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Innovation Insights by Stephen Shapiro

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When you are on autopilot, you are highly efficient. But when the rules change around you, this can lead to disaster….

I lived in London for several years. Before moving to England, I considered myself to be an excellent driver. But I quickly learned that some simple changes could make it difficult to operate a car.

I discovered that driving a car on the left side of the road in a right-hand drive car was nearly impossible. I felt incapacitated while behind the wheel. I never knew which way to look. I had a hard time judging the edge of the car and kept hitting the rumble strips on the side of the road. And attempting to drive a manual stick-shift vehicle proved to be even more comical.

After driving for two decades, my skills were on automatic without requiring conscious thought. This might be referred to as unconscious competence; a skill which is second nature.

Unfortunately, moving the steering wheel and driving on the “other” side of the road forced me to think. And thinking caused me to choke. What I had done so well for 20 years was now a complicated task.

What’s going on here?

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Advances in 3D printing will revolutionize manufacturing and the supply chain…

Imagine you are an executive at UPS. What market shifts would keep you up at night?

Maybe it’s the fact the Amazon.com announced they want to get into the logistics business to compete head-to-head with UPS and FedEx. Maybe it is the rapid development of drone technologies as a way of delivering packages.

But there is something that has the potential to completely disrupt UPS and the entire supply chain: 3D printing.

In today’s world, materials, parts, and finished products are shipped all over the globe. Raw materials are shipped to parts manufactures who ship their items to a company that assembles them into a finished product. The finished product is then shipped to a warehouse that ships it to the end customer. That’s a lot of shipping.

But consider how 3D printing has the potential to shake things up. Now, instead of shipping products you simply email a blueprint and you get the finished product where it is to be used and when you want it. The logistics network is pretty much eliminated.

Knowing this could be a major disruption to their business, UPS has launched an “On-Demand 3D Printing Manufacturing Network” that is designed to get ahead of the game. In addition, they’ve launched 3D printing capabilities in many of their stores.

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Sometimes the best way to learn innovative approaches to innovation is to read something completely different…

If you want to be a better innovator, there are hundreds (maybe thousands) of great books on the topic.

But as I mentioned in an earlier article, expertise can be the enemy of innovation. The more you know about a topic, the harder it is for you to think differently about it. The solution? Look outside your industry or area of expertise.

The same is true with innovation.

If you want to be a better innovator, start reading books that have nothing to do with business or innovation.

Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of reading many non-business books that have shaped my views on innovation… and life.

Here are five that I recommend to anyone who is looking to look at the world differently.

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character by Richard Feynman
This is one of my favorite book of all times. It is the autobiography of Richard Feynman, a Nobel-Prize winning physicist. He was a brilliant man who solved some of the most complex problems of our times. Fortunately, this book is not written for the Sheldon Coopers of the world (the nerdy character on Big Bang Theory who’s a big Richard Feinman fan). This book can be enjoyed by anyone. It is about his antics doing interesting and unusual adventures such as becoming a safe cracker, studying the movement patterns of ants, and playing music in Brazil. Each chapter is a different story. Each story has a powerful lesson for innovators. And you will laugh at loud. Continue reading >>

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. Continue reading >>

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? Continue reading >>

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: Continue reading >>

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…

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