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Innovation Insights by Stephen Shapiro

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Don’t ask for great ideas only when brainstorming solutions to challenging problems…

When brainstorming, we typically ask people to give us their best ideas. But what if the path to finding great ideas is to intentionally find start with terrible ones?

Think about the world prior to vaccines. What would be the dumbest way to prevent an outbreak of polio? Inject everyone with the virus. But, of course, that is exactly how it is done.

Our flight to the moon was made possible through a worst idea. What if the rocket ship falls apart after take-off? That sounds like a crazy idea. But this concept was a critical factor in the success of the Apollo missions: The rocket boosters containing the fuel fall off early during the trip to the moon.

The “bad idea” concept doesn’t just apply to complex technical problems like health and space travel.

Imagine you are looking to sell more raisins. You might focus on the health benefits, the sweet taste, or the various uses ranging from cereals to desserts. In 1987, an advertising team working on this problem exhausted all obvious options, when one of the writers said, “We have tried everything but dancing raisins singing ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine.'” As silly as it sounded, they ran with the idea and to their surprise, the commercial became wildly popular, spawning future commercials, two TV specials, and a Saturday morning cartoon series.

And at times, a bad idea can yield lifesaving results.

Consider a company whose manufacturing process is complex and potentially dangerous. Their goal is to reduce accidents in the workplace. A good idea might be to add more safety inspectors. What would be a terrible idea? Firing all of the safety inspectors.

Although they didn’t go that far, Koch Industries, the parent company of Stainmaster Carpets, Lycra, Brawny paper towels, and Dixie cups, took a radical approach. Koch’s philosophy is that employees have much more knowledge dispersed among them than any small group of corporate planners or safety inspectors can have. Therefore, rather than having a few safety engineers scour the company for unsafe conditions, Koch gave this responsibility to all of its employees, with rewards both for uncovering unsafe conditions and for discovering new ways to conduct business more safely. This approach resulted in 35 to 50 percent improvements each year in the number and severity of accidents across Koch Industries. Within one year the company had moved from being in the middle of the pack to having one of the best safety records in its industries.

And let’s close with a silly one. Picture a community with a dog poop problem because owners fail to pick up after their pets. Other cities typically hand out steep fines for this infraction. But the solution to this problem in Brunete, Spain, was a little more, well, disgusting. A crazy idea came from the advertising agency McCann Erickson: Have volunteers scoop up and mail the dog poop back to the owners in a “lost and found” box. Although it sounds ridiculous, it resulted in a 70 percent reduction in droppings.

So, the next time you have a problem you want solved, don’t always ask for the best solution. Sometimes it can be useful to ask, “What’s the worst, silliest, or most disgusting solution?” And then find a way of making it work.

Read the original article on the Inc. website

P.S. A number of years ago, I was interviewed for an Inc. article where I discussed why “brainstorming is stupid.”

You can create an environment where everyone can contribute to your company’s innovation efforts…

How do you structure your innovation teams? If you are like most companies, you put your most creative people in a room to develop ideas who then hand off those ideas to a team of implementers. But is this always the right structure?

A fascinating study may give us clues to what is most effective. And the answer may not be what you expect.

Managers who attended a leadership course at Eckerd College in Florida were tested to determine whether they were good innovators (those who do things differently and break the rules) or good adapters (those who do things better within the rules).

The managers were then broken into teams to solve a given problem. Each team was composed of two groups: the “designers” who had to work out a solution to the problem, and the “builders” who were charged with making it work. There were three teams, each made up of designers and builders.

The first team used “innovators” as designers and “adapters” as builders. The second team split everyone up, with both “innovators” and “adapters” doing the design before handing it over to the “innovators” and “adapters” doing the implementation. The third group turned things upside down, with “adapters” doing the design and “innovators” building it.

Which of these three combinations would you expect to be the most effective?

One thing we know is that different styles, left to their own devices, do not communicate well with one another. Therefore, we can eliminate the second team–the one comprised of heterogeneous groups. In this scenario, as soon as an innovator developed an idea, an adapter would find reasons why it would not work. If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then innovators are from Iowa (where their slogan is “Fields of Opportunities”) and adapters are from Missouri (the “Show Me” state). Without any support, communication can be a disaster.

But which of the homogenous approaches was more effective?

In order to answer this, you need a bit more information about the design of the experiment itself. Peter Hammerschmidt, the author of the study, told me that “The design environment was very rule-bound (there were seven rules that they needed to follow in completing the task) while the build instructions had virtually no rules at all.” Although we typically associate innovators with design, in this environment, the innovators worked most effectively in the build environment where the rules were undefined while the adapters worked most effectively in the rule-oriented design environment. Given this, team three was the most effective. Peter concluded, “When people were aligned with their preferred environment, they excelled. But when I placed them in a less preferred environment, their success rates dropped significantly.”

When people are put in the wrong environment, they are always less effective. It is not so much the task itself, but the rules we put on those tasks. Intuitively we might want to assign innovators to design tasks while leaving build tasks to the adapters. But as this study showed, it is not the specific task that matters, but rather the structure of the task. Innovators naturally work better in less structured environments while the adapters work best inside a set of rules. Although the idea generation aspects of innovation tend to be less organized, adapters can effectively participate if the roles and rules are changed to provide more structure. Equally, the more structured development phases of innovation can appeal to innovators if some of the rules are relaxed for those individuals.

As Peter Hammerschmidt concluded, “There were two primary factors impacting the success rates: role preference and communicating with others of differing styles. Both groups were equally ‘creative,’ but their styles of creativity were very different.”

Getting the right person in the right role with the right set of rules is fundamental to the success of a team. And it’s critical that people know how they contribute to–and detract from–the innovation process. Adapters can and should participate in idea generation without letting their “yeah, buts” stifle the creative process, while innovators can contribute to implementation without letting “bright shiny objects” derail progress.

This article originally appeared on the Inc. website

P.S. If you want to learn how to create a high-performing innovation team, check out my Personality Poker system. This fun, fast-paced card game will help you quickly your own innovation personality, the composition of your team, and the culture of your organization.

Most of the work you do is not important and in fact slows you down…

My first real job was working for a large computer manufacturer in their production control department.

After two months there, the department head called me into his office and told me I was the laziest person he’d ever met. And he meant this as a compliment.

When I first started this job, I worked 50 hours a week and my direct supervisor worked 60 hours a week.

Then, after a month, I was notified that my supervisor was laid off and I was to inherit all of his work. Faced with having to work 110 hours a week, I decided to take a hard look at what we were doing. In the past, I just did what I was told to do.

Over the course of a weekend, I analyzed all of the activities I now needed to perform. I discovered that only 20 percent of my work was high value add. This was the only work I really needed to do. The remaining 80 percent of my work fell into a few categories:

  • Low Value Work – Many activities seemed to add little or no value. Although we had done these in the past, they were apparently no longer necessary. I stopped doing these activities immediately and waited for someone to complain. No one ever did.
  • Someone Else’s Work – Several activities were really the responsibility of another department or individual. Therefore, I worked to get these activities assigned to the correct parties. Not only did this reduce my workload, but it also reduced the overall time required by the company as a whole. When the right person is doing the right work, it is always more efficient.
  • Manual Work to Be Automated – A large number of “transactional” activities were done manually and were candidates for automation. None of these activities were particularly complicated. Therefore, I wrote some simple computer programs in a matter of hours that automated these processes. Back in those days, we used punch cards, so it was more complicated then than it is now!

After only two days of analysis and work, I managed to get my workload from 110 hours to 20 hours.

This drastic reduction in work is the reason my boss called me lazy. In fact, he designated me as the department’s Chief Laziness Officer. My role was to go around and find inefficiencies in the work being done and help others become more efficient.

How can you become your company’s Chief Laziness Officer?

Look at your work activities.

  • What work do you do that is non-value add? Stop doing it!
  • What work do you do that others should do? Reassign that work to the appropriate party.
  • What work do you do that others can do? Delegate or outsource these activities. Get a “virtual assistant” to do your routine activities. Partner with someone who might be better skilled to do this activity.
  • What work can be automated? Buy off-the-shelf software to help speed things up. Or find someone who can build you a custom application. With gig-economy websites like Fiverr.com, Upwork.com, and 99Designs.com, there are a so many inexpensive ways to outsource work.

Focus your energies on the items that truly add value and differentiate you from the competition. Eliminate, automate, or delegate the rest.

The goal is not to do more with less. You should strive to do less and get more.

This article originally appeared on the Inc. website

All the skills that make a magician great also apply to ambitious entrepreneurs. Do you have what it takes?

I’ve always loved magic. For me, it went beyond entertainment; it was an intellectual endeavor. I enjoyed trying to figure out how an illusion was done. The actual solution didn’t matter because it was the process of thinking about the effect that I liked.

When I was younger, there was a TV show called, “Breaking the Magician’s Code.” Each week, the “masked magician” revealed how some popular tricks were done.

On the show, which is now on Netflix, he first performs the illusion as the audience would see it. Then he would do the trick again, showing how it was done. I would watch the show and pause after he performed it the first time, before the reveal. I would then write down all of the different ways I think he could have done the trick. Only after I had at least one solution, I would watch how it was done. The reveal typically involved showing the trick from different camera angles. In doing this, the solution becomes obvious.

My love affair with magic started when I was a young kid. Over the years I’ve found that magic and innovation are close cousins. Although there are many more parallels, here are three concepts I learned about innovation by studying magic:

1. The brain can’t be trusted.

Magic is so impressive because the brain doesn’t always process everything it sees accurately. It takes shortcuts, makes assumptions, and (often incorrectly) fills in gaps. When we see someone go in a box to conceal their body, only revealing their head and feet, we automatically assume that the feet are from the same person whose head we are looking at. But what if they aren’t? With innovation, our brain is also often fooled. We take shortcuts and fill in gaps, leading to incomplete solutions. Be sure that any time you develop a new idea, you look at it from multiple perspectives. What are you missing? What assumptions are you making? Just like the reveal, you need different camera angles. Continue reading >>

The questions you ask may not be helping you learn anything new…

Imagine this scenario: A woman walks into a hardware store. She can buy 6 for $6, 12 for $12, or 24 for $12. What is she buying?

I’ve asked this question of thousands of executives over the years, and no one has ever gotten the correct solution immediately (unless they’ve heard it before). There’s not enough information for them to find a proper answer. Therefore, I allow them to ask me any number of yes/no questions. Sort of like 20 questions.

The first questions people inevitably ask are:

  • Is the item metal?
  • Is it a BOGO–buy one, get one free?
  • Do you use it to attach something to something else, like a screw or nail?

The list has become quite predictable. Why? People form a solution in their mind and then ask questions that validate what they believe to be true. In other words, their questions are solutions masquerading as questions. Most people do this often, both professionally and personally. Continue reading >>

Just because your personality test seems accurate, doesn’t mean it is….

Many years back, while working with a client, I was asked to take a written personality test that was required for all executives in the company. Eight senior leaders took this test, costing the company more than $10,000, not including the time invested by the employees and the travel costs to the off-site debrief meeting. The test had more than 300 questions and took nearly an hour to complete. By the end, I was exhausted. Afterward, I received a 40-page assessment detailing every aspect of my personality. Although some of the aspects of the assessment seemed accurate, a large number of points were way off.

Others on the team focused on the hits and forgave (or didn’t notice) the misses. By doing so, they ensured that the assessments would seem more accurate than they actually were. Being a bit of a skeptic, I wasn’t willing to dismiss the inaccurate bits so quickly.

What occurred among these executives is the phenomenon psychologists call the “Barnum effect”: our tendency to focus on the most accurate aspects of characterizations of ourselves. The phenomenon is named after the legendary showman P. T. Barnum, who believed that a good circus had “a little something for everybody.” And with many personality profiles, a little bit of everyone is in every profile. Horoscopes and palm readings seem accurate mainly because they are cast in such a way that they could apply to almost anyone, especially if you’re willing to get a bit imaginative in your interpretation.

A great example of the Barnum effect comes from Professor Michael Wiederman from the School of Medicine Greenville and an expert on psychological tests… Continue reading >>

Contrary to conventional wisdom, opposites don’t attract–and this is bad for innovation….

I remember speaking with a recruiter who once turned down a candidate I had recommended. I asked why and was told, “He didn’t fit the mold.”

In other words, unless you fit our cookie cutter requirements, you won’t work here.

This point of view is quite common. Let’s face it, there’s an upside to this strategy. When you only hire people who are similar, it can create a highly-efficient organization. When everyone thinks the same way, acts the same way, talks the same way, and even looks the same way, they get along and agree quickly.

Unfortunately this homogeneity kills innovation.

Clint Bowers and colleagues at the University of Central Florida studied how the homogeneity of personalities within work groups affected performance by combining the results of thirteen studies involving five hundred teams…

Continue reading >>

To gather real insights, you want stories, not surveys…

Many years ago, I gave a 90-minute speech to 400 non-military researchers at the US Air Force. These scientists create planes and weapons for our military. The first 45 minutes of the presentation seemed to go really well. The audience was high energy, laughing when I wanted them to, and fully engaged. And then something happened. At the midpoint, the energy seemed to drop. For 45 minutes there was no laughter, only serious faces in the room. When my speech was done, I left the stage feeling deflated.

Afterwards I was talking with a number of attendees who had only stellar things to say. Admittedly, I was a little surprised. This prompted me to ask, “What happened in the second half of my speech? I thought I lost everyone.” The response was a powerful lesson for me. He said, “The first half was fun and interesting. But the second half was where you provided the real value. This is when you addressed the issues that were critical to our long-term success. It wasn’t necessarily fun, but it was powerful.”

As a speaker, it is easy to confuse audience reaction with real impact. Every person emotes differently. Trying to read body language can often give misleading information. Therefore, feedback after the event can be more useful if it is the correct type of feedback…

Continue reading >>

What worked for your company in the past may be the wrong strategy for the long term…

Many advertisements for investment opportunities warn that past success is no guarantee of future results. The reality is much worse than that. Past success may actually lead to future failure.

In the 1960s, Sears accounted for one percent of the U.S.’s gross national product. At that time, one out of every two American households had a Sears credit card. Sears wasn’t just the world’s largest retailer, it was a dominant force in the U.S. economy.

In 1983, Sears was still riding the success train and was over 10 times the size of Walmart. In six short years, things changed. October 1989 ushered in Walmart as the world’s largest retailer, and the rapid decline of Sears continued.

Today, Walmart has revenues over 20 times that of Sears Holdings (which also includes K-Mart). Although Amazon is banging on the door of the retail giant, Walmart still has revenues that are nearly three times that of everything Amazon-related, which goes way beyond just retail.
Continue reading >>

“Yeah, but.”

That’s the enemy of innovation. Right? We’ve all been told that we need to stop uttering those words and replace them with “Yes, and.”

But what if “yeah, but” is not the problem. What if there is something more insidious–and less obvious?

A bigger enemy of innovation is, “Wow, this is a great idea.”

You read that correctly. Loving your ideas is the fastest way for them to fail.

The main reason is something called “confirmation bias.” This is where the brain filters information, only providing you with the data that supports your beliefs, rejecting everything else.

We see confirmation bias in all areas of life. Our view of politicians and politics is driven by it. Your purchasing decisions are influenced by it. If you really want a particular car, for example, no amount of bad reviews will change your mind. You will look at the positive ones and justify why the negative ones are wrong.

This happens in innovation too…

Continue reading >>

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