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447: What Innovators Do Differently with Hal Gregersen

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Hal Gregersen says: "One of the greatest gifts we can give to ourselves and others is choosing to innovate, choosing to create something new and different."

Hal Gregersen reveals the key skills of disruptive innovators–and how you can get them too.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The core five skills required for innovation
  2. The questions disruptive innovators ask
  3. How to network for new idea

About Hal

Hal Gregersen is the Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center and a Senior Lecturer in Leadership and Innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management where he pursues his vocation of executive teaching, coaching, and research by exploring how leaders in business, government, and society discover provocative new ideas, develop the human and organizational capacity to realize those ideas, and deliver positive, powerful results.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Hal Gregersen Interview Transcript

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

Hal Gregersen
Delighted to be with you, Pete, once again.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes. Well, I’m thrilled to have you again. And so, last episode was 385 for folk who didn’t hear back in January, and we talked about questions, and it was so fun. But I’d love to hear, in the interim period, what are some fascinating questions that you’ve encountered in these months that have passed?

Hal Gregersen
Well, one that I bumped into came right after a speech at South by Southwest. I had the chance to get in the car and drive north of Austin, Texas to Waco, Texas and did some work with the folks at Magnolia, Chip and Joanna Gaines and their senior people there. And at the end of some conversations about where they’ve been and where they’re going, we actually explored, quite deeply, what kinds of questions really matter in this new launching point at Magnolia.

And one of the questions that crossed my mind, that we talked about briefly, was, “What is truth in a healthy relationship?” And I realized that when a relationship, be it at work or even at home, is unhealthy, truth takes on a completely different element or definition in unhealthy versus healthy relationships. And I honestly don’t have the perfect or great answer to that question. I’m exploring it. But it was one that’s caused me to think twice about the kinds of things I do at work and at home.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that reminds of the gospels with, I think, it’s Pilate who asked, “What is truth?” It’s like, “What a question, man. That’s tricky.”

Hal Gregersen
Well, I mean, whatever it is, truth, lie, but the notion is in a very unhealthy relationship, truth gets defined by a single person. So, think of an abusive boss or even an abusive partner or spouse. In those instances, the world revolves around that individual, and truth gets singularly defined by them. And their version of truth is very untruthful. It’s just full of shades of grey and ugliness. But in a healthy, equal sort of context relationship, be it, again, at work or at home, truth is a different thing, and it’s consensual, and we’re creating it, and it’s something beautiful versus the opposite.

So, again, it was an amazing conversation with Chip and Joanna Gaines and some of their senior people around some of the key issues, and they just raised some really important questions. And they care deeply about creating spaces there, in our homes especially, where truth can thrive.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, we were just breaking the ice and then you’ve got some…

Hal Gregersen
We love to break deep ice. We love to break deep ice, right, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, I appreciate it. I’ll be chewing on it for sure. And I want to chat with you, in particular, right around now because you’ve got another book coming out here, The Innovator’s DNA. What’s the big idea here?

Hal Gregersen
Well, the big idea is this book is a revised version of one that came out in 2011, and basically, we’ve updated it. But here’s the genesis of the book The Innovator’s DNA. Jeff Dyer, a good colleague, and I were talking about the innovation skills of disruptive innovators, and we then crossed paths with Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School who coined the term “disruptive innovation.”

And we asked Clay, in a very direct way, “You made up, you created this concept of disruptive innovation arguably,” and the question we asked him was, “How do people like Jeff Bezos at Amazon, or Peter Thiel at PayPal, Niklas Zennstrom at Skype, this again was 15 years ago, how do those people get the ideas that actually disrupt entire industries?”

And Clay had his big, six-foot, seven-foot hands, scratched his head and thought, “I don’t know. I mean, we collectively concluded, ‘Let’s figure it out.’” And so, we interviewed a hundred plus of these people from all over the world, Diane Greene who founded VMware, Fadi Ghandour who founded a company in the Middle East called Aramex, and basically had the chance to ask them, “What were you doing when you caught the initial idea that led to a very disruptive organization that changed the world in the face of it?”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s an exciting question, and I’ve enjoyed perusing your Appendix A, Sample of Innovators Interviewed, and it’s an impressive lineup there. So, what were they doing? Were they all showering? What were they up to?

Hal Gregersen
Well, what you do is you watch them go about their everyday work, and they spend 30% of their time doing something that other leaders don’t, even CEOs and founders. And here’s what they do. Number one, they wake up in the morning with a problem or a challenge to be solved or found. They are problem finders and solvers. That’s how they approach the world.

And so, they have that mindset. And once they get into that sort of focus, it’s like, “Okay, I’m going to now try to figure something out,” and they do it with five very specific skills. They ask very challenging, status quo challenging questions, frequently and often. They observe the world like anthropologists. They’re carefully watching and paying attention. They network and talk to people who are the polar opposites of them, very different, in order to get new insights and spark new insights. They experiment and try things that other people aren’t willing to try, small, fast, cheap experiments.

And when they behaviorally do those things – questioning, observing, networking for new ideas, and experimenting – it actually gives them the ability to connect the unconnected, to think associatively, to put together ideas that other people couldn’t. Einstein called it “combinatorial play.” And imagine someone actively solving a problem, getting up, getting out, getting into the world, asking provocative questions, making deep observations, talking to creative people, experiment and trying things, and taking the time to associatively think and put stuff together that other people don’t.

Imagine that kind of active problem-solving process, getting primary information, primary data, versus other leaders, or people even in organizations, sitting in their office space being tasked with giving a creative new idea, and that’s basically all they do. They think.

Pete Mockaitis
“Go get an idea.”

Hal Gregersen
They think. They sit there and think with each other, and they talk in their office spaces, and they look at Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint files. And at the end of the day, if you’re betting your retirement income on the ideas that come out of those pretty stilled land, office space conversations versus this very active problem-solving and finding approach, of getting up, getting out, observing, networking, experimenting, questioning, and associatively thinking, you know, where would you put your retirement funds? And, basically, they go towards the people who are using these discovery skills to find and solve problems. Because when we use these skills that way, we actually reduce the probability of failure with our brand-new idea. It makes it more likely to happen.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it also sounds like a whole lot more fun.

Hal Gregersen
Oh, totally. Absolutely. Totally.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, okay. Well, there’s so much good stuff in there, so I want to maybe start with the problem finding and solving. So, you say they spend 30% of their time doing stuff that others don’t, and that is they wake up, these innovators, and they just want to find a problem or solve a problem. It’s just like it sounds like in the first minutes of arising.

And so, those problems, are they kind of like all over the place in terms of, “Oh, this is an interesting thing I want to tinker with”? Or are they kind of pretty focused in terms of in their kind of functional or industry zones?

Hal Gregersen
They’re deeply focused within their own. They’re deeply focused within a space but they’re open to other surprises. And this is where, if you go to Jeff Bezos at Amazon, it’s like, here’s this guy working in financing, notices out of the corner of his eye, 25 years ago, that the internet was explosive growth rates of 1200% to 1500% per year, and he’s like, “What’s going on over there?” And that’s the point at which he then becomes very curious and very actively using these discovery skills to collect new data, and all of that work relentlessly trying to figure out, “What’s going on with this internet thing?” leads him to sell books on the internet which other people weren’t doing.

And so, the notion is we actually do care about something, as Richard Branson said, enough to do something about it. I remember this story of an animator at PIXAR talking about Steve Jobs getting in the elevator, 20 plus years ago, and surprising this young animator with a whole series of questions, again, two or three decades ago, around, “What kind of music do you listen to? And what are you paying attention to with your music? And where do you listen to your music? And how do you store your music?”

And he’s asking him all these questions about his music in the elevator, and Steve Jobs was trying to figure out the iPod. And it didn’t matter where he was, even if he was in an elevator with a stranger, he was trying to figure out better data to find and solve this issue around the iPod. And so, they care deeply about an issue.

And, frankly, I bet more than half of the leaders I interact with around the world really don’t care about the work they’re doing. They don’t care deeply about the problems and challenges they can find and solve in their own space. That’s the starting point to use these discovery skills to build something different.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it feels kind of like an obsession. It’s like, “I’m going to talk to anybody I bump into about this thing because it’s on my mind a lot.”

Hal Gregersen
And that’s how it works. And so, whether it’s David Neeleman who founded JetBlue in the U.S. a while back, and Azul Airlines in Brazil, and now he’s founding a new airline in the U.S. called Moxy, but Neeleman’s constantly exploring and trying to source new information with these discovery skills to be able to solve problems and build things other people don’t build.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And this reminds of the times I’ve certainly been in the throes of a question, and I just want to investigate. And I’ve often thought, “Boy, if I were to become a detective in law enforcement, I might become a terrible husband,” because it would just play in these, like, “Oh, I’m so close. How does this all fit together?”

Hal Gregersen
Yeah, exactly. But that’s how it works, Pete. That’s how it works.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. Well, so I imagine that, well, some have it, some have not found out ways to, I don’t know if the word is “control” or “harness” or “tame the wild stallions of obsessive innovative thought.”

Hal Gregersen
These hundred plus innovators, disruptive innovators, we interviewed for The Innovator’s DNA book, I don’t think they did shut it off, you know. They are relentless, obsessive problem finders and solvers. And so, I mentioned David Neeleman. Here’s this guy who grew up, he’s roughly my age, late 50s or early 60s, and this is 40 years ago. He bumps into a woman named June Morris, and they found Morris Air, and then that gets sold off to Southwest Airlines. And then David Neeleman gets fired from Southwest by Herb Kelleher because he’s too innovative, and he has a five-year non-compete agreement. He comes back and he founds JetBlue Airlines, and is incredibly successful by all metrics and standards.

Then he goes back to where he was born, in Brazil, to found Azul Airlines on a JetBlue model slightly modified for the Brazilian markets. And so, David, whenever he’s operating in the world, he’s asking these catalytic questions. And the first starting point becomes, “What’s going on here?” And so, David’s constantly asking of the world around him, “What’s working here? What’s not working and why?” And those are simple to ask but it requires huge trust to be able to get answers to them.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you say trust, what do you mean?

Hal Gregersen
You know, if I walked outside of my office right now and asked the staff around me, “What’s working? What’s not and why?” They would be maybe looking at me, like, “Can I trust you with the real answers? This is working and that’s not.”

Pete Mockaitis
So, it’s on their point of view.

Hal Gregersen
Exactly. So, it takes a deep commitment that I’m not just asking these questions to be clever or get a career advancement, I’m asking to make this place better off for us and for the people we’re serving. And that’s how David operates in the world. And so, you’ve got these relentless set of questions about the way things are, the status quo, and what’s working and what’s not and why, to lead him then to like, “Well, why don’t we try this? And how might we do that? And what if we try this?” These are very prescriptive world-changing questions.

So, his what-if question around, “What if we stopped having paper tickets? And what if we gave people codes over the phone to get on our planes at Morris Airlines?” ultimately led him, he actually was the inventor of electronic ticketing. And then when he goes down in Brazil, their issues of, “Where are we going to fly out of? What airport are we going to get some landing rights to?”

There were two major airlines in Brazil who’ve locked up all the major airports near Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. In Sao Paulo, there was an airport an hour and a half away, and they actually got some landing rights there, ended up getting it all set up. And a few months before the launch of Azul Airlines in Sao Paulo, they realized the taxi ride from downtown Sao Paulo to the airport, on average, costs more than the ticket of the airplane. It was just too far away and too expensive.

And so, David’s like, “Well, why don’t we just build a huge bus system to transport thousands of people every day?” The senior leaders were like, “We’re not in the bus business, David.” And David’s response was, “Well, why not?” And he was persistent about it. And now they have these amazingly clean, Wi-Fi-equipped, very wonderful rides in downtown Sao Paulo to the airport.

Conversely, in Rio de Janeiro, they again couldn’t get landing rights at the main airport, but there was this airport off the Copacabana Beach in right down downtown Rio de Janeiro. There was a military airport that was not being used. And David and his team went to the government and asked them about it, and their answer was, “No, you can’t.” David’s response was, “Well, why not?” And he was completely persistent about this “Why not?” to the point that that’s where they finally started the Azul Airlines, was at that, “We’re not going to have it here” airport off the coast.

So, yeah, it’s just the way he operates and others like him. They’re constantly asking these questions of descriptively what’s working, what’s not and why, that leads them very practically to, “Well, how might we do this differently? And what if we try that and why not this?”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. So, boy, there’s so much there. I think maybe we talk about these people. I want to maybe touch upon some of the research in the book about nature versus nurture, if anyone is saying, “Oh, yeah, but that’s them and not me.” What do you have to say to that?

Hal Gregersen
Well, my first response would be, if I could see the hands of everybody listening to this podcast right now, and ask them, “How many of you define yourself as innovators?” If the group out there was like any group of leaders I asked that question of in the world, about at most 50% of the hands go up. And then I’ll ask them, “Well, do you solve problems?” And everybody’s hand goes up. And now I’ve got them cornered to that plan, it’s like, “Well, if you’ve got a problem you know the solution, and you have to create a solution, what do you have to do? Well, you’re an innovator, right?” And they’re like, “Oh, got me. You’re right.”

And so, the issue is some of challenge of this nature versus nurture and “Am I innovative or not? Am I creative or not?” it all gets bundled up into these weird words of innovation versus “Do I just solve problems creatively?” The second part is, you know, truthfully, part of our discovery innovation skills are actually nature.

In fact, five systematic studies of genetically identical twins who, they’re born, but for tragic reasons they get separated at birth, and they grow up in different families and neighborhoods and context and schools, then they test them as adults. And about one-third of our ability to use these innovation skills regularly, of questioning, observing everything, experimenting and associational thinking, one-third of that is actually a bit genetic.

So, I’m very tactile. I touch and explore things with my hands. In the world, I got kicked out of school five times by the time I was in junior high school because I was always creating problems. But the issue is every one of those touchpoints, because I got more dopamine formed in my brain, caused me to get data that somebody is not touching doesn’t get. And all those datapoints of all those touches allows me to connect and see things other people don’t see. So, one-third of it is arguably genetic.

Pete Mockaitis
Right, that’s the majority.

Hal Gregersen
No, no, no, it’s one-third. The other two-thirds is pure nurture. It’s the families. It’s the schools. It’s the places we work. And all we have to do, Pete, is think of four-year olds around the world, and if they’ve grown up in reasonable homes and places, I mean, if it’s really extreme abuse, it’s a different story. But most four-year olds, what do they do? They ask a gazillion questions. They’re watching you like hawks and eagles. They are talking to just about anybody. They’ll try just about anything and they are exceptional at connecting the unconnected, and surprising you with ideas you never thought of.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Certainly.

Hal Gregersen
So, a 100% of us were once four-year olds, Pete. We had these skills. We had these creative problem-solving skills. But, unfortunately, sometimes homes and schools and even work can crush them. And so, given that two-thirds of the discovery creative innovation skills is just the world around us, is nurture, if we want to get better at it, it’s a choice. We just have to choose to use these skills to solve our problems.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s encouraging as compared to, say, IQ. It seems like we got a whole lot more room to grow and expand our creative skills than maybe our IQ.

Hal Gregersen
Oh, absolutely. And so, the data around this are, following what you just said, we are far more capable of making improvements around our creativity and discovery skills than we are around this thing we call IQ. Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, then, let’s talk about how to do it. So, we talked about questioning and some detail last time and it was a blast. I recommend Episode 385, everybody. But anything else you want to add about questioning or should we kind of move into observing?

Hal Gregersen
No, I think questioning is a starting point. It’s like, number one, care about a problem enough to do something about it. Number two, start asking more questions. And if you have no other time than this, one way to ask better questions is what I call a question burst. Whatever your issue is, set a timer for four minutes, don’t answer any of the questions, don’t explain why you’re asking them to yourself or to other people, and in four fast minutes, generate as many possible questions as you can about the issue.

And simply doing that, if nothing else, will help any of us ask better questions to start down the path of getting better answers. And once we define two or three of those questions that really count, what we know from the data from “The Innovator’s DNA” assessment where we’ve collected data from self and 360 assessments of leaders from all over the world, all kinds of industries, 20,000 of them, we basically know that if we only asked questions, there’s no relationship with that in getting valuable new ideas, new businesses, new products and services and new process.

So, all we do is ask questions. We’re not going to go anywhere. It’s like spinning wheels. But if we ask questions and actively get up, get out into the world, and either observe like anthropologists, network for new ideas, or experiment and just try things, then there’s an interaction effect they call in regression analysis where, in fact, questioning and observing does deliver valuable new ideas. Questioning and networking does deliver valuable new ideas. Questioning and experimenting it does that.

So, it’s the combination of asking with doing that makes the big difference. And I’m happy to share an example too if you’re interested.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, please do. Yes.

Hal Gregersen
So, you may have never heard of Rod Drury? Does that ring a bell?

Pete Mockaitis
I think it was the Drury Lane?

Hal Gregersen
No, that’s good. That’s really good. On Drury Lane in London. That would even work for the Gingerbread Man. No, not that Rod Drury. So, I had never heard of Rod Drury, and one of the things we did related to “The Innovator’s DNA” book is we worked with Credit Suisse, we built this innovation premium metric where we’re able to, with the share price of a company, a publicly-held company, determine if investors believed that this company is going to do valuable, new, and different things in the future.

And so, part of the share price of a stock is related to things we’re currently doing, and for some companies, investors pay a premium because they say, “Look, you’re going to be doing something different, I think, in the future. I’ll pay you more than you deserve today.” So, this list we do every year for the last several years with Forbes, in collaboration with Forbes. And a few years ago, this company called Xero jumped onto the list. It’s one of the most innovative in the world. We’re like, “What’s that company?” In fact, it was near the top.

And when we looked at it, we discovered that Rod Drury founded this company that basically solved the exact same kind of software to small businesses and individuals that Intuit sells with QuickBooks and Quicken. And we called Rod Drury and we asked him, “How did you get the idea to build this company that outside of the U.S. is taking Intuit on head to head?” And his answer? He said, “I, for five years or more, watched and read everything that Scott Cook, the founder of Intuit, did.” Now, that’s interesting.

And he said he literally would go to conferences to hear Scott and to watch how he operated as a leader. And here’s what he discovered. Scott Cook founded Intuit on his deep questioning and observational skills. He can really see things other people that don’t see. And so, Rod Drury noticed that. And what does Rod do? Well, he founded one software company, and then he’s like, “I think we could do something in this personal and financial and small business software.”

And so, Rod and his team went to 200 small businesses with questions swirling in their head about how to make small business software, financial software better for them. They went into 200 plus small businesses, and spent three to four hours in each of them, simply watching how they went about their day, and then talking to them about what they noticed and observed. That’s a 600-hour commitment by a founder. It’s not like delegating this innovation work to somebody else, it’s doing it yourself, which is what these innovators do.

So, what Rod discovered was many things. One, for example, was he watched these people come up, open their small business at the beginning of the day, get their cup of coffee or hot chocolate, go back to their computer two or three minutes later, and all of them were looking on the computer at basically the same information. So, pretend, Pete, you’re a small business owner, and you’re starting your new day, and you’re looking on your computer for some key information. What do you think that most important data that was that they were looking for?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, how much cash do I have in the bank right now? And how much cash do I need?

Hal Gregersen
Bingo! Bingo! Bingo! That’s exactly it. They were looking at their bank balances to figure out cashflow, “Do we have enough money to operate today?” And what they basically did was they took that observation, which at that point bank statements weren’t linked to this personal financial or small business financial software. They took that datapoint and a hundred or a thousand others to build a user interface, an introductory report when you log on, that’s incredibly intuitive and incredibly simple, and delivering the data you need to work today with your small business.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it must feel cool. What’s interesting about this synergy is questioning plus observing is because it might not occur to you to ask the question, “What is the first thing that you open up and look at in your financial software?” But once you do some observing, you’re like, “Huh, this is an interesting little pattern. I’m going to go ahead and kind of validate or vet by sending a survey to a bunch of people. And, say, hey, sure enough, everybody does this.”

Hal Gregersen
Oh, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
I can see how they go back and forth there.

Hal Gregersen
Totally.

Pete Mockaitis
So, we talked about the questioning and the observing. So, then how do we think about networking and experimenting?

Hal Gregersen
Well, the networking piece to think through is, okay, they’re not networking to get a career advancement. It’s not networking to get resources. That’s a different kind of networking. This is a networking to expressly spark new ideas. And so, whatever your challenge is, whatever you’re trying to figure out, it’s like, “Okay, who are the top 10 go-to people that, if I talked with them, they would help me get a new idea, a new angle on this issue, possibly asking the questions I’m not caring about?”

And, in this instance, when we’re trying to get new friends, we usually try to find people who are like us. When we’re trying to get new ideas, the whole point is “People who are not like me.” That’s the point. They have a different technical background, they work for different organization, a different industry, they’re a different gender, a different generation, by age, different nationality, a different political group, a different socio-economic group. They’re different somehow, someway. They’ve lived in a different space and world enough that they can give me an angle I’ve never considered before.

And so, Marc Benioff, whom we first interviewed for The Innovator’s DNA book, and I re-interviewed for the Questions Are the Answer book that you and I talked about recently, but Marc, at the very core, is incredibly inquisitive and he excels at networking for new ideas. He calls them listening tours. He gets up, he gets out. When he’s got an issue, sometimes his listening tours last three months, sometimes one month.

He literally goes and embeds himself in a space in order to figure out what’s going on by talking to rich people, poor people, business leaders, government leaders, religious leaders, small businesses, large businesses, non-businesses, literally dozens, hundreds of conversations, collecting information, getting surprised in order to formulate an idea that otherwise he wouldn’t.

So, one of their ideas is this thing called Chatter, which is kind of this integration of Facebook and Twitter internally to facilitate conversations and get work flowing better on their systems. That idea came from a regular dinner that Marc holds with young leaders out in Silicon Valley to get new ideas, and that’s where that spark came from.

Pete Mockaitis
So, then so you’re networking for new ideas, and one of the guidelines is you want to talk to folks who are unlike yourself. But it sounds like they can be from any industry, or functional area, or geography, or socio-economic background. So, what am I kind of looking for when I’m choosing who to get in the room?

Hal Gregersen
Well, often it’s somebody who’s dealt with a problem similar to the one we’re dealing with. And so, if I’m a radiologist working in CAT MRI scanning machine, and I’m having trouble getting kids to settle down and be quiet and be comfortable in this space, I might go talk to dentists who deal with some of the same challenges, and ask them, “How do you deal with this issue? How do you approach it?” And they might get some incredibly new ideas otherwise they wouldn’t get.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Hal Gregersen
Now, I mean, there’s a historical example that’s absolutely fun around this. Have you ever heard of Kutol Wall Cleaner?

Pete Mockaitis
No, I haven’t.

Hal Gregersen
So, back in the 1940s, you and I, if we lived in a home, we probably had wallpaper on the wall. It was paper and we had a coal-burning stove, and the coal put out soot. By the end of the year, the spring, new spring, our walls will be black, not white, because the soot is all over the walls. So, Kutol Wall Cleaner was this putty-like substance that was rolled up and down the wallpaper, because you couldn’t wash it, in order to clean that black soot off, and you’d buy gallons of it to clean your walls off in the spring after a long cold winter.

And after World War II, these coal-burning stoves, they were no longer going to be used because electric and gas-burning stoves were replacing them, so there’s no more market for Kutol Wall Cleaner. So, imagine being the president of that company. It’s the market-leading wall-cleaning putty company on planet Earth, and your market now is disappearing because there’s no more need for it. And the founder actually passed away accidentally, tragically in an airplane accident, so his son took over in the middle of this downward transition, and then the son got cancer, so then they’re really in difficult straits.

And the family is sitting around the table trying to figure out, “What do we do next? The machines aren’t even running. We’re not going to have a spring this year. What are we going to do?” And at the dinner table is a daughter-in law of one of the founders who’s a school teacher, and she raised the problem at school, “You know, it’s cool when the kids do their art stuff. If they used sculpting clay, it stains their clothes with all the color, and if they used the stuff you make with flour, salt and water, it just doesn’t work as well.”

So, somebody at the dinner table says, “Why don’t you take a can of Kutol Wall Cleaner to school tomorrow and see if it works for your sculpting class.” They did. It was incredibly successful. That became Play-Doh.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so good. Same stuff.

Hal Gregersen
Same stuff. So, all they did, the only thing they did was they changed the label on the can, removed the borax cleanser, put in almond scent. They sold the same stuff in the same can within the same factory. It used to be 37-cent wall cleaner, and it was a $1.50 one for the Play-Doh. And they sort of hit a wall with trying to market it.

Pete Mockaitis
The wall.

Hal Gregersen
There was this kid show called “Captain Kangaroo” like “Sesame Street” but way, way back. And they went to “Captain Kangaroo” and said, “Would you put this Play-Doh stuff on your show so we can sell more of it?” And said, “Here’s how much it would cost.” And they’re like, “We’re just barely digging out of a real hole here. What else can we do?” Captain Kangaroo says, “You give me 5% of your profits in the future and I will put it on my show three or four times a week.” He did and now it’s billions of cans later, you know, incredibly successful.

Pete Mockaitis
Captain Kangaroo grew the…

Hal Gregersen
Yes, sure. So, the point here, Pete, is Play-Doh never would have happened if people wouldn’t have been sitting at a table and talking across industries, education and wall cleaning, in order to solve a problem. And then having an experiment, “Just try some at school tomorrow. Small, fast and cheap to make it work.” And it did.

Pete Mockaitis
I love it. Well, Hal, tell me, if you’re thinking from the perspective of a typical professional as opposed to a CEO or head of a product, what are some of the top things you’d recommend we do to get better at some of these skills right away?

Hal Gregersen
Pay deep careful attention to the world around you and find an opportunity or a problem or a challenge related to your employees or to your customers that if you did something about it, it would make their world better. That’s the first step. You have to care about something that you want to do something about it. Once you have it identified, then it’s actively, use these discovery skills to find a solution.

And so, just today I was talking with a leader in my office here today who has a legal training and is trying to figure out the new legal tech integration with basically it’s technology, AI, machine learning, deep learning, what’s the impact going to be in the legal field. And I said, “Well, on one hand you can just sit in your office and think it, or you could use these skills and do something about it.”

So, starting point A, build your questioning muscle, your questioning skill by doing that question exercise about your challenge. Take four minutes, generate as many questions as you can, you’ll find some you didn’t discover before, and pick one or two that really matter. Starting point, ask a different question.

Then, I want you to get up, get out, get into the world. So, in this case, it was for this lawyer, “Go and observe the people who are actively using artificial intelligence in their legal work, watch them do their work. Watch people who are not doing their work. Learn about how both of their worlds operate.” Then I said, “Go talk to other people who are integrating AI into their world, biotech, fintech. Have conversations with them and even beyond that world, maybe in the world of transition and change due to technology.”

Then I said, “Try a few small, fast, cheap experiments based upon what you’re learning to see if it might work. And intentionally, once a week, step back with all this data you’re getting, observing, networking, and experimenting, and take a moment to think to yourself, ‘Is there anything I’m learning new, different, surprising from observing, networking, experimenting, anything new and different, surprising, that would be relevant to this problem I’m trying to solve?’”

If we don’t take the moment to make those connections, they don’t get made. And in the business life, we often miss that simple but important element.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Thank you. Well, Hal, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about your latest favorite things?

Hal Gregersen
Whether you are leading yourself or leading your team or leading an entire organization, everybody is looking at how you find and solve problems. And all I know is if you walk into the most innovative companies in the world, these are not passive problem finders and solvers. The senior leaders, the executives who innovate and disrupt, they actively use these five discovery skills over and over and over to do their work. And that’s what makes them so good.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Thank you. Now, can you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Hal Gregersen
Favorite quote. You ask me difficult things.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m honored to hear that from you.

Hal Gregersen
No, there was one I ran across. I was playing with two of our grandchildren at the beach, treasure hunting actually, and as I was looking out over the water and the sun was coming in, I had this quote come into my mind by E. B. White, “Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder.” It was just that moment of wonder, “What new treasure are we going to find in the beach? What new treasure are we going to see in the sky?” And to always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder is a creative way to start and end every day.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And how about a favorite book?

Hal Gregersen
I’m in the middle of reading The Magnolia Story by Chip and Joanna Gaines. I’m a fan of Magnolia. It’s basically their life stories behind the creation of this incredible business that they’ve created. And the powerful thing that I get out of it is they are very, very different people, Chip and Joanna Gaines. But they deeply admire and respect and honor each other’s instincts about how to do things and what they might do next. And that is partly, I think, not partly, I think it’s been crucial to their success and what they’ve done.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share in your speaking, your teaching, your book that really seems to connect and resonate with folks and get quoted back to you often?

Hal Gregersen
Innovation is a choice. We all wake up, we all go about our life be it work or at home, and we all have demands that force us just trying to get things done every day. But one of the greatest gifts we can give to ourselves and others is choosing to innovate, choosing to create something new and different, choosing to build a future that looks different than the one we’re living in today. And what’s really cool about making that choice to innovate and create is it not only gets us brand-new ideas but it also buys us more years here on planet Earth, more healthier, we have fewer heart attacks, less depression. It’s just going to lead to consequences that can build a better world not just for us but for those that we care most around us.

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

Hal Gregersen
Easiest is HalGregersen.com. But if you look up Hal Gregersen online, you can chase me down at MIT or beyond and we can connect with each other.

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

Hal Gregersen
Leadership is not about us. It’s about building other people, and it could be those that are working directly with us, it could be the next generation who’s going to take our place. But, at the end of the day, leadership is not about me. It’s about somebody else becoming better at exactly what you and I talked about, Pete, finding and solving the most important problems to make this place better.

Pete Mockaitis
Hal, it has been a fun and inspiring. Yet again, I wish you all the best with this book and your questions and all your adventures.

Hal Gregersen
Thank you. And, Pete, same to you. Wish you well in your journey and adventure. In my simple terms, quest well. There you go.

420: How to Break Free from Distracting Devices with Brian Solis

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Brian Solis says: "There has to be a much more mindful approach to how we use technology... in a sense, it's taking control of us and we have to take control of it."

Brian Solis interlinks procrastination, distraction, and device-related addiction to show how they rob us of productivity and happiness.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The biochemical forces that rewire your brain when exposed to social media
  2. The key thing you must do  to reclaim your attention
  3. Why devices are often thieves of our own happines

About Brian

Brian Solis is Principal Analyst and futurist at Altimeter, a Prophet Company, a keynote speaker and best-selling author. Brian studies disruptive technology and its impact on business and society. In his reports, articles and books, he humanizes technology and its impact on business and society to help executives gain new perspectives and insights. Brian’s research explores digital transformation, customer experience and culture 2.0 and “the future of” industries, trends and behavior.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Brian Solis Interview Transcript

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

Brian Solis
Pete, it’s honestly my pleasure. I’m really looking forward to this.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yes, well me too. I’m excited to dig into the wisdom of your book, Lifescale, but I understand that this is personal for you. Can you tell us the story of how distractions were impairing your life?

Brian Solis
Oh yeah. Well, it’s my favorite subject, kind of fall on the sword and be vulnerable to everybody, but in all seriousness, it was not the book that I set out to write. In fact, I was trying to write another book on innovation and just couldn’t really get past the proposal stage. For the first time in my life I was stuck and couldn’t figure out why and had wondered if this is what writer’s block had felt like or if I was just stretched too thin.

But long story short, after a whole bunch of research and time of reflection and introspection, I’d gotten down to the bottom of the fact that I wasn’t able to get into the flow like I used to because I completely changed my life. At that point, when I started writing the proposal, it had been two years since the previous book had published. Before that, each subsequent book had been a little harder and harder to write.

This time was the first time I couldn’t get past the proposal stage. I had just basically succumbed to all of the digital distractions that define my life. In the time that I had written the last book, I had grown exponentially on platforms. I was using my phone more and more and more and it had an incredible effect on depth and creativity and flow and productivity in ways that I just didn’t realize until I had to go back and dive deep or try to.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting, so you’re kind of a victim of your own success. You had so many fans, followers, et cetera, that there’s just more to respond to and more potential for beeps and buzzes and claims of your attention.

Brian Solis
Yeah, absolutely. Not only that, but with that pressure of maintaining a presence and also trying to stay relevant and continue to build that audience because there’s always somebody or something new to follow or at least be entertained by.

The other side of it is the dark side of digital, which is what it does to your brains. It rewires it. It makes it operate it much faster. It makes it jump around from task to task to give you sort of the semblance of multitasking, but essentially all you’re really doing is task hopping. It sort of drives you to float at a much more superficial level rather than allowing you the freedom and space to dive deeper and be content there.

I could list out a million different things that it does to you, but it also affects you chemically.

Pete Mockaitis
You mentioned that it rewires your brain, these digital devices and these interactions. Can you share with me perhaps one of the most frightening bits of research or studies that points to this phenomenon?

Brian Solis
Oh my goodness, well, there’s so many. Just going outside of the brain rewiring thing. For example, if you use social media quite a bit, whether it’s Facebook or Instagram, one of the things that tends to happen is that when you post something or based on the designs of those apps, they are designed to create micro doses of anxiety.

For example, if you open the app, there’s going to be a millisecond delay before you see how many new notifications you have. That’s meant to sort of create this sense of anticipation so that when you see that number, you feel like you’ve won. In that moment what it’s doing is unlocking a series of six different chemicals within your body.

Also the same types of chemicals swoosh about you when you do get a new like or when you do get a new follower or when people are connecting with you, so essentially getting these micro doses of the semblances of joy or happiness or validation or connection or desire. Your body learns to crave that, not unlike smoking or not unlike other types of drugs or alcohol that your body just starts to produce these chemicals in the absence of using those apps that sort of feed that addiction for you to come back.

That over time plays out in all kind of things. For example, I studied the effects of Instagram and Snapchat on a woman’s definition of beauty and also the effects on their self-esteem. I wish I could publish the results, but I will say this is that it’s not good. It leads to all kinds of things and not just loneliness, but depression.

Because if you think about it, there’s this sense of them trying to always keep up with what the internet’s standard of beauty is or whomever you follow and what that standard is. Even then it’s not necessarily always a real standard. They might be using FaceTune as a way of sort of making themselves slimmer or more attractive or younger.

This is also creating new types of plastic surgery products that are catering to what’s called dysmorphia or filter dysmorphia or in some cases, Snapchat dysmorphia because people want to look the way that they do in, let’s just say, their selfies self, their aspirational self.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow, that’s so fascinating. I guess I didn’t realize that the platforms deliberately put in a little bit of a gap before you saw the notifications. I just thought that that was dumb like, “Didn’t you know that’s what I wanted to see first? How come I have to wait for this?” It’s like, “No, it’s by design, Pete.” Now I know.

Brian Solis
Yeah, Pete, it’s by design. It’s even worse, it’s called persuasive design. It’s actually taught at Stanford University. It goes further than that. Some of the techniques that they use are also for example, called variable intermittent rewards, which are designed to emulate the types of things that go into, for example, digital slot machines or even analog slot machines. It’s really meant to kind of cater that every time you use it, you feel like you are you.

I’ve called this sort of resulting circumstance accidental narcissism because everything that you do in these platforms essentially tells you that you’re the most important person in the world. If you don’t like what you see online, so for example, if you post something that really mattered to you, but you didn’t get enough likes or reactions to it, chances are you’re probably going to delete it because that’s not your best foot forward, at least in the way that you think about it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so there we go. There’s some formidable biochemical forces at work when it comes to these devices and social media accounts and generating some addictive stuff. Tell us, what have you found are the most powerful practices to get liberated from this and reclaim your power to focus?

Brian Solis
This is a challenge that I face with this book as well is how do you sell a book to people who don’t necessarily realize that they’re distracted or suffering from any of this. In total honesty, as I mentioned earlier, I didn’t know I had a problem until I failed in a pretty significant life milestone. I would hate for anybody else to kind of have to get to that point. I want everybody to optimistically or proactively come to this conclusion on their own.

I share this with you because, for example, Google and Apple are putting what they’re calling digital wellness tools inside of your smartphones that sort of document how much time you spend on your phone every day or your tablet, where you’re spending all of your time.

I’ve noticed in many cases in my – it’s called digital anthropology – in my work that people don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. They see it almost as a badge.

Somebody I talked to while I was at South by Southwest recently told me, “My gosh, these digital wellness tools are killing me. It told me yesterday that I spent over five hours, over five hours. Can you believe that?” And not once in the conversation did they say, “I need to change,” or that there’s a problem or-

Pete Mockaitis
Just like, “How about that?”

Brian Solis
Yeah, pretty much. To get to the answer of your question, there has to be a much more mindful approach to how we use technology. I’m not asking anybody to disregard it. I need it in my work and in my world. But we have to take a much more mindful approach to how we use it. In a sense, it’s taking control of us and we have to take control of it.

Even getting there, it’s even in the smallest of things. It’s starting to build the muscle memory and the expertise and the rigor to be able to just focus on one thing, whether it’s mono-tasking or whether it’s some type of exercise or whether you’re practicing meditation.

Whatever it is, just focus on one thing for at least – studies show at least 25 minutes to build that discipline so that you aren’t getting pulled in a million different directions because if you are getting pulled in a million different directions all the time, you’re never building the skillset necessary to be more creative.

Creativity is what the world needs now in a time where everybody’s using filters or augmented reality, where artificial intelligence and machine learning is starting to take and automate everybody’s jobs. This is the time for creativity because creativity is the source of innovation and that’s what we’re trying to get to.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, so you’re saying it’s just sort of like building a muscle. You’ve got to go ahead and challenge yourself to focus on one thing, be it mediation on a given task for at least 25 minutes in order to get some gains bro.

Brian Solis
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
Then I’m also curious when it comes to taking breaks, like if you want to have more rejuvenation and restoration to have more creativity, I’m guessing you wouldn’t recommend, “Hey, check out what’s on Facebook,” as a refresher. What would you recommend instead?

Brian Solis
I’ll tell you this. One of the stats that blew me away was every time you reach for your phone – and look, the first couple of times I tried using what was called the Pomodoro Technique, which is a little tomato kitchen timer, a little analog thing, but they make digital versions. The first time I tried to focus for 25 minutes, I was reaching for my phone without a notification. That was the muscle memory I was working against.

Stats show that when you allow yourself to break free in a moment like that, it takes about 23 minutes or so to get back to work. Your body has to just sort of shift its gears because what’s happening is when you’re shifting tasks, you’re actually – there are nutrients in your brain that you’re using up and you’re having to sort of refocus it into a certain area where you were before and that takes time. That also depletes those nutrients over time. They say you’re freshest in the day.

But ultimately, one of the things that I learned here and I hope this answers your question, Pete, is you have to want to get your task done and not only get it done, but get it done in the uniqueness of you so that it stands out in a world where everybody is really starting to look the same. As amazing as everybody’s life looks online, it’s pretty much all the same.

You have to express yourself in the truest sense of you. You can’t do that if you don’t know who you are outside of what you’re trying to project and also if you don’t know what you’re capable of.

Pete Mockaitis
I dig it. Well, Brian, tell me, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we hear a couple of your favorite things?

Brian Solis
Yeah. One of things that I found was that we tend to procrastinate more because it’s really so hard to shift and focus. It’s actually easier to give yourself to distractions and notifications and also because we’re chemically drawn to it. In a sense, we’re addicted without understanding that we’re addicted. We were sort of subjected to those designs that got us there. It wasn’t really our choice to get there.

But what happens over time is that procrastination becomes sort of this subconscious attempt to avoid those unpleasant emotions or those unfamiliar disciplines that we sort of lost or gave up in exchange for our devices.

There was this quote that I had stumbled on from Muhammad Ali that said he hated every minute of training, but he told himself not to quit. The suffering that he was going through now, he was going to be able to live the rest of his life as a champion. That got me to think about whether it’s my work or your work or whatever it is that we’re trying to do, individuality really is a competitive advantage.

Also, creativity is, honestly, a scientifically-proven key to happiness. If you can’t visualize what it is that you want to achieve and why, then you can’t appreciate it and you can’t learn and you can’t build upon it to celebrate it. Essentially, that means that the devices and our relationship to them become sort of thieves of our own happiness.

That’s what I want to leave everybody with is that really what we’re talking about is not just taking control of technology, but actually living a happier, more creative life that we get to say what we use technology for and how and why and what we get express that’s uniquely us and then and only then can we live our truly best life.

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

Brian Solis
I think it was that Muhammad Ali quote, but I think I have another one too. It was this quote from one of the designers, who shall be unnamed, who was basically whistleblowing on the whole industry about the techniques they use to define some of our favorite apps and it was that “We were given the power of the gods without their wisdom.”

Pete Mockaitis
That is nice. Thank you. How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Brian Solis
I started with this Pomodoro Technique to build that discipline down to 25 minutes, but I also found the equivalent in vinyl, listening to vinyl again. One side of a record is roughly about 25 minutes.

The process of focusing for 25 minutes is fantastic, but also the physical routines that you go through to pull that vinyl out of its sleeve and kind of enjoy the senses of the smell and the feel and putting that needle slowly down on the disk and hearing the crackling a bit. It’s also very cathartic and therapeutic. You build this muscle set, but you also calm your mind into this way of being able to jump into a much deeper way of work much faster.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. I haven’t heard that as a tool before. Vinyl, awesome. How about a favorite habit?

Brian Solis
A new favorite habit that was an old favorite habit has been the arts. I grew up playing guitar and sort of shelved it in favor of chasing a paycheck. What I had slowly lost in my life was that sense of artistry that really unlocks parts of your brain that you can’t really get to without it.

I’ve started playing around with all kinds of different things like I’m not even an illustrator or an artist in any way shape or form, but I try to pretend like I am one. I’ll draw. Sometimes I’ll throw the pen in my left hand and try to write sentences and just kind of activate much more artistic behaviors to keep that brain firing in new and unique ways.

Pete Mockaitis
Brian, this has been such a treat. I wish you much luck with the book, and your speaking, and your work, and all the fun you’re up to.

Brian Solis
Well, Pete, I appreciate it. I’m on a mission. Like you said at the beginning, this is my eighth book, but my first personal book. I’m hoping to just bring anyone who is willing along on the journey with me.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. Thank you.

408: Nourishing Creativity so It Can Nourish You with Dr. Alton Barron

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Dr. Alton Barron says: "Boredom is the engine for creativity."

Dr. Alton Barron discusses the importance of creativity, how it influences your health, and how you can resurrect creativity after it has been stamped out.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The scientific link between creativity and health
  2. Why boredom is good for creativity
  3. The role of clutter in creativity

About Alton

Dr. Barron is a fellowship-trained shoulder, elbow, and hand surgeon. He is an Associate Clinical Professor of Orthopedics at NYU-Langone and the Univ. of Texas Dell Medical Centers, practicing in both Austin and Manhattan. Dr. Barron has been surgeon for thousands of competitive athletes (a team doctor for Fordham University for 15 years) and professional musicians, including the NY Philharmonic and Metropolitan Operas in New York for over 20 years. He publishes and lectures extensively nationally and internationally. Founder/director of the nonprofit Musician Treatment Foundationhttps://mtfusa.org/. Co-author of The Creativity Cure with wife Carrie Barron published by Scribner in 2012. https://www.facebook.com/TheCreativityCure/ Founding member, Team Continuum cancer charity https://www.teamcontinuum.net/

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Dr. Alton Barron Interview Transcript

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

Alton Barron
Pete, thanks so much for having me. I’m very excited to speak with you.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me too. Well, you’ve got a lot of interesting things going on in terms of your professional life. You do some work with creativity and you’re also an orthopedic hand surgeon. I understand that sometimes these worlds come together when you are treating musicians’ hands. How often does that happen and how is that a special experience for you?

Alton Barron
Right, that is super special. It’s been a significant part of my entire career, my 20-year career. But it’s very frequent because I’ve been kind of a team doctor for the New York Philharmonic and Met Opera for 20 years really and see a host of other musicians from all walks to music from jazz to blues to rock n’ roll. It ends up being a big part of each day actually.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. I imagine that there’s some extra intensity associated with doing that treatment because of what’s at stake. Everyone wants great use of their hands, but even more so if it’s your entire livelihood to be able to have great precision there.

Alton Barron
Right, that’s true. I think it’s two-fold. One is clearly in our culture and in many cultures, musicians can often be at the very highest level but struggle to actually be able to pay the bills. Some of the highest level musicians really live relatively hand-to-mouth. That leads them to become highly anxious and upset if they lose function in their upper limb, which is what they typically use to make music. That’s one component of it.

The other component of it is that unlike people who may do very creative work at a keyboard, that can be – not a musical keyboard, but a typewriter, a typing keyboard, those people can often use voice recognition software and other things to get through their day in whatever capacity they’re doing it, continue their work. A musician who is creating the music with their hands needs that both for their psychological wellbeing, but also to produce what they give to the world.

Those two components are so undermined potentially by whatever injury or condition they might be suffering from.

Pete Mockaitis
But you deliver the goods.

Alton Barron
I hope I do. I think I do. I try to.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good, that’s good. Well, we’re going to mostly talk about creativity, but while we’re talking about the use of a keyboard for typing as opposed to pianos and music creation, right now as we speak actually, one of my podcast teammates – shout out to Vida, who’s been doing a lot of great work – she’s having some wrist and finger pain. My wife gets that a lot too.

Could you give us your quick pro-take on what are some of the top do’s and don’ts for office professionals who do a lot of typing and mousing to not find themselves in a painful situation?

Alton Barron
Right, well, there’s a couple of things. One that’s most important is that you say office professionals, but what has become much more common if not ubiquitous around the world is people working on the move or from home or from the coffee shop where they live, etcetera, etcetera. There are all sorts of ergonomic snakes in the grass that we can suffer from.

I know that my wife, who’s a great writer, sits up in her bed kind of propped to one side with her knees up and wrists flexed down and working on the small laptop. That’s a disaster waiting to happen with regard to creating some of the typical tendonitis and nerve compression problems, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, one of the biggies, that I’m sure most everyone who’s listening is aware of. I know you are.

But one of the cool things is that so many people come to me and say, “I think I have carpel tunnel syndrome,” and the vast majority do not.

One simple way to know is that carpal tunnel syndrome only affects the nerves and ultimately some of the muscles of the thumb, but the key component to it is numbness or tingling, especially when you’re doing the activity and also at night. If you don’t have numbness or tingling, then it’s highly unlikely that you have carpal tunnel syndrome. That’s an easy layman’s way to just rule that out for yourself.

But really these positions that we get ourselves in and do repetitively day in and day out are the real conundrum. That is because one, they are not physiologic positions. They are often crunched up with the wrist flexed, the elbow flexed, the shoulders tight in. That creates a lack of movement and a lack of stretching that can then lead to a lot of the tendonitis type problems, the cramping, the overuse strains that I see so ubiquitously.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, so watch out for the tensing and the flexing. What is, would you say, the optimal position to be in and some of the best tools that can help you get there easily?

Alton Barron
Yes, the best position is to be in the position of whether you have only taken one or never taken a piano lesson but just you’ve seen plenty of pianists. Generally the position would be at that level of height, where your elbows are slightly bent, your wrists are in a neutral position, meaning not bent down and not stretched up too much as if you’re playing at a keyboard.

That’s a nice flow position that keeps your shoulders up and out, your elbows slightly bent, and that’s a beautiful, fluid way to be able to maintain many, many hours of typing. But also more importantly is to take little breaks all the time and really stretch your arms out and jump up and down and move around.

Standing desks are fine and there’s various types of ergonomic things, but mainly it’s that position where your hands aren’t too high, your hands aren’t too low, your wrists are in a fairly neutral position, and your elbows are slightly bent.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Now I’m reminded of my own piano lessons, so I need to be on a bench sitting perfectly straight.

Alton Barron
Posture is important, which we may talk about. That’s an important part I think of productivity and creativity actually, but it was in areas of my book. We talked about that because it is important. Yes, posture, one of the great things about music lessons in general is the teachers are usually pretty ferocious about maintaining and teaching posture.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m sitting up straighter right now as we speak.

Alton Barron
Me too actually.

Pete Mockaitis
I think my chair encourages me to slouch because of the way it goes. But anyway, thank you. We’ve got our ergonomics lesson from the good doctor. Thank you. Now I want to hear a little about your book, The Creativity Cure. What’s the main story here?

Alton Barron
Wow. That was a culmination of a lifetime of work on my wife’s part and a lifetime of my work that then helped to influence parts of it. It was her brainchild and my contributions as a good editor, but also knowing a little bit about the hands and about creativity through the hands and so forth.

It was a really fun partnership, where I was lucky enough that she did the bulk of the writing and the hard work and I was able to kind of walk in and do some editing and some thinking. We discussed it over many glasses of wine and long walks and so forth.

But it was a culmination – it kind of morphed as many I think creative projects do. It started out as sort of her philosophy of trying to find an alternative treatment regimen, if you will, for mild to moderate anxiety and depression that was not the psycho-pharmacologic agents that have obviously a lot of side effects and have been written about to a great extent.

Again, I emphasize mild to moderate because the medications provide a very critical role for many people, but there are also a number of people who may not need them. It was an attempt to provide an alternative to that. That’s how it started.

That’s what excited the publisher and so forth, but then – of course, because it was a new idea about using creativity, and we can go through that in different forms in our life, to combat anxiety/depression and to generate more, frankly, just a happier existence, not a purely happy existence. That’s impossible to achieve, but more happy moments in our days.

But then as the book, once it came out and we were on a book tour and giving a lot of talks and we still give some talks, it was interesting because it morphed into a little bit of a social commentary on where our culture had been and where we have gone. A big part of that is the meaning of our hands, what our hands meant to us maybe 75 years ago versus what they mean to us now. That’s not just an indictment of culture, but it’s actually an observation of culture.

I’m 58 and my childhood was very different than my children’s childhood. That’s something that started bubbling up from this. Again, sort of we learned from the people asking questions and it would generate incredible discussions.

Then we became involved in the maker movement, meaning we were asked to speak about that and the vogue knitting and all these different hand-based really creative activities that can be so life enhancing and life affirming. That’s kind of how it evolved. It’s been a really fun exciting road, really.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool, certainly. Well, I’d love to get a bit of a picture for the why here to start. Can you share some of the most compelling evidence that you’ve gathered or seen and would that suggest creativity is really a critical element to health and success as opposed to just something that’s just kind of fun to do when you have some free time?

Alton Barron
Right. I think there’s several ways to look at it. Some very, very extraordinary writers, researchers, but also artists have been quoted to understand the importance of creativity in our lives. One of the greatest, of course, was Picasso.

One of the maybe little bit sardonic almost observations he made was that everyone is born creative and then it is gradually taught out of us or it is leaked from our soul and we don’t maintain that. Then we become maybe worker bees, maybe preoccupied with the exigencies of life. That is a huge impediment to some of the beauty that maintaining creativity in our life can generate.

There have been many books written about the – John Ratey, a Harvard psychiatrist, wrote the book Spark. That looked at the actual brain science and effects behind not just – but physical, manual activity and what it does for the brain.

There was a great study out of the University of Virginia that looked at children. It seemed like a simple study. It was comparing handwriting versus working at a keyboard for adolescent children. They were given a writing assignment. Then their brains were monitored. Half of them were handwriting that information and half of them were working at a keyboard.

Quickly, what became evident was that the kids who were handwriting were generating longer sentences, using bigger words, having more complex ideas, and writing more volume. They were given the exact same assignment as the kids who were typing at a keyboard. That showed that handwriting, which is widely known, especially through calligraphy, is an art form, is an art form. We’ve eliminated that, in fact, from many, many schools.

This type of cumulative scientific data that book is replete with that gives us these – sometimes it’s saddening to me, sometimes it’s exciting because it gives us somewhere to go, it gives us something to do, something to achieve, which is to in a way go back to the future a little bit.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Thank you. All right. That’s pretty compelling stuff. You also have some content that suggests in some ways creativity or lack thereof can in some ways be life or death. Can you unpack that a bit for us?

Alton Barron
Wow, yeah. Once you have been exposed to the possibilities of creativity and most of us have been given crayons, have been given LEGOs or erector sets or something and it’s in us. We feel that joy, that extreme joy.

An example is that my son, who liked to do things, I went down to the basement and I heard a bunch of clatter down there. He was sort of beating up on a broken CD player, beating up on it and trying to see how it was made. I said, “Nicholas, let’s take it apart,” and so we took it apart. We found the speakers and the different component parts of this little speaker.

Once we took it apart, it was already broken, at that time we didn’t have the capacity to fix it, but he took those component parts and he made an amazing robot. We put some casters that were sitting in a corner and so forth. It ended up we still have it in our house. People comment on it all the time. It was just put together from the broken pieces of a box. He is still – every time he sees it, he becomes happy.

I, frankly, I didn’t do enough of that with him. One of my shortcomings of working too much, is that I didn’t probably do enough of that. But they did also get it from exposure to their grandparents, my parents.

That is a critical thing is being able to tap back into something that is intrinsic in us all and probably is lying there latent from not having been stimulated enough because of standardized testing and trying to make the best grades, and moving forward, and trying to get the best job, and so forth and so on, and we forget that.

I think the biggest thing to hold on to with regard to creativity is the fact that it’s still there in everyone and you just need to find your unique ways to tap back into it because it can be a huge improvement on your day-to-day happiness and in feeling okay.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. It’s funny you share that story about making the robot. I’m reminded of there was one day I was just hanging out with some buddies after we had had a party at our apartment the previous day.

Lying around we had some extra bamboo skewers from some appetizers or desserts. Then there were some balloons hanging around as well, as well as some rubber bands. We ended up making a crossbow out of the bamboo skewers and rubber bands. I’ll tell you, the moment we successfully launched a bamboo skewer from this crossbow into a balloon and heard it pop, we were just elated.

Alton Barron
Yes, yes, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
It was the coolest thing ever. Then it got me to thinking, I was like we used to do this sort of thing as kids all the time, just in terms of it’s like, “Hey, I’ve got some random idle time, got some random items in front of us. We’re just going to do something and see what happens.”

It just got me thinking, I’d say, not to be that old guy, “Like kids these days,” but I imagine if you have the problem quote/unquote of boredom and ubiquitous iPhones, iPads, apps, games, infinite Netflix, etcetera options, you will likely address your boredom in ways that require a lot less effort and creativity just because you can.

Alton Barron
Yes. I’m so glad you said that. I’m so glad you mentioned boredom because boredom is the engine for creativity. If we are hyper-stimulated, and certainly there are many, many great things about technology. I was an engineer. I had the first Mac that Steven Jobs invented. I bought it. It was 128 K hard drive.

Yet, now we are so technologically supersaturated, there’s just so much information coming at us. In our elevator in my office building, there’s a little window that gives information about the weather but also about new studies that have come out. It’s everywhere. We have it always at our fingertips. That’s great.

Everyone, especially kids, knows so much more information than I knew as a kid, but the price you pay for that is no downtime, no allowance for being bored and not hyper-stimulated because that’s when ideas sublimate. Just like they did, you all were a little bored. You had the day you found these bamboo things. You said, “We’ve got to do something because we’re a little bored.” Sure enough you came up with a cool invention.

What’s funny is that they did a study looking at award-winning scientists and these were Noble Laureates and so forth and winning all the major prizes in science. They were trying to find the common denominator for that level of success in scientific research and innovation.

The single criteria or denominator that was ubiquitous for all of them was they all had a little workshop and a place where they puttered, a place where they just played with gadgets and gizmos and maybe repaired watches or lawnmowers or whatever.

They had that mental freedom of using their hands, doing something that wasn’t intensely mental and education-based, but they were doing something that was allowing the sublimation of new ideas to come. This was where they were actually having their sometimes their eureka moments, which is just super cool.

It’s where they were getting flow too, which you know in jazz music and so forth, flow is where improvisation comes from. It comes from improvisation, where you lose yourself. Time becomes immeasurable. It feels like you’re just in another world. It stimulates brain chemicals as well as the soul.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well that’s cool. I like that notion of the puttering and the non-intensity. We had a previous guest, Bruce Daisley, mention that. Aaron Sorkin, the writer, found he had his best ideas in the shower, so he had a shower installed in his office and took something like six-plus showers a day to get more of these ideas. I love that kind of just extremeness. It’s like, “This works. It’s a little odd, but I don’t care. I’m going to do it.” And it worked for him.

Alton Barron
I’m going to do it six times more than everybody else.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Alton Barron
That’s great. I like that.

Pete Mockaitis
Then you sort of lay out a bit of a specific game plan in terms of a five-part prescription in your creativity cure. What are these five parts?

Alton Barron
Yeah, so the five-part prescription or the five PP, as we call it, are insight, movement, mind rest, your own two hands, and mind shift.

Insight, if you’d like for me to just go through them quickly, insight is based on why we make good decisions, why we make bad decisions knowing ourselves. How we got from point A to point B.

Often it’s some hindsight involved and some wisdom gained from failures, from successes, from putting that all together and really looking at having that – one of the psychological terms is observing egos, where we can step out of ourselves and look objectively at ourselves and say, “Okay, well, I was kind of a buffoon when I said that or did that. That’s a pattern there,” or, “I have a tendency to always to want to support the underdog.”

Sherlock Holmes was an infracaninophile, one of my favorite early words. That is lover of the underdog. I find that when I turn on – unless I’m a rabid fan of one particular team, if I turn on any sports thing, I generally am supporting – I want the one who’s losing to win. That’s just a weird thing.

But the point is that’s who I am. That’s part of me. That’s some insight. That can be great or it can be not great if you’re making business decisions and so forth and so on.

Movement is, as you would imagine, is based on the enormous body of evidence that shows that how important psychologically, cognitively and physiologically exercise is. It can be any form. It doesn’t need to mean we need to be running marathons every day. It doesn’t mean we need to be doing Pelotons and everything else. It just means that we need to be moving our bodies.

We can be walking, especially if it’s in nature it’s even better. But we need to be moving our bodies. We can’t be sitting sedentary and expect to have a bountiful and curious life both physically as well as cognitively and psychologically.

That very good study came out of Harvard that showed that just doing household chores, home improvements and if you do that consistently on a daily basis, you had a much better health index and much better longevity with better quality of life during that longevity.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d love to get your take, when we talk about movement from a creativity perspective. They say studies have shown that walking’s great and nature and such. I’m wondering if you’re doing upper intense movements, like sprint intervals or deadlifts and squats, I think that does plenty for your body, but does that do as much for you creatively or is just me? When I’m sprinting, it doesn’t seem like I’m getting the same great ideas I get when I’m ambling along at three miles per hour or slower.

Alton Barron
Yes, I think you’re absolutely right. You’re absolutely right. I think it’s a very, very good point. If it’s too intense, then it’s probably going to become more core physiologic, almost primitive. You go down to your primitive reflexes, your breathing and you stop thinking.

However, the upside to the more vigorous exercise if you’re capable of it is the beta-endorphin factor. You can actually stimulate the brain with the beta endorphins, which are also pain killers. Those are stimulants. That can kind of play into that. That can become a form of addiction.

Haruki – what was his name – Murakami wrote that book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. It’s really not what he talks about when he talks about running. It’s really about the mental freedom and the thinking that goes on when he’s doing not sprinting, but the longer distance running, as you deduced.

Many, many people have talked about walking their books, jogging their books, whatever they’re coming up with that that’s the way that they really stimulate the new thought and the new chapters and the new ideas for any creative project that they’re doing.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool. What’s next?

Alton Barron
Yeah, so mind rest, that’s kind of the opposite really, but not always. Mind rest is where we must, must give ourselves that downtime, that unplugging, that boredom, that ability to create the space for ideas to rise up and bubble up and help us with our insight and so forth.

Mind rest can take many, many forms. As you know, yoga is an excellent, excellent expenditure of time for that regard because it is so body/mind linked and based to relax you and allow the ideas to come up.

I know that there have been times – and I don’t do much yoga myself. I’d love to, but I just don’t really have the time for it – but there have been times when I’ve been doing yoga in a random class somewhere and I’ll just start crying. I’ll just start crying. It just does something. It makes something rise up. It’s not like I’m having a specific thought or a sadness or anything, but it will happen. So it’s really cool.

But mind rest can also come from just this unplugging. As you may know there’s the science that talks about the dopamine release when we get pings and pongs and various notifications coming from our devices. Every time that happens, especially for younger people, it actually releases biochemicals in our brain. That can actually become an addiction.

The ability to step away from that and give yourself that respite from that intensity of the constant onslaught of information and connectivity is critical to one’s psychological and physical wellbeing.

That brings us to what I think was probably the most original part was Carrie’s and my ideas on your own two hands. We did a huge amount of research – Carrie did more of it than I did by far – looking historically and then up to date on what is the importance of your own two hands in terms of mental and physical wellbeing and cognitive health.

The coolest pure neuro-scientific fact I can give you is that when you’re in medical school you learn about something called the homunculus, which is this funny little person, cartoon figure, that shows the mapping of the different parts of our body on our somatosensory cortex, which is the upper, bigger most important part of our brain that grew when we started making tools in prehistoric times.

Sixty percent, fully sixty percent of all the neurons in our somatosensory cortex are devoted just to our hands, just to our hands. We stimulate that by touching, by tactile, by something as simple as folding clothes, washing dishes, reading a book, handwriting, calligraphy, knitting, all sorts of hand-based activities, carpentry, gardening. But what’s interesting is we do not stimulate that part of our brain when we are typing at a keyboard or texting on a smartphone.

Pete Mockaitis
How about that.

Alton Barron
Yeah. It’s just weird because it’s not one of the primitive hand-based movements that how we evolved. Maybe one day in another 200 years, maybe that will be stimulating our brain, but it’s not now. That’s why it’s so important to do other hand-based activities.

It was really cool when people sort of latched back onto this idea. It was extraordinary the stories that people would tell thinking back to recent times when they did something that just made them super happy and so often it was something random and hand-based.

I know that one of the things that my dad used to do with the kids is take them, find a piece of driftwood. They would come back and they would sand it down. They would clean the dirt off. They would sand it. They would stain it. They would build a little base for it. They would use a router to go around the edge of the base.

It would be a day-long project, but that involved the human connection of doing that. It involved being outside in nature. It involved using their hands meaningfully. It was kind of the whole package. It was really bountiful for them in that regard.

But the hands are critical. Anaxagoras I think said the “man was given hands because he was given spirit.” That is a really cool idea. It’s true because they become our way of touching, feeling, interacting with the world, but also giving back to the world. Of course, the most beautiful example of that are the artists and musicians amongst us, who produce such beautiful works that make us better people and happier people.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s lovely. Thank you.

Alton Barron
Then mind shift is the last. Mind shift, you can think of it more as the wonderful pie you’ve made from all the ingredients of the other four. It’s that actionable, if you will, who we become if we can really deeply go into the insight, movement, mind rest, and your own two hands. We shift our minds. We feel differently. We behave differently in the world. We treat ourselves differently. That’s really the culmination of that and the hope.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a lot of fun. Thanks for orienting us to the big picture that. Could you give us your take in terms of boy, if there’s something that just seems to really release a lot of creative new idea brilliance per minute of effort on our part, what would some of those very top practices be?

Alton Barron
Well, I think that it really is different for everyone, so what I would say the exercise would be to think back to something you did that was hand-based. It could have been last year, it could have been 30 years ago, it could have been 10 years ago. Think back to something that you remember that created a strong sense of pride, freedom, self-esteem, happiness, joy, glow, something like that.

Think back to that one thing and see if you can reclaim that. Reclaim that and see if you can’t start incorporating that in little bits and pieces into your life.

What’s cool about any project and art form is that it doesn’t have to be great; it just has to be from you. It can be objectively the ugliest thing around, but if it made you happy to make it, who cares? Who cares? It’s about the process and the project. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a very well-known researcher, said “Show me a happy person and I’ll show you a project.”

It can be – oh, one of the most recent things is cleaning up clutter, decluttering. That’s a really interesting idea about tending to your space, tending to your space.
But honestly, I wish I could give you one, but it’s so different for everyone. Everybody has that. Just it’s taking the time, giving yourself the mind rest to – but do the actionable thing, which is to think about it. Think hard on it and figure out one or two things that once brought you great pleasure and try to reproduce them.

If not, just go out and go to a maker fair or go start drawing something or building something or take a cooking class. Cooking is a wonderfully creative and manual-based activity that many of us don’t think about when we’re doing it. I think that’s what I would say.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s lovely. Thank you. I do want to hit that clutter point in particular, Marie Kondo on Netflix now, very popular. We went to town decluttering a baby closet and it was quite satisfying to have all those container store bins neatly labeled, etcetera. What is the impact on clutter and creativity?

Alton Barron
My wife and I spent all this weekend talking about that. All this weekend we talked about Marie Kondo. She is so excited about her and her work. She knew about her before, but somehow since she’s now on Netflix, it’s just, she’s a really special person.

It’s really cool because the impact is that yes, there are stories about – I use the term very loosely – but the mad scientist. The image, the caricature, if you will, of someone with just stuff everywhere, not knowing – piles of papers and manuscripts and everything everywhere and tools and beakers and so forth and not knowing where anything is and somehow inventing. But in reality that doesn’t happen that much.

But we need to be careful, if you see a perfectly pristine desk, there may not be anything happening on that or someone may be extra obsessional about that. That may not be stimulating creativity in any way. On the other hand, an overfull desk, where you can’t remember where you put this or that, can be frustrating. It’s balance. It’s about balance.

Now, Marie Kondo carries that to one arena of extreme. I don’t use the term extreme in a negative way. It’s really organizing your life. There is great peace and almost quietude that can come from your space being tended to and being organized. It’s not just about being able to see things and find things; it’s about the act of doing it.

That’s a mechanical, manual activity, organizing your space, whether you’re throwing out, putting in boxes, or putting all your shoes in boxes or putting all your tools and organizing them and all the little random nuts and bolts and so forth, it’s a form of tending to you and your space in your home and wherever you might live.

There’s no question that it’s I think very similar to weeding a garden. I think it’s very similar because you’re allowing things to grow, ideas, your space, your life and so forth.

Look, she’s far smarter than I am, but I’m fascinated by it. I think it’s a really cool way to start the process of creativity. Start it by just what you did, clean out that space. You have the connectivity, the familial connectivity of doing that, the side-by-side doing a task, but you also have – it’s a clear task that’s somewhat disconnected from technology, from the buzzes and bings and so forth. It also makes you feel just frankly good afterward. Good, more power to you.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. I guess in my experience when it comes to being surrounded by clutter or not clutter is that the – I forgot the scientific term for it. It’s almost like SIDI or something like that, the notion that my resources are limited.

It’s similar to not having enough time or money or energy or manpower to complete something that’s important to you and you feel a little bit of that stress, that tension, that anxiety, that “I don’t know if this is going to happen,” and thus that kind of can short-circuit some creative resourcefulness in the brain.

Likewise, if the space as a resource is non-conducive to accomplishing that, which is important and top of mind to you, I think in my experience that further contributes to the stressed, uncomfortable position of feeling resource constrained. It’s sort of like not just the process of tidying, but the end result of “Ah, what a lovely clear space,” puts me in a better state of mind to feel resourceful and creative.

Alton Barron
Yeah, that’s a great way to put it. That’s very eloquent. I like that because you’re saying space becomes a resource, a raw ore that can be used to build on and build with. Space as an emptiness can then be filled by a feeling, by ideas, by whatever. The clutter can be a distraction.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, I like the way you put it. You’ve got more poetry on there.

Alton Barron
Well, anyway. It’s cool. It’s just funny that you brought that up today, it’s perspicacious because that’s all we talked about this weekend.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d be curious, Alton, anything else you want to talk about creativity and getting more of that flow in in the work place before we shift gears to talk about some of your favorite things?

Alton Barron
Right. I think we’ve said a lot. I love the way you covered it. But I hope that one of the biggest components to creativity I believe is curiosity, and it’s also humility, and being willing to just entertain anything, be open and curious and humble enough to think that something else can enhance you and make you feel better, make you better. I think that’s a big part of creativity is that curiosity and that humility to take on new ideas.

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

Alton Barron
Oh gosh, well, my wife gets tired of hearing my quotes. I have so many quotes that I love because of the people that wrote them and so forth and really who those people were. One of my favorite was from Voltaire in his short novel Zadig or Man’s Fate, where the quote is that “On such slender threads as these do the fates of mortals hang.”

You think, “Oh, well that’s dark,” but it’s actually not. It was a guy who was accused of having an affair with one of the sultan’s mistresses or wife or whatever and he was about to be executed. Then the parrot, who happened to be in the room, actually parroted and spoke and basically showed that he had not had an affair because he spoke about who had had the affair, so Zadig was freed. It was “On such slender threads as these do,” as a random parrot.

But the fact is that I think that was metaphorical for so many things that can happen in our life. It goes back to creativity is just you never know who you’re going to meet, what you’re going to hear, and what you’re going to find. I think allowing yourself the mental freedom to explore and absorb and be open to and be curious about is I think critical to a fairly bountiful existence in my opinion.

One of my favorite quotes of all time was by Winston Churchill. I happen to collect books. Every book I’ve ever read basically I’ve collected a hardbound version of it. I’ve been doing that since I was kind of an adolescent, but now I don’t have enough time to read.

He made me feel better because he said, “Always surround yourselves with books. Even if you don’t have time to read them, just fondle them once in a while.” It’s true. I’ll do that sometimes. I’ll just open it up and just read five lines of some book I’ve read before.  It just makes me happy.  It just takes me back to a different place. Those are a couple of I guess fun ones that I like.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. Could you share with us a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Alton Barron
Wow. Of mine or just -?

Pete Mockaitis
Just anything that you’ve encountered that made you go, “Wow, that is amazing insight from this research.”

Alton Barron
Yeah. Oh gosh, because I’m steeped in this, it’s hard to separate from the research that I work with day-to-day and talk to patients about versus what in the book and so forth. I think that one of the most exciting ones really was the Kelly Lambert did a significant amount of research on lifting depression and showed that the meaningful hand use actually changes the brains biochemistry.

That to me is so profound, not just about making you happy and making you feel satisfied and making you feel productive and so forth, but actually changes the brain’s chemistry, actually changes serotonin uptake, changes dopamine release. It’s just fascinating to me that we can change our brain chemistry by using our hands.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, thank you. Amongst all these books you fondle and have read, do you have a favorite?

Alton Barron
Well, my all-time favorite is Don Quixote. I read it too many times. I don’t know, for some reason it has been – it just continues to fascinate me. It’s part about fantasy, part about just living in a dream and having goals, whether they’re achievable or not. I think we should always have goals for that. That’s one of my all-time favorites that I still talk about.

And Of Human Bondage spoke to me greatly, Somerset Maugham, because it was about a boy who then went to medical school and had a bad leg and so forth. It spoke to me. I ended up going to medical school, but I don’t think it was because of that book, but it influenced me greatly in terms of the trials and tribulations that one can work through and persevere through and still achieve.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Alton Barron
Favorite tool. This may not seem like a tool, but it is to me and that is the ability to make true human connection. What I mean by that is the ability to make a true human connection I think involves empathy. It involves creativity. It involves a curiosity about that other person, more curiosity about that person than you are about yourself.

If you show those capacities along with being honest and telling the truth, I think that the power that that can engender in you is that you then can take that person and a piece of that person and use it, use them – I don’t mean use them in a derogatory way – but use that to build your foundation of life because we need people.

We are intrinsically social creatures. We need to have people around us that we understand, who understand us, who trust us, and whom we trust. You cannot do that without making a true connection with them.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite nugget, something you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks when you share it?

Alton Barron
Well, you mentioned posture. Studies have been done on it. I’m saying this half-jokingly, but it’s true because I end up talking about it with a lot of people, a lot of patients because it can generate muscular-skeletal problems if we have poor posture. But also posture is so critically important to how the world perceives us and how we interact with the world.

I’m always telling my kids, I tell patients, especially younger patients, our culture because of our involution of our bodies from reaching down and hugging our smartphones, which are close to our bodies, and our heads our down, we tend to close ourselves off to the world.

Posture, and I mean that in the broadest sense, opening up not just our breathing, but it opens up our world to us. It makes other people perceive us differently. Posture is the most important thing in a certain way. As long as we are already taking care of character and truth-telling and taking responsibility for our own actions.

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

Alton Barron
Well, look, I think my wife is pretty wicked smart and I’ve learned so much from her in life. She was the brains behind the book. It’s not a silly read and it’s not a quick read. It takes some time to get through it, but it’s based on a lot of science. I have to say that that would be important.

But beyond that I would say reading anything that stimulates you and takes you away is what – I hate to generalize in that sense rather than giving you specific books, but I believe in that.

The other great book that I would recommend to anyone who has younger children would be the Last Child in the Woods. It’s about the importance of nature and the importance of getting back to the basics. It’s based on a great body of research.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Alton, thanks so much for sharing this good stuff. I wish you and your wife much luck in your medicine and your speaking and writing and sharing and creativity and all you’re up to.

Alton Barron
And cleaning out our closets.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. You may need some luck for that.

Alton Barron
I’m going to need some. It was really, really a pleasure to talk to you, Pete. It’s very stimulating and it made me think in ways that I haven’t thought in a while. I appreciate the time and the interest.

404: Overcoming Your Creative Blocks with Michael A. Roberto

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Michael Roberto: "The key to the creative process is to get your idea out there raw early so that you can get feedback."

Professor Michael A. Roberto explores the mindsets that hinder creativity.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The six mindsets blocking your creativity
  2. The advantage of putting your idea out there in its early stages
  3. Best ways to spark more creative ideas

About Michael

Michael Roberto is the Trustee Professor of Management at Bryant University. Previously, he’s served for six years on the faculty at Harvard Business School. His research focuses on how people solve problems and make decisions.He’s a bestselling author of case studies and several books. He’s created courses on The Great Courses Plus. Michael has developed a number of innovative Multi-media simulations for students, including the Everest Leadership and Team Simulation. His latest book is called Unlocking Creativity.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Michael Roberto Interview Transcript

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

Michael A. Roberto
Thanks Pete. It’s great to be with you today.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d love to start maybe early on in your life and hear about your childhood dream as it relates to Monday night football.

Michael A. Roberto
I love this. People ask me this, say, “What did you want to be when you grew up?” I said, “My gosh, believe it or not, I wanted to be Howard Cosell’s successor.” I grew up listening to Don Meredith, Frank Gifford, and Howard Cosell doing Monday night football. I thought, “I could do that.” That didn’t quite work out. But some would say there’s some similarities between being a professor and being a color commentator.

Pete Mockaitis
Was it the specific love of football or something about his style in particular that resonated with you?

Michael A. Roberto
I do love football. I am a fan – I know the rest of the country probably doesn’t want to hear this – of the six-time Super Bowl champion, New England Patriots. Sorry, Pete.

But honestly I loved that Meredith, Gifford and Cosell, just had this rather odd sort of but amazing chemistry. Meredith would start singing. Cosell was super serious. Gifford was the former player. It was just this kind of real mix that I just loved. Back then Monday night football was a major event. I was lucky if my parents would let me stay up to halftime and then send me to bed. That’s probably why. It was kind of a thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah, that’s fun. That’s fun. Well, I want to hear a little bit about one of your latest things, which is your book, Unlocking Creativity. What’s the main message here?

Michael A. Roberto
The main message, Pete, is that I talk to companies and say the question around creativity and innovation, which I think they all want more of it. Many of them feel they desperately need more of it. The question is “Why don’t you have enough creativity in your organization? What stands in the way?” I say, “Do you have a people problem or a situation problem?”

I don’t think it’s a people problem. I think there’s plenty of creative talent in organizations. It’s a situation problem, meaning there’s something in the environment in these firms, in these enterprises that is inhibiting the creativity of these very talented people that are already there.

The job of leader is to clear away these obstacles, these paths. The obstacles I focus on are not things like bureaucracy and hierarchy, although they are obstacles, but instead a set of mindsets that I think are getting in the way of creativity in organizations.

Pete Mockaitis
You mentioned six in particular mindsets. Could you orient us to each of those six and how we can escape?

Michael A. Roberto
First mindset is the linear mindset. We’re taught many times in school to approach problem solving in a very linear way, research and analysis, the generation of options, the choice of a course of action, and then the execution of that plan.

But the creative process is fundamentally nonlinear. It involves a fair amount of iteration. Great creative ideas don’t just drop from the sky like a bolt of lightning. They often emerge through a challenging process of trial and error and of getting feedback from customers or users and iterating. It’s nonlinear. Unfortunately, we don’t really like to iterate. That linear mindset, trying to force things through a very linear process is the first obstacle I talk about in the book.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d love to get your take, you said we don’t like to iterate and maybe that’s because we’re impatient. We want a result, whether that’s revenue or something right away. But what are some of your pro-tips for iterating quickly instead of investing a boatload of resources into something and then being disappointed months later when it’s not quite hitting the mark?

Michael A. Roberto
I think one of the big things is getting comfortable with this idea – I had a chance to interview Ed Catmull for the book, the long-time president of Pixar and then head of Disney Pixar animation. He talks about this idea of letting people call your baby ugly, which I love the phrase.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s very visceral. I have a one-year-old and I don’t like that idea.

Michael A. Roberto
The way I like to interpret what he means is that when you have that new baby and you’re a new parent, you are really careful about unveiling the baby to the world because you want everyone to say your baby is handsome or beautiful. You don’t want anyone to call your baby ugly.

But the key to the creative process is to get your idea out there raw early so that you can get feedback. You need to be willing to let people call your baby ugly so you can make the baby prettier. But that’s hard for us to do. We don’t like feedback. We fall in love with our original idea. Psychologists call this the sunk cost trap. We throw good money after bad because we fall in love with what we’ve already invested all our time and energy in.

It’s difficult to iterate for a variety of these reasons. We look for data that might confirm what we already believe instead of being open to perhaps disconfirming feedback or data. Getting that baby out there, I know it’s hard to think of it that way. It’s a powerful, powerful image, isn’t it? Letting people call your baby ugly.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. You’re putting out an early version in terms of a prototype or a concept or a pitch and getting some trusted advisors to poke all sorts of holes and then you can iterate and make it better. Very nice.

Michael A. Roberto
And Pete, it helps to put more than one idea in front of them because it turns out there’s some research suggesting that people will be more candid with you if you ask them “Which do you like better A, B, or C?” versus if you say, “Do you like A?” Then they’re hesitant to say they don’t like it because they don’t want to crush your feelings. If you give them some choices, “Here’s a few rough ideas,” they can compare and contrast them, you’re more likely to get productive feedback, by the way.

Pete Mockaitis
That is brilliant. I think I’ve known that, but I haven’t heard it articulated and I haven’t used it with consistency. I’m a part of a number of Facebook groups and folks might want some feedback on say a logo.

If you just have one logo, it really is, you get a lot less as opposed to when you say, “Okay, I’ve got three choices,” and then boy, people just light it up in terms of “I like A better because of this,” “I like C better because of that,” Hey, can you take the colors from B and use it with these icons of A.” It really does get flowing.

I think maybe, if I were to speculate, some of the psychology behind that is it’s like, “Well, hey, well if you’re not too committed to one of them, then I can tell you what I really think instead of worrying about whether I’m hurting your feelings by unloading on your one option that I hate.”

Michael A. Roberto
That is exactly the mechanism. It’s exactly right. If you keep a few options alive, you also protect yourself from falling in love too much with one of them. If you put all your eggs in one basket, you’re likely going to fall in love with your idea and stop listening to others too.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I’ve been guilty of falling in love with my ideas.

Michael A. Roberto
We all have.

Pete Mockaitis
They’re so fun. If everyone else would just realize, Mike, how brilliant they were, then we’d be fine. Okay, so that’s a mindset, linear. How about a second?

Michael A. Roberto
Second is what I call the benchmarking mindset. In organizations, we’re obsessed with the competition. We need to keep abreast of them and one of the key ways we do that is benchmarking. I’m not against. I think you do need to keep your eye on your rivals obviously and study them. But it turns out that in many cases, unfortunately, studying your rivals closely leads to copycat behavior.

What we really want to do when we benchmark is learn from others and adapt those lessons to our own context, to our own culture, our own industry, our own strategies, etcetera. But it turns out we get a lot of copycat behavior.

I kind of pick on Hollywood a little bit in the book and talk about how you get a lot of copycat behavior in Hollywood. Survivor spawned 300 imitators. The emergence of cop shows in the late ‘60s spawned a million imitators. We see retreads, bringing back the same show again 20 years later.

This happens when we benchmark. We study. This mindset of studying the competition leads to what psychologists call fixation. When we study something closely, unfortunately we fixate. We get a little closed-minded and we copy even though we don’t intend to copy.

Worse than that, in many cases in business we copy badly because we don’t actually understand what made the success, what were the real causes of the success we see. We’re just superficially really studying them. Not only do we engage in copycat behavior, but we copy badly and get poor results.

We’ve got to be able to overcome this. One trick – I talk about a couple of tricks in the book – but one of them is to study related industries or fields or analogous experiences, where because it’s not your industry, you’re forced to adapt and learn. You can’t copy.

An example, if you’re a hospital trying to improve the inpatient experience, you could go study the Four Seasons hotel. You’re not going to copy the Four Seasons because you’re not in that business. You’re not a luxury hotel, but you might learn something, so you put yourself in learning mode and not in this mindset where you could get fixated. But, boy, benchmarking – there’s so much pressure to keep abreast of your rivals, but it really does crimp creativity in so many ways.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, understood. I’m intrigued. You said hospitals to the Four Seasons. Can you share some additional ideas with regard to benchmarks? I guess in a way you could almost benchmark anything to anything, although you might have mixed results, like a hospital will benchmark a dishwasher manufacturing plant.

Michael A. Roberto
Right, right.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess if you’re trying to make your processes efficient, that may very well spark some cool ideas. But any other kind of excellent, unique stimuli comparison points that have proven fruitful?

Michael A. Roberto
Well, it’s interesting. I tell the story of the Reebok Pump sneaker.

What they did there, it wasn’t so much that they went and said “Let’s go study a bunch of –“ what they did is they brought a bunch of designers in who had experience in health care, people who’d worked on things like splints and other things. They used what they knew about those things and they drew ideas and inspiration from it and that helped them build this better sneaker and the pump idea.

That’s an example of one where really was just tapping into people who had some experience in another field and say, “Hey, can you help us think about how to build a different kind of sneaker?” They were able to take some related knowledge and apply it to this other thing they’d not worked on in the past. It worked.

Pete Mockaitis
Can you still get pump sneakers? I haven’t seen them lately.

Michael A. Roberto
I don’t know. The story I wrote about, obviously, is from 20 – 30 years ago when it first premiered in response to Air Jordan taking a lot of market share away from Reebok. Reebok rather than copying the Air Jordan, came up with this pretty creative innovation of the pump and it took off. It took off.

Some people have talked about examples of if you’re trying to speed up service, if speed really matters, you’re running a fast-food drive through, for example, go study race car pit crews because they have to be able to turn something around really fast. Again, it’s not to say you’re not studying your direct competitors, but you’re just also reaching beyond for some new creative ideas in a way.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. How about a third mindset there?

Michael A. Roberto
The third one I talk about is prediction. Especially, in large companies, someone has a cool new idea, we say, “How big is the idea? Is it a big market?” Basically making people predict. Tell me how big this is going to be. The problem is we’re terrible at prediction. There’s a lot of data showing that even the best of experts are pretty bad at predicting the future.

We’re putting people in a – when they’ve got this really nascent idea that’s not well formed, we’re asking them to predict. Because the idea is we’re a big company. We’re really only going to invest if it’s going to move the needle. If it’s a niche product, we’re not interested because we’re a 20 billion dollar company and we’re going to grow 20% a year, 10% a year. We need billions of new revenue. We’re not investing in your product if it’s going to be a 10 – 20 million dollar niche product.

The problem with that logic is in history the research is clear, in the early stages, people are terrible at predicting how big a product is going to really be. I argue instead stop worrying about predicting how big it will be, go nail a niche, nail the niche. Then often, you can find ways to take that brand and take that experience you’ve created and broaden it to a broader target market.

The one that I’ve been following lately actually is Yeti, who started out making this niche product, these immense incredible coolers for really avid fishermen and hunters, an incredibly narrow target market. Not even all fishers and hunters, but really people who are out in the wilderness for a long period of time, really need to be able to keep something cold for extended periods of time. Wildly expensive coolers. Way cooler than everything else on the market.

But what happened? They nailed that niche. Now every kid at every high school is walking around with a Yeti water bottle in their hand. In a big corporation, that original business plan would have probably been killed because they would have said “Yeah, 700 dollar coolers for avid fishermen and hunter? We’re a 20 billion dollar company. That might be a cool idea, but that’s not going to move the needle here,” and it gets quashed.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, understood. That’s intriguing how one thing can very much lead into many. Boy, I guess I could really see it both ways in terms of you don’t want to get involved in something that’s a dead-end with regard to the maximum revenue opportunity, but you just have no idea where you can take it.

Michael A. Roberto
The data is incredible. I cite some studies, for example, in a variety of industries, pharmaceuticals, others, where people’s ability to predict how big it’s really going to be is just so wildly off. What ends up happening is you’re asking the creative purpose to either over promise and then they run the risk of under delivering or they are modest in their prediction, and you give them no resources because you say it’s not worth it. It’s tough.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, understood.

Michael A. Roberto
The next one is the structural mindset. This is the notion that people have come to believe in this very simplistic formula that says just change the organizational structure and you’ll get more innovation. You’ll get more creativity, particularly, the flatter the organization, the better.

Basically, the argument I make is that that is a very simplistic view, that it’s not nearly as deterministic, that structure doesn’t drive performance in that kind of clear cause and effect manner. In fact, there’s some research that shows there’s benefits as well as costs to hierarchy. It’s not simply something that’s always evil. Some level of hierarchy and structure can be important in a company.

But more importantly than that, what I say is really all the focus on structure is because it’s so easy for leaders to move boxes and arrows on an org chart.

People had this view that says I try to drive more performance. I want more creativity, I’ll reorganize. I argue they fall back on it because it’s an easy solution to reorganize, but it often doesn’t work. In fact, again, the data is littered with the pre orgs that don’t lead to higher performance and don’t lead to innovation.

What I argue it’s the harder stuff, changing the climate of the organization, creating a safe environment where people will speak up, where they were willing to experiment where they’re not afraid of failure, building shared norms, enhancing the intrinsic motivation, building a better culture and climate is really where you’re going to drive creativity, not moving boxes and arrows. But the boxes and arrows get a disproportionate amount of the attention from top leaders often.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. This notion of the climate and this psychological safety and ability to speak up has come up again and again. I’d love your take on what are some of the top do’s and don’ts for if you’re the individual contributor or the manager of a team to shift that climate in some good ways?

Michael A. Roberto
One of the biggest things I think that you can do as a leader is that you can show some vulnerability yourself. If you’re willing to sort of acknowledge what you don’t know about a topic, acknowledge where you might have failed in the past, show a little bit of humility and vulnerability, people get a lot more comfortable speaking up.

If you come across as infallible, if all you do is talk about your success, it’s unlikely you’re going to create a safe climate where people are willing to speak up. But also, making sure you exercise some restraint. Don’t put your ideas out there first. Ask some of the junior people, who might be hesitant, ask them to speak first. Bring their ideas out before you dispose what your thoughts are. Give people a little room to generate their own ideas.

These are the kind of things it’s important to do. Then if somebody is bold enough, courageous enough to speak up, applaud them, celebrate it, welcome it, even if you don’t agree. It doesn’t mean you have to do what they said, but you can express your appreciation for diverse ideas and talk about how important it is that you get those. It’s not a one-off.

Then, of course, the don’ts, the most important thing is don’t shoot the messenger when someone comes to you with an idea you don’t like or tells you some bad news because you only have to do that once and you’ve tarnished your reputation as a leader for a long time and destroyed any kind of climate that you’ve been trying to create.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Okay. The next one?

Michael A. Roberto
The next one is what I call the focus mindset. There are lots of companies where the mindset starts out correct, which is boy, multitasking is getting in the way. It’s true. We don’t multitask well. The research is clear.

What we must do is focus. We’ll create an innovation hub or we’ll create a war room and we’ll put a team in there and we’ll strip away their duties and just ask them to focus intently because boy that’s the way for us to get some breakthrough solutions. I think the image – I  talk about the image in people’s head is of a rock band holed up on a mountain top or in a castle or in the basement somewhere isolated from everybody recording this incredible revolutionary album.

I actually talk about how U2, the Irish rock band led by Bono, when they recorded the Unforgettable Fire, they actually went off to Slane Castle in Ireland and isolated themselves, living there, recording there, eating there, sleeping there. The idea was to kind of get away and really focus and really experiment with a new musical style.

But actually, the research shows that in fact, breakthrough solutions often come about not through simply intense focus, but through oscillating, if you will, between periods of intense focus and occasionally some unfocus, if you will. Sometimes you need to get some distance from a problem to really be more creative.

Mark Twain once said, “When the tank runs dry, that’s when I leave the manuscript, put it away for a bit, so as I can go and develop some new ideas.” He would go off and do some other things.

This runs counter to sort of the notion I think a lot of companies and a lot of people have begun to believe. Well, multitasking’s bad and it is bad. I’m not talking about multitasking. I’m talking about periods of intense focus and then intentionally stepping away in some way and gaining some distance from a problem.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. I’m intrigued then, what are some of the best ways to step away?

Michael A. Roberto
It turns out one of the ways that’s really interesting is being able to imagine someone else facing the same problem or imagine yourself as someone else. Roleplaying the competition or roleplaying how someone with different functional expertise would face the same problem, turns out to be really effective in doing this.

We call that social – psychologists call this social distance. Getting out of your own skin and getting in someone else’s shoes in a way or walking a mile in your customer’s shoes.

An example I give is of am IDEO designer who in designing a new wing in a hospital didn’t just interview patients, he actually pretended to be a patient, faked a foot injury and checked himself into the ER, and then experienced the hospital as a patient. By stepping into the patient’s shoes in that way, sparked all kinds of new ideas. That’s one.

Another one is temporal distance, sort of imagining yourself in the future, not today. Stepping out of the moment, can help you be more creative. Amazon actually kind of does this. They’ve kind of invented time travel, if you will.

What they do is they ask teams at AWS, which is their cloud business, when they’re working on a new product or service, they ask them to imagine when this thing would be – they haven’t started yet. They’re just kind of beginning to work on the idea – they say, “Imagine you’re done and you’re rolling it out. What will the press release look like?” and actually write the press release.

Then they work backward they call it, back to today to kind of develop their idea. Imagining themselves out there, they have to imagine what need are we solving for the customer, what are we saying to the customer, what is this about, what’s the value we’re creating, now let’s go make this work, let’s deliver that. Pretty cool.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is cool. We talked a little bit about some have called it red team thinking or a time machine approach in that sometimes that can really help you anticipate obstacles in a great way, like, “Hey, let’s go back in time and imagine if we have a real mess on our hands, what happened?” It’s like, “Oh, well, we didn’t check in with so-and-so.” It’s like, “Okay, well, let’s make sure we check in with so-and-so.”

It can work well when you’re imagining an exciting positive future or a dystopian-worst-case scenario future.

Michael A. Roberto
The name is pre-mortem. Gary Klein coined the term, where you imagine that what we’re going to do today is going to fail. What does that future scenario look like? It’s exactly right, Pete, it can indeed spark some new ideas and really help you.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that. Cool, all right. Then we’ve got five mindsets down. One to go.

Michael A. Roberto
Last one is the naysayer mindset. We’re all familiar with this. Finding naysayers in organizations who can always find a reason why a new idea won’t work rather than asking why might it work.

What I talk about is the fact the difference between a constructive devil’s advocate and a dysfunctional naysayer. Devil’s advocates can be good for organizations. They can help sharpen our thinking, but when they become the chronic naysayer, then we tune them out. They become a broken record and they’re not very effective for us.

I’d argue that what we really need is constructive devil’s advocates, not dysfunctional naysayers. Constructive devil’s advocates are people who first of all, don’t weigh in too early with their criticism. They give ideas room to breathe. They let people generate some options before they start attacking them.

They practice what in improv comedy we call yes and rather than yeah but. They build on ideas rather than saying, “Yeah, but that will never work,” or, “Yeah, but we don’t have the resources to do that,” or, “Yeah, but the boss will never go for that.”

They ask questions more than they pound the table and put forth their own plan. They’re really teaching more about the Socratic Method rather than lecturing at people about what’s wrong with their ideas. If we can make that shift, I think we can really help spark creativity, but unfortunately, we’ve all heard the broken records. We’ve all had the naysayers get in the way in our organizations at times.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I’m intrigued then. What is the appropriate time and place and approach to provide the critiques, the feedback and the concerns about the genuine shortcomings of an idea.

Michael A. Roberto
Yeah, so my earlier work I talk a lot about the value of constructive conflict and debate, so I’m a big believer in conflict debate. But I’m a believer that in the early stage when you’re doing alternative generation, when you’re trying to generate a series of options, that’s where you’ve got to keep the devil’s advocate at bay.

Once you’ve got a set of options, then yeah, it’s time to critique those options. Then it is time to probe the assumption and the like, but we’ve got to do it in a constructive way. It can’t just be why those ideas won’t work. It’s got to be asking also, how might we alter those ideas to make them work.

We’ve got to have that positive spin, not just the negative spin of let’s explain all the reasons why that will never solve our problem because you really beat people down if all you do is poke holes. It’s important.

Also the other job of that devil’s advocate is not just to tell me what’s wrong but also say, “Okay if these options are not attractive, then help the group generate some new ones and ask some questions and probe a little.”

It’s not just about tearing down the plan that’s on the table, it’s about saying to the group, “Hey, here’s another way of thinking of this that might help us generate some new options,” or maybe the devil’s advocate can help the group reframe the problem at times, which can be really helpful.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I like it. Well, so Mike, I’d love to get your take if you right here right now needed to generate a bundle of options what would be some of the top tactical things you’d do to spark some stuff right away?

Michael A. Roberto
Well, one thing is I’m a big believer in empathy. Get out there and find ways to empathize with the customer, to really stand in their shoes. Get out of your own shoes, go somehow stand in their shoes in some way to really alter your perspective. I think that’s so important.

I think look for related fields and industries or analogous experiences for inspiration. That’s really important too as well. I think that can help generate some new ideas. But the other one I want to share with you, Pete, is one that I really like is – I thought of this as I was studying the company, Planet Fitness.

Pete, I don’t know if you belong to a fitness center or if you follow the industry at all, but it’s a terrible – it’s a very unprofitable industry it turns out. It’s just really unprofitable. It’s really tough for a variety of reasons.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m just thinking about all the gyms. That’s just so depressing because gyms already the majority of their members, subscribers don’t actually use it very much, so even with all of the money they’re earning from people who don’t show up and use it-

Michael A. Roberto
They’re still can’t make money.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s a bummer.

Michael A. Roberto
There’s a whole lot of reasons for that. Part of the reason is there’s no barriers to entry. Anybody can open a gym. They do all the time. There’s always competition. Customers are incredibly fickle. One year they’re obsessed with SoulCycle. Now they’re obsessed with Orangetheory. Two years from now they’ll be obsessed with the next big thing and that’s another problem.

This could be a longer conversation of this very strange industry. But what’s interesting about Planet Fitness is if you watch their commercials, they mock the bodybuilders.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Michael A. Roberto
It’s the judgment-free zone.  What they’re CEO says is that their competition – they’re not going after the 20% of people that go to their competitors. They want the 80% of people who’ve never belonged to a gym. He says, “We don’t think about it as who our competitors are.” They think instead about who their substitutes are. A substitute is what’s the alternative to joining a fitness center. It’s working out at home.

Pete Mockaitis
Do it yourself.

Michael A. Roberto
Right. But he defines the substitutes much more broadly. This is a cool technique. He says, “Wait, is it really just working out at home or is it the movie theatre and Chili’s and Uno’s?” Is it these other things?

Pete Mockaitis
That sounds nice right now, Mike.

Michael A. Roberto
They’re a hell of a lot more enjoyable than going to the gym, Pete, right? So how do you convince people to do something that for many of them doesn’t appear to be very enjoyable? They’re choosing these other more enjoyable experiences. What could we do to create an environment that might attract these people? What a cool idea, define your substitutes broadly.

Southwest Airlines, Herb Kelleher used to say, “My competition isn’t the other airlines. My competition is the automobile.” How to create an airline where I can fly someone from Austin to Dallas cheaper than they can drive. A-ha. Pretty cool. This idea of thinking about your substitutes, not just your competitors, I think is a pretty cool idea for sparking some creative ideas in a company.

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

Michael A. Roberto
No, I think this has been a great conversation. I would just say that one of the things we all have to overcome – I use this example a lot. It’s actually not in the book. It’s one I’ve begun to use in presentations. I was sparked by this because with my kids we were watching the movie Matilda.

If you’ve watched the movie Matilda or if you’ve read the book by Roald Dahl, the great book, you know that there’s this mean headmistress, Miss. Trunchbull. I found this picture of her in her classroom. She’s got this set of rules: sit still, be quiet, etcetera.

I think in some ways companies have emulated the mean headmistress, which sort of create environments where we say we want creativity, but we’re really looking for compliance and conformity. Then we’re shocked when we don’t get creative ideas and innovation.

I kind of think we need to think back and go, “Huh.” Think of ourselves as some of our favorite teachers and not the mean headmistress and say, “Hm, what kind of environment do I want to create that sparks intellectual curiosity of my employees rather than asks for strict compliance and conformity?” Just a parting thought maybe for people to think about in terms of creativity.

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

Michael A. Roberto
“If you have a yes man working for you, one of you is redundant.” It’s a quote from Barry Rand, who sadly just died this year, a long time CEO of AARP and Avis Rental Car. Boy, is it right on the money. You’ve got to have somebody who’s willing to tell you that you’re all wet sometimes. That’s hard to hear, but just surround yourself with people who agree with you, not very effective.

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

Michael A. Roberto
One of the early things that I read in graduate school that I still found to be some of the most influential work was Irving Janis’ great work on groupthink. I just think that – that was not experimental studies. He did do some other kinds of studies, but he wrote these great case studies of very famous historical decisions and looked sadly at how group think had led to some really flawed choices. I always found that to be pretty incredible to see.

On the experimental side, not on the experimental side, but on the more modern side, we mentioned psychological safety. I’ve had the privilege of getting to work with Amy Edmondson a few times. Amy’s work on psychological safety is just top rate. She really has had a tremendous impact in fields like health care, getting to really rethink the climate of hospitals by studying them closely, doing many studies in health care showing how having a climate where people fear speaking up can literally cost lives.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Thank you. Tell me, how about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Michael A. Roberto
I love podcasts, Pete. How’s that?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a good one.

Michael A. Roberto
I spend a lot of time when I’m on flights, this is when I read and I read voraciously. I’m a professor. That’s what we do. Podcasts have been great in terms of using my commute more efficiently to hear new ideas. I love doing that. It’s been really great.

But I think the other thing at my job as a professor, what I benefit from in many ways, which I think business leaders could benefit from is I get to spend my days around 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds. While they can be a real pain in the butt sometimes, they give you new perspective. They look at the world differently.

I sometimes think that would be really good for CEOs to go spend some time with their frontline employees who are 22, 23, 24, get some fresh perspective. They know things that 60-year-olds don’t know. They look at the world differently. I have this great tool at my disposal, which is I get to talk to 20-year-olds all the time. I don’t think we should mistake that. There’s some real benefit to that.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite habit?

Michael A. Roberto
I am a coffee addict, Pete. Oh my goodness. I gave up caffeine many years ago, but I just love coffee as a routine in the morning, so I’ve made the folks at Starbucks very wealthy I think because I do enjoy my coffee. It’s a great habit.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with your students or readers?

Michael A. Roberto
I tell my students this little anecdote that my father used to share. My dad was an immigrant from Italy. He’s 91 now. When we were young he used to say that he came to America to provide us greater opportunity and education being the avenue to get there. He was going to do whatever it took, work as hard as he could to give us those educational opportunities. We didn’t have to pay him back.

He said we just had to return home and knock with our feet someday. I didn’t really know what that meant. What he meant, which I learned over time, was that our arms should be full such that we had to knock with our feet. At first our arms had to be full because we were carrying a loaf of bread or a bottle of wine to go share with him. Later it had to be because we were carrying our children to go share with him.

And if we knocked with our feet, that’s all the gratitude we needed to express. That’s all we needed to give back to him. I tell my students. I tell them that there’s actually research that says expressing gratitude can be a powerful positive thing for people and not to forget to do that. It’s easy to kind of get so busy that you don’t take enough time to do that.

Anyway, knocking with your feet is my favorite little nugget I like to share with my students. Many of them remember that years later. It’s unbelievable. I had a student just a short time ago show up at my office door and kick it with his feet. He had a bottle of wine for me. I was just blown away.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. That’s a good setup you’ve got there with people coming bringing you wine.

Michael A. Roberto
Yeah, how about that? I didn’t really think about it that way, but it’s worked out okay.

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

Michael A. Roberto
Sure. They can visit my website at www.ProfessorMichaelRoberto.com or I’m on Twitter @MichaelARoberto. It’s a great way to get in touch as well. They certainly can drop me a line and either via the website or directly through Twitter. I love to interact with readers and hear their questions, hear their comments and feedback. I promise to get back to people as much as I can.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. Yeah, do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Michael A. Roberto
Boy, I think if I could say one thing about this, I’m fortunate in that I do something I love. Getting up and teaching every day is something I really love. But the one thing I would say is I have this little quote on my shelf, my bookshelf in my office. It’s in Italian. It says “Ancora imparo.” It’s purportedly said by Michelangelo centuries ago. It means I am still learning. I think that’s – I don’t think I need to say anything more. I think the meaning is evident. But I look at it every day.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Mike, this has been a lot of fun. I wish you the best with your Unlock Creativity and students and all you’re up to.

Michael A. Roberto
Thanks Pete. This has been a great conversation. I appreciate it.

385: Unlocking New Ideas by Asking Better Questions with Hal Gregersen

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Hal Gregersen says: "The real questions are ones where it causes someone... to step back, think twice."

Hal Gregersen explores methods for asking better questions to address your biggest challenges.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to ask better questions
  2. The four-minute Question Burst method to spark new ideas
  3. How the most creative organizations use questions wisely

About Hal

Hal Gregersen is the Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center and a Senior Lecturer in Leadership and Innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management where he pursues his vocation of executive teaching, coaching, and research by exploring how leaders in business, government, and society discover provocative new ideas, develop the human and organizational capacity to realize those ideas, and deliver positive, powerful results.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Hal Gregersen Interview Transcript

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

Hal Gregersen
Thanks Pete. Wonderful to be with you today.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m so excited to dig into this good stuff. Thanks, Janika, a listener, for connecting us. That’s pretty cool.

Hal Gregersen
Janika is exceptional at asking questions. Years ago she was a research assistant worked with me and helped me push the edge in some of my work back then and still does that today.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Well, I want to hear about different boundaries, if you will. You’ve lived in ten different states and five different countries. What are some of the key things you’ve learned from having been around?

Hal Gregersen
Oh, where do you start? Have you ever lived in – have you had the chance to live in more than one country, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, lived in is probably a strong word. I purchased groceries and I was there for a week, but I don’t know if it counts.

Hal Gregersen
I love it. I love it. As you well know traveling to a country and living in a country are two different things. The power of living in a different country is that – or even living in a bicultural family is that it doubles the probability that we’ll ask another that otherwise we wouldn’t ask and get a valuable new idea that otherwise we would never get.

All of that happens because we’re able to see the world through completely different values and lenses. One of the greatest gifts that we can give to ourselves or to those closest to us is actually a chance to live in a different place, a very different culture. They’ve been profound.

Part of that seeing the world through a different lens comes from being pushed to the complete edge of your experience. When I moved to France, I didn’t know French. At every level of my life, I was pushed to the edge. In work it was a completely new work routine. In our village and community, it was very difficult to get integrated. In our church context, it was similarly difficult to integrate.

To be truthful, Pete, for probably two or three years I was moderately to severely depressed, sometimes just wanting to pull the covers over my head and “I don’t want to get up and go to work today.” It just completely flattened me out, pushed me down. But sometimes it’s from the dirt of the earth that we sort of rise.

Out of that came some grounding, some very different ways of looking at the world and gratefully so. I never would have said that in the middle of it, but you have people who are around you who help you rethink and re-ask and reframe in ways that we’ve walked away from these five countries always with friends who are so close and deep that you can meet them 5 – 10 – 15 years later and it’s like it was yesterday.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. That’s cool. What a blessing. Cool. I’m speechless. Well, let’s talk about right now your work role is the director of MIT Leadership Center. What is that all about?

Hal Gregersen
Well, the leadership center was started over a decade ago. It’s a leadership center for all of MIT, including the business school, but even beyond. I came here four or five years ago.

When I landed I ran across this Foundation report, which basically said that the alumni from MIT have launched over 30,000 active companies. They employee close to 5 million people. They generate almost 2 trillion of revenue in the world, which is like between a ninth and tenth largest gross domestic product by county in the world. I’m like how do they do that.

We for several years literally studied MIT alumni and graduates to figure out what is it they’re doing that enables them to create this enormous change in value and approach to the world. What we landed on, Pete, was we call it problem-led leadership.

Leaders at MIT don’t step up to follow people. It’s all about what’s the challenge, what’s the problem you care so deeply about that I would love to work with you on it. That’s just how they operate. They pick big, huge problems. These are incredibly bright, smart, analytical people.

But they pick problems that are so big they cannot solve them themselves. As a result it’s this fascinating team dynamic of you’ve got this skill, I’ve got that skill. You step up; I step back. You step up; I step back. We just iterate and we bump into deep conflicts. Over time we actually solve things that other people often don’t.

It’s a fascinating way of looking at leadership. It’s all about waking up and showing up in the morning with what challenge and problem is so interesting to me that I can’t not solve it. Now contrast that with people who wake up and go to work in the morning wondering what’s the politics of the day in the workplace. That’s the antithesis of the problem-led organization.

That’s why I love MIT. This place just thrives on trying to figure out what are the world’s biggest challenges to solve. You and I both know there are big challenges out there. What’s really fascinating is that for the most part these folks are deeply engaged in actually solving some edges of the biggest problems.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really interesting because you think of people at MIT, there are associations in terms of utter brilliance and then also maybe some of the pejorative associations of some of that if you think about a computer engineering person. I’m sure that’s pretty unfair for a large swath of the population there.

But it’s really intriguing you think that you’ve got those brains and it’s almost like the only way you can get a rush or to have some real fun with that brain is to get a problem that’s just gigantic and go after it.

Hal Gregersen
Well, one of my former executive MBA students recently I bumped into him. He works at Metro Biotech. You’ve probably never heard of the place, but they basically take blood samples of cancer – people in cancer – who know they have cancer and they’re going to get treatment, but we have to figure out as oncologists, what treatment should we give them. Historically, it’s like a guessing game.

He and others at Metro Biotech, they literally have used some of the questioning techniques you and I are going to talk about, but they are just problem solvers and questioners of the core to the point that they’ve created this ability to draw the blood of someone that has cancer and to test it rapidly in a few days with different protocols of different chemotherapy protocols and they can pretty much nail it that this is the one that will work.

At one point, they were just stuck trying to figure out a better solution to what they were doing with their technology. They literally asked nothing but questions, a method he had learned from me in class and his team. It actually unstuck in a way that got them to get a better, more accurate answer and a quicker answer.

The cool thing about that is that one of his relatives was in cancer treatment or preparing to as they were doing it. It was one of those just-in-time solutions that came by asking a different question that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. We may look at MIT people as nerds. They’re certainly bright and they’re smart, but they really do solve problems that make our lives better.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Not to slam any MIT people. Huge respect all the way around. I’ve got plenty of nerdy tendencies myself.

Hal Gregersen
No, I didn’t take it as a slam, Pete. On the one hand they’re really good at that and on the other hand, the Achilles heel often is some empathy and perspective taking and figuring out what’s going on in the room beyond the problem being solved. There are challenges too that come of it.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m fascinated by this. This cancer treatment selection knowledge that has been created, is this kind of widespread and common practice now?

Hal Gregersen
More so. They are doing it around the world. The colleague of mine, the former student, he’s running the India operation now. They’re trying to do that all over.

Another guy named Jeff Karp, who’s affiliated with the MIT system and runs Karp Labs. He was trying to figure out how can you heal a baby’s heart when you’re doing an operation when it’s moving and wet and sticky, but you’ve got to hook it together and hold it together. He actually learned by looking at slugs and other different things in the real world how to create this gooey substance that actually holds the sticky thing together. It’s amazing.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. Well, let’s dig into this approach in terms of nothing but questions. You unpack a bit of this in your book, Questions Are the Answer. What’s sort of the broad thesis of the book?

Hal Gregersen
At the very core it’s so counterintuitive because usually when we’re stuck, we just double down and dig deeper and deeper for what’s the right answer here, what’s the right answer here. Counter intuitively, when we are operating at the edge of uncertainty, when we’re trying to figure out what we don’t know we don’t know, by definition there are not answers on that edge. We’re looking for something that isn’t there.

But asking a different question will actually unlock a new answer that we otherwise would never have seen. It’s almost by definition when we’re working in a world or on the edge of uncertainty and the unknown, questions are the answer. When we’re stuck, whether it be at work or in life, when we’re stuck, we’re just asking the wrong questions. The path out of that stuckedness, the window, the door to something better is actually that key of asking the right question.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, very intriguing. Can you maybe give us an example?

Hal Gregersen
For example, I met, when I lived in France, Andreas Heinecke, who 30 years ago – plus years ago, he’s a reporter in Germany working I think at a newspaper. His boss brings a new employee in and says, “This guy got in an accident. He used to be able to see, but now he’s blind. Andreas, could you help him figure out how to be a reporter?” Andreas is like, “What? What do I do here?”

But Andreas when he was a little kid had a hearing disability. It made it a little hard. Kids made fun of him, so Andreas was sensitive to this man’s situation. His first question was, “What kinds of tasks could this person do as a reporter,” which is a good question. It opened up some opportunities there.

Then he worked it and worked with this guy and worked the question to the point that it became a different question, Pete. The new question was “Where could someone without sight thrive at work? Not just do a few tasks, but thrive.” When he asked that question, he thought about it and he realized they would thrive at a workplace that’s dark, pitch black.

He created Dialogue in the Dark, where literally people like you and me, they pay an amount, we go to one of their exhibits all over the world and we go through the dark space guided by blind people, who are adept and professional in the dark. You and I have to learn how to cross streets, navigate restaurants, navigate buying food, navigate walking in the park, all in the dark.

What he’s done with that is he’s created this experience where as we interact with the dark-sighted people, we gain deeper empathy for others who don’t have what we have. We learn things and we have our assumptions challenged. This has happened with ten million people now. They’re one of the largest employers of blind people on the earth.

All of that came from Andreas reframing a good question, which was “What could this blind person do as a reporter?” to “Where could a blind person thrive?” Then it turned into this social enterprise that literally has made a big impact, especially for those working in it as the blind folks, but also the ten million-plus visitors who genuinely walk away having seen the world differently.

Pete Mockaitis
This is fascinating. You said the question evolved. How can we facilitate/accelerate this question evolution?

Hal Gregersen
Well, this is the tricky thing. You haven’t done it yet. Maybe you will. I think you just might. But most reporters ask me the question, “Well, Hal, what are the questions I should be asking?” which is not a bad question at one level.

I can say, “Well, Pete, I think you should start with trying to figure out what’s going on in the situation? What’s working, what’s not and why?” Then once you understand what’s really going on, it’s like, well, let’s try some prescriptive future … questions, like “What if this?” and “Why not that?” and “How might this?” and so on. Those are giving you a list of questions.

But what I discovered in interviewing 200-plus of some of the world’s most creative leaders. Jeff Bezos at Amazon, Daniel Lamarre, the CEO of Cirque de Soleil, Ed Catmull, who is the CEO and the founder of Pixar and now Disney Animation Studios, Diane Greene, who founded VMware. I can go on with a list of just amazing people, who are sustainably innovative and creative.

When I ask them, “How do you find the right question when you’re stuck?” They didn’t give me a list of questions. What they said was, “We intentionally put ourselves in situations over and over and over so that the right question for the context emerges and opens up doors and windows that would never have opened.

Now that probably sounds like, “What are you talking about? That’s just some big theoretical blah, blah, blah,” but that’s what it was. They put themselves in conditions where questions came to them that otherwise wouldn’t. They were so unique to the situation, like Andreas Heinecke’s was, that it often led to the creation of the business, some of which today are worth billions of dollars.

Pete Mockaitis
You’re putting yourself in that situation, that context, what does that mean exactly? It’s just sort of like taking on a challenge bigger than you have any idea of what you’re doing or what does that context insertion look like?

Hal Gregersen
It starts with either having a challenge or it starts with a problem or an opportunity, but then it’s putting myself in situations where I’m going to ask different questions. Here’s the conditions, at least that I discovered with these 200 people. Put ourselves in conditions where we’re wrong, not right, where the situation makes us feel a little bit uncomfortable, in fact maybe quite uncomfortable.

When most of us are wrong and uncomfortable, our instinct is to run from it, but these folks embraced it in a way that they were reflectively quiet. As a result, the question emerged that unlocked doors that otherwise weren’t there. It’s being wrong, uncomfortable and reflectively quiet. What kinds of situations do that?

I can give you a quick example. Literally, over a decade ago, it was my first interview with Marc Benioff, who founded Salesforce.com. He’s originally a sales person for Oracle. He’s doing a great job. He’s incredibly successful. He’s always at the edge of the organization, constantly bumping into customers, getting positive and negative feedback about what’s working and what isn’t.

By the end of 15 years, he’s slightly burnt out while he’s incredibly successful and he’s got this challenge that he’s been trying to figure out, which is “How on earth can small- and medium-size enterprises take full advantage of this large enterprise software when they can’t afford it?” That’s what he’s trying to figure out. Part of that comes from his own family history of small and medium enterprises.

Anyway, he’s trying to figure it out. But he doesn’t have an answer. He takes a year-long sabbatical, but he doesn’t sit around on his behind. He does what he’s been doing for the last 15 years. He gets up, he gets out, he talks to people all over the world, rich people, poor people, government leaders, business leaders, religious leaders, just a whole range of folks from different perspectives.

He’s constantly bumping into himself being wrong and a bit uncomfortable about answers that he’s hearing and questions that are getting asked, but he’s reformulating and reformulating and trying to figure out this issue of small – medium enterprise and large enterprise software. Then he’s swimming with the dolphins and he finally gets the question, which is what if we sold enterprise level software like Amazon sells books on the internet.

He did not find that question looking in a book of questions to ask. That question today seems inevitable. It seems self-evident, but back then they thought he was an idiot when he asked it. But he’d done that hard, wrong, uncomfortable, quiet homework over and over to where the question emerged that otherwise wouldn’t.

Pete Mockaitis
The homework, when he’s talking to these people, what’s he asking these people?

Hal Gregersen
It would range from – some of those questions I mentioned earlier, Pete. I’m not exactly sure what he was asking, but my hunch would be he’s trying to figure out first of all what’s the terrain. “What’s working in your world? What isn’t?” And trying to create a safe enough space that people actually give him honest answers. That’s the tough thing.

Those are simple questions, Pete. What’s working, what’s not, and why? But creating a safe enough space for people to give you the honest answer, that’s a tough one.

When I met Marc a few years ago walking through the World Economic Forum meetings, I was visiting with him. I said, “Mark, how do you ask the right questions?” He looked me right in the eye – he’s about my same height at six foot four-ish – and he just said one work, “Listen.” Then he was quiet.

I’m like, “What’s he doing here?” I think what Mark was doing was figuring what kind of listener is Hal Gregersen. Is it just ears? Is he all here? Is he 100% present? Then after a few seconds, he waited and then we had a 15 minute or so conversation about what does it mean to listen, ranging from Jewish Kabbalistic traditions to the whole – it was a worldwide kind of conversation about what does it mean to listen.

I think that’s what he was doing. He was posing questions. “What’s working around here? What are you frustrated with?” Then he shut up.

One of the diagnostic questions of whether or not we’re good in these conditions of raw, uncomfortable and quiet is when we ask a question, how long do we normally wait on average for someone else to answer. 1,001, 1002, 1003, 1,004, 1,005. If people are answering our questions within one to two seconds, or we’re filling in the space with some follow up question or our own answer, pretty much everybody in the room already knows the answers and the question is probably not even worth asking.

The real question are ones where it causes someone else and/or us to step back, think twice, reflect a bit. It’s usually a three-second pause rate. Then we start a conversation. It’s not just a back and forth. It’s a conversation to try to figure something out.

I’m live here in Massachusetts and one of the former governors, Deval Patrick, he once told me in an interview I had with him, he just said, “It’s the power of the pause, Hal.” He said, whether it’s working as a consultant when he was young as a Bain consultant or whether it was – I think he was at Bain – whether it’s being the governor, he said “It’s always that last one or two seconds after you ask a question that if you’re just quiet and listen and people know you care, people will start offering you information.”

Again, it might be information that can make you feel really uncomfortable and really wrong about how you’re looking at the world, but it’s the stuff that changes things.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s lovely, thank you. Now I’m curious. Let’s talk about listening well such that the other person is feeling safe. I guess one of the key is just be okay being silent for more than three seconds. That can take you fairly far. What are some of the other best practices in terms of listening well and creating that psychological safety such that folks will really tell you the truth about what’s working, what’s not working, etcetera.

Hal Gregersen
Can I come back to your question-

Hal Gregersen
-from a different angle, Pete, which is there’s this method that I discovered 20 years ago called the Question Burst. I was with a group of people. I was stuck in a challenge. We were stuck collectively. It was about some gender diversity and equity issues in the organization.

The energy was low in the room. We were just languishing. I think you know those moments. I had this instinct from what I’d been reading from some things from Parker Palmer and other folks like how – just stop everything and ask nothing but questions. That’s what we did.

It was the days of blackboards. We had three or four blackboards in the room we were operating in. I said, “Let’s just fill these blackboards up with nothing but questions for the next 10 – 15 minutes. No answers to them, no explanations as to why we’re asking the question, just questions.” By the end of that process, it was like, “Whoa, what happened here?” The energy rose. Ideas to actually solve the problem surfaced that otherwise weren’t there.

Ever since then I’ve used this Question Burst method sometimes in four-minute bursts with individuals or with pairs or with trios or in groups of five or six, where it’s even longer than four minutes at times, but the rules are no answers to questions, no explanations of the questions for a very fixed period of time.

When we do that, we get to the end of that process and 80% of the time we’re emotionally in a better place, 80% of the time we have at least one new idea, 80% of the time we’ve reframed the challenge at least slightly. It’s like an amazing vehicle by which we see things differently.

That question burst is what I did with the senior executive at a company that was trying to listen better. That’s where I’m coming back to your question on how do you listen better.

I was talking with him about a challenge, which was one of their distribution facilities, where people were packing and shipping stuff, the workers felt like they were being treated inequitably. The reality was, they were being – with their pay. The reality was they were being paid higher than market rate for that region and area.

We did this question burst. I said, “Okay, let’s set the timer, four minutes, nothing but questions, no answers, no explanations.” We got 20 questions at the end of that. Then we looked through them. I asked him, “Which questions really resonated for you that they might help you solve this challenge?” These are two of the ones that were really crucial.

First question was “How often are you in that facility,” that packaging facility. His answer was he couldn’t remember the last time he visited it. The second question was “What do you see in their eyes when they’re expressing this sense of unfairness about pay?” He didn’t know, but he knew he needed to know. The good news is he got up, he got out, he got into the world, he got into their world and he started building the trust by which he could get answers to those questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah.

Hal Gregersen
That’s one of the biggest things is that we rarely get a catalytic question, a transformational question, we rarely get an idea that changes the world or it’s breakthrough. It rarely if ever happens sitting in our office.


Sitting in our office is a great place to be isolated, to be comfortable, to be right. That’s what offices are for generally. But getting up and out, where the situations would put us in front of people and places where we’re provoked and wrong and uncomfortable, that’s where the better questions surface.

Pete Mockaitis
I really like that. That really made it clear in terms of the being wrong and uncomfortable in terms of saying, “I don’t know and I feel like I should. I have done wrong by not getting there often enough. I’m uncomfortable by the fact that you’ve exposed this shortcoming or inadequacy in my management.”

Hal Gregersen
Yeah. Can I show you a personal experience about that?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah.

Hal Gregersen
Here at MIT they invited me to do a questioning workshop or seminar with some of the local administrative staff from the floor that I’m on in the area. I did and we sat down and it’s this, again, part of the workshop is this Question Burst method. We sat in trios. We each took two minutes to explain our challenge and then four minutes to generate questions. I was the third person in the trio.

It came my turn and I explained my challenge, which was, “It’s just really hard for me to work with administrative assistants. I’m not quite sure what to ask them to do or how to get them meaningfully involved with my work?” Then it was quiet. Okay, four minutes nothing but questions.

The first question that one of the admin assistants in this trio said to me, Pete, she said, “Hal, do you have control issues?” I’m not kidding. It was like this hot dagger that just got jabbed into my heart. I felt a bit flushed. I felt awkward. It was like, man, she went right to the issue, didn’t she?

What’s beautiful about this simple process of asking nothing but questions is that it forces us to be quiet. We can’t answer. We can’t respond. We have to live with the question. By the end of it I realized I need to rethink some things that I’m doing.

Pete Mockaitis
With the question burst approach – you mentioned your situation associated with administrative assistants. Other chimed in with their questions. Are you not generating questions? Are you just receiving questions?

Hal Gregersen
You want to try it, you want to give it a run.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s go for it. Yeah.

Hal Gregersen
Why don’t you explain to me a challenge? Here’s how it works. We explain a challenge to somebody. Here’s my opportunity or challenge. We have no more than two minutes to do that. That’s purposeful because if we explain it for more than two minutes, we start walking other people into our stuckedness. We tell them too much. It’s a two minute rule, just explain it in two minutes. Then at the end – if it’s less than two minutes, I get it, fine.

But then we just for four minutes ask nothing but questions about the challenge. Do you want to give it a run?

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, sure thing. Now what I’m clarifying is, you are the sole question generator or are we both generating questions?

Hal Gregersen
I actually do this myself alone. If I’m doing it with somebody else, both of us, Pete, generate questions.

Pete Mockaitis
All right, both of us.

Hal Gregersen
But if it’s your challenge, on average you’re probably well off to listen mostly to my questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, so I’ll you do the majority. All right, well, let’s go for it.

Hal Gregersen
Okay.

Hal Gregersen
The best use of this method is to pick a challenge that is really important to you, that you’re really stuck on and that you might feel a little awkward telling the world about.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Hal Gregersen
So go for it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think this counts. I do feel somewhat awkward, especially telling this world about it because I want to talk about the podcast itself in terms of I’ve observed in terms of the data from the number of downloads or the engagement in terms of how deep into an episode people listen, it’s rather clear that some episodes are hits and other yeah, okay.

I’d like them all to be hits.

Hal Gregersen
Yeah, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, how can I make that happen?

Hal Gregersen
Okay, so the challenge is how I can make everything a hit?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Hal Gregersen
Okay, here we go. I’m going to set my timer, four minutes and we’re going to launch into it. Are you ready?

Pete Mockaitis
I’m ready.

Hal Gregersen
Here we go. Here’s the other rule as we start. I’m inviting you to write all the questions down verbatim, word-for-word because sometimes if you switch the words that I say to your words, you miss the question.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, I’m going to typing going because I type faster.

Hal Gregersen
Okay, just type as fast as you can. Here we go.

Can every podcast be a hit? Is that realistic? What makes you uncomfortable when podcasts don’t work? What kinds of people generate the most interest? Is there any commonality across it? Whom do you most care about as an audience member? If you could influence one person on planet Earth with your podcast, who would that be? Why does having a perfect hit rate work or high success rate, why does it matter? What is success on a podcast?

Pete Mockaitis
I’ll throw out a question. What’s the mix or breakdown of guest sources in terms of where are they coming from and what proportions?

Hal Gregersen
What podcasts hit emotions the hardest? How might you create better stories? What is the arc of interaction on a great podcasts versus a not so great? Does anyone you know as a podcaster have a perfect track record? How might the podcast format make a perfect track record impossible? What metric of influence matters most to you? There we go, four minutes, done.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. That’s cool.

Hal Gregersen
Let me ask you a couple of quick questions. Do you feel compared to before we started four minutes ago, do you feel the same emotionally? A little bit better or a little bit worse?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I definitely feel better because a number of the questions get me thinking, “Yeah, okay. Does anyone you know have a perfect track record?” It’s like, well, no. I can see it the iTunes popularity little icons associated with their episodes is some are definitely 5x others in terms of what iTunes calls popularity. I feel better there in terms of okay, 100% is not something that I should feel bad about not hitting. There’s that.

Hal Gregersen
I hear you. I hear you.

Pete Mockaitis
I feel better there. Then I feel kind of reflective in terms of whoa, yeah, that’s heavy. Also, I’m excited about sort of ideas associated with – we talk about what generates the most interest.

It’s sort of like, well, shucks, I can just sort of put two things together in terms of we tagged every episode by the topic, subtopic and competency covered just recently. I’ve also gotten a bit more savvy with the Apple engagement data in terms of how to make real sense of it. It’s like well, why don’t I stick these two things together and we’ll see what we see in terms of some themes and commonalities.

Hal Gregersen
Okay, okay. You sound like you slightly reframed the challenge. It sounds like you got some ideas to do it differently. This is what I’m talking about. This Question Burst never solves the problem, but it creates progress and movement and that’s the point. It helps us move to a better and better question. Were any of the questions emotionally uncomfortable?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, some of them when it comes to “Well, how might you create better stories?” That gets me thinking to top, top podcasts that are really sort of narrative-story driven with sound beds and stuff.

Hal Gregersen
Right, right.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like oh man, those guys are like the best in the world and we’re just chatting. I’m just chatting with professors. How might I create better stories? Boy, it seems like there’s quite a gap.

Hal Gregersen
I hear you. There are ways of closing that. My suggestion, Pete, around this is what you just experienced, if you did this two or three times with other people, you would not only continue to get better questions and answers, but you would also engage in a very productive way more and more people who would care about your challenge and help you do something about it.

It’s really powerful not as a sort of one-time experience, but as a pattern by which we actually create these conditions where people are wrong and uncomfortable and quiet. It’s an artificial way of doing it, but nevertheless it creates those conditions because my bet is you wanted to answer some of those questions. Am I right?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh sure.

Hal Gregersen
I hate to say it, but probably every answer you would have said, it was not going to be helpful, useful. It’s probably wrong anyways. Anyway.

Pete Mockaitis
And it’s cool, you mentioned earlier, it’s like “Hey, in four minutes, we generated 20 questions,” I was like, “Really? That’s a lot of questions for four minutes,” but sure enough I’m counting this up. We got 15 there.

It’s so funny you mentioned four minutes because I’ve just recently been noting that to be a great amount of time to sort of challenge myself to say straighten my desk. It’s short enough for me to not be intimidating, but also long enough to make some genuine progress and maybe even really feel like I’m in the zone and want to keep going. I’ve recently found four minutes to be kind of a magical time line for some stuff. How did you land on four minutes?

Hal Gregersen
Two ways. One is our sustainable attention span with full attention is a little under four minutes as adults. To me that was part of the four minutes.

The other part of the four minutes is there’s a project I found – it’s just in its nascent, early stage, but it’s called the 424 project, where literally if you or I spent just four minutes once a day trying to ask better questions about challenges and opportunities we care about, over the course of 365 days, we’ve just gifted ourselves 24 hours of our time, one full day, of just asking better questions. That to me is the other part of it.

Part of it is just sustained attention. Four minutes tends to be in one sense an upper end, but it’s also it’s kind of how might we help nudge the questioning capacity of others in the world forward.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. With that challenge then, you’re trying to find a new buddy each day?

Hal Gregersen
Absolutely. I was sitting down with someone who’s not only a friend, but we were doing a bit of coaching about some issues. He’s a CEO of a big organization. But his issue was quote personal. It was basically “I’ve been very close to my oldest daughter. She’s now a teenager, early teen and she’s starting to pull away with friends. How can I keep this relationship strong?” That was his problem definition.

We’re sitting at lunch having this coaching conversation and we got out some napkins, did a Question Burst, four minutes later, 22 questions later, just hear a few of the questions that we asked or I asked or he asked.

Do I listen enough or tend to act too fast? Do I push too hard? Do I helicopter too much? Do I recognize and praise what she’s best at? What talents complement yours as a father? When was the last time – what do her eyes say when she expresses concerns? What are her greatest worries? Who would she be if her last name wasn’t yours? What’s uniquely independent about her? What will you do when she gets married and moves out? What are her greatest areas of independence? These were tough questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. What I also love about these questions is that Question Burst is kind of quick and some of them I guess I’ve heard elsewhere like, “Oh, a powerful question is not one that has a yes or no answer.” Some of these do and that’s okay.

Hal Gregersen
It is okay. Some of them do, some of them don’t. They each can have their provocative element in one form or another.

At the end of this questioning process, this guy he realized – he actually got a little bit teary. He just said, “I’ve been focused on how not to lose her, but now I’m realizing that the real question is how can I support her growing and flourishing? How can I let her find her?” That’s a totally different question, but it ended up being the one that opened up a much better relationship.

The real issue just becomes how do we either at work or at home, especially at work on a productivity sort of logic, it’s not only how do I ask better questions, but how can I create a space where other people are regularly asking the tough questions to move what we’re doing forward. That’s the bigger issue.

Pete Mockaitis
This is beautiful. Hal, tell me, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Hal Gregersen
It’s the point I just mentioned, which is whether it’s Ed Catmull at Pixar having a room called The Brain Trust, where directors get complete unvarnished full of candor feedback about their movies when they’re building them, where they learn that it sucks or it’s the Lion’s Den at Cirque du Soleil that does the same thing or it’s a working backwards process at Amazon, where people read documents about new ideas for 15 minutes, they shut up and be quiet and then they know the questions are going to fly about the idea.

At these innovative organizations with innovative leaders, they systematically in their own unique way always create spaces and processes where the tough questions get asked and people know what’s going to happen. When that happens, we start moving the needle. We start doing things better. We start changing the world.

It’s not just about us, but it’s about are we creating safe enough consistent spaces for our team, for our organization, for them to feel comfortable being wrong and uncomfortable and quiet so that we can ask the toughest questions, because those are the ones that unlock our biggest blind spots, the things we don’t know we don’t know. That’s the key to the future.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Hal Gregersen

I love Elie Wiesel’s quote, “In the word ‘question’ there’s a beautiful word ‘quest.’ I love that word.” End quote. The questions that matter are the ones that we have to work hard for. Once we find them, they are a quest, but once we find them they open up doors that otherwise we’ll never see and it can benefit us and others.

Pete Mockaitis

How about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Hal Gregersen

Actually, way, way back, Stanley Milgram’s study on obedience to authority, where common people like you and me once we get in positions of authority. In that particular study, they gave electrical shocks to people that were life threatening just because their role expected them to do that. That’s a short version of the study.

I’ve learned over my lifetime, it’s really easy for power to go to my head. The biggest inhibitor of asking questions is power and privilege. The challenge for me as a human being or for me as a leader is how do I get beyond that isolation of power and privilege and get out into the world in a way that I don’t get trapped in my bounds of authority.

Pete Mockaitis

How about a favorite book?

Hal Gregersen

I absolutely love Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. He is so thoughtful about how do you build a sustainably creative organization.

There’s another book that’s a close second, if not first depending on the day, by Parker Palmer called Let Your Life Speak. It is a powerful inward auto-biographical look at his figuring out who he was and how to be whole with both the good and the bad that made up this person called Parker Palmer. It’s a profound book.

Pete Mockaitis

Thank you. How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Hal Gregersen

I love the Headspace app. It’s a mediation app. It’s been super powerful for helping my head, my heart, my hands be more reflectively quiet. I can sometimes let anxiety and toxic worry just take over my life and Headspace has been a godsend to be able to not let that happen quite so much.

Pete Mockaitis

When you’re using Headspace, you just kind of march through the sequence that’s on there?

Hal Gregersen

Sometimes. Sometimes I start, but this isn’t one isn’t grabbing me. Right now I just started regrets because one of my challenges is holding onto regrets too long. I’ve still got to do the first exercise, which is write down all my regrets and then think about them briefly and cross them off before I go to section two. Some of them I work through, some of them I struggle with.

Pete Mockaitis

Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks that you’re working with?

Hal Gregersen

I love this one. I heard it from Tiffany Shlain. She founded the Webby Awards. Her father was an amazing physician. When Tiffany was growing up, her father told her over and over and over, quote, “If you’re not living on the edge, Tiffany, you are taking up too much space.” I think it’s just this invitation to push ourselves and others to the edge of whatever’s possible.

Pete Mockaitis

I love it. If folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Hal Gregersen

Easiest way is HalGregersen.com. There’s a contact space there. Or come visit me at MIT.

Pete Mockaitis

Do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Hal Gregersen

At the end of Stephen Hawking’s recent book, Brief Answers to the Biggest Question, his final chapter is on super intelligent – AI becoming super intelligent. He has a dystopian view of the world that it will take over.

My challenge and it’s why I’m not doing what I’m doing, it’s my next project, how can we nudge the questioning capacity of the world forward so that we as a human race, we will always ask the better questions compared to AI or super intelligence. Because if we don’t learn how to do that, we will lose that game. But I’m convinced somehow or another, we can continue to ask the better question.

Pete Mockaitis

Well, Hal, this has been a ton of fun and powerful, transformative. I think that a lot of question bursting is going to be popping up across the world. It’s been a delight. Please keep doing the great work you’re doing.

Hal Gregersen

Thank you Pete. You too. I appreciate it.