Enhance Productivity and Efficiency with Stephen’s Innovation Insights

Innovation Insights by Stephen Shapiro

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There’s an old tale that goes…

Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.

Inside of organizations, there’s a corollary…

Ideas, ideas every where, Nor any one can think.

Um, ok, I should stick to my day job.  But the point is, organizations are drowning in a sea of ideas, yet they never take the time to think about what matters most.

The other day I was at an event run by a non-profit.  They have built up a large network of advocates who support the cause.  As I am a good friend with the woman who runs this group, I spent a fair amount of time with her that evening.  As the hours passed, many people gave her their thoughts on how to run the organization.  “Do more of this…”  “Do less of that…” “Call your group this….” “Engage these organizations…” “Copy what this non-profit is doing…”

The ideas were all over the map.

I could tell that the organization’s leader was a bit frustrated and confused as there were so many suggestions.

She turned to me and asked what I thought she should do.

Of course, like everyone else, I had my opinion.

I told her, “Stop listening to people’s suggestions.”  I then joking said, “And you should ignore my suggestion too.” (Someone once said to me, “Isn’t telling people that they should not use best practices a best practice?” Hmmm….)

Within any organization, there is never a shortage of ideas.  There is a shortage of good ideas that actually matter and ultimately create real value.

My recommendation to her was:

  1. Stop listening to suggestions (and don’t solicit them either).  Everyone wants to give you their two cents…and that’s all their ideas are worth.
  2. Get clear on your strategy.  There has been too much focus on day-to-day activities that the business model has not been clearly articulated.  There has been an over-focus on tactics rather than outcomes.
  3. Stop copying the best practices of other, similar non-profits; study for-profit organizations.  This will provide new insights.  And it will have you less reliant on sponsorship/donations and will force you to develop a real value proposition.
  4. Based on the strategy, identify a series of challenges/opportunities (“How might we…?”).  The strategy defines “what” you want to achieve (outcomes) and “why” (purpose).  The challenges deconstruct the strategy into questions, that when solved, provide the “how”.
  5. Ask your network (through email or better yet a private discussion board) for “solutions” to these challenge/opportunities.  Encourage collaboration.
  6. Find people who are passionate about moving these opportunities forward and put them in charge of implementation.

A critical issue with so many organizations (especially smaller businesses and non-profits) is that there are so many opportunities and so little focus.  The ideas/needs of the day tend to overshadow the overall strategy.

Get clear on how you make money, how you differentiate yourself, and then define a series of challenges that will help make that strategy a reality.  Focusing on what matters most will accelerate your innovation efforts and reduce your investment.

Happy Holidays.

Last month (November), Best Practices Are Stupid, was featured in Southwest Airline’s Spirit Magazine.  Now that it is no longer on planes and can’t be found on the internet, I figured it was time to share the article with the readers of this blog.  They did such a nice job, I feel as though their work should live on.  Click the image below to launch the article in a new window. Enjoy!



One of my favorite topics is to discuss how breakthroughs are generated by looking for someone who has solved a similar problem in a different space.

Some examples I talk about in my “Best Practices Are Stupid” books are:

  • A company developed a new type of whitening toothpaste by studying the way non-bleach laundry detergent works
  • A gas pipeline “sealing” system was developed by studying the way the capillaries in the finger coagulate blood and heal themselves
  • An office supply company found a way to get customers to return used toner cartridges by studying Netflix’s DVD service

And there are so many more interesting case studies.

While giving a speech on this recently, a client shared another wonderful example.

The company is in the computer simulation space.  They are able to build incredibly realistic models of what might happen in the real world by creating simulations in the virtual world.

When working for a medical device company that made angioplasty equipment, they wanted to create a computer simulation that would predict how the “balloon” would expand.

Where did they turn for an accurate computer model?

In the past, they worked with car manufacturers and built statistical models that simulated the expansion and contraction of airbags.  This proved to be a wildly accurate way of predicting how a balloon catheter would operate.

When you are working on your next business challenge, ask yourself: “Who else has solved a similar problem.”

In doing so, you might significantly accelerate your innovation effort.

I’m pleased that the American Express OPEN Forum (via Matthew E. May) selected Best Practices Are Stupid as one of the top 15 books of 2011.

Also, Best Practices Are Stupid  was selected as one of the “Top-Drawer Business Books of 2011” by the advertising agency, DDB.

And, in case you missed it, there is an excellent review of the book on the Actionable Books website.  Read it here

Here is the first new entry under the “Silly Practices” umbrella.

The other day I bought a television from Amazon.com. I buy everything from them and am a big fan. The TV was about 40% off the retail price and was $200 less than anywhere else. I thought was I was getting a good deal (and I was). Amazon.com has a price guarantee on the televisions they sell. If the customer finds the same TV being sold for less elsewhere or on Amazon.com within 15 days, they will credit the difference. I could also, for any reason, return a TV within 30 days and they pay for shipping both ways.

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving (4 days after I bought the TV), I saw that Amazon.com has dropped their price by $150. Cool. I wrote customer service asking for my account to be credited. Instead of them agreeing to do so, They told me that Black Friday and similar discounts did not count and they would not credit my account.

My television had not yet arrived at my condo (but it was shipped to a 3rd party who would ultimately deliver it to me). So I decided I would buy a new one at the low price and see if I could cancel the first order. I was unable to do this through the Internet, so I called.  They were extremely responsive.  I asked if they could either cancel the first order or, better yet, cancel the second order and credit my account for the difference.

Again, they would not give me a credit. Even though the first TV had shipped to the local courier who was gong to deliver it to my house, they decided to intercept it and have it sent back without my ever taking delivery. They shipped the second order later that day.

From a customer point of view, other than having to call them, they end result was what I wanted.  I got the TV delivered on the same day as I wanted for the $150 less.

But the silly thing here is that Amazon.com paid for a 50 inch TV to be shipped to a courier, and then returned. And then they had to pay for my new TV to be shipped. Had they simply credited my account, they would have saved quite a bite of money and energy dealing with the return.

Knowing Amazon.com, there might be a good reason for doing this. But from my perspective, it just seems silly.

You may have noticed that we redid this website.  The content from www.stupidpractices.com has been moved here.  We now highlight all 5 of my books on the top as well as more prominent links to buy them in the right sidebar.  And the overall design has been cleaned up and simplified.  I welcome ANY comments.  Thanks!

Today I want to test your mental muscle with an activity I conduct with my clients.

If you are a college sports fan, you will most likely be familiar with the NCAA basketball playoffs. 65 teams in total compete. The games are organized into brackets like the one illustrated here. Teams compete with the hope of making it into the “sweet sixteen,” the “final four,” and then ultimately being crowned the champion. The tournament is single elimination – that means that after each game, the winner advances to the next round and the loser’s eliminated.

With the NCAA tournament, the two lowest ranking teams compete against each other to get the 64th slot in the bracket.

The question is, “How many games need to be played in order to determine which team is the champion?”

The only way most will be able to find the answer is to draw out the full bracket and count the number of games in the chart. As a result, when I ask groups this question, it takes quite some time for everyone to answer correctly.

However, consider this.  If I were to phrase the question differently, I can guarantee that you would find the solution instantly.

Instead of asking, “How many games need to be played in order to determine which team is the champion?” what if I asked, “How many games need to be played in order to eliminate all of the losers?”

The answer should now be obvious. If you have 65 teams playing, 64 teams must lose. Since the tournament is single elimination, 64 games need to be played to eliminate all of the losers. Therefore 64 games need to be played in order to determine which team is the champion.

This simple exercise makes an incredibly important point. The way you phrase a problem will lead you down the path of a particular thought process. This, in turn will lead to a particular solution. How you ask the question will impact the manner in which you innovate.

A company who brainstormed, “How can we more effectively use 360 degree feedback?” completely missed alternative methods for addressing their larger management issue. If they had asked, “In what way might we create powerful leaders?” they would have found very different solutions.

An office supply company that asked the question, “How can we more effectively sell our products to school administrators?” completely missed the fact that the teachers were the real buyers and that that the administrators merely filled out the paperwork. In this case they should have done their homework to understand the real buyer first before looking to find solution.

Or when NASA wanted to “create a zero gravity laundry system” for space travel, they missed out on possible solutions that involved other methods for cleaning clothes or creating a material that does not require cleaning.

Asking the right question – the right way – is the surest way to accelerate your innovation efforts and for finding better solutions. Just as the NCAA tournament example showed, sometimes a very small change can have a significant impact on the way you view the problem.

The other day I was asked to speak for a company that had a limited amount of money and could pay me only 15% of my speaking fee.

Today I was asked to speak at a company in exchange for my receiving bicycle in lieu of cash (as you may guess, they manufacture bicycles).  The value of the bicycle is less than the cash the other company offered me.

Which gig, if any, did I accept?  What do you think?

Interestingly, I immediately turned down the cash offer yet accepted the barter deal.

Does this mean I am crazy?

No, actually, it means I am human.

I recently presented at an event where another speaker, Francois Gossieaux, quoted research done by Dan Ariely.

In a nutshell, when a dollar value is assigned to a task, people weigh the effort against the financial return.  But if no dollar amount is specified, we evaluate it differently.

For example…

  • If I asked you to do me a favor, you might be inclined to do it simply to help me out.
  • If I offered you a gift (e.g., a nice dinner) in exchange for your help, the gift may not weight heavily in your decision making process.  You would probably still do it to help me out.
  • But if I offered you $100 cash, now you would then evaluate if your investment of time is worth that much money.
  • Interestingly, if you say, “I’ll give you a gift worth $100,” you now evaluate it the same way as you would cash.

This has interesting implications for a company’s innovation efforts.

If you offer cash rewards, people will determine if their efforts are worth the extra money.

Giving a gift without assigning a value will be a greater motivator.  But if you assign a value to the gift (e.g., gift cards), you may reverse the positive impact of giving a gift.  Giving “points” that can be accumulated and exchanged for prizes is a nice middle ground that avoids a direct value assignment.

From my experience, the best “extrinsic” motivators are the “priceless” rewards.  These are things you can not buy – extra vacation days, a prime parking space, or dinner with the CEO.  These can not be assigned a dollar value.  And in the case of dinner with the CEO, this also taps into another motivator – status.  After the dinner you can taunt your friends, “Guess who I had dinner with last night.”

By recognizing the way people make decisions, you can find more effective – and often less expensive – ways of motivating them.

You now also know more effective and less expensive ways of getting me to help your organization innovate.  I wonder what I will be offered next.

Malcolm Gladwell has an excellent piece on how Apple created its first computer after visiting Xerox parc.  In particular, he discusses how the mouse was developed.

After Jobs returned from parc, he met with a man named Dean Hovey, who was one of the founders of the industrial-design firm that would become known as ideo. “Jobs went to Xerox parc on a Wednesday or a Thursday, and I saw him on the Friday afternoon,” Hovey recalled. “I had a series of ideas that I wanted to bounce off him, and I barely got two words out of my mouth when he said, ‘No, no, no, you’ve got to do a mouse.’ I was, like, ‘What’s a mouse?’ I didn’t have a clue. So he explains it, and he says, ‘You know, [the Xerox mouse] is a mouse that cost three hundred dollars to build and it breaks within two weeks. Here’s your design spec: Our mouse needs to be manufacturable for less than fifteen bucks. It needs to not fail for a couple of years, and I want to be able to use it on Formica and my bluejeans.’ From that meeting, I went to Walgreens, which is still there, at the corner of Grant and El Camino in Mountain View, and I wandered around and bought all the underarm deodorants that I could find, because they had that ball in them. I bought a butter dish. That was the beginnings of the mouse.”

This is a simple, yet powerful example of how a well-defined challenge can transform an industry.  What challenge can you frame that will help you redefine your industry?

It seems as though everyone wants to write a book. Unfortunately, most people don’t know where to start and, therefore, become under-motivated or overwhelmed. The result? Good intentions; no book.

But what if you could have a bookstore quality paperback book in your hands in two weeks? And what if you didn’t have to do much writing? Here’s a technique that I used to publish a nonfiction book in a fortnight, and sold tens of thousands of copies.

Why do you want to write a book?

It is important to start here. It’s a question many people fail to ask themselves. They don’t think about what they want to achieve with their writing. And they should, because the objectives will define the approach. I’ll give you three common reasons people want to write (in addition to just wanting to see their name in print or to share their ideas with the world).

1. You want to be rich and famous. If this is your objective, you may want to look elsewhere. Only 1,000 out of 172,000 books published each year sell over 50,000 copies. Very few authors become wealthy from books sales. In fact, most top-selling authors were rich and famous before they published their book.

2. You want to establish your credibility. If this is your objective, then using traditional publishers (e.g., Penguin, Harper Collins, McGraw-Hill, Wiley, etc.) may be the best approach. These publishers reject 98 percent of the books submitted to them, so getting your book published by them is like getting a stamp of approval; it’s automatically credible. In addition, these publishers handle all distribution, so you don’t have to worry about getting your books into stores yourself. If you’ve never before published a book, and credibility is your objective, then you may want to consider this path first.

3. You want to boost you existing business. Do you already have a business with an established client base? A book can be great marketing material. Instead of pushing your business, it teaches readers (and potential customers) what you know. And yes, it can generate some extra income, too.

Print-on-demand (POD) publishing

Even if you want to establish your credibility via a traditional publisher, you have one challenge: getting a publisher.  Publishing is a bit of a Catch 22. Authors who are not published are most interested in traditional publishers, yet publishers want only those people who already have a following.

Also, traditional publishing can be notoriously slow, and your content could very well be dated by the time your book gets released. In contrast, print-on-demand publishing allows you to have 100 percent up-to-date content, since you have the opportunity to update the content before each printing.

Another advantage of POD is the cost per book. Even with author discounts, you are lucky to get copies for $10. This makes it too expensive for many companies to order in bulk.

Finally, a potentially important advantage to POD is the fact that you retain all of the rights. You can reprint your content in any form you want: workbooks, audio books, eBooks, flash cards or training manuals. You are somewhat limited when you work with traditional publishers as they require you to sign over most of the rights.

Writing and publishing your book

You will probably make less money from your book than you will from the services or products you sell as a result of the book. However, the book still has to be good enough for people to want it, yet inexpensive enough for you to be able to give it away.

I have boiled the approach down to eight easy steps. Although a lot more can be written on the subject, this should give you enough to get started.

Step 1: Get clear on the content and format

Here are some important things to consider for your two-week book.

  • Your book should provide the reader with insights on your area of expertise. You want to share the breadth of your experience, but not necessarily the depth. The key is, you must already be an expert and should be able to talk about your topic for at least an hour. Two hours is better.
  • Create a book that is concise and easily digestible. The final length should be under 100 pages. Fifty to 75 pages is fine.
  • Identify an overarching framework. Most business books have some type of framework that’s incorporated into the book. It can serve either as the table of contents or, at the very least, can guide the development process.

Step 2: Record a speech or workshop

This is the step where most of the content is generated. Many of us, especially in the professional services area, give presentations, do training and facilitate workshops. Buy yourself a digital recorder and record a session. It’s that simple.

If you don’t give speeches, you can record a workshop. Or you can simply record a conversation with someone where you describe your approach. Doing is better than discussing. The key is, don’t do it alone. You must record a session where you interact with one or more other people.

Step 3: Transcribe your audio

This is the simplest, yet most expensive step. You can of course do it on your own if money is an issue. Or you can use a third party that charges approximately 1 cent per word.  If you record a two hour conversation or workshop, you might end up with 90 minutes of usable content. This would translate to a little more than 10,000 words, which is perfect. Your cost would be under $100 for the transcription. And if you go overseas, you can get it done for as little as $40 for 90 minutes (this is what I do).

Step 4: Choose your book format and paste in your transcript

Go to a book store and find books that have a similar layout to what you want. There is no right or wrong approach. For this book, the content is more important than the layout. The nice thing is, you can refine the layout with future printings.

Make a template in Microsoft Word (or whatever editing software you are comfortable with). Use the “Styles and Formatting” as a way of setting your text, headers, bullets, etc.  Once you have your template created, you can paste in the text from your transcription. Be sure to paste the text in an unformatted style so that you pick up the fonts of the template and not those of the transcription.

Step 5: Add headings, ask questions and edit

First, try to find logical headings. The more the better, as you can create a content rich table of contents page.

Next, edit the text so that it reads like a book rather than a speech. Although you can hire people to do this, it can be quite expensive. Take your time. So far you only invested a few hours and less than $100. If you do want professional editors, 10,000 words should cost about $200 to $400 for light editing/proofreading. Extensive editing is more.

Once you have a reasonable edit, give the book (printed on your inkjet printer) to a friend or colleague. Have them critique it. The objective is not to wordsmith at this point. Rather you want to make sure your friend understands the content. Have him or her write down questions as s/he reads it. Then have a conversation where you answer those questions. Record the conversation. Transcribe the conversation. And then paste in these refinements.

Now finalize the text. Paste in graphics that will help illustrate your points. If you have a framework, it certainly makes sense to include that. Pictures help improve readability.  I used 99designs.com to create a first graphic, and then I hired the designer to create the rest to my graphics.  But to save money, you can do this on your own using PowerPoint or any other graphics editing package.

A lot of white space also makes a book seem less intimidating. And then edit. Proofread. Make sure the text says what you want and is laid out the way you want. If you want something better looking, you can go to eLance.com and have your MS Word document converted into a professional layout for $100 to $150.  I did this for one of my self-published books.

At this point, you know the page count and the page size. You will need these for the next step.

Step 6: Find a printer…

Read the rest of this article on the American Express OPEN Forum

Bring Stephen’s innovation insights to your next event!