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Innovation Insights by Stephen Shapiro

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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…

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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…

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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.
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“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…

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You attend conferences. You read books. You take training classes. All with the goal of learning strategies from those who have paved the path to success before you.

But what if following in their steps could lead you down the wrong track?

3M talks about its 15 percent rule–a philosophy that allows anyone in the organization to spend 15 percent of their time on something other than the products they are directly tasked to develop. For 3M this is an incredibly powerful strategy. Unfortunately, for many companies that try to replicate this, they often end up wasting 15 percent of their time and money on innovations that add no value.

Why is this?

There are two factors you need to consider whenever you study what someone else is doing:

  1. The underlying context
  2. The undersampling of failure

The Underlying Context

What works for one organization may not work for yours because the context is different…

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If you visit this blog often, you will have noticed that I slowed my writing down a bit over the last month.

That is because I just launched my new Inc.com column on innovation.

If you want to read the article as they are posted, you can go to my author’s pageAll of my articles will be listed there.

As of this post there are two articles posted:

Why Following Someone Else’s Success Can Lead to Your Failure

The Best Way to Know if Your ‘Brilliant’ Idea Is Actually Pretty Terrible

Starting next week, I will begin posting the complete articles here (2 weeks after original publication date).

I hope you enjoy these and share them with others.


In my last post of the year, I shared my process for planning the new year.

In summary, instead of resolutions, I set themes. Themes are not goals to achieve. Rather they are words that help guide and shape the year. I first wrote about this concept in my 2005 book, Goal-Free Living

And now it is time to reveal my themes for 2018.

I am in the middle of my “innovation retreat week.”

And although the week is not over, themes have started to emerged. This theme popped into my head during a meditation on the hot tub:

“Question Everything”

This means questioning and challenging every part of my business.

What assumptions am I making? What has worked in the past that may be a liability in the future? Who are my typical clients and who do I want them to be in the future? What should my content be focused on? How do I deliver my content?

Of course I will keep what is working and what I like (e.g., I love keynote speaking). But asking these questions may force me to blow up some aspects of my business, or add new elements.

In line with this theme, I will soon be announcing a new “offering” that will give mid-sized companies direct access to me for a fraction of what it would normally cost them. This is a new way of delivering my content to a potentially new audience. Look for my “Innovation Intervention” over the coming weeks.

Interestingly, my 2018 theme is almost the opposite of my 2016 theme: Nothing NewThat year, my goal was to leverage my existing offerings, content, clients, and ideas.

As part of this process, it has been fun to reflect on my past themes. To help you think about what might work for you, here are a few of mine from previous years: 2007 Creating a Movement | 2009 Cool Things | 2012 More Money, Less Work, Greater Impact & Rituals & Perfection2017 Orlando & Investment

What are your themes for 2018?

How do you spend the first week of the New Year?

For many, it is back to the grind stone, picking up where you left off in 2017. The new year becomes an extrapolation of the past year.

My intention is to use the new year as a chance to innovate and create.

Therefore, I have a long standing tradition for the first week of the year: an innovation work retreat.

Every year I head to a resort. Given I own a timeshare, I go there for the week and I get a one bedroom suite with a kitchen so that I can stay in the room all day.

The first day is preparation day. I start by going to the supermarket and buying healthy food for the refrigerator. I also organize my workspace so that I can be as productive as possible when I get started the next day. Then I typically plan out the activities for the week.

After the first day, my routine is pretty much the same…

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2018 is around the corner. Time to make some changes in your life. Right? Ready to set some resolutions?

Before you do, did you know that only 8% of people are always successful in achieving the desired results. 92% fail!

(if you are interested in some fascinating statistics about resolutions, read this article: Interesting New Year’s Resolution Statistics)

But all is not lost. There is a better way.

Here is an article a wrote a while ago, but is timeless: Making Resolutions That WorkIt remains one of my most often cited articles.

Or, if you prefer, you can read the variant of this article that appeared as a full-page article in the Wall Street Journal several years ago (jpg).

The general premise is that instead of setting resolutions that are specific goals (e.g., lose 10 pounds, stop smoking, exercise 3 times a week), you want to create themes that help guide you and your decision making throughout the year…

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