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684: Achieving More by Tapping into the Science of Less with Leidy Klotz

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Leidy Klotz reveals how to access the untapped potential of subtraction to make work and life more efficient.

You’ll Learn:

  1. What Legos can teach us about smarter problem-solving
  2. The trick to overcoming your brain’s bias for addition
  3. How subtracting leaves us with more

About Leidy

Leidy Klotz is a Professor at the University of Virginia, where he directs the university’s Convergent Behavioral Science Initiative and is appointed in the Schools of Engineering, Architecture, and Business. His research on the science of problem-solving has appeared in both Nature and Science and has been covered in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post among national newspapers on five continents. 

Resources Mentioned

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Leidy Klotz Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Leidy, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Leidy Klotz
Thanks for having me, Pete. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into the wisdom you’ve put forth in your book Subtract. So, why don’t we kick it off by you telling us the story of your epiphany that occurred with Legos?

Leidy Klotz
Yeah, the epiphany courtesy of my three-year old at the time, so I was playing Legos with my son and the problem that we had was that we were building a Lego bridge and it wasn’t level. And so, one of the columns was shorter than the other column. I turned around behind me to grab a block to add to the shorter column. By the time I had turned back around, my son had removed a block from the longer column. And that right there in front of me was this kind of thought process that I became interested in. And we’ve since done tens thousands of hours’ worth of research, studying and trying to figure out what was going on there.

But what was really helpful for me with that moment with the Legos, with my son, was that I’d always been interested in less, kind of this end state of things that are better because there’s less to them. But what he helped me see in that moment was this act of getting there, subtracting, and he also helped me see it in a very tangible way, in a way that I could actually go around and even show other people and describe my thoughts to other people. So, that proved really helpful as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s cool. Yes, three-year olds, I’ve got one as well and they teach you much. So, that’s wild how that sparks such a long journey, and it’s cool that we don’t stop there with a nice little metaphor. You got a boatload of research now to back it up. So, can you tell us then, while that’s kind of an interesting way to think a little bit differently, what’s sort at stake or the benefits associated with pursuing subtracting as opposed to adding?

Leidy Klotz
Fundamentally, what’s at stake here is that it’s a basic option that we have to make things better. Whether we’re creating a Lego structure, or whether we’re trying to improve our daily task list, whether we’re trying to improve the thoughts that are in our head, we can add things to them and we can also take things away.

And what I did in that moment was I didn’t even think about taking away as an option, and I would’ve added and moved on, never even considering if I wanted to subtract in that moment if not for being shown the other way by my son. And so, that’s the problem. The problem is that we’re not considering the options. The problem is not that less is always better. In fact, I quite like adding, but I think that anytime that we’re systematically overlooking a basic way to change things, that’s a problem.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly, yeah. Doubling our options sounds handy for sure. Could you share with us maybe some cool case studies in terms of professionals who’d done some subtracting and seen some really cool results and benefits?

Leidy Klotz
So, the downside is that we systematically underuse it. The upside is we don’t have to, and because everybody else is systematically underusing, there’s kind of additional power in taking things away. This is an untapped opportunity. And so, I think you see it everywhere really. So, one example is the craft of good presentations. I know you’ve had some people talking about that on your podcast before.

But, like, one of the elements of a good presentation is that all the kind of unnecessary stuff is stripped away. Edward Tufte, who’s this guru of information design, talks about maximizing the information to ink ratio, which basically means stripping away any ink that is not adding to your message. And so, that’s something in PowerPoint presentations, or posters, or any kind of visual displays, but obviously you can see the same thing in editing, so editing writing, also editing podcasts. I’m sure you’re going to take out some of the stuff that I say here today.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, not much. Not much.

Leidy Klotz
So, that is a very powerful subtraction that improves the overall product by taking away. So, that’s subtracting in kind of the information way. I think, on a personal level, and I’m certainly not the first person who has thought of this, but thinking about what you can stop doing, especially at work because at work we’re so inclined to show competence, and this is one of the reasons that we tend to add, I think, is because adding shows competence. But reminding ourselves, “Hey, one of the ways to make your work life better is to stop doing marginally useful tasks so that you have more time for the really useful ones.”

So, forcing myself, when I’m doing my to-do list, also thinking about, “Okay, what’s on my stop-doing list for the week?” And it’s critical that it can’t just be things that you’re going to say no to. It has to be things that you’re already doing, and now you’re going to stop doing them. That’s an actual subtraction from your calendar.

Pete Mockaitis
And it’s like saving money, like if you buy something that’s 30% off, you haven’t really saved money. But if you remove something, like, “You know what, I don’t even use that thing. Cancel that subscription.” Okay, now you’re saving some real money. So, that’s cool. And I’m curious, now             you’ve got a boatload of science and research behind it. Could you share with us what are some interesting insights, experiments, and results there that have taught you something about how we humans tend to operate and how we might operate better?

Leidy Klotz
Yeah. So, building from the bridge with my son, we did have one Lego-inspired study here, and basically you could solve this Lego study. There was a platform that was protecting a mini figure, and the task was to try to stabilize the platform so that you could balance a brick on top of the platform without crushing the mini figure. And, basically, you could solve this by removing one block and kind of letting the platform set down, or you could solve it by adding eight blocks and stabilizing it that way.

So, in this case, with the bridge it was like either/or. Either way could be a viable solution. In this case, it was obvious that taking away was better. We even incentivized people, and said, “Hey, every block you add, you have to pay for, but if you don’t add blocks, you can keep more of the money that we gave you up front.” And people still, overwhelmingly, kind of defaulted to this way of adding.

And so, what’s interesting about that is it shows not just that we tend to add but also that it’s a problem, like we tend to add even when subtracting would serve us well. And, of course, when people noticed or were told that, “Hey, this is a subtractive option,” they said, “Oh, geez, I wish I did that.” So, that was evidence that people were systematically overlooking it.

And we did this in a lot of different contexts. For me, the most convincing study paradigm was these grids that we created that you could just play on a computer screen. Because the argument could always be, “Well, that’s just what people do with Legos. This doesn’t mean we’re systematically doing it. It just means we add when we’re playing with Legos.”

But the grids on a computer screen are an entirely new task for people, and the way we set that up was there was a matrix, and it was basically divided into four quadrants. And the task people had was to make the quadrants symmetrical from left to right and from top to bottom. And we put extraneous marks in one of the quadrants. So, the way to solve it was to either to remove those extraneous marks from one quadrant or add the mirror marks in three other quadrants.

So, again, as with the Lego protecting the mini figure, subtracting was the better option, and people systematically overlooked it. And with these grids, there was no kind of preconceived contexts or preconceived ideas that people could bring to the task, so it was pretty good evidence that this is something we’re systematically doing.

Pete Mockaitis
in some ways, it’s funny. With like leveling a bridge, I guess I think about like leveling a table. It’s a lot easier to put a little shim under there than it is, like, “Oh, let me whip out the saw and just kind of shorten one of these legs.”

So, in many contexts, adding is easier. Adding, you mentioned, can reveal competence, like, “Oh, wow, you must know a lot of things because look at all those slides you made there.” And so, there’s a little bit of a nudge or bias there. Any other big explainers as to why do we humans do this?

Leidy Klotz
There are a lot of reasons. The first four chapters of the book is that there’s biological, cultural, and economic forces that have us doing it. And I think one useful distinction here is that there’s this basic oversight where we don’t even think of the option, and then there’s all kinds of reasons once we do think of the option, why we wouldn’t even pursue it.

So, your example of, and I certainly agree with, like cutting a leg off a table, that’s harder. But the assumption there is that, “Okay, we considered it. We thought of that option and we chose against it because it was harder.” That’s logical. That’s not a problem. Basically, what’s going on in the cognitive process, the reason we overlook it is because we add and then move on, we basically say, “This satisfies.” So, we say, “This is a good enough solution and I’m moving on without considering other options.”

And then, from there, there’s evolutionary reasons why that might be happening. You mentioned competence. We think of competence as a very work-related thing and it’s maybe a modern thing. I was surprised, doing the research, just how deeply rooted this desire to show competence is. This is why bowerbirds build their ceremonial nests to attract a mate.

So, if you’re not familiar, these birds build these really great nests. The males build the nests, the females go around and look at the nests, and then they decide which males to mate with based on which nest they like the best. And then the females go and make their own nests to shelter the kids. So, these nests serve no other function than to say, “Hey, the bowerbird who built this nest is effective at interacting with their world.”

And so, we all have this biological desire to show competence. So, when I have 800-file folders saved for this research that we did, none of which that are ever going to see the light of day, part of that is this kind of innate desire to show competence through adding things. And so, that’s a strong why. I think there’s cultural reasons, of course. Then cultural and economic reasons that kind of come together.

If your country is being measured on Gross Domestic Product, anything that you add to the economy is going to be seen as a positive even if it’s a jail or something that’s bad. And then if your company is working on kind of quarterly earning reports, that can incentivize adding stuff to show that you’re doing more and to show that there’s increasing streams of revenue coming in.

So, I think there’s economic incentives, cultural incentives, and biological incentives, and they’re all kind of reinforcing each other.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And I guess I’m also thinking about that corporate example reminded me of it seems like sometimes if you’ve got a really great thing going in terms of like a product and process, and it’s like you could just keep doing that all day, it’s sort of like, “Well, hey, the team is getting bored.” It’s like, “We’re getting bored doing this thing that’s working perfectly over and over and over again, and making lots of profits. So, how about we do a new thing?” I think that can happen too.

Leidy Klotz
Yeah. And I think that’s what I like about subtracting. I’m that kind of person. I want to do and I don’t want to kind keep doing the same thing over and over. And subtracting is an action, so it’s like, this is different than just kind of sitting back, kind of minimalism, or even laziness, or just getting stuck in a rut. It’s like, “Hey, we want to change. We want to improve this thing. We want to try something new. Why is it that we only think about things we could add?”

Because the other way to break out of rut, if you’re that organization that’s been doing the same thing over and over and over again, it’s like, “Hey, let’s cut out half of what we’ve been doing and really focus on the other half,” and that would be a change. Again, I’m agnostic on whether you should add or subtract, but to not consider the option is the problem.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. You mentioned the research reveals some stuff about how we can get our brains to swim against the current, go against the grain, and do more subtracting. Tell us, how do we go about making that happen?

Leidy Klotz
Yeah, and one of the things we’re trying to show with the research, we’re trying to find with the research is whether people weren’t even thinking of this. And so, we would try things to get them to think of it, make them more likely to think of it, and one of the things we tried was cues. So, with the grids, for example, we gave people a cue that you could add or subtract to solve the grid pattern, and that increased the rates of subtracting, which would be like, “Okay, big deal, you gave them a reminder and they were reminded.” But it didn’t increase the rates of adding.

So, what that showed was that the reminder was bringing new subtractions to mind but for adding it was redundant with what people were already thinking. So, it was really useful for our research but also really useful as a how-to. And so, I think one thing is you have a reminder that you can add or subtract, or add and subtract, to solve things, but it’s really important, we didn’t find any evidence that that reminder would kind of carry over from one study to the next, so you have to put those reminders close to where you’re making the decision. That’s why when I’m doing the stop-doing list, I’m forcing a reminder that subtracting is a way to improve my calendar.

One of the things on your sheet, you talked about your listeners, and you talked about them being interested in thinking, and you put a reminder on there about thinking involves generating and selecting ideas, which is beautiful because it’s like that’s a reminder that adding and subtracting can be used here in our thinking process and actually mimics something that I talk about in the book, which is that evolution generates and selects to make progress. So, having those reminders at the point of when you’re making the decisions or when you’re trying to make the improvements is really important and supported by the research.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Okay. so we’ve got some reminders up front. Maybe, could you share with us some of the coolest examples of subtraction in terms of someone did some subtracting and then they saw great results? So, you mentioned you’ve got your stop-doing list. What are some things that you’ve chosen to stop doing and the cool fruit that’s come from that?

Leidy Klotz
Email.

Pete Mockaitis
Nice. Stop doing email.

Leidy Klotz
I haven’t stopped completely but I think just forcing myself to be disciplined with doing it one time a day, and so I positioned that stop-doing as like stop these intermittent email checks. And what’s interesting about that, of course it has this amazing effect where I’m not distracted throughout the day, but it also led to decrease the stream of my email. Because part of the problem with me getting so many emails was me sending so many emails. So, every time I spam my graduate students with, “Hey, did you see this article?” then I’m distracting them, they’re feeling a need to respond, and then I have like distracted people working with me, plus I have six new email responses in my inbox the next time I go to check.

So, that email discipline, that stop-doing, has actually led to cascading subtractions. Another personal one that’s really helpful is kind of just unplugging when I exercise. And, again, like gathering knowledge is just so precious. I listen to podcasts, I read voraciously on Wikipedia, but I had been kind of using my exercise time as like, “Okay, can I catch up on the news while I’m running on the treadmill, while I’m listening to a podcast?” and it wasn’t giving me any time for my brain to kind of like synthesize things and think about what’s really important to select. So, those two are kind of personal ones that are work-related.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, certainly. And even if they’re not work-related, I’d love to hear what are some cool subtractions you’ve seen in action?

Leidy Klotz
Yeah, one of my favorites is the balance bike. So, you said you had a three-year old.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s right.

Leidy Klotz
Do you have a balance bike?

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t.

Leidy Klotz
You don’t. Oh, man, so this is the value that I’m providing right now to you, Pete. They’re these miniature bikes that don’t have pedals and they allow the kids to ride them like a Flintstones car basically. So, the kid balances on the bike and then just pushes, propels it with their feet. And what’s amazing is that the kids learn how to balance within like 30 minutes to an hour of walking around on this. So, very quickly, they can reach really high speeds as like a two-year old on this bike.

And what’s amazing about is that, well, the power of it, I think, is it gives kids like two extra years of bike riding, which I think is a very delightful thing. I’m disappointed that we didn’t have them when I was growing up. And also, the innovation there is removing the pedals. People have been thinking about better bike design for a hundred years at least, and there’s been a lot of profit to be made, and people added training wheels. We added connections from the kids’ bike to the grownup bike. We made fatter tires, fatter tubes. And it took all this time for somebody to think, “Hey, what if we subtract the pedals? What will happen there?”

So, I think that’s a beautiful example in the physical world. And then an example I used in the book is Bruce Springsteen. He’s a prolific artist, obviously, but one of his albums is Darkness on the Edge of Town, and it’s one of his most critically acclaimed albums. And what’s really unique and noticeable about that album is that he really stripped things down. And so, one, he stripped on the number of songs on the album. He recorded like 50 songs during that time period and only a few of them, a dozen or ten, made it onto the album. And he stripped away some really good songs that became hits for other artists.

But then the music itself is very stripped down. So, the wording is sparse and the music is compact and powerful. And what’s cool about that is that he subtracted but, also, he kind of showed competence by subtracting because it’s not that we can’t show competence by subtracting. It’s just that you need to probably do more of it for your subtracting to stand out. And so, everybody, when they heard this album, and if you’re a Bruce Springsteen fan, if you’re listening to his albums, you’re like, “Well, this is different.” Even if you don’t know why it’s different, you’re like, “This is different. Something happened here.”

And so, in the subtraction that he persisted with there led to this kind of innovative change in how music was made. So, whereas, the balance bike was a physical example, the subtraction in his music is a very kind of ideas/words and music example.

Pete Mockaitis
And I had also heard that married couples that don’t have a TV in their bedroom have more sex. So, I don’t know if we’re going to go here today. And so, I think that’s an interesting example and it sort of makes sense, like, “Hey, well, our focus is on each other as opposed to that large eye-grabbing device on the wall.”

Leidy Klotz
That’s such a beautiful example. And it’s really annoying to be doing these podcasts after writing the book and thinking like, “Oh, I wish I could’ve used the TV-sex example,” would’ve been way better than the example I used in the book to illustrate this principle, which I’m about to say, which is so often when we’re trying to improve a situation, like we think about what incentives we can add. So, it’s like, “Okay, the goal is like let’s have more sex. And so, can we put in mood lights?

Leidy Klotz
You get the idea. There’s a lot of things, a lot of incentives we could add for having sex. And then we often overlook the barriers to the behavior we’re trying to produce. And so, in this case, the barrier is that TV, what’s interesting with this and the argument that people make, and like Kurt Lewin, the founder of social psychology, said, “There’s two ways to change a situation. One is to add incentives and the other is to remove barriers.” And he said, “Removing barriers is actually the good way because it relieves tension.”

So, imagine if you add the incentive, well, you still got the TV there. So, it’s very clear that the incentive might work but if it doesn’t work, there’s still this kind of you’ve got the incentive plus you’ve got the TV, and you haven’t actually relieved the fundamental tension in the system. Whereas, if you stripped away the TV, you’ve actually relieved tension in the system. The example I used in the book is an iPad with a kid. So, it’s so close to the example but it’s so much better than the example I used.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, if you go with the iPad and the kids, so if you…

Leidy Klotz
So, the behavior in that case is I’m trying to get my kid to spend time not looking at the iPad when he comes home from school. And so, one thing you can do is say, “Hey, if you don’t use the iPad, you can have a cookie,” that’s the incentive version. And, in this case, if he doesn’t, so it may work. He may eat the cookie and be happy and never think about it, or he may want to watch the iPad still, which increases his frustration because now he’s not getting a cookie because he’s watching the iPad. So, you’ve increased the tension in the system. Whereas, kind of the equivalent of removing the TV is just removing the iPad from the kid’s view and hopefully he doesn’t think about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that notion of removing the view, I think, is huge because while it’s true, it’s so funny because I just want to take a photo of the adorable thing my child is doing. And then when I get out my phone, it’s like, “Ooh, can we play the pre-school games?” It’s like, “I just want to take a picture. This is going to be like three seconds.” And so then, we now have a bit of a, “Well, hey, no. We did that earlier,” you’ve got that whole thing.

And so, could you expand upon that in terms of some things that maybe we just want out of view and how we get them out of view? I imagine there’s like social media, news, distractions, and there’s some apps you can use to block those or shut them off. What are some maybe creative ways you’ve seen this put into practice?

Leidy Klotz
Yeah, to get them out of view. That’s, essentially, what the email was doing, the not checking the emails, but also the email reminders. I’ve got my good friend Ben who worked with me on the research. He’s like, “I got to figure out how to turn off my email reminders.” And this is like four years into the research together, which is like this is kind of forced, automated adding that’s distracting you throughout the day, so things like that come to mind.

Pete Mockaitis
I heard that there’s a study that they challenged folks to turn off all of their phone notifications for like a week or something, and then they followed up with them like a year later, half of people continued to live that way, like, “Now it’s so much better. Thank you.” And so, it’s striking how that is good. I have seen they’ve actually made…my buddy Jackson, shoutout Jackson, has, I think, it’s called a lite phone and it doesn’t have much. You can make phone calls, you can do texting, maybe a little bit more. It has like a Kindle-style screen, and that’s on purpose. So, you can’t get a bunch of apps and all the distractions that they incur because it’s just not available, or that temptation.

I guess now I’m thinking about like tempting circumstances, like alcoholics, or overeaters, or anyone, or gambling. There’s many number of ways you can just make sure you’re not in the presence of those things, which lead you down there. But I’d love to hear, I guess I’m just so intrigued by this because if people have that hardwiring, like, “More is better and I want more,” what are some maybe surprises you’ve seen in terms of it turns out that subtracting this thing was actually awesome?

Leidy Klotz
We talked a lot about the disadvantages that subtracting faces, like the systematic, “Oh, it doesn’t show competence,” and we don’t think of it. One of the systematic advantages is that when you subtract something, you’re left with the new situation plus whatever you took away. So, like the donut holes is the example I used in the book here just to illustrate it. It’s like it took forever for somebody to realize you could cut the middle of the round wall of dough and make it cook more evenly, and you could spread more stuff onto it. And then it took even longer for somebody to realize, “Hey, this thing that we just took out is actually like another source of revenue.”

And so, this applies in a lot of ways. If you think about divestment is another thing I talk about in the book, which is like, “How do you, not investing in things that are kind of counter to your values?” So, this was really powerful in helping bring down apartheid in South Africa, for example. It’s like, “Okay, let’s stop investing in the companies that are operating in South Africa, propping up this system that nobody thinks is good.”

And when you divest, you take the money out and you’ve still got the money. You can do something with it. You can go put it somewhere else. It’s the same, going back to your example of the people in the business who are like, “Okay, we’re working along really well, and we like what we’re doing. What can we do differently? What can we add?” If you add, you’ve got this existing situation plus all the stuff you’ve added, the activities you’ve added, so you’re still at capacity or beyond capacity. If you take something away, then you’ve got the new improved situation, which is like you’re streamlined-focus plus you’ve got this effort that is now unaccounted for and you can devote to something else.

So, I think it makes sense when it’s explained to you but it’s also a little counterintuitive when we think about subtracting. We often overlook the fact that you can reuse the thing that you took away. Whereas, if you add, you’ve got nothing left over.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, whether it’s money or time or attention or energy, you got it.

Leidy Klotz
Yeah, time is a big one.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Leidy Klotz
No, I think the key thing is across ideas, objects with the Lego bridge, and then our day-to-day situations. So, the ideas one, that’s for people who like to listen to podcasts and for people who like to think about how they’re going to be better at their job. We spend a lot of time kind of accumulating information and we often overlook, like, “Okay, how do I streamline my mental models? What am I kind of grounding my ideas in that I may not believe anymore that has been shown isn’t actually the way that I think it is?” And so, spending the time streamlining our mental models is a really powerful use of subtraction and very overlooked.

Pete Mockaitis
Streamlining our mental models, so that’s like specifically identifying the, “I don’t believe, think, accept, agree with this thing anymore.”

Leidy Klotz
Yeah. And prioritizing, so it’s like, “Yeah, this thing is true. I listened to it but It doesn’t warrant the same attention as these kinds of four core things that are in my mental models.” The intentional version of synaptic pruning, which is our brain has evolved to do naturally which is like the connections that get used, get reinforced and strengthened, and when we sleep, it kind of prunes away the connections that aren’t being used to leave more room for the connections that are being used. So, our brain does that on its own for all the parts of the brain, but it also is something that we can do, and say, “Hey, this is not something that warrants the same amount of attention as some other ideas that are really, really critical.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Leidy, could you share with us a mental model or two that you have pruned away as the years have gone by?

Leidy Klotz
This is a slightly embarrassing one to share but I think if people are honest with themselves, I think a lot of us felt the same way. So, if you think about the systemic racism, I remember last summer the first time systemic racism came up in a department meeting, everybody, myself included, some people were verbally like, “Whoa, we’re not racists.” And I was probably thinking that but not articulating it, smart enough to not articulate it, but I think that’s certainly a mental model that shifted this notion that I knew the playing field wasn’t level before. I knew that always but just kind of the degree to which it was not level, and the fact that there can be systemic racism with me not being racist.

It required learning a little bit of new stuff but it also required subtracting some of my deeply held beliefs about how the United States operates for people. And so, I think that’s one very important one that has shifted for me recently.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Well, now, can you share with us a favorite quote?

Leidy Klotz
Perfect, and we didn’t cover it yet, and it relates to subtraction. So, Lao Tzu has this great quote that’s attributed to him, that’s, “To gain knowledge, add things every day. To gain wisdom, subtract things every day.” I love the quote because it’s a great reminder that we talked about being important, but it’s also evidence of the fact that we’ve been overlooking subtraction for a long time because this is a two and a half millennia-old quote, and it still rings true and counterintuitive today.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Leidy Klotz
One that I really like that I find myself talking about a lot is actually Ashley Whillans, who’s at Harvard, and Liz Dunn, who’s at the University of British Columbia, they do a lot of work on time and happiness, and they’ve got this great study that shows that people who spend money to save time are happy.

And they show it, one reaction to that study is like, “Well, yeah, that’s because they have money to spend on like housekeepers.” But they show it on a population of millionaires but they also show it in people who are working on like minimum wage. And they do that by kind of giving them money and setting up a controlled experiment where certain people spend the money in one way, and certain people spend money the other way.

So, it’s a really cool study. It’s really powerful. And it ties into subtraction here because what you’re essentially doing when you spend money to save time is you’re like not only are you not doing something, which we see is hard for competence, it’s hard when you say, “Okay, I’m not going to do this task anymore,” but you’re actually paying for it now. You’re not going to do it plus you’re going to pay somebody else to do it. So, it’s a hard thing to do but the research shows that people who do do it are happier, so it’s really a great research and also very practical.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, man, Leidy, that reminds me of back in the day when I had roommates who did not work from home, and I was doing a lot of coaching, I found my laundry was kind of piling during busy season, and I was like, “Well, I mean, this is good money per hour from the coaching. Am I just supposed to stop and do laundry? But am I going to wear dirty clothes? What are my options here?”

And so, even though I was working from home, and there were like eight laundry machines on the first floor of this apartment building, I paid someone to come in and do my laundry. You can have a laundry service, Leidy, but then they don’t put in your drawers and closets. And so, I felt a little silly and decadent but I kept looking at the spreadsheet, I was like, “I will make more money and have clean laundry by paying someone else to come do this for me but I don’t want to feel, like, I’m so rich, I’m too good to do my laundry.” I had this mental block but I did it and I loved it and my roommates made fun of me but I didn’t care.

Leidy Klotz
Yeah, that’s a great example. That’s the exact feeling that I have when I do it, it’s like, “Who am I to be this guy who hires a whatever?” but, yeah, it’s exactly that. Number one, the money that you’re making, and then when you’ve got kids, it’s the free time that you’re losing. This is like an hour of my kids’ life when he actually thinks I’m cool. I don’t want to lose that. So, yeah, you’ve given us a really good way to overcome that, and Whillans and Dunn talk about this, it’s like, “Think about the value of your time.” And then, also, another reason that’s kind of hard to do because, yeah, you feel snooty.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Leidy Klotz
I’m biased towards the ones I read recently, but Alison Gopnik has this great book called The Gardener and the Carpenter. It’s about parenting and the cognitive psychology of parenting. But she’s a psychologist plus a philosopher which I think is the perfect combination for parenting, and it’s just an amazing parenting book.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s great. Well, I was just reading No-Drama Discipline by the authors of the The Whole-Brain Child, and now I’ve got this one. Thank you.

Leidy Klotz
Yes, I like The Whole-Brain Child too. And if I can plug one other author, Eduardo Galeano. I love his stuff. He’s an Uruguayan guy who writes kind of this amazing blend of history/his opinions/fiction, and it’s like unlike anything you read before, and it’s really amazing.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool?

Leidy Klotz
Favorite tool. This is an embarrassing one – Wikipedia. I use it a lot. It’s just so amazing. We talk about this information to wisdom thing, and the amount of work that people have done to make Wikipedia. It’s not my last stop in doing research, but it’s often my first stop because things are organized around subjects instead of in isolated journal articles. So, it’s an amazing tool for me.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I love Wikipedia for when I’ve been out of the game for news for a while, and there’s an article about the latest development in a thing, I was like, “Well, what was this thing?” And then you go to Wikipedia, and you read a four-minute piece, and it has like 180 references, you’re like, “Oh, I’m glad I didn’t read 180 news articles. I’ve read this synopsis. Thank you.”

Leidy Klotz
Yeah, you’re right. I hadn’t thought about that but that’s a great kind of way to subtract information and still get the same benefit. It’s like just wait a couple weeks if it’s important and it’ll be on Wikipedia. And not only that, but it’ll be summarized so you don’t have to go get the 180 different viewpoints. You can get it all in one spot and distill it for yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
Totally. And a favorite habit?

Leidy Klotz
Exercising is really important to me, and unplugging when exercising, we already talked about. So, yeah, just physical exercise to kind of strengthen my mental performance. Also, just because it’s enjoyable but the more I progress in my career, the more I realize how instrumental it is in my mental performance too.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Leidy Klotz
“Less is not a loss,” is kind of a counterintuitive thing from the book. So, yeah, it is what it sounds like but oftentimes we don’t subtract because we perceive the end state as being a loss. And what we’ve talked about in all of these cases are subtractions that actually lead to something better, but it’s still really easy to kind of conflate the two. And so, this reminder that less is not always a loss seems to be really helpful for people.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Leidy Klotz
Twitter is great. I’m @Leidyklotz. And I like interacting with people especially people who have read the book. It’s really fun to hear their thoughts. One of the cool things about the book, in my mind, is that it brings up kind of people’s experiences from all walks of life, so it’s incredibly rewarding for me to hear, like I told the Bruce Springsteen story earlier.

I talked to this guy in Germany who’s writing an article about the research for Germany’s version of MIT Technology Review but he also talked to me about these Johnny Cash American recordings. He’s like, “It’s just like what you’re describing with Bruce Springsteen.” So, now I have like six CDs, well, six downloads on Amazon to listen to from Johnny Cash that were sparked by my book. And then he shared with me and it’s made my life better. Very selfish authorship here. It’s like, “What benefit can readers give me from reading?”

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Leidy Klotz
Yeah, add and subtract. So, don’t overlook this basic option to make things better.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Leidy, this has been fun. I wish you much enjoyment in all of your subtracting.

Leidy Klotz
Thank you. You, too, Pete.

679: How to Become an Everyday Innovator and Unleash Your Creativity with Josh Linkner

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Josh Linkner breaks down the habits of great innovators and how you can become a great innovator in your own right.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How you can develop your creativity–no matter your role 
  2. The habits and mindsets of the greatest innovators
  3. How to spark new ideas when you’re in a rut 

About Josh

Josh Linkner is a Creative Troublemaker. 

He has been the founder and CEO of five tech companies, which sold for a combined value of over $200 million. He’s the author of four books including the New York Times Bestsellers, Disciplined Dreaming and The Road to Reinvention.  As the founding partner and former CEO of Detroit Venture Partners, he has been involved in the launch of over 100 startups. 

Today, Josh serves as Chairman and co-founder of Platypus Labs, an innovation research, training, and consulting firm. He has twice been named the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year and is a recipient of the United States Presidential Champion of Change Award. 

Josh is also a passionate Detroiter, the father of four, a professional-level jazz guitarist, and has a slightly odd obsession for greasy pizza. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, sponsors!

  • Care.comFind the perfect caregiver for your child, parents, and home.
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Josh Linkner Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Josh, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Josh Linkner
Truly appreciate it. Excited for our conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me, too. Me, too. Now you’ve had a lot of cool innovative moments across your career. I’d love it if you could share with us one of your favorite eureka aha moments that have happened to you.

Josh Linkner
Well, one aha moment is that I realized that human creativity is not born as much as it’s developed, and the research bears this out. In fact, Harvard came out with a study that shows that human creativity is as much as 80% learned behavior. And many of us think that you’re either creative or you’re not, you’re born that way or you have to suffer. And the truth is that it’s more like, I would say it’s more like your weight than your height. Try as I may, I’m not going to be a foot taller by next month but my weight I can control. And creativity is very much the same. That was the big moment for me.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. And so, I want to talk a lot about exactly how one learns to become more creative. But, first, if we could make the case for creativity, innovation, particularly for listeners who are like, “Hey, you know, I’m in the middle of the organization, and my job isn’t creative per se in terms of I’m not doing design or new product stuff. I’m a program manager, maybe.” And so, can we make the case for those professionals? What do they have to gain, personally and professionally, by sharpening their creative skills?

Josh Linkner
Yeah, awesome question. The truth is that the way that we get ahead in organizations has really changed in the last few years. In the past, maybe it was your knowledge of hard skills or whatever, but nowadays, those would become outsourced, commoditized, and automated. And what allows us to really soar in our professions, to be awesome at our job, if you will, is to bring inventive thinking and creative problem-solving to the game. When you really unpack, “Why does somebody get promoted? Why does somebody achieve more in their career?”

Most often these days, it’s tied to their ability to use, get inventive thinking and solve problems in fresh ways. So, I think it’s really become mission critical, in fact, and especially as automation and robotics and artificial intelligence, that’s the one thing that’s uniquely human about us all.

The other thing I’ll just quickly say is that, too often, unfortunately, we attribute job title with creative needs. Like, for example, people in marketing should be creative and people in accounting should not. But the truth is that there’s room for creativity in every single aspect in an organization, every single box in an org chart. We can be creative in our own ways whether you’re selling or running a customer service team or, yeah, doing finance. So, I think it really applies to us all, and I think that’s the one thing that we can truly harness to get ahead in our careers.

Pete Mockaitis
I dig it. Thank you. Okay, I’m sold. So, then let’s hear it, with your book Big Little Breakthroughs, what’s the big idea here? And, particularly, what are micro-innovations and why do they matter?

Josh Linkner
Yeah, so the book Big Little Breakthroughs: How Small, Everyday Innovations Drive Oversized Results so the big little idea is that it sort of flips innovation upside down. And, too often, we think of innovation, it’s got to be a billion-dollar idea, it’s got to change the world, and it feels risky and out of reach, and just inaccessible for most normal people.

And this really flips it upside down in that it’s cultivating small daily acts of creativity as opposed to these wild swing-for-the-fences things. It’s taking the small bites of creativity, which are way less risky, way more within the grasp of us all, they build critical skills, and they add up to big things. So, that’s the premise of the book.

I like to think about it as innovation for the rest of us. It’s kind of helping everyday people become everyday innovators. And a micro-innovation is just what you might think of. If a big innovation is inventing penicillin or the assembly line or something, that’s awesome. Nothing wrong with that. But, again, most of us won’t do that. Those happen once every generation.

On the other hand, all of us can generate micro-innovations on a regular basis everything in our personal lives. An example would be you can chill a glass of white wine by using a frozen grape in that way you don’t dilute the wine with an ice cube. So, that’s a micro-innovation. It doesn’t change the world but it’s helpful.

In a professional sense, a micro-innovation might be something as simple as how you greet a customer, or how you prospect for a new client, or how you interact with the boss, or how you conduct a job interview. And so, these are things that don’t change the world in and of themselves but they add up to big things and they do create meaningful outcomes.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m not one to get too nitpicky over definitions here, but it’s interesting with that white grape example in white wine. It’s interesting. Well, now I’m going to try it. And, in a way, that’s an innovation in that I wasn’t doing it before but I didn’t invent that. I just heard it from you and thought it was pretty cool, and I’m going to try it, and it might just enhance my life that little bit. But it feels like innovation is happening in my world as a result of trying it. Can you noodle on that with me?

Josh Linkner
Sure. Well, first of all, you don’t have to invent something to take advantage of it. I love borrowing and sharing ideas that’s awesome. How great is that? Every time I get to learn a new way to do something that’s better, that’s an aha moment that can be savored. But when we’re taking advantage and noticing them around us, it actually encourages us to come up with them ourselves.

And so, it’s funny, the best way to get creative is just the same way that I learned to play a guitar. I’ve been playing guitar for 40 plus years. I put myself through college as a working musician. I still play today. The way you don’t play a guitar is one day you wake up and say, “Eureka! I’ve got a lightning bolt from the heavens and, all of a sudden, I’m a master musician.” Of course not. The way you play a guitar is you practice day in and day out. And the more you practice the better you get.

Same thing is true with creativity. So, when we think about we want to create our Mona Lisa’s in our lives, or things that we want to be remembered by, you don’t start there. I mean, Da Vinci’s first painting wasn’t the Mona Lisa. First, Da Vinci had to learn to paint, and he had to paint bad stuff, and he painted every day. And, over time, his Mona Lisa was revealed. So, for us, even cultivating small ideas like putting frozen grapes in wine is a wonderful step along the process of unlocking your full creative potential.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, what’s so funny is that that can just sort of take you down a path in terms, “Oh, I can do the same thing for Gatorade. I have a frozen chunk…” or just insert beverage. Or, then you can extract is a little farther in terms of, “Oh, if I put a modified version of the like something on a something, it can be enhanced in some way.” I don’t know. Like, “I could extend my Post-it note by taking the same color sheet, I don’t know, and put it to the top of where the adhesive is,” whatever. I think there are some bad ideas along the way to good ideas, right?

Josh Linkner
Well, really, to go with that, I really like because you’re doing pattern recognition. You’re saying, “If this applies here, can I apply it there?” And that’s actually a wonderful technique to come up with creative ideas. We don’t need to be imbued by the gods with some original thought every 10 seconds. We can borrow from all these things around us. A lot of times innovation comes from borrowing from one part of life and applying it to another. So, that’s not a cheat. That’s actually a really productive approach.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. All right. Well, I dig it. Well, so then you talk about a number of particular simple habits that some creative folks like, Lady Gaga, Banksy, Lin-Manuel Miranda, have adopted that helped paved the way for their creative success. What are some of these habits?

Josh Linkner
Well, so you focused on helping people become awesome at their jobs, and if you want to be awesome at anything, I feel like you got to examine the mindsets, the habits, and the tactics of people who are awesome at something, and then you can replicate and follow their lead. So, that’s what I tried to do in the book.

I covered the eight core mindsets of everyday innovators, I covered a lot of tactics, which I’m happy to talk about with you, but I did, also, really examined, “What are the habits? What are the daily habits of people like Lady Gaga all the way down to normal people like you and me?” And what I really examined was a few different things.

First of all, people do work at it on a regular basis. There’s a real sense of habitual repetitiveness to it. And people are always changing those habits. It’s not like you just have to adopt one habit forever. It’s always in flux. What I do actually, I keep tweaking my own. I have a five-minute a day creativity habit that I do. It’s sort of like taking a shot of espresso for your creativity and it lasts me for the rest of the day. But even that, like since I wrote the book, I’d modified it a little bit and that’s kind of healthy. But I’m happy to give some, a really beginning entry. I know we’re not talking about tactical things on your show, but try this.

First of all, do an experiment 14 days. Instead of worrying about, “I’m going to do this forever for the rest of my life,” don’t over-commit. Try to for 14 days. Try this – two minutes a day. Two minutes, 14 days. Here’s how it goes. Minute number one, I call it guzzle inputs. In software engineering, they always say, “If you want to change the outputs of something, you got to change the inputs.” So, take one minute a day and just absorb the creativity of others. Maybe watch a YouTube video of a concert. Maybe you stare at a painting. Maybe you read a poem out loud. Nothing to do with you or your work, just guzzle creativity of others. And it’s sort of like priming the pump.

The second minute of your two-minute a day routine is try riffing on an unrelated problem. Pick up any problem. Look at a news source and just find any problem that has nothing to do with you, your life, or your career. So, maybe you see plastics pollution in oceans. So, okay, that’s nothing to do with you. And here’s what you do. Spend one minute, seeing how many small ideas you could think of that won’t cure it but will help it.

When we try to cure a problem all at once, it has to be so perfect that we just get all caught up and it’s hard to be creative. Don’t do that. Instead, say, “Can I come up with five little ideas that might help plastic in oceans? Can I come up with 13 little teeny baby things that might make a teeny little difference?” And so, here’s what happens. That’s like Jumping Jacks for your creativity. It’s getting your mind going on something that you’re not responsible for, it’s not going to impact your life. So, again, two minutes a day, one minute of inputs, one minute of outputs on an unrelated problem. Do that for 14 days and people will text me how crazy creative they feel.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting. And just to be clear, like it’s okay if your idea happens to be big, right? You shouldn’t be like, “Oops, no, that’s too big. Never mind. I did it wrong,” because as I’m thinking about plastics, I was saying, “Well, what are the plastics that actually dissolve over time into something that was healthy for the oceans? Or what if we had ships that already trans-oceanically moving have some nets and it gets some governmental subsidies?” So, those are kind of big but that’s okay. That’s not what we’re shooting for but if that’s what we land on, I mean, count it, it’s all good. Or, how do we think about that?

Josh Linkner
Fantastic. It’s great. By the way, I love those ideas. There’s creativity in action right there. Yeah, you don’t have to restrict yourself at all but here’s what happens. The risk is when we try to solve something that big all at once, we freeze up. If our goal is getting a Nobel Prize, or becoming a 10X billionaire, or something, it’s too complex and our mind is just locked, it’s deer-in-the-headlights. Whereas, if you start with little ideas, then, all of a sudden, you’re right, big ones come.

And just really quickly, since we’re talking about that, plan that question. So, here’s a perfect example from the book that I just love. There’s a problem in oceans that’s actually bigger than plastics. And the problem is cigarette butts. So, cigarette butts, I guess, is the bigger issue in ocean than plastics, and it also is a big problem in major cities. It’s a terrible environmental challenge when people discard their cigarette butts on the ground, and most major cities spend millions of dollars a year, no luck cleaning it up.

So, enter a guy, who I interviewed for the book, named Trewin Restorick. Trewin lives in Central London, he’s not a famous guy, he’s not a celebrity billionaire. He’s like a normal dude. Anyway, he was faced looking at this problem of cigarette butts, and none of the solutions had worked so far. So, he invents something called a Ballot Bin. A normal guy just had an idea. And a Ballot Bin works like this.

Let’s say you and I were having fish and chips at a London pub. We walk out into the street, we’re about to throw our cigarette butts on the ground but, instead, we see a glowing metal yellow box 10 feet away, maybe mounted on a pole. So, you walk a little closer and realize that this metal yellow box, the front of it is glass, and at the top, there’s a two-part question, like, “Which is your favorite food? Pizza or hamburger?”

And underneath each of those is a little slit where you can vote with your butts. In other words, you drop your cigarette butt in there and it falls in. There’s a divider so it’s almost like two bar charts, and you can instantly see which of these two selections is in the lead. And the thing is totally low-tech and it didn’t require a billion dollars, and it didn’t require six PhDs or regulatory approval, but the Ballot Bins work. And when these Ballot Bins were installed, Trewin told me, they reduced cigarette litter by up to 80%.

So, this guy, who just had an idea was like a normal guy, starts a company, now has 55 employees, and these Ballot Bins are in 27 countries, reducing cigarette litter. So, you’re exactly right, man. He came up with an idea. He just started riffing on small ideas, and that small idea actually became a really cool big idea, changed his life, changed his career.

Pete Mockaitis
And what’s so fascinating is that gets me thinking, like, huh, what was so darn appealing about the Ballot Bin, I guess, it’s sort of like there’s maybe a bit of fun in terms of, “Ooh, I have an opportunity to cast a vote with this thing and I’m not going to let it go to waste.” I don’t know what’s going on in the psychology of the smoker.

Josh Linkner
Part of it is you’re not shaming the person into compliance. You’re involving them, it’s an optional thing, and everyone likes to express themselves and so they sort of capitalize, you’re right, on this human psychology of things, but it’s this really fun simple thing that any one of us could have come up with.

And it’s funny, like to me, that is the perfect example of what the book is all about and what a big little breakthrough is all about. Again, most of us look at SpaceX, and like, “Yeah, that’s pretty awesome. But who’s going to do that?” Most of us cannot. But most of us can come up with the Ballot Bins in our lives.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Okay. So, you mentioned we got mindsets, we got habits, we got tactics. When it comes to mindsets, you’ve got eight of them and you also call them obsessions. Can you tell us why the word obsession? And can you give us a quick overview of what are those eight?

Josh Linkner
Sure. So, just to give you a little backdrop. This is borne out of utterly 20 plus years of research on my own but in practical experience but, for the book, I interviewed people all over the globe. Some were people like Trewin that you’ve never heard of. I also interviewed billionaires, and celebrity entrepreneurs, and Grammy Award-winning musicians, and people from all walks of life.

And I tried to extract from these amazing people what are the commonalities, how do they think and act on a daily basis. And I kind of discovered these eight core mindsets. I call them obsessions because a mindset is sort of like, yeah, you think about it when you think about it. But an obsession is sort of like it’s ever-present. It’s a stronger word. And that’s how these people sort of live. These are ever-present guidelines as they think and act and perceive.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, what are they?

Josh Linkner
Well, I’m happy to share as many as you like but I’ll share a couple to start. And, by the way, most of these are counterintuitive. They’re the opposite of what we’ve been taught. So, one of them is called start before you’re ready. And, truthfully, most of us, we see an opportunity or a problem, and we wait, and we wait until we have a directive from the boss, or till we have a bullet-proof gameplan, or till we have ideal conditions, and the risk is that we just miss the opportunity altogether.

So, innovators of all shapes and sizes do the opposite. They just say, “Okay, I’m going to get started,” recognizing full well they don’t have all the answers. They recognize full well they need to pivot and adapt and adjust to changing conditions, and figure it out as they go but they don’t wait. They just get started and find their way.

Another one, again, most of these are counterintuitive, fall in love with the problem. A lot of times we’re all solution-oriented. We see a problem, and we’re like, “Okay, what’s the fastest idea that I could think of to solve the problem?” But then we become fixated on our solution rather than the problem itself and it may or may not be the best way to solve it.

The best innovators do the opposite. They become fixated on the problem they’re trying to solve. They bathe in it. They study it from all different angles. They look at it from all different lenses, and they are willing to quickly forego one potential solution in favor of a better one. So, they remain committed to solving the problem by whatever means necessary and that allows them to actually discover more innovative routes in doing so.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool.

Josh Linkner
One of them, there’s a couple fun ones. One of them is called don’t forget the dinner mint. And the idea behind the dinner mint, I’m sure you’ve been to a nice dinner, and at the end there’s, “Oh, here’s something, chocolate. Compliments of the chef.” And if you had ordered it, it would be nice, but because it was unexpected, it made all the difference in the world. And as a proportion of the restaurant’s overall cost structure, it was negligible, but that little dinner mint made a difference for you.

So, the translation for us as innovators, as everyday innovators, is when you ship a piece of work product, when you send an email, when you give a presentation, you say, “Okay, now that I’ve done what’s expected, what can I add? What’s a dinner mint that I could add? Maybe it’s a new fresh idea. Maybe it’s an extra formatting. Maybe it’s an over-delivery or a time saving.” But the idea is plus-ing it up with something unexpected to make it transcendent.

The root issue is that competence is not a competitive advantage with organization or a person. So, if you’re trying to get a promotion, you’re competing with four other people, just doing the job well and doing it on time and being pleasant, that’s table stakes. So, if you really want to get the promotion, you want to beat people to the punch, you have to look for what’s that little extra creative edge that you can add, extra little dose of creativity that can make you separated from the competitive pack.

And one other fun one, while we’re talking about fun ones, it’s called reach for weird. Most of us tend to gravitate toward the obvious tried and true approaches. Reach for weird is challenging us to find that bizarre, unexpected, unorthodox approach because sometimes those make all the difference in the world.

There’s a really fun example of that. There’s a little town in Iceland, and they were facing a problem in that traffic incidents involving pedestrians had risen 41% over a 10-year period. That’s people getting hit by cars. And so, how do you normally solve that? Well, you install more traffic lights, you hire more police officers, you issue bigger fines. The reach for weird approach, instead, is here’s what they did. They painted the crosswalks as an optical illusion.

So, as people are driving their car up, it looks like there’s slabs floating in thin air. And so, it completely encourages people to slam on the brakes instead of barrel through the intersection, solved the traffic problem, and it’s pretty fun for taking selfies. So, the little weird solutions that we may discard at first can ultimately lead to great gains.

Pete Mockaitis
That also reminds me of Katy Milkman. In her book, It’s somewhere in Europe, they wanted more people to take stairs instead of the escalator. And so, they turned the staircase into a piano, so like you’re making notes, and now it becomes just a whole lot of fun. You’re like do, do, do, do to utilize those. And that’s weird, no one had done it before, but it made the impact in terms of folks naturally think it’s now more fun to use those stairs because it’s a piano.

Josh Linkner
That’s a perfect example. I love her book, by the way. It’s a wonderful book. So, the other thing is the minds just interact. So, another one is called use every drop of toothpaste. So, the notion there is around being scrappy and resourceful. Even if we’re in a resource-constrained environment, because most of us don’t have billions of dollars to play around with, we can still be creative. And sometimes being that every drop of toothpaste can combine with being weird.

A quick example of that, you probably had this dilemma, I certainly had. You go to the market. You want to buy bananas. So, what do you do? Do you buy the yellow bananas or the green ones? If you buy the yellow bananas, they’re good today, four days later, the rest of the bunch is all mushy. You buy the green bananas, you have to wait like a month for a decent banana.

So, anyway, if you were in the banana business, what can you do about that? Not much. Well, this is the kind of fun one, it was a reach for weird approach, also using every drop of toothpaste because it cost them zero. They basically took the bananas off of the bunch and put them in a package organized by ripeness. So, imagine seven bananas next to each other, ranging from bright yellow to green. And as each day goes by, they’re perfectly timed, so your banana for that day is ripe.

And so, here’s the deal. First of all, they crushed the competition in terms of sales volume. Second of all, they’re charging three times per ounce of banana compared to the competitive set. So, really, it’s amazing. Weird is fun but weird simply works.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, Josh, what’s so funny is I have actually plucked bananas across multiple bunches to get that same gradation from green to yellow, and never in my wildest dreams did it occur to me that, “Oh, they should just do this for me and charge me more.” I maybe even communicated that instruction to an Instacart shopper, or maybe I censored myself, it’s like, “This poor person already has enough on their mind. I’m not going to make their job any harder with my weird banana preferences,” but I thought about it.

So, okay, cool. So, those are some obsessions, some mindsets. And as you adopt those, and play, and role with those, it seems like you just get more ideas naturally because that’s what’s going on. I think, in particular, fall in love with the problem resonates because if you find that it’s enjoyable to explore and play with, as oppose to get rid of the darn thing as fast as possible, then you get more kind of reps or more minutes on engaged in the thing than kind of hurry up and find the answer and knock it out now, now, now, now.

Josh Linkner
That’s exactly right. And so, if you think about it, again, these three things, you got mindsets, we talked about a few of them; habits, we talked about a couple habits; and then we start to move into tactics. And, for me, I wanted this book to be a very pragmatic guide. It’s not just about your head in the clouds, go do be creative, draw all over the walls with crayons. It’s not that. It’s really saying, “Okay, how can we harness a skillset, human creativity, and deploy it for effective results?” And so, you get into tactics. Most of us, when we get together to come up with ideas, what do we do? What is it called?

Pete Mockaitis
Brainstorming.

Josh Linkner
Brainstorming. Here’s the problem. Brainstorming was invented in 1958, and I’m sorry, a lot has changed since 1958. And so, I kind of view brainstorming as outdated technology, an outdated tactic, because, actually, brainstorming is wildly ineffective. We tend to share our safe ideas; we hold our crazy ones back because we don’t want to look foolish.

So, the whole dynamic of brainstorming, where you’re spitting out ideas and everybody else judges them simultaneously and shoots you down and tells you, like everybody else becomes the idea police, and then you’re responsible if an idea doesn’t work out. It really, at best, yields mediocre ideas.

So, over the last many years, and I’ve interviewed people all over the world, I’ve developed a toolkit of 13 way-better techniques to generate ideas. I call them idea jamming because I don’t like brainstorming. And I’d be happy to share a couple of them. They’re actually really fun and they’re way more effective.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty.

Josh Linkner
Here’s one that works beautifully. It’s called role storming. So, role storming is brainstorming but in character. In other words, you’re pretending that you’re somebody else. Here’s a thing, if I’m in a normal brainstorming session and I’m brainstorming as me, and everybody else is judging me, again, I’ll share my safe ideas, hold my crazy ones back out of fear. But if I’m role storming, in other words I’m pretending I’m somebody else, I’m free.

Here’s an example. Let’s say I’m playing the role of Steve Jobs. No one’s going to laugh at Steve for coming up with a big idea. They might laugh at Steve for coming up with a small one. So, now I’m liberated. I’m playing Steve Jobs, I’m not responsible, I can say anything I want.

And it’s funny, man, I did this with a group of executives one time at Sony Japan. I met this guy. He was the stiffest human being I’ve ever met – dark suit, white shirt, his tie is strangling him. Anyway, we got him role storming as Yoda.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Josh Linkner
I’ve never seen personal transformation like this. This guy’s jacket is off, his tie is undone, he’s like leaping around the room, and the whiteboards were filled with ideas. And I didn’t teach him to be creative. He had that inside him but we needed to liberate him. He was in a role that forbid it.

So, the technique is actually really simple. Everybody in the room gets to choose anyone they want. You can be a hero. You can be a villain. You can be a movie star or a supermodel. You can be a sports legend or a literary figure. Anyone you want but you got to stay in character. And when you stay in character, attacking a real-world problem or opportunity, you’ll be blown away with the creative results.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. Well, so let’s hear a tactic or two.

Josh Linkner
Sure. Another fun one, I recommend people trying, this is called a bad idea. It’s a bad idea brainstorm. So, presumably, we get together, we got a problem to solve, we’re responsible for coming up with good ideas. But the problem is, again, all this pressure, we get consumed with incrementalism. So, instead, here’s a way you do it. It’s a two-part brainstorm.

Step number one, set a timer for like 10 minutes and everybody in the room starts by coming up with bad ideas. What’s a terrible way to solve the problem? What’s the worst thing you can think of? What’s immoral or illegal or unethical? Again, you’re not going to do them. You’re just coming up with bad ideas.

Now, part two, crucially, is you then stop and examine the bad ideas, and say, “Wait a minute. Is there a little kernel? Is there a nugget in the bad idea that I can flip around to make it a good legitimate idea?” And so, what happens is you push your creativities so far to the limit, way beyond what you would ordinarily think, then, yeah, you need to ratchet it back to reality a bit, but it’s better going all the way and having to ratchet it back than trying to push spaghetti up a hill. So, that’s a fun one.

One that’s really simple, I call it the judo flip. So, let’s say, again, you’re trying to seize an opportunity or solve a problem. Start by taking an inventory. What have you always done before? What does conventional wisdom dictate? What is traditional thinking? How are things have normally been done in our industry on a problem like this?

Then you draw a line down the page, and next to every previous entry you simply ask the question, “What would it look like if I judo flip it? What would it look like if I did the polar opposite?” And what happens is that oppositional thinking can unlock really fresh ideas and help you break free from traditionalism.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. All right. Well, so I’m curious, those are some great things to do. What are some things we should stop doing?

Josh Linkner
One thing we need to stop doing is, really, the ideation process. Again, I call it idea jamming, really needs to be separate from the executional process, and we tend to squish them together. As mentioned, I come up with an idea, and the first thing you say, if you’re in the room, is, “Oh, that’s not going to fit in the PowerPoint slide. And, Jim, the boss, is never going to support it. That’s going to break the budget.” And so, we get so focused on the executional challenges that we extinguish our ideas prematurely.

A better approach would be to send your analytical brain out for Starbucks and let the ideas really fly. One of the things I like to do is I call it idea spewing. So, in other words, if you have an idea almost, or even call it idea sparking sometimes. An idea, it sort of means, “Oh, it’s an idea.” So, that merits scrutiny. But a spark or a spew, that implies that it’s early version. It’s the clay that has yet been molded to perfection.

And so, that helps us prevent the premature extinguishing of a good idea because, often, it’s not the first thing that comes to mind. It’s the idea that leads to the idea that leads to the next idea that’s the killer. And if you extinguish it prematurely, you can really cut yourself short.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Thank you. Well, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Josh Linkner
Sure. The core thing I would really reinforce to people is that every single person on this planet has creative capacity. Period. And, again, I’ve researched every academic journal neuroscience up and down. We all have the ability to be creative. And we can do so in our own ways.

Like, I play jazz guitar pretty well. I can’t draw a stick figure if I try. So, just because, if you’re listening, you can’t paint on canvas, doesn’t mean you’re not a creative person. You might express your creativity in the way you interact with a colleague or the way you solve a problem on a project. But, truthfully, we can all harness and build this.

And I always like to think about it like this. If you’re outside your home had an oil well, like you just learned that, oh, good news, in your backyard, on the property that you own, there’s a billion dollars of oil sitting under there. Pretty sure you wouldn’t be like, “Nah, forget it. I don’t really have time for that.” You’d be like, “Yeah, I’m going to go buy a drill and suck that, get that resource to the surface and use it.”

Well, I would suggest to everybody listening that we have that oil well and it’s inside of us right now. That’s dormant creative capacity. I have it, you have it, we all have it. And so, that’s our oil well. It’s waiting to be tapped. And when we bring it to the surface, we can unlock fresh possibilities which manifest in terms of winning more customers, and getting the promotion that you want, and making more money, and pursuing your calling, and driving impact. All those things that we crave, gaining competitive advantage, etc.

So, I just feel like if that dormant capacity is there, and we know we all have the ability to bring it to the surface, why not learn the mindsets, habits, and tactics to fully deploy it so that we can enjoy the results?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Thank you. All right. Well, now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Josh Linkner
One of my favorites is a Chinese proverb, “Man who says it can’t be done, should not interrupt man doing it.” I’ve always loved that. It’s just so impactful.

And I have my own quotes, and I don’t really boast or anything. I say this with humility, but I’ve said this again and again as I was building my own company so much that my people got sick of hearing it, is that, “Someday, a company will come along and put us out of business. It might as well be us.” And that applies to us personally, too. Like, I feel that someday, like the Josh of tomorrow is going to put me out of business. Might as well be me.

And the notion there is that challenging ourselves and our organizations to proactively reinvent, to rethink our approach, to be the one to put ourselves out of business rather than waiting for someone else to do it. And that also ties to another quick quote, “If you don’t like change, you’re probably going to like irrelevance even less.” That’s from General Eric Shinseki.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Josh Linkner
One thing that’s so cool to me is that the littlest adjustments can actually unlock the biggest gains. So, there’s one study that I read about out of a university in Italy, where they brought people together, same demographics, age, education levels, divided them in two, and they showed each group a video, and then asked them to take a standardized creativity test.

The only difference was the video they were shown. One group was shown a really boring video, like sheep grazing in a meadow. The other group was shown an awe-inspiring video, majestic, cliffs, and soaring eagles, and all kinds of stuff. That was the only difference. They gave them the same test. The awe-inspired group outperformed the boring group by 80%. And it wasn’t like they learned a new skill in that three-minute video. It’s just that the brains that we have, we are hardwired to be creative, and the slightest adjustments can unlock fresh possibility as evidence in that example.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, that makes me feel better about paying more for the office space with a great view.

Josh Linkner
Totally. I mean, think about that. Artists, musicians, playwrights went to inspiring places for years to do inspiring work, but most of our offices look like a sensory deprivation chamber, and then we wonder why we’re not delivering great creative work. So, yeah, you’re right. Environment matters for sure.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Josh Linkner
Recently, I thought Adam Grant’s new book Think is excellent. Jon Acuff’s new book Soundtracks is excellent. One of my all-time favorites is by Robin Sharma, The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari which is excellent and spiritually inspiring to me. So, it’s always hard to choose one. I guess one that I’ll just add to the list is Grit by Angela Duckworth which is also incredible.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Josh Linkner
Yeah, my favorite tool, I think, is really having a guitar in my hand. And I think the nice thing is we all can have our own muse. But the notion is whatever your muse is, whether it’s a painting or music, it’s just like having it nearby. So, when I’m stuck on a problem, I like grab my guitar and start noodling. And, of course, the guitar doesn’t solve the problem but it helps me solve the problem.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share, you already did one, that really seems to connect and resonate with readers and they quote it back to you frequently?

Josh Linkner
You know, I hear a lot about this concept of judo flipping, taking the traditional approach and flipping it upside down. I’ve had people come. I’ve been sharing that nugget for years and people come up to me years later, and like, “Hey, I was just in a board meeting and we couldn’t figure out what to do, and we judo flipped it.” So, that’s what I do hear frequently.

I think the other one I talk about often is this concept of option X. The general idea is that when we make decisions, when we’re trying to solve a problem, we very quickly go from unlimited possible ideas to a very short list. I think about it as A, B, and C. Somehow it becomes a multiple choice. And your A, B, and C choices are based on historical reference, they’re generally really safe, and we pursue those.

And I always just say, before you choose A, B, and C, just pause for one second, and say, “Wait a minute. Is there a D? Is there an E?” Or, I say, “Is there an option X?” which is that bold and provocative and unexpected idea that might make all the difference in the world.

One other quick add, I’ve written about this and I’ve gotten a lot of feedback, speaking of letters, reminded me. So, most of us pursue a career, and often it’s pretty safe, like we’re taught to play it safe. And then we build a secondary plan called a plan B, which is what happens if everything goes wrong, then that’s your plan B.

I would encourage people not to discard their plan B but have an extra plan, and it’s not what happens if everything goes wrong. It’s what happens if everything goes right. I call it your plan Z. So, the plan Z is expecting a good outcome instead of a bad one. And it’s like, “What would you do if you couldn’t fail? What would you do if you had a magic wand? What would you do if you’re pursuing your true calling?” And I’m not saying we should throw caution to the wind. Have a plan B. Awesome. But let’s not do that at the expense of also having a plan Z.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Josh Linkner
I would suggest you check out BigLittleBreakthroughs.com. Certainly, you can learn more about the book. But even if you don’t choose to buy the book, there’s a lot of free resources. There’s a free creativity assessment you can take, there’s a quick start guide, there’s all these downloadable worksheets on habits, mindsets, and tactics. So, it’s a good place. It’s a resource library, really, if you want to get your creativity on and take your game to the next level.

If you want to reach me, I’m on all social channels at my name Josh Linkner, and my personal website is just JoshLinkner.com.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Josh, this has been a treat. Thank you. And I wish you all the best in your creative adventures.

Josh Linkner
Thank you. You as well. I really appreciate the impact that you’re creating for everybody listening.

639: How to Get More Breakthrough Ideas with Susan Robertson

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Susan Robertson says: "Lets some crazy in the room."

Susan Robertson explains how to tap into your creative genius to generate breakthrough solutions.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why every professional benefits from more creativity
  2. Why you should start with your craziest idea
  3. What to do when others shoot down your ideas 

About Susan

Susan Robertson empowers individuals, teams, and organizations to more nimbly adapt to change, by transforming thinking from “why we can’t” to “how might we?” She is a creative thinking expert with over 20 years of experience coaching Fortune 500 companies. 

As an instructor on applied creativity at Harvard, Susan brings a scientific foundation to enhancing human creativity. She combines the neuroscience of creative thinking with a big dose of fun, to make the learning and behavior change really stick. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

Susan Robertson Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Susan, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Susan Robertson
Thank you. I’m really excited to be here. Looking forward to our conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me too. Well, I’d love to get started by hearing, I understand you love salsa dancing. Can you draw the connection, has dancing helped you be more creative, and how?

Susan Robertson
I think, in many ways, yes, because I’m a social dancer, not a competitive dancer. So, competitive dancers learn and practice a routine, but social dancers, you are improv-ing in every moment. So, a leader is leading and a follower is following, and together you are creating the dance as you go. So, it’s a completely creative act in every dance. So, I do think that’s helped me be creative and allowed me to be more spontaneous and sort of let things flow.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so let’s talk about being spontaneous and creative and letting things flow. Can you, first of all, maybe make the case for why the typical professional should care about creativity or being creative in terms of like the tangible benefits? I think some folks might say, “Oh, you know, I’m not a designer or a musician. Why do I have to follow these processes that are quite spelled out at work?” So, can you lay it on us for why creativity is useful for everyone to have more of?

Susan Robertson
Yes, because when you’re a more creative thinker, you can more effectively solve whatever challenges appear in your life and you can more effectively seize whatever opportunities appear in your life. When you’re not a creative thinker, your thinking is limited in many ways that you are not aware of. There are a lot of neuroscience-based reasons behind that, but the bottom line is your thinking is limited. So, when challenges or opportunities arise, if you’re not familiar with some creative-thinking tools, your tendency is going to be, “I have a fairly limited set of ideas or reactions in response to those challenges or opportunities.” And if you have some creative tools at your disposal, you’ll have a broader range of possible ideas, actions, possibilities, outcomes.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, could you make that all the more real for us by maybe sharing an inspiring story of someone who upgraded their creativity and saw really cool benefits as a result?

Susan Robertson
I will, actually. This is someone who happened to take a workshop of mine, it was a multiple-day workshop. And she, at the time, was working in a huge corporation. And she was working in a job that she was technically trained for, that’s what her degree was in, but she was bored. She’d been there for 15 years and she was just tired of it. And she was seriously thinking about having to leave her company because she didn’t think there were any other options within her company for her.

So, she happened to take this workshop of mine on creative thinking, and about three months later, she called me and she said, “As a result of the creative thinking tools that I learned in your workshop, I went back to my office, I explored what it was I really wanted to do, and I looked around at what the company actually really needed, and I made a match between what I wanted to do and what the company needed. I created a new job title and a new job description, and I sold it into management and I now have that job.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, there you go. Very cool. All right. Created the job and now you’re enjoying the job. I love it. Well, so you’ve got a big toolkit when it comes to boosting creativity. You said that particular person used some of the tools. Could you maybe give us some of the greatest hits right away? What would you say are maybe one of the top one, two, three tools from that toolkit for boosting creativity?

Susan Robertson
So, I’ll give you a couple. One that’s sort of easy and quick to describe and a couple others that maybe might take a little bit longer to describe. So, the first one that’s easy and quick to describe is one of the best ways, you know, to increase your creative thinking is to make a conscious separation between what’s called divergent thinking and convergent thinking.

So, divergent thinking is when we are looking for new ideas, exploring the blue sky, reaching, stretching, seeking newness. Convergent thinking is when we are evaluating ideas, deciding which ones are the best or have the most promise, and then optimizing those ideas and then choosing from amongst them. So, we do divergent and convergent thinking every day. All of us do both of them. But we don’t very effectively separate them in our everyday life. What we tend to do is mix them. We’re not aware that that’s what’s happening but that’s what’s happening.

And if you’re in a meeting, for example, here’s what it often looks like. Somebody says an idea and someone else says, “We don’t have time for that one.” And then somebody else says an idea, and somebody says, “That one will cost too much.” So, there’s an attempt at divergent thinking because there’s one idea and there’s an immediate convergent thinking, an evaluation or a judgment, and quite typically it’s a negative judgment. And if people are willing to continue to throw out ideas, like, “Okay, here’s another idea,” somebody else says, “Well, that won’t work with IT.”

So, we mix these convergent and divergent thinking all the time and it’s a bit like driving a car and having your foot on the gas, the break, the gas, the break, the gas, the break. You don’t really go anywhere very efficiently. It’s all kind of stutter-stop. And if what we can do instead is diverge for a while, meaning come up with many ideas with no judgment, neither negative nor positive, and then when we have a lot of ideas, then we start the convergent thinking phase which is evaluating which ones seem to have the most promise, optimizing those, and then deciding amongst them.

So, again, that’s making a conscious separation between divergent thinking (generating ideas) and convergent thinking (evaluating, optimizing, and choosing from ideas). So, that’s a foundational principle in creative thinking.

Pete Mockaitis
So, it’s a foundational principle, and so we’ve got an analogy there in terms of the car, you’ve got your feet on the gas and the break at the same time. In terms of how that plays out, let’s say we’ve got a meeting, so what would be the expected impact of, let’s just say we have a 30-minute meeting? If we have 30 minutes that went divergent, convergent, divergent, convergent, divergent, convergent, you know, the shift off that happens a lot versus 15 minutes divergent, 15 minutes convergent, I mean, in a way, you might say, “Hey, we’re spending the same amount of time on each mental function, why does it matter if we have it together versus separated?”

Susan Robertson
Because you will actually get many, many more ideas if you do a conscious divergent phase, you will get more ideas. That’s been proven through research, and there are many reasons for it. But one of the reasons is because you’re go, go, go, go, go, go and you don’t have to stop and evaluate. If you have an idea then you evaluate, you have an idea, you evaluate, it’s a slower process.

A second reason why you’re going to have more ideas is because we know, again from both research and experience, that there’s something in creative thinking that’s called the rule of three. And what it really means is you have to sort of attack something three times before you get to the really good stuff. The best ideas come out later in a divergent thinking process. The most blue-sky ideas come out later.

What tends to happen early is the easy thought-of-before, tried-it-before, sort of tweak-on-what-happens-now ideas come first. And if those are constantly getting yes-but-ted, “Yes, but we don’t have time,” “Yes, but that’s not what IT wants,” the group will simply shut down. They’ll just stop generating ideas because no one has the wherewithal to just keep going at it when everything gets shut down. So, you won’t get as many ideas and you won’t get to the good ideas because you don’t get as many ideas.

So, when you make a conscious separation between divergent and convergent thinking, you’re going to get, one, more ideas. And, as a result of more ideas, you’re going to get, two, better quality ideas because it takes a while for the top-of-mind ideas to get spit out, and people have to dive deeper, think harder, to get to the newer and better ideas.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s interesting in terms of the dive-deeper, think-harder, if you’ve established for 15 minutes for generating ideas and then, I don’t know 4 minutes in, “I’ve got a few ideas,” and then there’s just the silence, that’s just kind of uncomfortable for people.

Susan Robertson
Yes, it is.

Pete Mockaitis
So, you’re going to think of something else, if nothing else, but to escape this discomfort for the remainder of the 11 minutes.

Susan Robertson
Right. And can I explain to you kind of the neuroscience of what’s going on when that silence happens?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, let’s hear it.

Susan Robertson
Because there is a reason for it. So, in our brain, we have two systems of thinking called system one and system two, sometimes known as fast thinking and slow thinking. And system one thinking is the sort of quick everyday intuitive thinking that most of us do most of the time. System two thinking is deeper thinking, it’s harder work, it literally takes more calories for our brain to do system two thinking. So, as a result, our body tries to stay in system one thinking as much as it can because that’s an energy conservation principle, so we avoid going into system two thinking.

So, what you just described happens all the time. People throw out a few ideas and then they think, “I’m done. I don’t have anymore,” and the silence happens, that’s because all the system one ideas got exhausted, and those are the ones that I said they’re the easy to think of, tried-it-before, just a slight tweak on what exists today. Those are the ideas that come from system one thinking and you have to spend enough time and work hard enough to get your brain into system two thinking for the better ideas to come.

So, when that awkward silence happens, and people say, “I don’t have anymore ideas,” whoever is facilitating the meeting needs to, at that point, do something to help people stimulate more ideas that sort of forces them into system two thinking. Because if you just say, “Okay, people said they’re out of ideas, so I guess they are,” they’re not out of ideas. They’re only out of system one easy ideas and you have to go longer, work harder to get to system two ideas.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s a nice explanation and it rings true. That’s just not what happens very often unless you’re really aware of it and consciously thoughtful about doing it. And so then, well, let’s hear that. You mentioned there’s a silence, and then something needs to be done to get them fired up again. What is that something?

Susan Robertson
Well, some sort of stimulus activity that prompts people’s brains to sort of turn back on, and they can be easy or complicated. But an easy one would be, “Okay, how would a submarine captain solve this problem, or what ideas would they have? Or what ideas would Oprah Winfrey have? Or how would a kindergartener solve this problem?” And any of those kinds of prompts will help people start to come up with new ideas.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, it’s so funny, I’m on a board and we frequently reference another nonprofit, it’s like, “So, what’s FOCUS doing here?” And it has served us well again and again. But it need not be sort of a direct corollary analogue. It can be kind of whacky like Oprah or something.

Susan Robertson
And, actually, it probably sparks more creative ideas if it’s not sort of a direct competitor or a similar industry. If it’s something actually radically different, will spark more creative thinking.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so let’s have some fun and play that out in practice. So, let’s say we’re trying to figure out how to reduce costs, let’s make it real broad, and we’ve had a couple ideas, like, “Oh, we can print double-sided on the printer, and we can switch to a cheaper caterer for the team lunch,” whatever. Okay, so we’ve got some lame ideas. No offense if you just proposed that idea, anybody. And so then, we’re kind of stuck, so you might throw out a stimulus. And can you play it, a demo, how would that unfold then?

Susan Robertson
Okay. So, will you play along with me?

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s do it, yeah.

Susan Robertson
Okay. So, this is one of my favorite types of stimulus, and this is called a get-fired idea.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Susan Robertson
All right? So, I want you to think of an idea that would solve the problem, in other words, it would dramatically reduce costs. But if you actually did it, you would get fired. So, again, I’m going to repeat the instruction. It would solve the problem. But if you actually did it, you would get fired because it’s so ridiculous in some way. It’s either illegal, it’s dangerous, it’s immoral, or it would cost us a million dollars before we got to the cost saving so it would solve the problem but it’s completely ridiculous. So, can you think of an idea like that to save costs?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure thing. We cancel the lease on the building, and say, “You know what, no thanks.”

Susan Robertson
Okay, excellent. That’s perfect. Cancel the lease on the building. All right. So, now what you need to do is you need to go through a process, which I’m going to describe, that helps you extract something interesting from that idea so that you can take the interesting piece and lose the problematic piece, all right? So, now this process I call GPS thinking.

And GPS stands for great problem solving, and it’s a three-step process. G, great, you have to first list everything about that idea that is potentially great. What’s potentially great about that idea? You make a long list. Step two, you articulate the problems in that idea but with one critical difference. And that critical difference is you need to articulate the problem in the form of a how-to question. And then step three is you solve for those problems by modifying the idea but keeping something you thought was great. So, we’re going to play that out on your idea.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Susan Robertson
So, the idea is, “Cancel the lease.” So, G, great, what’s potentially good about that idea of cancelling the lease?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, the rent on the office building we inhabit is a pretty significant recurring expenditure, so we’re striking at it. It’s a big pie that we go after. That’s something good about it.

Susan Robertson
What else? What else might be good about it?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, right now, in COVID, landlords have less bargaining power and negotiating power. In a corporate lease office space, I don’t know how it works. But, like, there’s eviction clauses that say you just can’t kick people out for not paying. There’s more interest in people working from home, so there’s probably less overall, there may be, to be determined, less interest in office space to be leased, so you might have a strong negotiating position to work from.

Susan Robertson
Yup. And let’s broaden it out even besides things that might not be solely cost-related. Like, if we let people work from home, they might have a better quality of life.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Susan Robertson
They might be able to spend that one hour that they typically commute doing a little extra work. We might be able to find better employees that are in a remote city that we, otherwise, wouldn’t have been able to hire. So, you want to come up with a divergent list of lots of things that are potentially interesting about that idea, not just the one sole thing, okay?

All right. So, now we’ve got a list of potentially good things. So, now let’s go to the P, problem, that’s step two, but, again, we’re going to articulate that problem in the form of a how-to question. So, instead of saying, “We can no longer work effectively,” instead you would say something like, “How do we continue to work effectively without our offices?” Are there other problems in that idea that you see?

Pete Mockaitis
Sure. How do we escape a lease that is legally binding?

Susan Robertson
Yes. What other potential problems might you see in that idea?

Pete Mockaitis
How do we continue looking legit to clients and customers without a proper office?

Susan Robertson
Uh-huh. And do you see what I’m doing? I’m pushing you to continue to diverge because in divergent thinking you want to make a long list of ideas or, in this case, of questions. So, in the interest of time, I’m not going to keep pushing you, but if you were doing this in reality, you actually would. I would’ve pushed you harder on what else is great about it, and I would’ve pushed you harder on more questions. But in the interest of time, let’s move on.

All right. So, let’s move to step three, solving. So, which of those problems do you think is the most urgent or the biggest one that we would have to solve for first before we would ever kind of begin to move forward on a modified version of this idea?

Pete Mockaitis
How can we escape a lease that we’re legally bound to?

Susan Robertson
How can we escape? All right. So, let’s now start solving for that idea by changing the original idea but keeping something about it you thought was great. So, for example, instead of simply abandoning the lease, we could renegotiate with the landlord for we would sign on for more years at a lower rate, might be one potential idea, right? What other potential ideas might you see?

Pete Mockaitis
Sure thing. We take an underutilized wing of our floor and convert that into a hip coworking space that we rent out, earning revenue to offset some of our lease bill each month.

Susan Robertson
Excellent. And that makes me think of another idea which is we renegotiate with the landlord for a smaller space and we desk rotate. So, today, I work in the office and you work at home, and tomorrow you work in my office and I work at home.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly.

Susan Robertson
So, this process of taking a crazy idea and then working it to extract the interesting parts and to let the bad parts fall away is exactly what you want to have happen in creative thinking. And when I said earlier that you want to do divergent thinking first and then convergent thinking, part of convergent thinking is improving and optimizing ideas. So, we were doing some divergent thinking in what’s good about it. We did some divergent thinking on what are the questions or problems we have to solve. And we’ll do now a little bit of both divergent and convergent thinking in optimizing.

So, we’re optimizing that original idea. And if we were to continue to do this, we would probably come out with several potential ideas that we thought were viable. Now, not that that’s the end. Obviously, we’d have to go explore whether they really are viable or not. And that fact-finding piece that sort of developed the idea is another part of the creative problem-solving process. But to stimulate ideas, that get-fired idea, which is where we started, is one of my favorites. And then you have to go through a conscious process to extract the interesting parts and solve for the parts that are not working.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And before we go into that GPS process, we’re going to get lots of ideas before we even start on one of them.

Susan Robertson
Exactly. We’re going to get lots of ideas, we’re going to diverge on lots of ideas, then we’re going to converge on a few, which ones we think hold the most promise or going to make the biggest dent. And, as you said early on, rent is going to make a huge dent because it’s one of our biggest costs. So, that would probably be one that would stay on the list when we converge. And then we’d go through that GPS process on the short list, on each of them individually.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Lovely. Well, so it seems like we’ve kind of gotten into it, but you’ve got “10 Rules for Brainstorming Success.” I have a feeling we’ve hit a couple of them already. Can you lay it out, quick time, 1 to 10?

Susan Robertson
So, the first rule is freedom from the fear, and that is the fear of saying a crazy idea. Because, in a group, people are very afraid of saying a crazy idea so you have to make it okay to do that. And the easiest way to make it okay to do that is to pull aside, in advance, the most senior person who’s going to be in the room and tell them, “Your job is to throw out the craziest idea you can possibly think of early on so that people know they have permission to do that.” So, that’s the easiest way to free them from the fear.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Susan Robertson
The second thing, use the power of the group. And what I say use the power of the group, that means you want to build and combine ideas. Don’t just have a bunch of people, they’re all doing something individually. You want to have them working together, working in pairs, and saying, “Oh, that idea made me think of this,” or, “What did you think of when you heard his idea about the cookie?” That’s numbers two, use the power of the group.

Number three, get some outside stimulus. And that’s like, I talked about, what would Oprah do, or what would a submarine captain do. That’s outside stimulus. But outside stimulus can also be, literally, leave your office, go somewhere else, go to an art museum. Those kinds of things also make a big difference. Talk to your customers, that’s also outside stimulus. You have to let some crazy in the room.

So, I often hear people say at the beginning of an idea session or a brainstorming session, “We don’t need a lot of ideas. We just need a few good ones.” Yeah, we know. But the research shows us that in order to get to a few good ones, you have to have, one, a lot of ideas and you have to have, two, some completely ridiculous ideas, like that get-fired idea we just talked about. Like, getting out of the lease on the building. Because if you don’t have some crazy ideas, you’re never actually going to have newness. You’re only going to have tweaks on what you do today or what you know today. So, encourage the crazy, that’s number four.

Number five, it’s a numbers game so it is about quantity. Quantity will lead to quality. And that’s, again, because we know we have to get past those system one ideas to get into system two. That’s where the better ideas come so you need lots of them. Number six, laugh a lot because humor always helps and stimulates creative thinking.

Number seven, homework is required. There’s a lot of research that proves that if people are warned in advance what the topic of the meeting is, and they have some time to incubate it in advance, they will come to the meeting prepared and better ideas will come. So, do tell people the objective of the meeting, ask them to start thinking of it in advance, and it will happen.

Number eight, it’s not for amateurs. I am giving you tips to do this on your own, but actually if you’re going to do it on something truly significant, it’s better to hire a facilitator, and even if that means pulling in someone who’s not working on the project. What I really mean is the owner of the project, the one who’s ultimately responsible for the result should not be running the meeting because it divides their attention too much.

They’re having to pay attention to the content or the ideas but they’re also having to pay attention to the time and, “Is lunch coming?” and, “Who’s late?” and, “Do we need a bathroom break?” And if you have, if you can separate the content and the process, you’ll have a much better result. So, when I say it’s not for amateurs, hire a facilitator. It does mean hire a professional facilitator if you can. But if you can’t, you need to get someone in to run the meeting who has nothing to do with the content. They’re going to manage the process.

Number nine, if it looks like a duck but doesn’t act like a duck, it’s not a duck. Meaning, if you’re not going to follow the rules for good creative thinking or good brainstorming, don’t bother because it’s not going to be effective, and people are going to realize in the moment that it’s not effective. And if you want to invite them back another time to do it again on another topic, they’re not going to come if they know it wasn’t effective, so you need to follow the rules for good brainstorming.

And, number ten, you’re not done until you decide, meaning you have to have the convergent thinking, and I recommend that you have it in the same session, that you don’t postpone it for later. So, that’s why I said the rule is 50% diverge, 50% converge. Don’t postpone the convergent thinking for multiple reasons, because often it just gets postponed indefinitely, but also because people feel no sense of closure around it.

If you leave with a hundred ideas and no closure, people, again, feel like it wasn’t effective and it then becomes much harder for someone to make a decision on which ideas are best, and, also, the people who participated in the brainstorming should also participate in the converging so that they have some say on which ideas go forward so that they can tell why they think this idea is a good one or not, as opposed to some individual person reviewing all the other ideas later and making a decision. So, those were the 10 rules. That was really fast.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. I like it. I like it fast. Well, I think one of my favorites is right toward the beginning in terms of eliminate the fear by having a senior person, told quietly in advance, to say an outrageous idea. I think that’s probably a lot of fun for everybody, especially if that someone is pretty reserved and they don’t do that, they’re like, “Well, we can hire a bunch of convicts from the prison to do this at a great price.” It’s like, “Whoa,” it seems like that can just instantly say, “Okay, this is what we’re doing right now.”

Susan Robertson
Yeah. And sometimes if that senior person is a little bit more hesitant or a little bit more introverted, you might have to seed the idea.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Susan Robertson
Like, you tell them an idea and just say, “Just say this idea.” That will help them make it easier for them, too. So, what you’re trying to do here is make it as easy as possible for everyone, including that person.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. That’s great. Well, so we’ve got so much to hear. Let’s talk about the curse of knowledge. What is it and how does that make things tricky for us?

Susan Robertson
The curse of knowledge is the phenomenon that any topic that you have some experience or some expertise in, you actually have a curse of knowledge, meaning your thinking around it is limited in ways you don’t realize. So, again, I’m going to play a game. Will you play along with me?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Susan Robertson
Okay. All right. So, give me some new ideas for salad dressing, as quick as you can. Whatever comes to mind.

Pete Mockaitis
They have to be new, huh?

Susan Robertson
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Like, I’m just thinking of old ones. Ranch. Caesar. Italian. Okay, I could use one as a salad dressing, it’s pre-existing. I could use fish oil and pepper. Zesty.

Susan Robertson
Oka. All right. That’s good. That’s enough. So, you actually went a little more divergent than many people often do. So, I’ll tell you what typically happens when I have people do that exercise. Typically, what people do is name flavors, and you sort of did that. I mean, you named unusual flavors, I’ll give you that, but you basically combined some flavors in a liquid, which is what salad dressing is.

And here’s the reason why our thinking is limited and it is the curse of knowledge. So, what happened in your brain when you heard me say salad dressing is you made a bunch of subconscious assumptions about salad dressing and also about salad. And they were things like, “Well, salad dressing is liquid. It comes in a bottle. I put it on lettuce. I probably store it in the refrigerator, and I probably eat the resulting salad from a bowl or a plate with a fork.” Right? You probably made some or maybe all of those assumptions about salad and salad dressing, and that is the curse of knowledge because that is your experience with current salads and salad dressing.

But if you could say, “All right. Let’s take one of those assumptions and say, ‘How can we make that not have to be true?’” So, let’s take you don’t eat salad with a fork. How can we take the idea of salad dressing and to make it so you don’t eat salad with a fork? Now, give me an idea for a new salad dressing.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, you know, what’s funny, what I thought you’re going with that is this is one to take away would be a lettuce, “Oh, it could be a fruit salad, it could be a taco salad,” then that changes everything in terms of what you think you want to stick on it. But if I don’t eat it with a fork, I guess if I eat it with a spoon, well, now I’m thinking about those quinoa bowls. It’s not a salad per se but it’s salad-esque. There are some veggies mixed in with quinoa or beans with a spoon.

Susan Robertson
But can you think of something to make salad dressing enable that?

Pete Mockaitis
The salad dressing enables it.

Susan Robertson
Yeah, for example, salad dressing is no longer liquid. It now comes in a skewer and you skewer the vegetables onto this edible stick which is the dressing.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s definitely innovative.

Susan Robertson
Right. And that’s the point, right? That’s the point. I said I want new ideas for salad dressing. New. Really new. Truly new. So, when you’re looking for truly disruptive ideas, like radically new ideas, you have to get out of your curse of knowledge. And we all have a curse of knowledge around anything we have experience in, but we have even more curse of knowledge around something that we’re very expert in. Because when we’re very expert, we have many, many, many of those subconscious assumptions that we’re not aware that limit our thinking. And you have to break out of those to get to truly disruptive ideas.

I’m going to tell you a story about the curse of knowledge, actually, about my grandmother. So, my grandmother was an excellent bridge player, the card game bridge. I don’t think anybody plays anymore of it, but my grandmother was really…

Pete Mockaitis
Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, they play bridge.

Susan Robertson
Yeah. My grandmother was really good, I mean, to the point that other people would ask for advice, and they would say, “I had this hand the other day and it was like this. What should I have done?” and she would give them advice. Anyway, one year at Christmas, my brother, my sister-in law, and I decided to ask our grandmother to teach us how to play bridge because that seemed like a good idea. And she attempted it and it turned out to be a disaster. She was a terrible bridge teacher.

And, in hindsight, I now know the reason why. It was because she had this curse of knowledge. And the exchange I remember the most vividly was she was trying to explain to us the concept of a singleton, which is a single card in a suit, like you only have one diamond in your hand. And we said, “Why is that good? Why is a singleton good?” And she said, “Because it’s a single card in one suit.” And we said, “Okay, but why is that good?” And she said, “Because it’s a singleton.” And we said, “But why is that good?” And she repeated, “Because it’s a single card in one suit.”

And, obviously, she wasn’t explaining it because she didn’t understand what we didn’t understand because her knowledge was so high, she didn’t even understand what we didn’t understand. And my aunt was sitting off to the side laughing as she’s listening to all this, and she finally said, “It’s good because you can play it early. And once it’s gone out of your hand, you’re now allowed to play a trump card when you no longer have any more of that suit.” And my grandmother actually said, “Well, everybody knows that.”

Pete Mockaitis
Well, everybody knows that.

Susan Robertson
Like, “No, you know that because you’re an expert.” And do you see how it truly limited her thinking? Like, she couldn’t even understand what we didn’t understand. So, the more expert you are, the more curse of knowledge you have around your own topic. So, one of the things you can do, in a creative session to get around the curse of knowledge, is bring in people into the session who are not experts, which is counterintuitive.

Most people think that when you have a brainstorming session, what you need to do is gather a bunch of experts and have a brainstorming session, and that’s not exactly true. You do need some expertise, yes. Absolutely, you do. But you also need some people who aren’t experts because they don’t have the same curse of knowledge.

And the other thing you can do is very specific tools, like the one I just showed you, that help break our curse of knowledge. And the one I just showed you I call assumption busting. So, in our salad dressing example, I said, “Okay, here are the assumptions you were making, right? You have to surface those assumptions and then consciously break them to get to the breakthrough ideas.”

And there’s a way to help people surface their assumptions because they’re not conscious of them at the beginning. And the way to help people surface their assumptions is to give them some sentence starters, like, “Well, in our industry, we always…” fill in the blank. Or, “Well, of course, we can’t…” fill in the blank. Or, “Our customers would never…” fill in the blank. Or, “We can’t…” fill in the blank.

And when they fill in the blank, they’re going to be listing those assumptions that were before subconscious, and you’re making them conscious. And then you do that exercise that I just did, “So, what if we can make that not be true?” And that’s how you break them, and then you come up with more disruptive ideas.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. And I guess with salad, it’d be like, “Hey, salad is typically…” blank, or, “Salad is always…” blank, or, “When I order a salad, I expect it to be…” blank. And the surface is we lose the things.

Susan Robertson
Exactly. Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
And that stick, it really does kind of bend my brain, the stick. I’m thinking about, well, it’s a sponsor, Athletic Greens. It’s a delicious green fruit-vegetable powder supplement you typically drink with water, you blend it in. But I’m thinking about what’s the Lick Em Dip Em sticks with the sugar. Like, if you can have a dressing for that salad that complements the flavors of the green powder which is kind of wild.

Susan Robertson
Exactly. Or you just sprinkle it on the lettuce and it’s active. The flavor is activated by the moisture of the lettuce.

Pete Mockaitis
Sure, yeah. Activated flavor. Well, let’s talk about that fear point. So, you shared, “Hey, if you’re facilitating the meeting, here’s the easiest thing you can do to bust fear.” If you’re not facilitating the meeting and you feel some internal fear, how do you recommend we just kind of push past that psychological resistance so that we are bold and proclaim what we have to say?

Susan Robertson
Well, I think it’s less about an individual pushing past it and it’s more about creating the climate. So, it is about the group. It’s very difficult for an individual to push past it particularly if the rest of the group has a tendency to do that quick convergent thinking that shows up as yes-but, “Yes, but it won’t work,” “Yes, but we don’t have time,” “Yes, but it costs too much.” If that’s the environment, it’s very difficult for any individual to step out of that. It almost requires too much. So, it is about the group.

So, if you’re in a group, even if you’re not leading the meeting, theoretically, and you see this phenomenon happening, the yes-but-ting happening, what you can do is very gently suggest, “Hey, how about if we just try throwing out a bunch of ideas without responding to any of them, and then when we have a bunch, then we can respond?” So, what you’re doing is encouraging them to diverge, give a bunch of ideas before they converge because that converging is almost always negative when it happens in the moment.

If you want the neuroscience behind why that is, we can go there. But it is really more about a group than an individual just…I mean, you can as an individual say, “I’m just going to ignore whatever everybody else thinks, and ignore what anyone else is saying, and ignore when I get yes-but-ted.” But it’s hard to persevere in a yes-but environment on your own.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, tell me, Susan, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Susan Robertson
I do want to mention the reason why that initial reaction to most ideas is negative.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, yeah.

Susan Robertson
Because it’s really also a foundational principle in creating thinking and it’s important to understand. So, I mentioned earlier a little bit about neuroscience, like we have two systems in our brains, system one and system two, and our brain tries to stay in system one to conserve energy. And one of the challenges that arises from that is a set of things called cognitive biases. And you already mentioned the curse of knowledge which is one cognitive bias.

But another cognitive bias that really gets in our way is called the negativity bias. And the negativity bias is the phenomenon that negative experiences have a more powerful impact on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors than positive experiences do. And as a result, we are highly motivated to avoid negative. We’re much more motivated to avoid negative than we are motivated to seek out positive. And that’s the reason why the gut instinct response to any new idea is, “Yes, but…” and here’s the problem.

Because we are trying to avoid the negative, and we’re more motivated by that than we are motivated by looking for the positive. So, one of the things you can do to set a climate that helps get past this negativity bias is teach everyone that GPS method that I already talked about.

And the way we used it as a specific tool to evaluate an idea, but it is also, and probably more importantly, simply a mindset to adopt when you’re generating ideas. So, if you can teach people that GPS thinking as a mindset and as a climate that you’re going to adopt when you’re generating ideas, you will automatically reduce the fear because people are going to see, “When I throw out a crazy idea, everybody is going to respond to it in this more positive way by saying, ‘What’s potentially good about it?’ and then they’re going to help me solve for the problems in it, instead of just saying, ‘Yes, but…’”

Because when you say an idea and somebody else says, “Yes, but…” it makes you feel like you were stupid for saying the idea. But when you say an idea and other people say, “Here’s what’s good about it Here’s what we might need to solve for,” then you feel like, “We’re collaborating now,” instead of, “They just judged me and found me stupid.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, totally. And then that momentum is just flowing in that place.

Susan Robertson
Yup.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Susan Robertson
“I can’t control everything that happens in life but I can control how I respond to it.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Susan Robertson
There was some research that they did with kids. They gave a bunch of kids some tests of creative thinking, and 95% of the kindergarteners scored in what would be termed highly creative. And then they gave the same kids in fifth grade the same tests and the results had nearly reversed. Now only about 5% of the kids scored in what was highly creative. So, the moral of the story is we un-learn our creativity. But the good news is we can re-learn it and regain it and leverage it to our benefit.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And how about a favorite book?

Susan Robertson
Actually, instead of a book, can I give you a TED Talk?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

Susan Robertson
I love Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk on “Do schools kill creativity?” It’s an excellent, excellent talk. He makes amazing points and it is a powerful learning.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Susan Robertson
I use a website called Stormz, and it is designed specifically for brainstorming and creative thinking sessions, and it makes it so easy. And it’s enabled for online so you can have a remote brainstorming session, everybody working remotely, but they put all their ideas in one place. It’s a brilliant tool.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite habit?

Susan Robertson
Yeah, you’re probably familiar with the idea that some people are people-oriented and some people are task-oriented. And I find that I’m very task-oriented in particular when I’m writing or responding to emails. So, my habit has become when I write an email or respond to an email, I type whatever it is I think I need to say, and then I pause before I hit send, and I read it again, and I make sure to change it to say something like, “How are you doing? How’s your son? Did he pass that test you were talking about?” because, otherwise, my emails are, very…they sound very cold because they’re so task-oriented, and I warm them up with some people orientation as an afterthought.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks quoting it back to you frequently?

Susan Robertson
“Let some crazy in the room.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch with you, where would you point them to?

Susan Robertson
My website SusanRobertson.co.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Susan Robertson
Start keeping track of how many times you say or hear, “Yes, but…” in a day, and it will motivate you to stop doing it and start responding more creatively to ideas.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Susan, this has been a treat, and I wish you lots of luck in your creative endeavors.

Susan Robertson
Thank you.

619: Seth Godin on How to Ship More Great Creative Work…and Why Much of Your Work is Actually “Creative”

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Seth Godin says: "Fear needs to be seen as a compass... because that feeling is telling us we're onto something."

Seth Godin debunks persistent myths about creativity to show how professionals can deliver more creative output at work.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The real reason why we don’t think we’re creative 
  2. The most effective way to overcome creative block 
  3. Why you should embrace your impostor syndrome 

 

About Seth

Seth Godin is the author of nineteen international bestsellers that have been translated into over 35 languages, and have changed the way people think about marketing and work. 

He’s a recent inductee to the Marketing Hall of Fame, and also a member of the Direct Marketing Hall of Fame, and the Guerrilla Marketing Hall of Fame. 

In addition to his writing and speaking, Seth was founder and CEO of Squidoo.com. His blog (find it by typing “seth” into Google) is the most popular marketing blog in the world. Before his work as a writer and blogger, Seth was Vice President of Direct Marketing at Yahoo!, a job he got after selling them his pioneering 1990s online startup, Yoyodyne.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you, sponsors!

Seth Godin Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Seth, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Seth Godin
Oh, it’s a pleasure. Who knows where here is anymore, but we’re here together.

Pete Mockaitis
Everything you say or write is profound. Well, I’m super excited to dig into your latest book, it’s called The Practice. And I don’t want to do flattery but I genuinely do mean that you are among the most prolific and brilliant writers that I’ve encountered. I haven’t read all your books, many people have, and it’d probably better if I did. But it sounds like in your book, The Practice, is this sort of your secret or…? Tell us, what’s this book all about, because it seems like you’re really kind of giving away the inner secrets here a little bit?

Seth Godin
Oh, I don’t think it’s my secret. I think it’s our secret. I think everybody knows that they need to ship creative work because being a drone and a cog is no fun. And I think everyone realizes that there’s no such thing as the muse, that talent is overrated, and that if we just showed up and put ourselves on the hook, we can not only do better work but do it with more joy.

And what I wanted to do in this book is capture a whole bunch of truth that we keep reminding ourselves that the opposite might be true. We’re confused. There’s no such thing as writer’s block. There’s all these skills that we could learn that are masquerading as attitudes, etc. All of these things are ways that we can decide to contribute more. So, this book is really personal in the sense that I wrote it so that I would remind myself of what I needed to hear.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. And it seems like a number, or you tell me, or perhaps all of them, are coming from your legendary Seth’s Blog short blog posts from across the years. I was just reading “Where do ideas come from?” and it’s almost like poetic. And then I see, oh, that was indeed one of your posts like 10 years ago, and you’ve sort of collected the relevant ones and put them in a beautiful package.

Seth Godin
I think there’s like 220 essays and perhaps six of them have ever seen before, maybe eight.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, really? Nice. I didn’t know those. Okay.

Seth Godin
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, maybe let’s hit some definitions just to make sure we’re on the same page here. So, ship and creative work, I think I know what you mean by these things. But can you establish those for our audience of professionals?

Seth Godin
So, creative means it might not work. It’s never been done before. It’s personal. It’s generous. It’s human. It’s for someone else. You’re solving an interesting problem. That’s what creative means. Work, because you have to do it even when you don’t feel like it. Work, because you put yourself on the hook, you made a promise. And ship, because if it doesn’t ship it doesn’t count. If you say, “Well, I had the idea for blank years ago. I was going to write Hamilton,” no one cares because you didn’t ship it.

Pete Mockaitis
“We had the idea for Airbnb but we never did anything with it.” So, understood. And so, ship just really means kind of like deliver, get out the door, execute, do the thing.

Seth Godin
Right. Now, there’s a Nike problem. And the Nike problem is when you say, “Just ship it,” you could think that means, “What the hell. Put crap out there.” That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m saying merely ship it. Go without commentary. Do it without drama. Simply do it because that’s the work.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, let’s dig into a little bit of the particulars here. So, you say that creativity is not a gift for a select few but rather a choice. So, help us think through that, these mindsets here in terms of contrasting them and how does one make the choice.

Seth Godin
Have you ever done one thing in your life that was creative? Have you ever once solved the problem, told a joke, connected with someone who needed to be connected to? The answer, to anyone I’ve ever asked it to, is, yes, of course. So, if you can do it once, then the only question is, “Can you do it again?” And, yes, you can. So, that means it’s a choice. It’s not like you’re sitting there waiting for some flyball to land on your head. The reason we feel that way is because we’re afraid of the bad ideas. We’re afraid of the things that won’t work. And so, because we’re so afraid of the bad ones, we throw them all out.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, let’s dig into this fear, this emotional piece. So, we’re afraid of bad ideas and, thusly…Well, I think about professionals all the times in the conference rooms people are choosing not to share things.

Seth Godin
Correct.

Pete Mockaitis
And a lot of that is fear, maybe with good reason from experience. They get their hands slapped, or they get yelled at, or dismissed, or invalidated in one or another way. Well, can you help us think through? If you got some things to share, and you got some fear, what should we do?

Seth Godin
Fear has some very important elements. Fear that keeps you from crossing the highway on foot at rush hour is a good thing. Fear of a saber-toothed tiger is a good thing. That’s what we evolved to have but it is false fear when we feel nervous before giving a speech because nothing bad is going to happen to you. In fact, dancing with that fear will make a better outcome happen, not a worse outcome.

So, fear needs to be seen as a compass, as an opportunity to lean into that feeling because that feeling is telling us we’re onto something. Because if you’re not feeling it, I would argue you’re probably not trying hard enough.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that a lot. And so, you’re sharing not just that you reinterpret the feeling, like, “Oh, no, I’m excited,” which is a good strategy for nerves and stage fright, but to actually seek it out, like, “Oh, we got a compass that’s pointing us somewhere here.”

And, boy, we had Tara Mohr on the show say that there are two Hebrew words for fear. I don’t know if I can recall them, like yara and something else, and they’re kind of very different flavors. And one of them is kind of like the fear of inhabiting kind of a larger space. That’s kind of the good one. And so, that very much syncs with the notion of it’s a compass that’s pointing you into some cool territories.

Seth Godin
Yeah. You don’t hire a coach to train you so you can run a marathon without getting tired. It’s understood you get tired. The way you finish a marathon is by figuring out where to put the tired. And the same thing is true for any contribution we’re seeking to make, “Where do I put the fear?”

Pete Mockaitis
And so, “Where do I put it?” in terms of your internal mental categorizations of, “What does this mean? And how do I respond to it?”

Seth Godin
That’s right. And a lot of people are just hoping it will go away, and it doesn’t go away.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think that’s encouraging to hear right now. I mean, you’re pretty legendary and so you’re sharing on the record that you’re still feeling the fear and the stuff right here, right now with this book?

Seth Godin
Only when I’m working hard. I can coast all day without feeling fear. But, yes, if I’m doing my job properly, there’s definitely, “Uh-oh, maybe I reached too far out of the boat,” “Uh-oh, maybe I’m too much in a hurry. Maybe I’m not being clear. Maybe I forgot to do something that would’ve been a useful contribution.” Yeah, all of that, all the time.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now that we’re inside your internal mind dialogue, can we hang out a little longer? So, that shows up, and then what comes next in the conversation?

Seth Godin
“Thank you.”

Pete Mockaitis
Please go on.

Seth Godin
“Thank you.” I mean, it’s such a privilege to be able to do this work. And to have that voice in my head to keep me on track, I don’t try to deny it, I don’t try to rationalize it, I don’t argue with it, I just say, “Thanks for letting me know.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s powerful stuff. And as I’m sort of sitting with that, it really is true that if you don’t have any fear, it’s sort of like you don’t care about the outcome, or maybe not the outcome if there’s a whole lot there. You don’t care about the “it.” It’s not a high value to you personally. It’s not of great importance, the stuff, if there’s not some level of fear, in my experience. Is that kind of a fair characterization?

Seth Godin
Well, I guess. I mean, let’s assume you’re not a sociopath. There’s one thing, which is confidence. And confidence is being sure it’s going to work. And the other thing is belief, which is, “I’m not sure it’s going to work but I’m going to try it anyway.” And if all you’re doing all day are things that you are confident about, then you’ve got a challenge because it means you’re not doing any art, you’re not creating anything.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s good. Well, so let’s dig into a few of your maybe provocative assertions. So, you say writer’s block is a myth. What’s really going on here? Why do we sometimes have difficulty getting creative when we want to flip the switch but it doesn’t seem to be flipping?

Seth Godin
Well, no one gets talker’s block or bicyclist block or plumber’s block, so there’s no reason to think that writer’s block would be an exception. What we really have is fear of bad writing. And if you do enough of the bad stuff, some good stuff will get through. But to say, “I am incapable of typing something,” is absurd. What you’re saying is, “Because I am so afraid of what might come out, I don’t want to type anything.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, then I suppose it’s quite possible, and really this is a different phenomenon. You could type something and it might be bad. I guess there are times in which you’re in flow, you’re rocking, you’re grooving, and there are times when you’re not, and it’s like, “Okay, I could throw some sentences on this page that I will surely delete afterwards,” versus, “Oh, wow, this is amazing!” So, talk to us about flow. How do we get more of that?

Seth Godin
Well, so people want flow and then they’ll do the creative work but that never is the way it works. You do creative work when you don’t feel like it and then flow shows up. And I appreciate your kind words about my writing but I write bad stuff all the time, you just don’t see it. And my friend, Isaac Asimov, wrote 400 books, published them, and he told me that his secret was he typed for six hours a day every day. And I got to tell you, typing a book only takes about three days. Writing a book takes a long time because it’s figuring out which words to leave out that take all the time.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, let’s think about Seth’s Blog for a second here. So, every day, is it 100% of days? It sure looks like it as I’ve been there, you’re putting something out. So, sometimes you don’t feel like it.

Seth Godin
Oh, I write three, or four, or five blogposts for every one you read. And I have a backlog because I don’t want to break a streak. I don’t wake up at 4:00 o’clock in the morning and type something and hit publish.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, you got a backlog and you’re cranking whether you feel like it or not. And are there some rituals there for you?

Seth Godin
Well, the real ritual is I ask myself a question every single time I see something in the world that I don’t understand, and it’s, “Why is it like this?” because I refuse to believe the world is magic. And so, I want to understand “How does a refrigerator work?” “And why do some doors pull and some doors push?” “And how did that person get elected?” Everything around us happened. Why did it happen? And if I find that my answer is worth sharing, it becomes a blogpost.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I love this so much. So, “Why is it like this?” gets the wheels turning in all kinds of places. And then what happens next? So, you’ve got a curiosity about the refrigerator or an election outcome. Do you Google or what’s the next step?

Seth Godin
No, you make an assertion, right? I mean, some things you can look up but not many. You make an assertion about, “What are the fundamental human desires, and needs, and wants, and hopes and dreams, and fears that led somebody to do what they did?” And Milton Friedman would like to believe that everything happens because you get paid. Well, that’s clearly not the case.

So, why is it that there’s hundreds of thousands of people with podcasts who, deep down, know they’re never going to make a lot of money doing it? Why is it that when Monster came out with Beats headphones, which could be seen in any test to be inferior to headphones that cost much less, how did they build a multibillion-dollar brand? Why do people buy those headphones? Questions like that.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, you’re right. And they really do get you…Well, I guess that’s what I find so intriguing is you pose these questions and I’m already curious about them, like the refrigerator and the Beats, I just kind of want to know now. But you say the next step is not so much to go Google something, but to think more about the deep fundamental human stuff behind it.

Seth Godin
Yeah, I mean, that doesn’t work for physics. Refrigerators, you should not make assertions. You should just Google how they work.

Pete Mockaitis
Someone desired cold profoundly for their food. Okay. And with the Beats, though, I am, I almost did it right now, the history of Beats I pose. But you stop and think like, “What do people want? What are they after? What is the brand speaking to?” It’s like they want to be cool with a particular flavor of cool, it’s like, “I want to be like that Dr. Dre,” or so. I’m just…

Seth Godin
No, you’re onto something. I think what Noel figured out was that headphones were a chance to create jewelry for men. And he came up, by working with Dr. Dre, with a piece of jewelry for a certain demographic, psychographic, that you could justify wearing right next to your face. And the market for jewelry is so much bigger than the incremental head-on market for electronics that do a job because those are a commodity. And what happened in many communities is having artificial Dr. Dre’s lowered your status. Having real ones raised your status. And so, that’s what he was selling, was status not audio reproduction.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. Well, let’s think about, as I read your book The Practice, what comes to mind are those who are producing, I don’t know, books, videos, movies, etc. I like your definition of creativity, it was broader. But if you imagine yourself in an environment of a white-collar worker going into an office, when you could go into an office, and interacting there, what are you thinking that there’s something that this community of professionals likely does that stifles their creativity? Are there some recurring mistakes that you encourage folks cut out?

Seth Godin
Well, yeah, the biggest one is they think it’s not their job. Like, let’s pick an accountant. Accounting is not bookkeeping. Bookkeepers are, generally, my bookkeeper excepted, generally, commodity providers that you don’t care who it is, you just give them the data and they give you back the answer. It is a cog’s job. But to be a successful accountant, you’re doing something that involves engaging with other humans.

So, the accountants at Enron did a bad job but not because they were bad at bookkeeping, but because they lost their moral compass and weren’t able to have creative, useful conversations with their clients. And that’s hard work, and it’s different every time you do it. So, it’s so easy to avoid it and say, “I’m just an accountant,” when, in fact, if you want to win at accounting, by any measure, you have to be a human before you’re an accountant. To be a human means you have to solve the interesting problems that accounting presents.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I’ll tell you what, that is exactly why I stuck with my accountant for all this time, it’s like, for one, I thought, “You know what, I’m not really good at this stuff, so maybe I probably should outsource it,” but then when I looked at the bill, it’s like, “Ooh, do I want to keep with this?” But, sure enough, it’s like these little gems, it’s like, “Oh, well, if you’re a single-member LLC, but we have your taxes and S-corp, then the result is that a portion of your stuff is a wage and the other portion is not, something to payroll tax, like all this stuff.” It’s like, “So, you’re just making money appear for me. Oh, thank you. This is like you create more money than I pay you and take something off my plate.”

Seth Godin
I got to interject here, it’s much deeper than that. He didn’t simply make you more money because there are lots of ways someone could make you more money. They could teach you to be a bond trader. What he did was he made you feel smart.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true.

Seth Godin
He made you feel like to not hear this tomorrow would make you stupid. He helped you with your reflection of your own status, which changed your relationship with other people around you. So, there’s layers beyond layers beyond layers, and this accountant may think that all they’re doing is work in the system, but what they’re really doing is understanding what Pete needs to hear to feel engaged in a positive cycle.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that connects. And I recall…I just want to hit this for a moment, this notion of layers and human needs and desires. I remember I was reading something you wrote, and we talked about benefits versus features, people don’t want to drill, they want a hole in the wall. But even more than they want a hole in the wall, you took it further. Can you recap that for us?

Seth Godin
Sure. So, Ted Levitt, in ’62, wrote that no one wants a drill bit, what they want is a hole, and they have to buy the drill bit to get the hole. And I’m like, “No, you don’t need a hole. You need a place to put your lag bolt. Well, you don’t need that either. You need a way to hang a shelf. Well, you don’t need that either. You need a way to get the books off the coffee table. And you don’t need that, you need the way it makes you feel when your spouse says thank you.” That’s why you went to the hardware store.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, likewise, with this accounting situation, it’s like, well, yeah, there’s some economics stuff going on, sure. But even more so, it’s true, I do like feeling smart, and I do like feeling, like together we have accomplished something that is, I don’t know, optimal, clever, that is we found an opportunity, legally and appropriately, and we grabbed it in an exciting way. It was exciting for me. I don’t know even though it was accounting.

Okay. Well, so, oh, you’ve got so much stuff. Let’s hear about impostor syndrome. So, you posit that that’s not so much something that we need to cure and get over, but rather it’s something else. Tell us about that.

Seth Godin
Right. So, no one talked about impostor syndrome until two women wrote about it 30 years ago, and now, suddenly, people are acknowledging that they have it too, “I feel like a fraud. Who are they to speak up? Who are they to have a podcast? Who are they to be creative? How do I make it go away? How do I make impostor syndrome go away?”

And people are surprised when I say, “Well, but you’re an impostor. They can’t go away because you’re an impostor. You’re accurately feeling something, which is if you’re leading, you’re doing something that hasn’t been done before, you can’t be sure you’re right. You can’t prove that you’re qualified.” Therefore, we have to embrace the idea that all leaders, at some level, are impostors. And, again, it’s a symptom that you’re doing this generous creative work.

Pete Mockaitis
So, once we embrace that, then we feel okay about it, or what happens then?

Seth Godin
No, you never feel okay about it, not if you’re a normal person. What you do instead is say, “This is work,” that’s in the subtitle. Be awesome at your job, not be awesome at your hobby. If it’s your hobby, you should do it exactly the way that gives you short-term and long-term joy. But if it’s your work, well, good news, you don’t get blisters and calluses at your job. You don’t have to stand outside in the rain and dig a ditch. Bad news, you have to do emotional labor. And the emotional labor means dealing with impostor syndrome. It means dancing with fear. It means showing up when you don’t feel like it because it’s work.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I really like that when you put them right next to each other as a contrast. It’s like you’re choosing a form of hard or a form of discomfort.

Seth Godin
It’s labor. Yeah, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m thinking about the movie Office Space, where, at the end, the guy chooses the other one, he’s like, “You know what, this is better. I prefer the construction.” Okay. Well, so tell us, Seth, is there anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about a few of your favorite things?

Seth Godin
Okay. So, the reason it’s worth writing a book, and not another blogpost, is because books are easy to share. You can say to two or three other people, “Let’s all read this and support each other through it.” That’s why I wrote a book. I believe we are not spending enough time looking at each other and talking about how we will make things better by making better things. And so, my hope is that people will embrace a practice and use it as a tool for good.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. All right. Well, now, can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Seth Godin
Years ago, my friend and teacher, the late Zig Ziglar, said, “You can get everything in life you want if you’ll help enough other people get what they want.” And some people hear that as transactional so I’ve sort of altered it to, “Life can be helping other people get what they want,” and that’s a good compass for me.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Seth Godin
Oh, the most important thing that people need to learn, truly learn, is statistics. And the most interesting thing they can learn, as far as I’ve discovered after reading a lot of books, is just how profound the process of the evolution of species is. If you want to understand how COVID is doing what COVID is doing, if you want to understand epidemiology, if you want to understand how we have to dance around our future on this planet, you need to understand what Darwin figured out, that many, many small changes, repeated through inheritance, over long periods of time, creates the world.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, Seth, you’re so fascinating. Statistics, I didn’t expect you to say that. Why is that so critical?

Seth Godin
You know, I read an essay last week that we should get rid of calculus in high school and teach everyone statistics instead because you don’t need to know calculus. Calculus is a stepping stone to higher math but very few people need higher math. Everyone needs statistics. The people who think that the polls were wrong on the last election don’t understand what polls are. The people who don’t get what interest rates are and why risk even exists in the world, I mean, all of it. You can see the world so much more clearly if you understand what statistics are.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And how about a favorite book?

Seth Godin
I think it’s really weird that people associate books only with school. The average American reads two books a year, buys one. And that it’s awkward to talk about a book you wrote. But the book I wrote, Linchpin, which took a year of my life, which changed my life, which I listen to on audio on a regular basis, is a book that I would say to people, “Here, I wrote this. I hope you’ll check it out.”

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Seth Godin
Okay. So, the best tool I purchased in the last year is an Austrian smoothing plane. It costs $300. It takes shavings of cedar that are microscopically thin. And every time I touch it, it makes me smile. It’s just magnificent. And in terms of my job, I just discovered the indigo press, which can be used to print PDFs in book form. But they have one giant laser printer, bigger than a house, and I’ve used it before, but now it can print, and I know we’re on the radio, but you can see these.

It can print these matte packaging, for example, that you might find at Whole Foods that they put granola in, and it can do small runs of just a couple thousand at a time. And so, this I find this company called ePac that has an Indigo printer. And I just got to say I just keep looking at this stack of things that I made, and it puts a big smile on my face. So, that’s a giant tool, and an Austrian smoothing plane, it’s a small tool. And between them you might find something juicy.

Pete Mockaitis
What is about the Austrian smoothing plane that makes you smile?

Seth Godin
It does exactly what it’s supposed to do with no complaint. It’s perfectly engineered. It doesn’t weigh a lot. They could’ve made it heavier. It doesn’t have unnecessary controls, but the controls it has do exactly what they’re supposed to do. And I’ve been woodworking for 40 years, more, 50, but I’m not great at it. But this tool, I was great at it. And that says something about the design of the tool.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Seth Godin
I don’t go to meetings, I don’t watch television, and I don’t eat meat. I think those three habits have helped me a great deal.

Pete Mockaitis
Tell me about not going to meetings. What do you do instead?

Seth Godin
I think a conversation between two people is not a meeting, it’s a conversation. Those are good. If you’re putting the other bunch of people so that you can make sure that they’re working today, that’s just about compliance. That should be cancelled. If you really want people’s input, you should create a shared Google Doc, and create an environment where people will be encouraged to contribute to it. If you want to tell people what the specs are for the tech standards at the conference you’re running, you should send a memo. But there’s so many things that we’re doing today, because Zoom is so easy to click a button on, that consume most of our day, that are mostly about power not about communication.

Pete Mockaitis
Seth, tell us, how do you decline a meeting invitation?

Seth Godin
Oh, I think there’s very few penalties for being respectful, clear, and direct. And so, I say, “I’m sorry, I can’t do this meeting. Can you send me a Google Doc instead?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. That’s short and sweet. Well, all right, next stop, you’ve written a lot of stuff. Tell me, is there a particular quotable gem that you hear more often than others, like, “Seth, I loved it when you said blank”?

Seth Godin
I would say the shortest blogpost I recall writing ever is the one I hear about a lot. I don’t know if it’s the most, it’s, “You don’t need more time. You just need to decide.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where should we point them?

Seth Godin
You can get excerpts from The Practice at TrustYourself.com, which used to be the title of the book but I changed it with my editor but I kept the domain. And you can read 7,500 blogposts, if you’ve got some spare time, at Seths.Blog.

Pete Mockaitis
And I love that your bio, you can get there by just Googling Seth. There’s a power move. That’s good.

Seth Godin
It’s the equivalent of my Dr. Dre headphones.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Seth Godin
it’s pretty simple. Never ever say, “I’m just doing my job.” Simply do your job. Do it in a way that we would miss you if you were gone. Because, yes, management has been exploiting labor for a really long time, but if you’re going to go to work anyway, you might as well go to work and be a linchpin.

Pete Mockaitis
Seth, this has been a joy. Thank you so much. I wish you lots of luck and fun and all the ways you’re shipping work.

Seth Godin
Well, I appreciate it. Thanks for the time. We’ll see you.

589: How to Ask Better Questions that Lead to Breakthroughs with Stephen Shapiro

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Stephen Shapiro offers expert advice for shifting your thinking to uncover innovative solutions.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The biggest red flag in problem-solving
  2. How to work with—not around—constraints
  3. How an emphasis on solutions hinders us

 

About Stephen

For over 20 years, Stephen Shapiro has presented his provocative strategies on innovation to audiences in 50 countries. During his 15-year tenure with the consulting firm Accenture, he led a 20,000-person innovation practice. He is the author of six books, including his latest: Invisible Solutions: 25 Lenses that Reframe and Help Solve Difficult Business Problems. His Personality Poker® system has been used around the world to create high-performing innovation teams. In 2015 he was inducted into the Speaker Hall of Fame.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

  • Rise. Build your team’s learning library–the fast and fun way–with Rise.com/awesome. 

Stephen Shapiro Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Stephen, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Stephen Shapiro
Well, I’m very excited to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to have you. And I, first, want to hear a little bit about your childhood dream of being a gameshow host. What’s the story?

Stephen Shapiro
Growing up, I would watch The Gong Show which was one of my favorite shows because it was just so ridiculously goofy and, in particular, Chuck Barris, who was the host, was just, I mean, I loved how animated he was and how crazy he was, and I just became so fascinated with him. And, in fact, I got to meet him at BookExpo one year, which, to me, was sort of a weird dream come true.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Do you have a particular game show host voice or style that you would engage in, and could we hear a sample?

Stephen Shapiro
Oh, I think it’d probably be Chuck Barris, like, “Oh, man, this is like just the craziest act I’ve ever seen.” I just loved his physical animation, his voice animation, the craziness, the antics. It was, I don’t know. I just thought it was a lot of fun.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I think that in high school I actually won the award for, you know, the senior superlatives, like, “Most likely succeed, yadda, yadda,” Most Likely to Host a Gameshow, which was very specific and a peculiar category that they had. It’s not a game show but, sure enough, I’m hosting a show. The seniors were right.

Stephen Shapiro
Well, that’s awesome. So, if you were to do a gameshow, I’m just curious, what gameshow do you love? Like, if you were to be a gameshow host, which one would you want to be a host of?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, you know, I’m not an aficionado by any means, but I thought the most ridiculous concept, which was cracking me up, was Awake, it was on Netflix, it’s newer. And it’s about people who are sleep-deprived and have to tackle these challenges because I’m a big fan of sleep. It’s a recurring theme on the show. And I think that that just very much resonates, like, “Yeah, I can’t do jack when I’m sleep-deprived,” and neither can many of these contestants.

Stephen Shapiro
Oh, that’s awesome. I’m going to have to check that one out.

Pete Mockaitis
They have to like count quarters, like, all night. It’s a goofy concept but it provides a powerful, I think, reminder for being awesome at your job is get enough sleep. So, that’s one tip. But I want to hear, you’ve got more than one, nay, 25 lenses that reframe and help solve difficult business problems in your book Invisible Solutions. And so, I’m intrigued because, wow, that’s a lot of lenses. I like that. So, lay it on us, you’re an innovation expert. What’s the big idea behind this book here?

Stephen Shapiro
Well, we’re always trying to solve complex problems and, unfortunately, the biggest mistake we make in trying to solve problems is to focus on the solution, because if we’re solving the wrong problem, we’ll never get the right answer. And we don’t take enough time to step back and say, “Am I asking an important question? Am I solving an important problem? And have I reframed the problem in a way that will allow me to get better or at least different solutions?” And so, it really comes back to the question. The questions we ask are going to drive the solutions that we get.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so that makes sense to me. Could you perhaps make it come to life for us with a vivid example in terms of a person or a team banging their head against the wall, making minimal progress, because they weren’t asking a great question and then the transformation they experienced when they started doing right?

Stephen Shapiro
Sure. So, one which I really like because it demonstrates a really great thought process is a team of dental experts who were trying to create a whitening toothpaste. And pretty much all whitening toothpaste uses abrasives or bleach and they decided they wanted to tackle the problem, “How do we create a whitening toothpaste that doesn’t use abrasives and doesn’t use bleach?” and they spent a lot of time and spent a lot of money trying to come up with complex chemical compounds and new formulas, and they didn’t find anything until somebody shifted the question. And it’s a really profound question because it’s only two words, it’s, “Who else?”

And so, when they shifted it to instead of saying, “How do we, the dental experts, solve this particular problem?” they asked, “Who else has solved a similar problem?” And so, they asked, “Who else makes whites whiter?” and in this case, they realized it’s laundry detergent, and the company that was working on this problem, in addition to having a dental care division, also had a laundry detergent division, and they found the solution by talking to the people in laundry care…

Pete Mockaitis
Convenient.

Stephen Shapiro
…which is a completely…and it was a totally different solution, a crazy solution, but it actually worked.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like, “Ooh, what do you know, we’ve got laundry experts in our same company.” That’s really handy. So, okay, “Who else?” that’s a handy question. So, then let’s talk about just that. So, you say, in many ways, it starts by asking better questions. So, what are some of the best ways we can go about doing just that?

Stephen Shapiro
Well, the first step is to recognize that we have a lot of assumptions in the questions that we’re working on. We do tend to limit our ability to find new paths because we tend to do what’s worked in the past. So, the first thing is to just really question, like, “We’ve always done it this way. We’ve never done it this way.” Once you start hearing people say that, that really, to me, should be a red flag to say, “Hmm, are we really moving in the right direction or are we just moving in the direction we’ve always moved in the past?”

And then, once you acknowledge that our questions tend to be not well-formulated, then you need a process of deconstructing the problem. So, in a lot of cases, for example, we’ll ask big broad questions, like, “Okay, how can I improve the business?” Well, that’s a big question. If I asked a thousand people who worked for a company to give me their ideas on how to improve the business, I’d probably get 10,000 ideas, of which almost none of them will really be valuable. So, we need to go through that process of stepping back, and saying, “What are we really trying to solve here?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Certainly. So, then that’s so broad. We might zoom into, I don’t know, well, now my strategy consulting hat is coming on, it’s like, “Well, hey, there’s either, financially speaking, increasing revenue or reducing costs.” And then you could talk even more broadly in terms of like environmental, stewardship, corporate responsibility. Like, improve business, I hear you, has many, many different lenses or layers to it. So, I guess what is the right level of broadness or breadth? Because in your example, I can see it’s too broad but I think you might get maybe too narrow in the sense of, “How can we increase our toothpaste revenue by 4% or more?” I feel like you’re probably going to be missing out on some real gems if you get that narrow.

Stephen Shapiro
Well, exactly. I mean, I call it the Goldilocks Principle because sometimes they’re too soft, the bed is too soft, or they’re too broad, too abstract, and sometimes they’re too specific, they’re too hard. And so, we need to just make sure we’re asking questions that are just right, and that takes practice. Like you were saying, there are some fantastic examples of where a problem was framed to assume that the solution came from a particular area of expertise, and by opening it up, new solutions were developed.

So, my favorite story is actually the Exxon Valdez oil spill back in 1989. For 20 years, for nearly two decades, they were trying to solve the problem of, “How do we prevent an oil water mixture from freezing?” and couldn’t find a solution. And when they shifted the question to something that was less specific that had nothing to do with oil or temperature, but it was actually a common food dynamics issue which is called viscous sharing, which basically means a dense liquid, if it’s put under force or acceleration, it will start to act like a solid. They found a solution in six weeks by somebody working in the construction industry working with cement. So, there’s that little art of being able to ask better questions, not too broad or too specific.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so lay it on us, it’s an art but for us non-artisans, how can we start to do a little bit better right away?

Stephen Shapiro
Well, the first thing is to ask yourself, “Am I assuming that the solution is going to come from a particular area of expertise?” And if it is, well, then try to broaden it. If it’s too generic… so I’ll give some of the lenses. That’s probably the best way to go. So, if I’m asking the question, “How do I improve revenues?” One of the lenses that I might want to focus on is what is called the leverage lens. The leverage lens is the first one, and it basically says, “If I could only solve one part of this problem, what would it be?”

[09:07]

So, you might ask, “Well, where do we get our greatest revenues right now? Who are our most profitable customers? Where are our most profitable geographies? What are our most profitable products? Wherever it might, how we maybe focus on that.” So, that might be the first step is to find the leverage point. Or you can use the second lens which is to deconstruct it, to say, “Well, I don’t even know what’s most important but let me break it down.” Like you did. “Well, revenues could be made up of a combination of a number of different factors. There’s financial factors, there are social factors, and so how do I break it down to smaller parts and figure out which one to solve?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, hey, let’s keep it running. Let’s hear about reduce, eliminate, and hyponym. I don’t know if I’m saying that right.

Stephen Shapiro
Oh, yeah, that’s perfect. So, the reduce lens basically says, “If we’re trying to solve something that’s too big, how do we sort of reduce it down to something smaller?” Let’s talk about the eliminate lens first because I think it’s a really good one. We, so often, ask ourselves, “What can we add? What features can we add? How can we make something better?” But we rarely ask, “What can we remove?”

So, like right now, everything is meeting on Zoom at this time because we can’t meet in person. Well, what most people have done is just automated the meeting. But what if you started eliminating meetings? What aspects of meetings could you eliminate? So, what can we remove from the solution that will, in many cases, give us a much more elegant solution? So, those are two.

But let’s talk about the hyponym and hypernym. Basically, what these are, are lenses which are about abstraction. So, if I want to make something more specific, what I’d want to do is take a word. So, for example, if I’m trying to solve a transportation problem, maybe I need to break it down into vehicle, which is a more specific version of transportation, and maybe from vehicle I could go down to car or motorcycle or bicycle. So, by changing those types of words, we now start shifting the language because the important thing is we could change one word in a problem statement and get a completely different range of solutions.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I guess hypo and hyper just mean less than or more than, or below or greater, I believe. Latin or Greek roots here.

Stephen Shapiro
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, I guess you’re just suggesting that we have, as artisans practicing this art, we have the ability to choose specifically as opposed to like a synonym or antonym, meaning the same thing or the opposite thing, something that means the thing more narrow or more broadly speaking.

Stephen Shapiro
Right. So, for example, I wrote a book. If I look at a hypernym for a book, which is a higher-level thing, well, offering…

Pete Mockaitis
Media.

Stephen Shapiro
Media, yeah, or product, or offering. I mean, these are all higher-level words.

Pete Mockaitis
Content.

Stephen Shapiro
Yeah, exactly. But if you think about it, “How do I create a great book?” is a different question than “How do I create a great offering or a great product?” And so, we started to look at, “Okay, well, if it’s a product, what are the range of products we’re going to include with the book?” and that’s how we started getting into multimedia and a number of different tools that go along with it. So, you can just change one word and get a completely different range of solutions.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, I’m hearing you there. And then, by doing this, all those five lenses there give us an approach to reducing the abstraction and getting clear on, “Hey, what do you mean by book, or whatever word, or problem that you’re after?” So, then let’s just keep it rolling from your table of contents, if we may.

Stephen Shapiro
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
Then on the flipside, if we want to increase abstraction, I guess the benefits of that are that we get a broader array of potential solutions that fit into there but, again, if you’re too broad, then you just might be kind of all over the place and not grabbing onto something. So, what are some of the best tools or lenses for increasing abstraction?

Stephen Shapiro
Well, so we talked about the analogy lens, which is the toothpaste example. And, by the way, the solution to the toothpaste example, I think, is actually pretty cool, because when the toothpaste people went over and asked the laundry care people, “How do you make whites whiter when you’re not using bleach?” They were told something interesting. They were told, “We don’t? We don’t make whites whiter. We actually make whites bluer. Laundry detergent is blue for a reason because it creates an optical illusion that prevents the reflection of yellow.”

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding.

Stephen Shapiro
And so, the toothpaste they created actually has a blue dye in it that is the same blue dye that’s in laundry detergent. So, the analogy lens is all about, “Who else has solved a similar problem but in a different place?” And I think that’s just always a fun one to use.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, let’s talk about a few more examples of analogies there. So, we’ve got the toothpaste whitening versus laundry whitening. Lay on us a few more examples for how we might draw analogies.

Stephen Shapiro
Sure. So, probably one the more powerful examples is how an oil pipeline engineer helped a cardiologist solve a medical problem. Basically, this cardiologist was talking to an oil pipeline engineer, he said, “Look, one of the problems we have as human beings is we get clots. We get clots in our body. And if the clot goes up into the brain or the heart, we’ll get a stroke or we’ll die. And we’ve not figured out a way of preventing that from happening and when it does happen, how do we remove it?”

And the oil engineer said, “We have that problem all the time. We call it sludge, which is basically dirt and muck that gets in the pipelines.” And he created this filter that goes in pipelines to filter out and break up the sludge. And the two of them worked together to create a product which actually goes in the body that does exactly the same thing, and it saves thousands and thousands of lives. And I think it’s just so fascinating that an oil pipeline engineer found the solution to our health problem.

Pete Mockaitis
That is cool. Well, what do we call that thing? I think I’ve heard of it before. What’s the medical device called?

Stephen Shapiro
It’s called the Greenfield Vena Cava filter.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, there you have it. That’s nifty. Well, then, I’ve heard of these stories and they’re kind of cool and fun in hindsight, like, “Well, how about that, that these different disciplines got together and then made something cool.” But I wonder, sort of when you’re in the heat of it, how would you go about getting those analogies flowing? Like, it probably wouldn’t occur to you, “You know what I got to do is I got to call a petroleum engineer or a pipeline?” You’d say, “Who else has solved a problem like this?” So, that’s one way to start triggering some of that. Although, if you’ve got no familiarity with oil pipelines, you may have no idea that they’ve solved problems like that. So, maybe can you walk us through perhaps a thought process by which we’re utilizing analogy to spark new promising pathways of exploration?

Stephen Shapiro
Sure. So, the first step is to pause and just say, “I never assume that I have all the answers, so maybe somebody else has the answer.” And when you ask, “Who else?” sometimes  you can just reframe it in a lot of different ways. So, for example, I focus on innovation. Okay. Well, who does innovation? Well, that’s a little broad. Then I start thinking about, “Okay. Well, I’m trying to solve difficult problems or I’m trying to make impossible things happen?” It’s like, “Okay. Well, who else makes impossible things possible?” And it’s like, “Bingo! Magicians.”

And so, I spend a lot of my time hanging out with magicians, studying the way they create their magic tricks because I learn as much from magicians about the thought process of solving a complex problem as I would with a fellow innovator. And it’s just that inquiry into, “Okay. Well, who else could it be? Who else could it be?” And it’s like if I’m trying to deal with something with speed, I’m trying to make something faster, okay, maybe I’d talk to a racecar team, or I might be talking to anybody who deals with speed and movement. As you start thinking about it, things become obvious pretty quickly.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, that’s fun. And this reminds me, when you said speed, we had a previous guest who said that, “Ideas are feats of associations.” That was a nice little quotable gem. When I think about speed, I’m reminded of the book The Goal if you’ve read it about his theory of constraints and how his epiphany, aha moment, about how to make his manufacturing plant better occurred when he was leading his Boy Scouts on a hike. And there was one Boy Scout who had way too many items in his backpack which was weighing him down, slowing him down, and they could only move as fast as Herbie, the slowest-moving person. And he’s like, “Aha, one of the Herbies, the slowest-moving elements, the bottlenecks, in our plant,” and then away you go.

So, what I think was nifty about that is that, I guess, on the outside looking in, when you start going down that pathway of talking to a magician, “You know, let me talk to a magician or a race car team,” you have no idea yet what they’re going to say and how it may be applicable. But I imagine, is this far to say, once you get into the details of, “Oh, yeah, but we do this, or the wheels for that reason,” then it may very well be that that next level down that you’re starting to get those sparks of aha. Is that fair to say?

Stephen Shapiro
Absolutely. So, for example, an insurance company, their customers were complaining that when somebody filed a claim it’s like filing a claim into a black hole. They they didn’t know who their adjuster was, they didn’t know how much money they were getting, when somebody was going to show up to look at their house. And they’re working on this problem, and I love the way they found the solution, which was, having the question in their mind, “How do we create transparency in the claims process?” And it wasn’t like they sat around and they brainstormed.

Actually, as it turns out, they were sitting around and brainstorming, didn’t come up with an answer, somebody went off to order dinner, and came back and said, “I have the answer. It is Domino’s Pizza. Because if you order a pizza at Domino’s, you got the pizza tracker which tells you basically every single step of the process. Okay, the pizza is in the oven, it’s being made by a certain person, it’s out of the oven, it’s in the box, it’s out for delivery, it’s at your house.”

Well, they modeled what Domino’s did for the pizza tracker and created a claims tracker. So, it’s just amazing sometimes how the solutions can come from totally different industries. Pizza delivery and insurance, you would never think of having anything to do with each other, but actually you can get some great solutions when you start thinking that way.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Very cool. So, that’s the lens of analogy. Can you share some of your other favorite means of increasing abstraction?

Stephen Shapiro
In a lot of cases, you just need to start thinking more broadly. Again, it could be broader words. You can use hypernyms which is what we talked about before. To me, sometimes the best thing to do is just ask, “How do we make this less specific?” And that tends to be a very simple way of getting to a higher level. We can talk more about the lenses specifically, but I find sometimes those two lenses are pretty straight, those two categories, the reduce abstraction and the increase abstraction lenses are relatively straightforward. You just need to give it some thought. It’s the other ones that become a little more interesting because then they’re really starting to twist and turn the questions a lot.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, let’s hit those in just a moment, but I’ve got to know. Number seven, result. What is this lens?

Stephen Shapiro
So, the result lens is asking, “What is the outcome?” So, instead of focusing on the process, which is what we often do, and the process tends to be maybe the solution, “We need to focus on the results.” Let me give you a quick example of two lenses, one that increases abstraction and one that reduces abstraction for the same problem. So, some work that was being done in the UK around the education system, so the question was, “How can we improve the education system?” What they realized was that the education system was actually a means to an end. The goal, the result lens, would be, “Why do we have an education system? It’s to improve a child’s learning.”

So, when it was changed from education system to child’s learning, they then used the leverage lens, and they asked, “Okay. Well, if we’re trying to improve a child’s learning, what does science tell us in terms of the factors that have the greatest impact in a child’s learning?” And the greatest impact in a child’s learning, based on many studies, is actually positive parental involvement, not helicopter parenting the way some people do it, but like really getting actively involved in the child’s learning. And so, when that question was asked, the solution was found very quickly that there was an experimental school that had a 100% positive parental involvement. So, we focus on the result first and then we focus on the leverage lens and got a very elegant solution.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, we got to know, Stephen, what was the elegant solution? Tell us the story.

Stephen Shapiro
Well, the elegant solution was the school in Bogota, Columbia, of all places, where people are super busy, is they actually had parents come into the classroom and sit in the chairs that the students would sit in, and actually go through the process. It didn’t take a lot of time, but going through that experience gave the parents a deeper appreciation for what the children went through when they were in the classroom. And then, when they went back home, they were given some tools to help them engage the child during the learning process. I mean, here are people who are busy, they don’t have a lot of money, but they got 100% of the parents involved in that process.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think that’s so powerful in terms of there’s a world of difference in terms of hearing, “This is what the lesson was about,” versus, I don’t know how long they were in the seats, they’re probably kind of small.

Stephen Shapiro
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
They were in small seats for 15 minutes squirming, “Uncomfortable,” is to say, “Oh, okay. I see exactly what that experience is like in doing so. So, all right. Well, thank you.” Yeah, let’s talk about some of that changing perspective stuff. How do you recommend we go about making that happen?

Stephen Shapiro
Yeah. So, a lot of times, the best thing to do is look at the problem from a different angle. So, one of my favorite lenses is the re-sequence lens. And the re-sequence lens basically says that if your problem or even your solution assume some level of timing, how do we shift the timing on it? So, how do we predict or how do we postpone? How do we do something earlier? How do we do something later? So, for example, paint. If you go into a hardware store, it used to be that if you wanted green paint, you would walk down the aisle and you would grab a gallon of green paint. Now, if you want green paint, they ask you, “Well, what color of green? What tone of green?”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, there are hundreds of greens.

Stephen Shapiro
Yeah. And then they mix it for you there. So, they postponed the mixing of the paint. They actually create the color of the paint after you know what color somebody wants. And that’s just a great way of getting lower levels of inventory, for example, greater customization for people’s needs. So, it’s like if you go into McDonald’s, if they make it to your order, well, that would be postponing it. They would wait until somebody comes in, but during the busiest times, they might have to predict, they actually might have to make 20 Big Macs so that if somebody walks into the store, they’ve got a Big Mac ready and they know that 15 people in the next hour are going to order Big Macs so we’ll have it ready for them, and it gives us a lot greater efficiency.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And let’s hear about the emotion lens.

Stephen Shapiro
The emotion lens says that we tend to ask questions that are very analytical, but what if we add some emotion to it? In many cases, positive emotion is really one of the goals. So, for example, instead of saying, “How do we engage our customers? Or how do we get our customers to like us?” “How do we get our customers to feel like they’re at home when they’re in our stores?” They actually have some emotion to it. Or maybe we can ask the question, “How do we create a wow experience for our customers?” Or if it’s our employees, instead of saying, “How do we increase employee satisfaction?” maybe it’s, “How do we get a five out of five on our customer surveys?” And so, it’s more of a positive spin and a more emotional spin rather than just numbers and facts. But you can also go on the negative side too which is pretty fascinating.

Pete Mockaitis
I liked the way you articulated that in terms of because, frequently, the difference between something that I really kind of get and resonate with versus just sort of like, “Hmm, okay,” it is the emotion element. So, if we’re talking about, I don’t know, employee engagement, okay, so there’s a term and a tool and a metric and best practices and all that associated with it. So, if you ask a question, “How can we improve employee engagement?” you’re going to get a very different set of responses than if you asked the question, “How can we make a work experience so awesome folks never want to leave?”

Stephen Shapiro
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
And they’re like, “Ooh, well, I’ll tell you,” and so things can really fly in terms of, “Well, I never wanted to leave this workplace because this manager really cared about my development and invested in all these things. I never wanted to leave this workplace because they had kegs of…” I don’t know, whatever, “…delicious beverage.” So, yeah, I really dig that. I think, there’s probably good science on the brain, neuroscience here, in terms of you are tapping into different part of the brain straight up when you are posing the questions in that way.

Stephen Shapiro
And what’s interesting is the way you originally framed it as, “How do we improve?” Anytime you say improve, you imply there’s something wrong. And so, the brain now starts processing the information differently, “Okay. Well, I’m trying to fix a problem rather than elevate and lift something up.” Even those very, very subtle words can have a huge impact.

Pete Mockaitis
And I think what’s intriguing about this is it’s almost like, maybe we’ll zoom out for a bit in terms of just how our brain works, I don’t think this is just me. Stephen, you let me know. Once a question is posed, it’s like, I’m just off to the races in terms of generating answers for it, and it’s just like, “Away we go sprinting forward. Like, I’m answer-generating machine.” And so, it follows that almost like…I’m thinking, I’m imagining like a compass here in terms of like 360 degrees. If you have a subtle difference in your question, that might be off by like just three degrees from the other question, I am effectively pointed in a new direction for my answer-generating brain that can lead to a wildly different final destination.

Stephen Shapiro
Spot on. Spot on. In fact, I think it’s useful for us just to step back, and since we’re talking about the brain, look, the brain’s primary function is survival. And so, if you think back to the way that we’re originally wired, we would, especially in times of a crisis, run quickly away from the threat. But the problem is if we run quickly, we might be running in the wrong direction which means we’re moving further away from the ultimate goal. And so, even though we’re wired to, as you said, identify the problem quickly, find a solution quickly, and move as quickly as we possibly can, that doesn’t mean that’s going to give us the best result.

And so, when you can put the pause button on it, it’s like Einstein reputedly said, “If I had an hour to save the world, I’d spend 59 minutes defining the problem, one minute finding solutions.” And I just think that’s…he never actually said exactly that but I love that, metaphorically speaking, as a mindset of saying, “Look, if we’re going to move somewhere, let’s move in the right direction.” But in order to do that, we need to make sure we know what the right direction is.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, Einstein, I mean, if you compare that to Justin Timberlake and Madonna, was it four minutes to save the world in the song? Well, that’s pretty impressive work, Einstein.

[30:02]

Stephen Shapiro
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. Now, back to business, Stephen. So, that’s a bit about changing perspective. Let’s hear a bit about how you switch elements. What does that mean and how do we do it?

Stephen Shapiro
So, switch elements have some really great stories. I’ll give you one. So, one of the lenses is called the flip lens. And the flip lens is basically saying instead of solving for this, we solve for that. And the short version of a story that I love is an airport that had its passengers complaining that the bags took too long when they were waiting at baggage claim. So, they spent a ton of money trying to solve the problem, “How do we speed up the bags?” And they basically cut the wait time, they cut the amount of time in half from about 15 to 20 minutes down to 8 to 10 minutes. And so, they thought, “This is a 50% improvement. This is awesome. People are going to be excited.” But passengers were still complaining. They were still waiting too long. And they realized they couldn’t speed up the bags anymore. Then they had an epiphany. It only took the passengers 1 to 3 minutes to get to the baggage claim so that’s why they were waiting.

So, instead of speeding up the bags, they slowed down the passengers. They literally reconfigured the airport so that it would take, on average, 8 to 10 minutes for the passengers to get from the plane to the baggage carousel. And now they get to the baggage carousel, their bags are waiting. We experience wait time differently than we do walk time. And I think that’s just a really fun example of how solving a different factor, like, wait time is actually the speed of the bags and speed of the passengers, and they were only looking at one aspect of it.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’ve heard that software user interfaces will do this too in terms of what they are displaying so that you feel as though you’re waiting less even though the actual stopwatch time between when you’ve, I don’t know, clicked the thing and when you get what you want is unchanged. So, you could see that in the reality of physical space as well as digital spaces. So, that’s flipping. Tell us what’s the lens of pain versus gain?

Stephen Shapiro
Well, pain versus gain is basically saying that most people will take action to eliminate a loss, prevent a loss, or to eliminate a pain rather than trying to get a gain. So, if one of the things you’re trying to do is, let’s say you’re a bank, for example, and you’re trying to sell people financial wealth, and that might be a nice gain, but if people aren’t able to pay their bills right now, maybe the focus, the pain that you want to solve is, “How do you make sure that, even in a time when people are out of work, their bills are still being paid?” So, it’s flipping it so if you can be the aspirin for somebody’s pain, that will typically get greater reaction and adoption from people than it will be if you give them something nice to have.

Pete Mockaitis
And that financial bank example reminds me, I don’t know who said this but I think it’s so true, like about sort of about financial planners, financial advisors, they say, “Oh, if you call your client and wake them up at 3:00 a.m. to tell them about an investment opportunity that’s going to make them $20,000, then they’re going to fire you, and say, ‘Don’t wake me up.’ But if you can wake them up at 3:00 a.m. to tell them what they’ve got to do to avoid losing $20,000, they’re like, ‘Wow, this guy is amazing. I’ve got the ultimate financial planner on my team.’”

So, that’s handy in terms of sort of getting urgency. I wonder, we talked previously about positive emotions triggering happy things in terms of results of creativity ideation. I don’t know, when we focus on brainstorming about removing pain, is there a sense of constraint that happens on us mentally?

Stephen Shapiro
Well, you say it like constraints are bad. I’m actually a big fan of constraints. I think, in fact, constraints are the key to good problem-solving and innovation. So, we always say, “Think outside the box.” But come back to those first of lenses we were talking about, when we have a big broad abstract problem, well, we tend to just come up with a lot of boring, obvious, and irrelevant solutions. So, I say, “Don’t think outside the box. Find a better box. Shift the question.” Instead of speeding up the bags, how do we slow down the passengers? We could shift it from, “How do we reduce the wait time?” to, “How do we improve the wait experience?” We could change just a couple of words and now, all of a sudden, people don’t mind waiting if it’s a great way to experience. So, it’s really shifting the language, shifting the box and the constraints, but we still have constraints and those are valuable constraints.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. You know, that reminds me, I’m thinking about one of my favorite restaurants, Bakin’ & Eggs here in Chicago, and it doesn’t seem that hard at all, I don’t know why all restaurants don’t do this. You can get a mug of coffee started and going and sipping as you’re chilling and waiting for your table, and it’s like I don’t even mind waiting for my table, it’s like, “This is part of the experience of Bakin’ & Eggs, is we’re over here with our coffee, chatting away with my party, comfortable. And, oh, here’s the table.” We feel great about it even though we still had to wait but the experience was awesome.

Stephen Shapiro
Yeah, that’s a great example. Another one, which is maybe more about distraction rather than great experience, but you think about Uber and Lyft. You get off the plane, you’re standing outside. What is everybody doing? They’re staring at their phone. So, what are they looking at? They’re looking at this, like, microscopic car that’s moving infinitesimally slow on their screen, yet somehow it gives them a sense of comfort to see it move like a millimeter every minute.

Pete Mockaitis
Like, it’s working, it’s happening, it’s in process.

Stephen Shapiro
Something is happening, so we feel movement, and that’s also a way. So, we can distract people, we can engage people. The point is there’s never one solution because there’s never one question, and the more we question our questions, the more we’ll be able to find better solutions.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, then the final set of lenses is about zeroing in. Can you regale us with this?

Stephen Shapiro
Sure. I think these are a great place to start. So, you have, for example, the real-problem lens, which is just to make sure, “Am I solving the right problem?” One of my favorite ones though is the real-business lens, and it’s to really even just question, “What business am I in?” So, for example, if you asked me, let’s say, a year ago what business am I in. I would say, “I’m a keynote speaker. I give speeches. I talk about innovation but I’m a keynote speaker.”

And then what I realized was, well, especially now where we can’t meet in person, being a keynote speaker, there are no stages to speak on. And if you’re so focused on being a keynote speaker, if that’s your business, you’re in trouble. But if you shift things, so I think of myself as a problem-solver and an innovator, so I help companies solve their problems and help them be able to solve their own problems. Well, that’s shifting my business. And by really asking, “What business am I in and what problems am I solving?” as a result of that, it helps me identify new opportunities.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, if I can put you on the spot, Stephen, could you give us a kind of a capstone finale story or example in which we are utilizing multiples of these lenses to get from stuck to somewhere really cool?

Stephen Shapiro
Well, let me give you a story that I think really wraps it up nicely. It only uses one of the lenses but it’s one we haven’t talked about and I think it really makes a powerful point. I lived in England for five years, and, of that time there, I worked for a Formula 1 race car team for three years. So, if you don’t know Formula 1, they’re basically fast cars. And the thing which I loved were the pit crews that would be able to change the tires, and back when I worked for them, fuel the car, do minor maintenance in a matter of seconds. And so, I would watch them and I was always amazed.

And I remember having a conversation with somebody from the Formula 1 team, I said, “How did they get them to go so fast?” And so, the way they would typically do is they’d sit there with a stopwatch and they would tell them to go fast, and they would time them over and over and over, and no matter what they did, no matter how hard they tried, there was a point that they couldn’t go one one-thousandth of a second faster. They decided to try a number of different techniques, and the one that they landed on that was quite interesting was they told the pit crew members, “You’re not going to be timed, but rather we’re going to be evaluating you on your smoothness, your style. And so, as you’re changing the tires, think smooth.”

Back when I worked with them, they’d fuel the car, think smooth. And they, of course, were timing them but had them go fast but thinking about their movements. And they found that they were able to shave off two-tenths to three-tenths of a second off of their best previous time. And the pit crew, when asked if they thought they were going faster or slower, felt they were going slower. And I call this the performance paradox which is one of the lenses, which is paradoxically sometimes the more we focus on a goal, the less likely we are to achieve that goal. And I think the same thing is true with solutions. The more we focus on the solution, quite often, the less likely we are to find a solution. But if we can stop, pause, and ask a better question, and make sure we’re reframing it and moving in the right direction, we’ll find better solutions faster paradoxically than if we just jumped and try to focus on the solutions.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. That’s good. Was it Coach John Wooden who said something like, “Move very quickly but don’t hurry”? Something. I’m butchering it. But that notion that really does resonate. And I think maybe in terms of, hey, if you’re keynote speaking, if you’re dancing, if you’re doing any number of things that have some precision and elegance to them, fixating on, “I got to nail this. I got to crush this. I got to knock it out of the park. I got to go fast, fast, fast,” can be just the opposite of what you want for that smooth flow, and then that can carry over. Share another one, please, if you could with the performance paradox. So, there’s the notion of speed. What would be another place where we overfocus on performance in a work story detriment?

Stephen Shapiro
One of the other examples which someone told me once, which I thought was just really fascinating, was he worked in a home for people who are the elderly. And one of the concerns that everybody had was that if you were to fall, you would break a hip or break a bone, and it’s one of the leading causes of trauma and death and everything else. And so, what they initially started doing is trying to get people to not fall. And the problem was when people started focusing on not falling, they would actually fall more and they would hurt themselves more.

So, what he did was he actually decided to totally do exactly the opposite. And he said instead of getting them to worry about not falling, he’s actually going to get them comfortable with falling. And he created classes around people falling, and “How do you fall?” and having fun with falling. And the second that people stopped focusing on not falling, they stopped falling. And so, it’s just interesting to just see, and a lot of it has to do with stress.

If you’re thinking about creativity, we know that if I put you under a stopwatch, and I said, “Come up with a thousand ideas,” or however many ideas, you would really struggle because the stress associated with the time will cause you that. And that’s why a lot of times when we’re goal-oriented in companies, we’re less likely to achieve those goals because we get so focused on the goal that we stop actually focusing on the process and the whole creative endeavor that takes place beforehand.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, Stephen, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Stephen Shapiro
I think that the most important thing for me just to say is that being able to ask better questions to question your questions, I found to be one of the more important skills. I know in a lot of companies, people will tell you, “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.” My perspective is I don’t want solutions. I want better problems, well-thought out problems, reframed problems. And if you become a master of problem-solving and problem-reframing, according to the World Economic Forum, that is the number one skill that people in organizations need right now in order to stay competitive. And so, I think that’s hopefully just proof enough to keep focusing on that.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Stephen Shapiro
There’s one which is from Mark Twain, I won’t get it exactly right, but basically he said, “There’s nothing new. It’s impossible because basically everything is just old-color pieces of glass that get twisted and turned around and create something new.” And I love that perspective because I’m inspired to think about, “How do I, instead of trying to invent something every time, how do I connect new ideas in new ways?” And I think that’s just a great way to look at it.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Stephen Shapiro
For me, anything having to do with confirmation bias. Basically, anytime we have a strongly-held belief about something, we’re only going to find evidence to support that belief. And so, for me, that’s a really fascinating part of business and life is understanding that.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Stephen Shapiro
Probably, my all-time favorite book is Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman.

Pete Mockaitis
That is a great title.

Stephen Shapiro
It’s a great book.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m intrigued. I’ve heard of the legend of Richard Feynman but I haven’t read the book. So, thank you. And how about a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Stephen Shapiro
One which just keeps me sane is something called SaneBox, which is an email tool.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I use it too.

Stephen Shapiro
It’s just like I look at my inbox and it’s very, very little, and then my SaneLater folder is like humongous, it’s like, “I won’t worry about it till later.” So, that definitely keeps me sane.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Stephen Shapiro
Hot tub. I try to, when I can in the morning, wake up, just sit in the hot tub to just meditate, quiet my brain. I find it just prepares me for the day.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget that you share that really seems to connect and resonate and gets quoted back to you often?

Stephen Shapiro
When it comes to innovation, the one which a lot of people resonate with is my expression, “Innovate where you differentiate.” So, not all problems are important, but if you can focus on the problems that actually help your organization stand out from the competition, and you put more energy into solving those problems, that really has a huge impact.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch with you, where would you point them?

Stephen Shapiro
To learn about the book, InvisibleSolutionsBook.com. And there’s videos and tools, you can download the 25 lenses and everything from there. That’s probably the best place to just learn more about me and the book.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Stephen Shapiro
I think the challenge really is to, coming back to something you said earlier, we are solution machines. If we can just stop focusing on our ideas and actually put the pause button and make sure we’re really focused on what will create the greatest value, what will move us forward in the best way, what will create the most elegant solution, that will always give you a better result than if we just run with our top-of-our-head ideas.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Stephen, this has been a treat. I wish you all the best.

Stephen Shapiro
Well, thank you so much. I really enjoyed this.