Tag

Creativity Archives - How to be Awesome at Your Job

686: How to Make Your Next Career Move Your Best Move with Kimberly Cummings

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Kimberly Cummings shares her top tips on how to make career transitions easier.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to make the next best move for your career
  2. The key indicators that it’s time to explore other options
  3. How to identify power players–and become one yourself 

 

About Kimberly

Kimberly B. Cummings is a leading career and leadership development expert and an accomplished speaker and podcast host whose mission is to empower women and people of color in the workplace. Her personal and professional development company, Manifest Yourself, LLC, provides in-person and virtual workshops, trainings, and coaching to professionals looking to lead a dynamic career and life. 

Kimberly has had the opportunity to speak to and create workshops for many organizations, including the New Jersey Conference for Women, Ellevate Network, Urban League, Princeton University and National Sales Network, SXSW, among others. She is also on the Board of Directors for The Power of You Teens organization. Next Move, Best Move: Transitioning into a Career You’ll Love is her first book. 

Resources Mentioned

Kimberly Cummings Interview Transcript

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

Kimberly Cummings
Thank you so much for having me. Very excited to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom. But, first, I want to hear a little bit about how you’ve studied vocal jazz for 10 years. What’s the story here? And any interesting adventures come from that?

Kimberly Cummings
So, definitely, I think growing up, I was a kid who always liked to sing. When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, “Whitney Houston.” That’s what I thought was going to be the career path for me, and I took piano lessons for a bit but I kept on trying to sing. But piano takes a little bit more skill to kind of learn the chords and all those things. My voice clearly was much more advanced than my hands were so I went to vocal lessons. And, oh, my gosh, I absolutely loved it, all the great Ella Fitzgeralds, the Sarah Vaughans. I actually performed a 26-song concert in 2005 to raise money for kids.

Pete Mockaitis
Twenty-six songs.

Kimberly Cummings
Yup, I had a pop set and a jazz set. And I say that I’m retired after winning every talent show in undergrad, mind you. I retired. So, now, I only sing for folks who know that I sing. Sadly, it’s more funerals or weddings and things like that. But you can hear me in the shower or in the elevator. There’s great acoustics there too.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you sing in your speaking on stage?

Kimberly Cummings
Oh, no. I’m fully retired.
Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so there we are. So, you’ve retired and you’ve moved on into the world of career and leadership development. So, yeah, tell me, when it comes to people and their careers, often you end up working with folks who feel stuck. What leads to people feeling stuck in their careers?

Kimberly Cummings
Many times, I really believe it’s not having a plan. If you don’t have a plan to take yourself to the next level, it’s very easy to get stuck in your career. Not knowing what your next move is, not understanding what your own skills and strengths and how those manifests in the workplace, a lot of times people can find themselves being underemployed or unappreciated because they have no idea, they’re essentially treating jobs like old boyfriends or girlfriends, romantic partners, in that they’re just like they keep going on to the next. They get a little bored, they go to the next, they go to the next, hoping that it will get better and better and better and it never really does if you don’t have a plan in place to make strategic career moves.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, then when it comes to forming that plan, where do you recommend we start?

Kimberly Cummings
So, the first stop is really understanding your own skillset and your strengths. I like to have folks who work with me go through a full assessment of all of their strengths, all of their opportunities, all of their weaknesses, their gaps, and really get clear on, “What are the skills that they’ve gained from every single job that they’ve had?” Every single job. That long resume that no one really ever looks at, the one you probably can’t even send to anyone that has every job on there and literally look back and say, “What have you learned? What are your strengths? What are the things you want to continue to use?”

“And what are the things that you no longer want to use? And how can we start to build a career based upon your strengths? And if you don’t have the strengths that you need to get to the next area, what are the things that we need to work on? What are the gaps that we need to attack in order to make your next move?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, you mentioned a full assessment. What are some of the key tools or resources or questions or things folks work through to get that picture?

Kimberly Cummings
So, the assessment really begins with you. Where are you? What have you done? What are the key skills you’ve gained from all of your jobs? What is the feedback that you’ve consistently been receiving from leaders? And if you don’t have that feedback, we walk through how to get that feedback using a simple start-stop-continue exercise with people in your industry and people who worked with you.

Of course, there are traditional assessments we can do. I’m a big fan of StrengthsFinder or Strengths Profile by Cappfinity. Those are also great as well but I want the baseline to always be the experiences because, generally, where you’ve gained your experiences, how you gained your experiences, what you’re taking away in terms of skill sets and strengths, that’s the baseline for you making your next move. So, the assessment really focuses on where you’ve been and what you’ve learned.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, you talked about how to get that feedback. So, start-stop-continue is a good way to organize the conversation. But how do you recommend folks specifically say, “Hey, tell me what I should start, stop, and continue doing?” Or, how do you recommend approaching that?

Kimberly Cummings
So, I always recommend finding time to have career conversations with your management. Many times, folks have one-on-ones, weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, or team meetings, and those are focused on doing the work but career conversations are a little bit different. So, I always recommend that people reach out to their leader, and ask, “Hey, I’d love to have a one-on-one with you but focused on my career.” And ask them simple questions like, “What is it that I should continue to do in my role? What are you seeing as good skill sets that I’m building? What do I need to stop doing? What is going to prevent me from moving to the next level? And what do you need to see more of?”

And the big question I always ask for folks who are thinking about making their next move before it’s time for them to make their next move is the big question of, “What do you need to see from me in order to know that I’m ready to get to the next level, I’m ready to make the next move?” so you’re not asking that question when you’re applying for the new job. You want to ask that question well before it’s time for you to have to apply.

Pete Mockaitis
That is a fine question. And, yeah, as I imagine that scenario, I think there’s probably any number of unsatisfying answers you might get, like, “Oh, you’re great. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”

Kimberly Cummings
That’s a fan favorite.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s not quite the right…that’s not helpful.

Kimberly Cummings
No, not at all.

Pete Mockaitis
So, how do you recommend pushing or digging a little more?

Kimberly Cummings
Now, 100% just like you said, that is the age-old, “Oh, my gosh, you’re fabulous. Things are great. End time.” It’s like, no. If you’re not getting good feedback from your leader, I recommend asking other folks, asking your peers, asking other people who’ve also been promoted, and sharing your experiences so they can share a little bit more insight on what it takes to move to that next level.

And then, also, honestly, having a candid conversation advocating for yourself, like, “Thank you so much. I love hearing that you think I’m doing really, really well. However, I want to make sure that I can be extremely planful, that I actually have a plan. Is there any direct feedback that you’d be able to provide me? Like, what is it that means that I’m doing really well? How do you know that I’m doing really well? What are the indicators for that?”

Or, even if you could call up someone else, like, “I saw that Joe got promoted last year into a similar role. What was it that made you know that Joe was ready?” Try and push back to advocate for yourself just a little bit more because feedback is hard. It’s very hard. Leaders don’t like it, employees don’t like it, so it’s really pushing the needle. And if they say that they need a little bit of time to think about it, make sure you circle back and push again.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. And I think that is the perfect response along those lines of, “Oh, you’re great. Just keep doing what you’re doing.” It’s like, “Well, I couldn’t help but notice I wasn’t promoted,” in the nice or professional diplomatic way that you get there because, yeah, those are the realities, is that there is something…well, unless the organization is just broken, which I’ve seen some of. There is something that causes people to move up, “What is it? And am I doing it? And how can I do more of it?” Perfect.

And then you mentioned doing this prior to when you start applying to other jobs because you’re ready to be out of there. What are some of the key indicators that it may, indeed, be appropriate to move on and out from a current role or organization?

Kimberly Cummings
So, I’m really big on role mastery and impact. So, when you have essentially mastered your role, when you are doing things with ease, when people are asking for assistance because you know that you have it down, when you’ve built relationships in your role so you have…I always talk about four key relationships that you need. So, you have great peers that you’ve networked with, you have teachers who can help you if you need help, or sometimes people call them coaches, and you have mentors, and you have sponsorships. You have those four key relationships.

If you know where your role fits within an organization, like, “What does your role do?” Every role has a purpose in helping the company reach some type of milestone, even if you feel like it’s a small piece. Like, there’s a reason why that role was hired. Once you really know those things and you could think about, “What is the value you contributed to that role? Have you been able to innovate? Have you been able to move the needle?” Once you’ve been able to do some of those things, then it’s time to start thinking like, “Okay. Well, I think it’s time I start exploring whatever the next move is in this role, whether it’s internal to the company or external.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And then if we are looking to transition away, what are some of the most common mistakes you see?

Kimberly Cummings
The most common mistakes I see are people relying on the amount of time that they’ve been at the company. Many times, people are like, “Oh, I’ve been here a year,” or, “I’ve been here two years. It’s time for me.” It’s like, “No, there’s people who’ve been in roles for 10 years who still aren’t ready.” The reality is you have to make an impact. You have to articulate value and what you’re going to do moving into that area.

And I’m not sure what your feedback is on what I’m about to say next, but I think that, many times people want to not do a tinge more work to showcase that they’re ready for the next role, especially for folks who are moving internally. They’re a manager, want to be a director. An analyst, want to be a manager. Whatever it is.

But what I explain to folks is that in your role, you’re essentially in a box. Like, this is the role of the manager. You’re doing everything that needs to be done within this box. When you’re ready to move to the next box of the director, you have to showcase that you’re ready to leave that box to go to the next level. And in order to showcase that, you almost have to show people like a little bit. Give them a touch of what they’ll see from you as a director. And it’s important that you start doing a few of those things, making sure that you’re aligning more to a director role than you are to a manager role so people can literally see you in it.

A lot of times, when there’s a job search that’s happening, I used to work in talent acquisition as well, and when you have someone who is internal applying to a job, and you have someone also who’s external, the internal person, you’ve essentially been in the longest interview of your life. They see you every single day. They know you. And if they have questions, like, “Well, why didn’t so-and-so start doing this already? Well, l really don’t see them doing this. They’re doing so well in their current role.”

Versus an external person can come in and just sell them the world because they don’t know them, they’ve never seen their work, and they can easily align to that director role. So, I think it’s really important that when you’re thinking about moving, you start thinking a little bit more on the level you’d like to be on versus the level that you’re currently at.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And, well, if you wanted my feedback on what you said with regard to doing a touch more work, I think that’s the right answer to advance in your career. But I think it’s also true, what you said is that a lot of people don’t want to do it, yeah, because it’s like, “Well, I’m not getting paid for that. I don’t have the title. It’s like they’re not paying me to do that, so it’s unfair or not justified in the give-and-take relationship between me and employer to do that while being paid what I’m currently paid.”

But what I’ve seen is that frequently your fastest movers and shakers are already doing the next job, and the promotion is kind of a formality, like, “Hey, you’re already doing this. We’d be embarrassed if we didn’t give you the title or the raise, promotion, etc. associated with that.” So, yeah, I think that’s kind of how it shakes out.

Kimberly Cummings
Oh, God, I’m happy we’re aligned there because some folks are like, “Nuh-uh, don’t give them a preview till you get the paycheck,” and I’m like, “Nah, you get the paycheck when you give them a preview.”

Pete Mockaitis
Right, yeah. Indeed. And so then, when it comes to the networking world, you’ve got some perspective on identifying power players. Can you tell us how do we find them and build great relationships with them?

Kimberly Cummings
So, in every industry, I strongly believe that there are power players. They are people who are at the head of the curve, the people who are the key stakeholders who everyone listens to. There are always a few key people that are great to really look at as sponsors in your network. So, the way I always try to identify them are looking up professional associations. Who’s speaking at the conferences?

If you’re at the conferences, virtual or in person, whose room is packed out every single time? Who is it that has your boss’ ear or your skip leader? Who’s the person who really has the power to make the decisions and you see being frequently called upon? Those are what I call the power players, the people where a business doesn’t happen unless you hear from them first, where they have a significant influence over whatever is happening in the workplace.

When we’re talking about power players, one of the key words there is influence. Same thing with sponsors. They have to be able to influence and impact change. Otherwise, they really aren’t a power player in the industry. So, when you start seeing people speaking at events, or people always tapping that person, you know that person has power in the workplace. And my key is always finding a way to get in the room with them. How can you get as close as possible, again, virtual or in person?

I think you could still do it virtually. In some respects, virtual can even be a little bit easier than trying to navigate yourself into a room in person. But find a way to get in the room. And whether it’s interacting with that individual at the event, even as simple as asking a really great question, or being super active in the virtual chat. Find a way to get involved with that power player and initiate some time, whether it’s a 15-minute meeting to introduce yourself, learn more about them, or attending quite a few events.

If I’m very honest, there are some people who I have relationships with now where it took me years to build a relationship. It wasn’t one time to get on their radar. It was multiple events, multiple things before I reached out and got any individual time with that person. I think, especially when you’re looking for someone who has influence, it’s going to take some time. It’s not going to be a quick one, two, three the first time you try to hear back.

And if you can’t get in touch with that person, I recommend also looking at who’s around them. So, let’s say there is a senior SVP in your workplace and you want to get in touch with them but you know you have not had any luck on getting on their calendar. Well, then who are their direct reports? Let’s see if we can get in contact with them and work your way around, so the next time when you try, you already have some relationships that are close and someone else who can refer you or make an introduction. Sometimes it takes a little bit more time to get that power player.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Very good. And so then, so you stick with it and you keep your eyes open. You ask for those recommendations and you’re watching. And then how do you yourself become such a power player?

Kimberly Cummings
Again, I think that’s so much about impact and value. It’s about being a subject matter expert, being the SME in your area. Many times, people believe that leaders have to have this big title, they have to be the SVP, the director, the super long title that is confusing, and you can barely say it yourself. But I really believe that everybody has the ability to be a leader.

You are hired for any particular role. That role has tasks and responsibilities. Regardless of your seniority, you need to be the subject matter expert for your role. Nobody needs to do that role better than you are doing that role. You have to lead in that role. When you are leading in your role, so you’ve mastered it, you are the person who they come to for questions or concerns, you have networked yourself appropriately so people also know that you are the best at that role.

You’re not just behind closed doors or in your virtual office, not speaking to anyone. That’s really how you can start positioning yourself as the go-to person and, ultimately, positioning yourself as a leader or the power player in your area. And, also, having that strategy, so knowing what’s next, which means having some of those tough career conversations even if your leader isn’t kind of giving you what you need, making sure that you kind of push forward or find someone else who can give you that feedback.

Having that strategy so you can continuously be evolving your career and moving to the next level, that will slowly but surely be able to position you. And, you know, for some folks, it takes time. For me, even thinking about my own career, for a long time, my goal was to be a director of career services in higher education. I spent nearly 10 years in career services offices working with people at 18 who don’t know what they want to do with their entire life, to people who are in their 60s who want to use all their experience and use that to kind of launch into something that just makes them happy in the world of work.

And I wanted to just be a director of career services running a large office. That was it. And I knew that in order to move to the next level, this wasn’t an arena where I’d be able to stay in one office unless I wanted to stay in one office for like 10 to 15 years to slowly work my way up. So, every two years, I made sure I knew what my next move was, I understood the skills that I needed to gain with each strategic move in order to build a career for myself, and also increase my influence.

I participated in conferences. I spoke at conferences. I always made sure I was able to level up in my career. And, ultimately, I did not get that director of career services job, but I became a director in a global Fortune 100 company in financial services leading some of their diversity talent acquisition recruitment efforts. So, you just have to make sure that you’re continuously leveling up and having a strategy for yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thanks for sharing your story there. And could you share also the story of someone you think did a fine job of kind of integrating all of these learnings and seen some cool results?

Kimberly Cummings
Definitely, success stories. Like, everyone always loves success stories. I have a current client who I was working with who came to me because they were feeling stuck, they’re in one of those jobs that we talked about earlier, Pete, where they were just kind of over it. They felt underemployed, definitely underpaid, and they really wanted to start positioning themselves for leadership roles.

Then when we first started working together, she just wanted to get on track. So, we went through the assessment, we went through kind of understanding all of the skillsets, was she in a career that was aligned to what her goals were. And at that time, she was but she didn’t have the level of seniority that she wanted. She didn’t have the impact that she was looking for.

So, for that particular person, we worked a lot on the relationships. How can we start making sure people know about the work that she’s doing, networking, cultivating some of those sponsors, some of those mentors? And, in about three to six months, I think probably around the five-month mark, if I have my memory serves me right, she’d been applying to jobs and she finally landed a role.

And because she’d done so much work with building relationships, understanding her own personal and professional brand, she rocked this interview process, making sure that she was finally positioned for a role. A lot of it was the language she was using to make sure that she was no longer underemployed and being in a role that was in much better alignment.

She negotiated a $35,000 salary increase. She got added to a committee right away that was aligned with some of her career goals. And she was able to speak a lot about career pathing even in her interview process, so she knew what would be the next step for her, being very candid about looking for longevity in an employer and not just for a defined role.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, thank you.

Kimberly Cummings
No problem.

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

Kimberly Cummings
No, I think this is good. I think you had me cover it all. I love how actionable all of our questions are.

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

Kimberly Cummings
Yes. So, there’s a quote by India Arie. It is, “The only thing constant in this world is change.” I put it in my high school yearbook, and I think it’s so, so, so true.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Kimberly Cummings
I really like the research on diversity, equity, and inclusion when it comes to privilege. I’ve been doing a lot of research on that, kind of looking into more of the privilege walks. I know Drexel has a lot of information on that arena.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite book?

Kimberly Cummings
So, my new favorite book is Winning is Everything by Tim S. Grover.

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

Kimberly Cummings
I think StrengthsFinder, the assessment, is one of my favorites. It helps you understand yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Kimberly Cummings
I live and die by a planner and a task-list system that I use. I have it every day.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m now intrigued. What’s the system?

Kimberly Cummings
So, I use Asana but better than that, I really do it in my notebook every single day. I prioritize my tasks by functional area, and for my business, by revenue impact in order of importance. I have a little color code system too. I’ll have to take a screenshot for you, but it helps me knock out even more every single day by having all those priorities in line and make sure that I’m working on what actually needs to get done versus the mini-tasks that we do all day that keep us from doing the big thing that we should be doing.

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

Kimberly Cummings
A lot of it is around confidence. I think I have a quote from my business, my manifesto that I always share. It’s, “You must believe in yourself and your vision. When you do this, you’ll manifest the life you desire.” And I share this a lot because when we’re trying to make any type of career change, I think the number one thing you have to do before we get into all the strategy pieces is believe that it’s actually possible for you.

And a lot of times, when we start talking about that, people are like, “Oh, my gosh, like that really resonates. Like, I didn’t even think that that was important. Maybe that’s why I haven’t been moving.” It’s, like, you have to believe that whatever you want to do is possible for you.

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

Kimberly Cummings
I would point them to KimberlyBCummings.com. I’m also on all the social places. So, Instagram and LinkedIn are probably my favorite. LinkedIn, it’s my name, and Instagram is kimbcummings.

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

Kimberly Cummings
Yes. So, shameless plug or not so shameless because you said I can share. But I’m a very brand-new author. So, in June 2021, I wrote a book Next Move, Best Move: Transitioning Into a Career You’ll Love and it is available wherever books are sold. And this is the process to help you put together a two-year career strategy.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Kimberly, thank you. This has been a treat and I wish you lots of luck in each of your moves.

Kimberly Cummings
Thank you so much.

685: How to Manage Conflict and Work Peacefully in Virtual Teams with John Riordan

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

John Riordan shares practical strategies for overcoming the unique challenges of conflict among virtual teams.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The three best practices for preventing conflict 
  2. How to face conflict head on with the SBID model
  3. The three options you have when working with a jerk 

 

About John

For over 30 years, John Riordan has been committed to challenging people and organizations to reach their full capacity – first as a leadership program founder and director in East Africa, and now as an organization and leadership development consultant. He has consulted with a broad range of federal, private sector and non-profit organizations conducting hundreds of planning, team building and training workshops ranging from large conferences (200+) to small intact teams. 

Resources Mentioned

Thank you, sponsors!

John Riordan Interview Transcript

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

John Riordan
Absolutely. My pleasure.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to dig into your wisdom but, first, I want to hear about the Marine Corps marathon that you did. How is that different than a normal marathon and what’s the backstory there?

John Riordan
Well, yeah, so that’s a good question and the backstory is interesting too. So, first of all, I’ll say a former friend, I don’t like this guy anymore. I went out for a jog one day and I’ve never ran more than three miles in my life, and he says, “Have you ever thought about running a marathon?” I laughed out loud, like, “Are you kidding me? Five miles would be a stretch and I have no interest in running a marathon whatsoever.”

He says, “Why not?” “Well, I couldn’t think of a thousand reasons why not. I don’t want to get injured as well.” “You don’t have to get injured. If something hurts, you stop.” I’m like, “Okay. It’s boring. Running for hours is boring.” “Well, could you do something about that?” Well, long story short, you could listen to things and learn things, and you’d be amazed how much you can learn while you’re running for two or three hours at a time.

Long story short, he coached me simply by saying, by asking the ultimate coaching question is, “What could you do about that?” And, ultimately, he’s sort of helped me dismantle all my own defenses to the point where I kind of had to do it. And so, I like to say I completed the Marine Corps, meaning I walked-run, not run the whole way. I had all this mental models. I thought everyone who ran any marathon would be super athlete fit runner. Nope, not the case whatsoever.

You look at any marathon, but the Marine Corps especially, I mean any size, shape that you would be shocked at who is capable of completing a marathon. I thought you had to die at the end, because as the first marathoner, I thought that was the requirement. You had to run with all your strength and then collapse and die. Nope. Apparently, that is not a requirement so I couldn’t stick to that one.

And so, just dismantling all these barriers that I had in my mind, some of which were simply like, I guess you’d say excuses, but many of which were just misunderstandings, misinterpretations, or assumptions I was making. And it was such a powerful metaphor for my own experience because I do this kind of coaching with folks all the time, and so to experience it for myself and realize how many assumptions I’m making, how many misunderstandings, how many barriers, artificial barriers I’ve put in my way. And when you remove those, it’s like, “Oh, shoot. Now I guess I have to do it because I have no more excuses.”

And the Marine Corps is, they call it America’s Marathon. It’s the beginner’s marathon. It’s a very flat course. They promote first-time marathoners so you get kind of bumped up if it’s your first one. And there’s thousands of people cheering you the entire way, and so it’s just a high the whole way that you’re being cheered on and encouraged and all that stuff, and so it’s a great experience.

Pete Mockaitis
Very cool. Well, yeah, there’s lessons right there and metaphors and excuses.

John Riordan
Well, I tell you, so much.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, “What could you do about that?” is a fine question.

John Riordan
Yeah, it’s a great question.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Well, so you’ve got a boatload of experience when it comes to leadership development and you’ve got many courses. And we had several conversations with folks about virtual teams and virtual leadership and virtual meetings and overcoming distractions when you’re working from home, etc. What intrigued me about you is you’ve specifically got courses on dealing with conflict in virtual environments and facilitating in virtual environments.

And I think those are probably two of the toughest things to do with folks who are in different places. So, let’s dig in and talk about conflict resolution stuff in a virtual context. And, maybe, could you kick us off with a juicy story? Like, what’s a good, good, meaty, reality TV-grade drama or conflict that you’ve seen or heard about from your clients resolved through virtual media?

John Riordan
Yeah. Right. So, as I say, conflict is typically challenging for most of us regardless even when we are in person, and it’s uncomfortable and awkward and all that other sort of stuff.

Well, you layer on the virtual context and it just changes the parameters, and there are some upsides. There are some upsides to the virtual context. We might not annoy each other as much, my personality might not grate on you because we’re not across the hallway from each other, whatever. But clearly, the downside is, the big challenge is, that the little misunderstanding in that email goes unaddressed and we have to be intentional, very intentional, about bringing it up because, otherwise, when we’re in person, we’ll bumped into each other in the hallway, I’ll see you as we walk, we’re walking out, I’ll see at lunch, whatever, at the next meeting, “Hey, Pete, about that thing, about that project, about that whatever…” and we have these, otherwise, even unnoticed interactions.

The volume of interaction that happens in person, that is in the Ethisphere, really, it has been very interesting to watch the literature emerging in the past 18 months because, prior to COVID, you had intentionally virtual organizations, people who chose to work virtually, their organization wanted them to work virtually, their job was structured for virtual work. Well, the past 18 months, for most of us, has been suddenly virtual without choice, without option, without structure, and, basically, chaos.

And so, all that Ethisphere interaction just vaporized and, all of a sudden, you and I are exchanging emails, we have that misunderstanding, but we don’t see each other, at best on a video conference, if that, once a week, and so I’m not going to setup a meeting to address this minor thing with you, and so it grows, and so that distance grows. And pretty soon, you start to have the wedge that develops.

So, turn to the juicy stories, geez, I don’t even know where to begin. The one that pops to mind is we’re sitting there on a meeting convened by a full-bird colonel, and one of the participants is on video, and he’s clearly distracted. And as the colonel is presenting, this guy is talking to other people, he’s looking all over, he’s like obviously not paying attention. Well, this doesn’t go over well with the colonel who finally stops and says, “Hey,” I’ll call him Joe, “Joe,” awkward sound, “Joe.” This guy is talking, he doesn’t even hear himself, he’s probably muted the whole thing.

I mean, it’s a good couple of minutes before Joe finally looks down and awkward, and, “Oh, I’m sorry…” And he’s like, “So, are you with us, Joe?” “Oh, oh, sorry, sorry.” Well, there’s too many people on the call, the colonel is not going to address Joe right there and then, which is good. So, what’s the colonel going to do? Is he going to make an appointment with Joe? Is he going to setup another call to have this discussion, what happened? I mean, this whole thing was like it just snowballs. The whole team is involved because everybody watched it.

If you were in a conference room and someone was distracted and that happened, it would essentially get resolved real-time, probably, optimistically, just by virtue of the interaction. In the virtual world, that meeting is over. Boop! Everyone disappears. So, we all witnessed it and then it’s over. There’s no hallway discussion, there’s no post-chat discussion, and so you have this awkward thing. And the only way to resolve it is reconvene and have a discussion, both the colonel and the individual, and then bringing it back to the group.

I mean, the processing of that conflict in the virtual context too so much more effort than it would have real-time, optimistically. Real-time, you just interact, resolve, address, move on. And so, in the virtual world, it is challenging to be intentional, to lean into it, for those of us who it’s not a natural strength. There’s a few people where conflict they’re just good at it, and then there’s the rest of us.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, we have to know how things conclude. So, what happened with the colonel and Joe here today?

John Riordan
Well, let’s just say Joe kind of wrapped it up with this, which is, in his mind, his perspective was that this was urgent, this was…I don’t know if he used the word crisis but, in his mind, this was urgent and he needed to address it right away. Well, I don’t know how familiar you are with the military, but with a full-birded colonel, like you could pretty much use rank, unless it’s a general, you pay attention to the colonel first or you interrupt to say, “I’m sorry, sir. The building is on fire. I’m going to have to step away for a few…” and so, his lack of awareness of the protocol and how to handle his situation on his end.

Now, the colonel is very reasonably gracious but it definitely clarified that this guy, and so he was two steps down from the colonel, he’s a civilian so he reports to his boss, his boss reports to the colonel. Well, let’s just say it was clear he has a lot to learn, so now he’s kind of – what’s the right word – not demoted positionally but he didn’t show up well. He showed up really badly so now he’s going to have to overcome that. It’s going to take time for him to demonstrate that he has learned and sort of overcome that experience with folks.

And, again, in the virtual world, he only has very limited opportunities to do that. In person, you’d have more meetings, you’d have more interactions, you’d have the hallway. Now, he’s like he has to lean into it and really reestablish his reputation in a lot of ways.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

John Riordan
So, he’s still there, as far I know. It wasn’t that bad but it was not good.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that does kind of paint a picture in terms of things that can occur and the extra challenges that ensue. So, lay it on us, what are some of the best practices you’ve discovered when it comes to managing conflict when folks are remote?

John Riordan
First and foremost, intentionality. Paying attention. It’s so much easier when we’re virtual to just dismiss it and let it go and it’s no big deal, and it might not be a big deal. It’s just that clumsy email, or maybe they didn’t really mean it, or maybe I’m misinterpreting what Pete said in his text, and just let it go. Okay. But, however, it’s so tempting to do that because when we switch off the call, I’m back in my own world and I’m not going to see you in the hallway, I’m not going to bump into you in the coffee break, and so it’s easier to just dismiss it.

So, paying attention, intentionality, “Is this worth addressing? Should I address it?” And even before that, I like to say, “What’s my bias with regard to conflict in the first place?” I am conflict-avoidant, so I know that my bias is to let it go. And, therefore, given that bias, I may need to lean into this and step into this more than I feel comfortable with. That’s probably true.

There are some people in the world who are conflict-seeking who don’t mind. My father-in law was this way. He loved a good knockdown drill. Like, to him, everything was an opportunity for a very energetic debate. Anyone else would’ve said, “Gosh, why are you arguing?” And he’d tell them, “I’m not arguing. We’re just having a healthy debate.” So, he didn’t mind and he would lean into everything. Most of us, percentage-wise, I think most people are on that conflict-reluctant.

And so, how to assess yourself with regard to your style around conflict, and then in the virtual realm being attentive and intentional, being more open to it. And then third, I’d say, is talk about it. Talk about it. Like, for goodness’ sake, bring this up as a team with your colleagues, “So, Pete, you and I are going to work together for the next 12 months. Hey, can we talk about some operating agreements? How are we going to handle differences of opinion? How are we going to handle conflict? How are we going to handle our working practices? What’s our communication style? What can we do to help each other and find a good way through the middle?”

And so, having a conversation about how we will handle conflict, before we’re in the middle of a big conflict, is so, so critical for teams. It’s so helpful to get it out on the table so it’s not some awkward taboo subject that nobody wants to broach.

Pete Mockaitis
And that’s just so huge when it comes to aligning expectations in many contexts in terms of, one, upfront we kind of know, hey, what we’re dealing with and what the standards are. And, two, it just sort of prevents a lot of that stuff. It’s like someone is mad because someone else has not fulfilled their unspoken expectations, and it’s like, “Oh, sorry. I didn’t realize I broke a rule that was never mentioned as being a rule. Oops!” So, that’s just a great practice to do in many contexts.

And so, when it comes to, “How are we going to address conflict?” have you seen any particular best practices that have been in a lot of operating agreements and been really helpful for folks?

John Riordan
Yeah. Well, that would be the first one, is to establish a set of operating agreements. Now, I would offer, prior to that, a really good practice is to do that, have that conversation and do an assessment. I don’t necessarily mean formally, just as a team, just discuss, “Pete, what’s your style? Are you more conflict-avoidant or are you more conflict-seeking, somewhere in the middle? Help me understand your style. I’ll explain to you that I do tend to be conflict-avoidant. I get uncomfortable but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to do it. It’s just I get all sort of uneasy, so bear with me to the extent that you can encourage me and keep me going in the conflict. That’ll be helpful to me. So, let’s have that discussion. Where are we as a team?”

And there are some really simple models that will help folks have a conversation. There’s from Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. He has this conflict continuum, and one end is artificial harmony where we’re all avoiding it, “Oh, it’s great. Everything is great. Yup, we’re all good. Yeah, no, no, no, there’s no problem here.” “Like, really? Because it sure sounded like there was.” So, artificial harmony on one end.

And on the other is destructive conflicts, mean-spirited attacks and backbiting and all that sort of stuff. And so, the ideal is healthy and constructive conflict is somewhere in that middle ground where we’re able to have the hard conversations and we’re open to that. So, assessing, with a small A, you don’t have to take a big instrument or anything, just, “Where do you think we are? And let’s talk about it. And what would it look like for us to maintain a healthy and constructive conflict culture?” And then that can lead you into, “Okay, so how do we do that?”

And I would say that that becomes a matter of operating agreements where we can talk about it, like, “What does that look like?” “Well, we should respect each other.” “Okay, what does that really mean? What does that really look like for you?” “Well, it means we don’t interrupt each other.” “Well, I’m a strong extrovert. I don’t care about interruptions, but if you do then I’ll try to pay attention to that. If I interrupt you, don’t take it personally. I’m not trying to dismiss your point. I’m very extroverted.” “Okay, good.” We can learn about each other, come to some agreements, and then try to put them into practice.

And so, when it comes to what those agreements are, I would say there are clearly some general ones, like respect, taking responsibility, addressing things early, not letting it fester, criticism in private, constructive critique in private, affirmation in public, those types of pretty general stuff. And then you get into specifics for a given team based on their situation.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. And so then, let’s say we’re in the thick of things and someone did something that maybe we didn’t have the good fortune to have listened to you earlier and then, thusly, those operating agreements were not formally established. Someone did something. I am miffed. What do you recommend are some of the best ways to go about cleaning that up and addressing the matter? Any go-to scripts, words, phrases, principles?

John Riordan
So, there’s a feedback model that is a nice…I like that word script. I like the model of a recipe. So, I use this metaphor a lot. You have a recipe, how to make something, once you’ve done it a number of times, you can play with it. You don’t have to follow the recipe exactly and you can add something or try something different and see how it goes. But the basic recipe, at least, is a guide.

And so, this model is from the Center for Creative Leadership, SBID – situation, behavior, impact, desired outcome, SBID. And so, what’s the situation? So, I don’t call you and leave a voicemail, and say, “Pete, we need to talk. I’m just not happy with how you attacked me at the meeting the other day.” “Whoa, what on earth?” That’s like you’re already going to be on the defensive. You don’t even know where I’m coming from.

So, give a little context to this. What’s the situation? “So, Pete, we’re in that meeting, we’re on that call, we’re having that discussion. Do you remember that? And I was presenting, do you remember? Do you remember how you asked that question to me? I don’t know if you knew. So, that situation.” “Okay, yeah, I’m with you. We’ve got it. I understand the context.”

Now, the behavior, the B, that’s critical because it’s not an accusation. It’s simply a statement of behavior.

Pete Mockaitis
“You’re a jerk.” Not that.

John Riordan
Exactly, “Pete, you keep criticizing me in public. You keep dismantling my argument.” “What? I’m not trying to…I don’t even know what you’re…I’m not dismantling you.” “Well, you asked that question.” “Ah, yeah. That’s all I did was ask a question.” “Well, you’re trying to undermine me.” “Whoa, I’m not trying to undermine you. I just had a question about your data. Like, really, I’m not…”

Okay, impact. The impact was, “It felt to me that you were trying to undermine my credibility. It felt like you were questioning my presentation, questioning my data.” “I was asking a question about your data I wasn’t trying to embarrass you in public.” So, that impact helps you understand how your behavior impacted me, but it also is important for me to own that, assuming good intent, unless I have enough record to believe that you actually are out to get me.

And the other possibility is that you didn’t do it intentionally but this is how it impacted me, and can we have a conversation about that. And that is a huge, huge – what would you call that – a sea change, a really big distinction. And here’s the question you can write down, “Did you do this on purpose?” Did the person, whoever they are, did they do this to you intentionally? Did they do it to you on purpose?

Pete Mockaitis
Now, is that a question you ask yourself internally or a question you ask of the other party?

John Riordan
Well, kind of both ends. That’s a good point. It starts with me asking it of myself. So, my example is somebody cuts me off in traffic, “Aargh, can you believe that? What an idiot.” And then my wife says, “Well, maybe their wife is having a baby. Maybe their house is on fire. Maybe they have all kinds of reasons.” Well, the person didn’t roll down the window and say, “Hey, are you John Riordan?” “Yes.” “Oh, okay, I’m going to cut you off because I can’t stand you and I want to ruin your day.” That’s not what they’re thinking. They are just being self-centered, they’re just going about their day, they’re not paying attention to me, and they cut me off. It doesn’t mean it’s okay but it wasn’t about me. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
Right, yeah.

John Riordan
You’re asking a question in the middle of a presentation, your mindset might be, “I don’t really like those numbers. I wonder where he got those.” There’s all kinds of reasons why you might be asking that question other than, “Watch this. I’m going to ask this question and dismantle John’s argument. It’s going to be great. He’s going to fall apart,” because that would be intentional and then we’re adversaries.

But there’s a lot of other possibilities as to why people do what they do. And so, having that discussion, disarming – I love that metaphor – disarming the conflict so that it becomes instead of a capital C, we’re having a full-blown argument, it’s a small C, “Can we talk about this?” “Well, I didn’t like your numbers.” “Well, I appreciate that and, of course, you have the right to ask about my numbers. I would ask you to respect the fact that this is a presentation in front of senior managers, and could you have followed up with me later, or I ask you to review the material ahead of time. I don’t know if you did, but I would’ve appreciated you asking me that question before the meeting, etc.” So, there’s all kinds of ways we might address it to resolve the distinction without it getting to a capital C, conflict.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, as I step into this scenario that you’ve created, John, I just sort of wonder, like, what do you do when the other party…? I won’t say that they’re like malicious evil jerks trying to get you, but they just think your concern is dumb, they’re like, “Look, John, this is a data-driven organization. We try to make the best decisions. If I’ve got a question about your data, I’m going to ask the question about your data, I don’t care where we are, who you’re talking to. It’s just how we get to the truth and optimal business results. So, pull up your big boy pants and get a thick skin and stop whining to me about this inane bull crap so we can go make insane value for shareholders.”

Let’s say you get a pretty rude but not like maliciously, “That’s right, buddy. I’m out to take you down, so watch your back.” So, a pretty brute and dismissive response. How do you think about those?

John Riordan
Yeah. So, let me emphasize the distinction that you just made because, again, one is, “I have reason to believe that this person is an active adversary. They are literally out to take me down.” And those do exist. I’m not talking about being naïve and pretending that everybody is your best friend. There are a few, and hopefully a few, adversaries that you should watch out for. If you have a lot of adversaries, then you got to decide whether you can sustain that lifestyle and that career, and some people can, but for many of us, that might be a signal for a job change. If I’m surrounded by people who want to take me out, you either sign up for that or you don’t. So, that’s the first distinction.

The second, the way you’re describing it, is, “Look, it’s not about you, John. I really don’t care. I’m going to keep asking those questions. You just have to get over it.” So, they’re not out to take me down but they’re not also going to handle me with kid gloves. Then it becomes a question of power – power and influence in the organization. Because if that voice is coming from a full-bird colonel, and I’m the low person on the totem pole, then, guess what, I have to either live with that and go about my business, or I have to decide I’m in the wrong organization.

If that person is a peer, and we’re on equal footing, so to speak, then that’s a whole different scenario, “What influence do I have? Do I continue the discussion? Do I counter with, ‘Hey, I’d just be down. I think that’s a great way for us to work, because if I did that to you, you wouldn’t be happy. Can we not find a better way of working together?’” That’s the D in the SBID, the desired outcome is, “Can we learn to work together well?”

Now, option three, if that voice was coming from a subordinate, somebody who reports to me, I’d say, “Okay, have a seat. We need to talk. You need to decide whether you want to stay here or not because this is not how we’re going to operate in my sphere of influence.” So, it depends on who that individual is and what power and authority relationship we have.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s handy. Thank you. Well, tell me, John, any other key things you want to make sure to mention about conflict resolution and in virtual settings, maybe any sort of tools or favorite apps, software, or things that you find handy?

John Riordan
That’s interesting. For me, the resources, they’re now showing up online. Apps-wise, it doesn’t come to mind but in terms of models. So, one is by an author named Peter Block. And Peter Block’s partnership model lays out this distinction between trust and agreement. And so, you ask yourself, “Okay,” and I go through this exercise, a great exercise for everybody. You’re mapping out, especially in the work context, but of course it bleeds over to the rest of our lives as well. How much trust is there in the relationship? And how much agreement, in terms of the content of the discussion?

So, we disagree about the numbers and the data, but I don’t distrust you. I trust that you’re just asking a question about the numbers. That’s okay. Versus, if there’s no trust, then we have a serious problem. Trust is obviously far more critical than agreement. If I trust you, we can disagree about anything but I still trust you. We trust each other. And that distinction is huge.

So, Peter Block has a great article. I’ve got summary worksheets on this on my website but it’s the kind of thing that really helps you lay out, “Okay, who are my allies that I trust, we agree, we’re working in the same direction. I can really rely on these folks. There’s other categories and there are some unknowns, and then there’s this adversaries. We disagree on the direction and, guess what, we don’t trust each other so watch out.” Okay, let’s not be naïve. Let’s map this out. So, that’s a really helpful, sort of getting the lay of the land.

Let’s see, Patrick Lencioni’s material around conflict is fantastic. That’s all available on his site. Good stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, thank you. Now, could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

John Riordan
First and foremost, in practical terms, from two authors, Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones. And there’s a lot of different ways to say this but the bumper sticker for their material is, “Be yourself with more skill.” Be yourself with more skill. And I tell you, if I gave them a nickel for every time I’ve shared that thought, I owe them.

And what I love about that is five words. It’s amazing, five words. But, boy, you talk about a life journey, and this applies so powerfully to the work, in your career, and what I’d like to say your calling, but it also applies equally to your personal relationships, family, friends, community, you name it. Be yourself, be who you are made to be, figure out who you are, bring yourself to the table, your values, your strengths, your personality, but do it with more skill.

I spent years trying to be something else, be more of this, be less of that, as opposed to, “Okay, who am I? And then how do I show up skillfully? How do I bring my strengths to bear in a skillful way?” If that makes sense, it’s such an interesting but very powerful nuance.

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

John Riordan
I really appreciate the stuff that they did around this piece around authentic leadership, so Goffee and Jones. And, essentially, one of those harbingers, there’s been plenty of research around this, but the culture of leadership, and the shift from command and control. So, my dad was a marine, World War II, Korean War marine, and let me tell you, you did what the boss told you to do – command and control. “Why should I do what you tell me?” “Because I’m your boss. Because I’m above you. I outrank you. You name it. You do what you’re told.”

Well, clearly, we take it for granted, but leadership culture has evolved tremendously. Their article was called “Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?” It kind of flips it on its head.

And so, leadership now is about respect and response, and people choosing to follow you, choosing to allow you to influence them. And that’s what leadership is about now and it’s really evolved tremendously. And so, that piece of research, that kind of encapsulated that and demonstrated that, amongst men, but, to me, it’s a real – what would you call that – a milestone, a marker, that we have really shifted as a culture.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And how about a favorite book?

John Riordan
Currently, the one that is making the biggest difference in my life is called The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin.

She calls them tendencies, these ideas of, “How I operate? What makes me tick? What moves me from ideas into action? And how different that can be for different people?” And that has been super insightful for me and in sharing that with clients and helping people understand and, of course, it overlaps with personalities and all those other things, but, essentially, focusing in on moving from thought into action.

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

John Riordan
Yeah, I would repeat that one, The Four Tendencies. So, for me on that, the huge lightbulb for me is that I am motivated by external factors, and I spent years trying to be more self-disciplined, trying to develop kind of just put my nose to the grindstone and get it done. Not bad to have self-discipline. That’s great. But she distinguishes that some people are internally motivated, and they will, when they decide to do something, they’ll go do it.

Other people are externally motivated. So, I can have a great idea, and something I’d even like to do, but if nobody else is involved, if I’m not accountable to anybody, if I don’t have to answer to anyone, if no one else is there, then the likelihood I’ll be doing it is much lower. As soon as somebody else is involved, I’ll do it.

So, I’ve harnessed that, I got myself an executive assistant who is my professional bulldog, and I say, “Jorie, make sure this happens.” I’m on this podcast because of her. I love doing these things but I’m not going to do it. She says, “You’re going to do it. Make sure it happens,” and then I do it.

And so, harnessing that tendency, for me, of external motivation, I mean, I can’t even tell you everything I’ve been able to accomplish simply because it’s gone from ideas, the long list of good ideas in my head, and actually turning them into action.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

John Riordan
I would say two. Exercising has been huge.
I can’t say enough about it just in terms of de-stress, in terms of getting all that energy out in the negative sense, and then coming back and being ready to go. But, also, what I love about going to the gym, one of the big upsides, is little incremental small victories. So, I keep track of my workouts. I’m only there for half an hour, 40 minutes tops, but I try to just keep incrementally improving.

And it’s very cool to start the day by adding a few more reps, or adding a few more pounds, or adding a few more whatever to that weight or to that exercise, and to feel like, “Okay. All right. This is something I can win at.” And so, now I can go back into the day and bring that same sense of energy and motivation into the rest of what I got to do. So, that’s number one.

And then number two, what I listen to. I can’t say enough. The same thing, through the 18 months, like God bless you if you grew up with lots of positive encouragement and I had a very affirming upbringing. But my dad worked for IBM, very neutral, not an entrepreneur, just went to work and came home, so I never had somebody, a voice in my ears saying, “Hey, you got this. You can do it. Get in there. You’re great at this. You can…” whatever, all that sort of coaching and positive affirmations. And so, it’s been huge to tap into just little YouTube clips, different motivational stuff that suits my style, and to really have that voice in my ear, literally, cheering me on, coaching me on. It’s been fantastic. Very, very much a game changer, especially over this stressful time.

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

John Riordan
Oh, that first one, “Be yourself with more skill.” That’s number one, absolutely.

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

John Riordan
JR@JohnRiordan.com is the email address and JohnRiordan.com is the website.

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

John Riordan
That journey of self-discovery is absolutely, I can’t say enough about what a starting point that is. And it’s a journey, it’s not like you take two weeks off and learn about yourself, and then that’s it. But to delve into that, “What are your core values?” and contemplate on that. Really define it, writing it down. Everybody, almost any American is going to say, “Oh, I have core values.” “Okay, what are they?” “Ahh, I don’t really know.”

So, what are your core values? Write them down. Think about them. Define them. There’s different ways to go about that. What are your strengths that you bring to the world, to your work, to your family, to your…What are those? Do you know what they are or you just kind of know? And what’s your personality traits? What makes you tick? What motivates you? And sort of capturing that, collecting that awareness.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, John, this has been a treat. Thank you for sharing the goods. And keep on rocking.

John Riordan
Thank you. My pleasure. My pleasure. I really appreciate the opportunity. I hope this is encouraging and challenging and useful for folks.

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

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

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

Thank you, sponsors!

  • Blinkist. Read or listen to summarized wisdom from thousands of nonfiction books! Free trial available at blinkist.com/awesome 

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

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

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.
  • RISE. Improve your sleep and energy with the RISE app at risescience.com/awesome 

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

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

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.