today we use solving the “education system” problem as an example of how changing the question can lead to different solutions. When questions are too abstract, we get very low quality solutions.

We are in the “Ask” portion of the FAST Innovation Model (Focus, Ask, Shift, Test)

Be sure to watch the previous videos!


In the last video, I talked about the Goldilocks Principle and how we sometimes ask questions that are too abstract.

Today, I want to give you another example of that. Some work was being done in the U.K. by a non-profit to improve the education system. Think about that for a moment. The education system. Education systems and the Goldilocks principle, obviously it is too abstract. There is too many moving parts. Education system is teachers, teachers’ pay, curriculum, classroom size, infrastructure, nutrition, busing, technology. The list goes on and on. Trying to solve the education system problem is way too complex.

So instead, when looking at the problem, what they realized is maybe first of all, we don’t want to talk about the education system because that’s the process; it’s the means to an end. The end is a child’s learning. How do we improve the way a child learns?

Now, think about the question. Education system or a child’s learning. Fundamentally different questions, which are going to lead to fundamentally different solutions… Continue reading >>

bright ideas for business by BBVA Compass

I was recently interviewed by the financial service firm, BBVA Compass. They asked for my thoughts on failure. I said that failure was overrated and that we needed a different mindset. Here are some sound bites from my interview/article

“I don’t believe that failure is necessary in general. I also don’t believe that the answer always resides in books, articles, or training classes. The key is running small, scalable experiments. Experiments only fail when you fail to disprove an incorrect hypothesis. Unfortunately, we are wired as human beings to prove what we believe to be true. As Scott Cook, co-founder of Intuit once said, ‘For each of our failures we had spreadsheets that looked awesome.’”

“When you have an idea you want to test, start small. What’s the least expensive, fastest, lowest risk way to prove the concept? More importantly, what’s the safest way to disprove the concept? First, test things out in a “laboratory” but quickly move to test the idea with the market. What do they like? What don’t they like? Run some online tests via Google AdWords or other means to test interest… Continue reading >>

Make Impossible Possible

I was asked by BigSpeak to write an article with three activities that would stimulate innovation with teams. And I needed to do it in under 1,200 words. Here’s the result:

Companies are becoming irrelevant faster than ever. Why? The pace of change outside of organizations is moving faster than the pace of change within.

The antidote to this rapid obsolescence is innovation. I define innovation as an end-to-end process that incorporates four basic steps.  These are represented through my FAST model.  F = Focus (innovate where you differentiate), A = Ask (identify better questions as a means of finding better solutions), S = Shift (because expertise is the enemy of innovation, look elsewhere for solutions), and T = Test (don’t fail; experiment).

To help develop the “Ask” and “Shift” components of this model, participate in three quick activities with your team. These will transform your perspective and help you find potentially better solutions.

Activity #1: Predict What the Competition Will Do Next

When innovating, companies often focus their attention on their current products and services. Similarly, they tend to look for solutions to today’s problems, such as responding reactively to a competitor’s move. While these approaches may lead to bigger, faster, and cheaper versions of what you have today, they may also prevent you from seeing bigger, longer-term shifts in your industry – ultimately blindsiding you.

Invariably, a more proactive approach is to determine what the marketplace and your competitors will do in the future.

Think about it. When is the last time you asked the following questions?

  • What are we most afraid our competition will do to us?
  • Who is not a competitor now, but might be in the future?
  • What shift might happen in the buying habits of our customers that may make our product/service less appealing?
  • How can the sagging economy help our business? What emerging products or services may make our business irrelevant?

The list of questions like this can be endless – and valuable.

So next time, with your team: Continue reading >>

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