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KF #19. Cultivates Innovation

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

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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.

348: How to Achieve Anything through Curiosity with Diana Kander

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Diana Kander unpacks the importance of curiosity and the role it plays in the success of individuals and companies.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why uncovering blind spots is such a rapid path to progress
  2. Four key questions to expand your curiosity
  3. The importance of failure metrics

About Diana

Diana Kander is a sought-after keynote speaker who has trained many executives and Fortune 1000 companies to be more innovative and to inspire employees to think more like entrepreneurs. She’s the author of the New York Times Bestseller All In Startup, a novel outlining lessons for launching a successful business. The book has been used in over 70 colleges to teach innovation and entrepreneurship. She’s also the author of The Curiosity Muscle. Diana lives in Kansas City, Missouri with her high school sweetheart and husband, Jason, and their awesome son, True.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Diana Kander Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Diana, thanks so much for joining us here on the How To Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.

Diana Kander
I’m pretty excited to be here. Any chance to become more awesome is a great thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Agreed, agreed. I understand you’re doing some work in becoming awesome at doing a handstand. What’s the backstory here?

Diana Kander
That’s right. Actually the backstory is writing the book that we’re going to talk about today. But I learned that there’s a simple process to allow yourself to do pretty much anything you can set your mind to. And once I accomplished one task of doing a plank, where you’re on your tippy toes and your elbows, as part of writing the book I did a plank for 11 and a half minutes.

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding!

Diana Kander
It was a crazy thing for me. I couldn’t do more than a minute and a half before I started. And so then, once you accomplish one impossible feat, I was like, “What else can I do? What’s the next most difficult thing I can think of?” And for me, that was doing a handstand, so my 2018 goal has been to do… I’m a very uncoordinated person; I’d fall in just from sitting before. I have trouble just walking. So for me, being able to find inner strength and center like that was just a very exciting opportunity. So that’s what I’m doing in 2018.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s fascinating. Why don’t we start right there? What is the process by which you can learn to do anything?

Diana Kander
So, I learned in writing my second book that if you want better results, you just have to ask better questions. And the way that most people approach a task or a goal is, they’re going to try their best and hope for the best. And that is not how you get exceptional results, that’s not how you get to a 10-minute plank. That’s never going to happen if you just decide that you’re going to practice planking every day. Even if you have the habit down, you’re not implementing the right practice. And so, what are the questions that you can ask in order to implement the right questions?

And what’s funny is, I didn’t write a personal development book; I wrote a book on how big corporations can stay in business once they’re successful. But all the lessons that apply to large organizations – trying to become more curious and understand their customers and reach their own large goals – they’re just as applicable for individuals trying to reach crazy goals like doing a 10-minute plank, or a press handstand, which is what I’m trying to do.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Okay, so if you want better results, ask better questions. And so, the book is called The Curiosity Muscle, just to orient everybody. And so, let’s continue this thread for a bit. So, what would be some examples of lame questions and what are great questions, and how are you upgrading the questions you’re asking in the instance of the plank or the handstand?

Diana Kander
Sure. So, like I said, most people start out, they’re going to do their best and hope for the best. And the very first and most important question you can ask is, “What are my blind spots? What do I not know about what I’m doing that I should be doing?” And for my planks, it was going to people who are professional plankers and have done world-breaking planks, which do you know what the world record for planking is?

Pete Mockaitis
I sure don’t. What is it?

Diana Kander
It’s 8 hours and 10 minutes. Just crazy, right? It makes 10 minutes sound like nothing. So, what are those people doing that I’m not doing? And what I learned from understanding the routine and their practice was that there are certain muscle groups involved in holding a plank that I didn’t know had anything to do with it. So your glutes are very involved in holding a plank. It actually is super important, but that didn’t make any sense to me. Your shoulders are a very important muscle group.

And so, in addition to practicing planks, I started working out these specific muscle groups, and it doubled my time without even really doing anything different. And then understanding other blind spots that I had, like things that I didn’t know about when I was trying to hold a plank, of what these people were doing that I didn’t even know about – that was a very important question. So, that’s question number one.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, so, “What do I not know that I should know?”

Diana Kander
Yeah, most people think of their blind spots as their weakness, like, “Oh, I know I should be doing this, but … work. I know I’m not good at this.” But that’s not what a blind spot is. A blind spot is something that you think you’re already doing well, that you’re actually doing terribly. And all of us have blind spots in our professional practice; it’s just that we don’t have the guts to get the feedback to find out those things that we’re doing that are actually sabotaging our professional growth.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And it’s interesting – you mentioned guts, and that’s what it takes to get that. But in another way, it sounds like it’d be more fun to learn some things that you had no idea, than it is to just beat yourself up about not doing the things you know you should be doing.

Diana Kander
Well, the thing about blind spots is finding out about them. It’s super fun when you’re planking and like, “Oh, that’s interesting”, but when it comes to your professional skills and what you’re doing that is frustrating your customers, it is not fun. It actually is quite painful and embarrassing, because you’re going to people and you’re saying, “What is it that I’m doing in my business that is unsatisfactory, that actually I thought I was doing well but isn’t good enough?” Or, “What is it that’s frustrating you about whatever it is that I’m doing?” And hearing those responses can be quite crippling.

In fact, as I was writing the book, one example of trying to understand your blind spots is, I sent out a copy of the book to some close friends who I could trust to be honest with me. And the email I wrote to them was, “There will be a time when this book is published and I need you to give me positive feedback on it. But this is not that time. Your gift of friendship to me right now would be to tell me all the parts that don’t make sense, that are confusing, that you don’t like these characters, you don’t like the storyline, you don’t understand the point I was making. And tell me all of those things.”

And then I went around town just collecting one insult after another. And I had this one really great friend who wrote me this email that while I was reading it, I subconsciously started getting into the fetal position, because it hurt so bad, the feedback that I was getting. But every single one of those feedback sessions made the book a much, much better product in what it is today.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Alright, maybe we should get oriented to the big picture here, and we’ll pursue some more of these practices. They’re just so fascinating, they get me hooked in. So, what’s the main point behind The Curiosity Muscle?

Diana Kander
Sure. The main point is that our success sabotages our future growth. We get very comfortable when things start working, we feel like we’re getting control of something, and we know what we’re doing so now we just need to become more efficient at it. And once we let that success kind of go into our ego and grow our ego, we stop being curious. Success is the main thing that kills curiosity.

And once you lose curiosity, you lose that relationship with your customers and you start losing relevance, because now even though you’re still innovating and you’re growing, you’re not doing it in the right direction, you’re not creating value for your customers. You’re still doing things, you’re creating output in a very efficient way, but it’s not what they want, because you’re no longer curious about what they want. Because you’ve been so successful, you think you know what they want better than they do.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, if we’re no longer curious but we’re still doing things, what’s fueling our doing instead of curiosity? So I guess curiosity was getting us there before – you’re fascinated, “What do they need? What do they want? How could I be of great service to them? How could I crush it for them?” And now what’s fueling the next stuff?

Diana Kander
Think about getting to the peak of a mountain top. And what’s fueling you at the top of the mountain top is the fear of falling down, the need to keep achieving and to keep growing. For a lot of organizations they become focused on quarterly results, or just growth for the sake of growth, and those are the kinds of things that sabotage real curiosity and customers.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Yeah, that makes sense. It’s sort of like, you’ve got something to lose at that point. When you’re at the top of the mountain you could lose your life, or if you’re a huge business you could get sued for millions of dollars. So let’s put in all kinds and processes and rules and requirements to mitigate risk and what not. Or you could have your stock price plummet because you didn’t hit your quarterly earnings guidance. So, you’ve got all these fears that are fueling you, instead of the curiosity.

Diana Kander
Sure. Every dollar you make is a reason not to changing anything. So, as long as you keep making money, you’re like, “Let’s just keep this gravy train going.” And that’s where the danger is – you’re not constantly looking to disrupt yourself or the next thing that customers want, and their wants and needs are constantly evolving. And they’re going to evolve away from you and you won’t recognize it because you don’t have that kind of relationship that you once did.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, understood. So then, what’s the antidote? How do we keep curiosity alive and flowing, and getting the good questions going?

Diana Kander
Sure. So, think about curiosity – the best definition I’ve ever heard of it is “the space between what you currently know and what you want to know”. So, when you first start running a business, that space is rather large, but then once you become successful, there’s nothing there. You just walk around all day being like, “I know everything I need to know. I’m pretty awesome.” And the secret to becoming curious is to increase that space between those two things – between what you know and what it is that you want to know.

And so, my co-author Andy Fromm and I came up with these four questions that you need to master in order to increase the size of that space. So, the questions are: “What are your blind spots, as they relate to your business and the things that you’re creating?”, “Are you spending your time on the right things?”, “What can you experiment?” I know you’ve been very careful deciding what you’re going to spend your time on, but how do you know if you were wrong in that decision? And number four is, “How can you engage others to help you get to your goals?” Because a lot of people, once they become really successful really concentrate decision-making power at the very, very top and they stop engaging their employees, their customers in helping them solve big problems or come up with new ideas.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. The third one you said you’re experimenting and you’re also assessing whether or not you’re right. Can you expand on that a little bit?

Diana Kander
Sure. So, almost every company has a process to decide whether they’re going to take on a new initiative. They have some kind of a meeting, they have some kind of a business case that they write up. And then what happens once they approve the project is, they never revisit it again. Unless it’s a horrible failure that just explodes, nobody’s ever going to stop it. It could be a mediocre project that’s just siphoning resources away from the company, but there’s never a process to revisit approved projects six months after they’ve started or a year after they’ve started, to figure out if you were right in making that initial decision. We just assume that everything we decide is going to work out.

And as you know, the vast majority of the things we decide to do are not the right things. So what’s the process that you can implement in your business and in your personal life to decide, “This thing I decided to do was actually not the right thing, even though I was acting on the best information that I had at the time.” So, there are two questions that we introduce as part of this, which are, “How will I know if I’m wrong?” and, “When will I know?”

So, just to give you a super silly example – there are all kinds of things you can try to do to improve your plank time. In fact, if you Googled it, there are over 3.5 million results on Google of what you can do. So let’s say you choose very carefully which of the things you’re going to try. You can’t try them all, but you pick the first one you’re going to try. How do you know if that’s the right thing to do, and when will you know if it’s not the right thing to do?

So for me, I like to create as many objective metrics in the things that I try, so for me I said I’m going to give it two weeks every time I implement a new process, and if my time doesn’t go up by 30 seconds over a two-week period, then I’m going to try the next thing. But in most businesses, they never implement those kinds of stop caps. They have success metrics; they say, “These are all the things that we’re going to accomplish”, and it usually takes years to accomplish the success methods, but they never think about failure metrics, which are much shorter in time span. You will know much sooner if something’s not going to work than if it is going to work.

So what are those failure metrics and are you assessing them for the projects that you’re selecting to choose to spend your time and your resources on? And the most successful companies, the ones that never peak – they have really great process to kill things that just aren’t working.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I really dig that. And you reminded me of some lean startup stuff, with regard to the experiments and what you’re seeing there, as well as I’m just fascinated by Nielsen’s consumer product research process, associated with, “We’re just going to benchmark the survey responses about your potential brand of pasta sauce against the hundreds of other brands of pasta sauce that we’ve studied before, to assess if it’s good enough to be unlikely to fail.” It just fascinates me that that exists and it’s done in the world. So, can you share with us some of the best examples or quick ways to get an early failure assessment on something you’re trying?

Diana Kander
Sure. Well, I can give you some examples of my favorite company that is really, really good at this kind of an assessment, is Amazon. And whenever people talk about Amazon, they talk about all of the incredible things that they’ve invented. And now they’re doing one-day delivery, which is just unbelievable. They’re just constantly coming up with ways to wow you, and that’s part of what’s fueling its growth.

But what nobody ever talks about are so many projects that they’ve lost lots and lots of money on, and things that never worked out. Like the Fire Phone, which was the phone that they introduced, which was supposed to be the phone to end all phones. They lost $175 million on it and a few months after it came out, they couldn’t sell them for $0.99 at most. That’s crazy. And one nobody really talks about is Amazon Destinations, which was their travel booking website that they created and shut down six months later. They put a lot of resources into making it the place where you book your travel, and then within six months knew that it wasn’t going to work.

Nobody ever talks about Amazon Local, which was their hub for local deals. It was like a Groupon that they started in 2011, and then shut down three years later. Nobody ever talks about Amazon Wallet, which was a way for you to put all of your credit cards into one place, that they shut down six months after launching it. They had Amazon Local, which was a way for you – not a square or a PayPal triangle, but a rectangle that you could use to accept payments. They had Amazon Music Importer, which was a way for you to house all of your music online, and Amazon Test Drive, which was a way for you to try all of these games before you actually committed to buying them. I can keep going on and on and on.

Pete Mockaitis
And they don’t have the Statistically Improbable Phrases anymore on the books.

Diana Kander
What do you mean?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that used to be one of the ways you could kind of check out what’s unique or fresh, or the content, as a means of searching for and identifying book content called the Statistically Improbable Phrases, or SIPs. And I was a dork for the data; thought that was the coolest thing, as a means of seeing books that are similar to other books, based upon their overlap there. But I guess most people don’t care about that level of stuff, and so they’ve killed it.

Diana Kander
Well, I think I’m probably happy that that doesn’t exist anymore, for my own books. Nobody talks about all of these things that they had and then shut down. And what they think is that Jeff Bezos is some kind of genius who comes up with these big ideas, and that everything that he says works out. But he’s not a genius; he’s a human being just like all of us, and a lot of his ideas and the ideas of the people working at the company don’t work out. What they have that most companies don’t have is a process to kill projects when they’re not working. And most organizations – over 80% of public organizations – have no process to revisit projects on a regular basis, after they approve a business case.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. It seems like for the most part it’s just like a new executive comes it and it’s like, “Alright, we’re evaluating everything. Oh, all these things should no longer be happening”, as opposed to a regular, ongoing basis.

Diana Kander
But they shouldn’t have been happening for years and years. That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
Totally. That’s cool. So, could you give us maybe a window into what such a process might look like, in terms of, “At X months ahead of trying out this thing, we’re going to look at Y metric and it needs to be at least Z value”, or how does that unfold in real life?

Diana Kander
Sure. I’ll give you one of my favorite examples, which was this company that was an online mortgage lender and they had this marketing program where they were going to be a very large, successful mortgage lender. And their process was, people express interest in a loan, then they send them paperwork, then those people send paperwork back, and it opens a file. And so on and so forth, until they get a house and sign all their paperwork.

So, the marketing department was like, “You know what we should do? We’re going to send everybody who expresses interest in a loan a nice gift in order to move them down the funnel. We want them to send paperwork back to us, so let’s do something nice for them.” And so what they sent them was this really nice, delicious, beautiful cupcake. It was a $25 cupcake, all said and done – very delicious, in a glass jar, it had sprinkles with the company logo on it. Genius, right? And the initial results of sending out all of these cupcakes were people taking photos with them, posting them on social media, they were like, “This is the coolest company ever.”

And so the marketing department, all the evidence they were getting back was, “This feels like it’s going really, really well.” And for most organizations what we measure is, how does it feel? We’re going to spend this much money on marketing efforts; do we feel like it’s working? How many impressions did we get? That’s what they’re testing. But that’s not really how you create value in an organization.

And so, it came time around bonus time, and the marketing team went to the data department and was like, “Can you help us quantify just how much money we’re making for the organization? We think that more people are sending in their paperwork but we’re not quite sure.” So the data team says, “Tell me the names of the people who got the cupcake and the people who didn’t get the cupcakes, so we can compare.” And they were like, “That doesn’t make any sense. This is such a genius idea. We sent out 100,000 cupcakes.” So if you’re doing the math, it’s a lot of cupcakes.

And the data team is like, “We’re going to have to send out a couple of thousand more because we can’t tell you whether the experiment was successful or not.” And again, this is something that almost every company does, in that they create programs that is impossible to measure whether it’s working or not, because everybody gets it so it’s just based on how it feels. So, the data team sends out a couple of thousand – some people get them, some people don’t – and they start comparing the results.

And what they learn is, the people who get the cupcakes actually send in their paperwork in much higher numbers, which is fantastic. But the data folks kept watching what happened to those people, and the ones that got the cupcakes sent in their paperwork in much higher numbers, but actually closed their loans in lower numbers. And in total, there was actually no difference in their total closes between whether they got a cupcake or not.

So, people who got a cupcake – they felt bad that they got this really, really nice, expensive, delicious thing, so they were going to do something. And that something was send in the paperwork, even though they weren’t planning on taking out a loan. And it wasn’t just the money that the company spent on the cupcakes, but every time somebody sent in a file, a case was opened, somebody manually entered all that information in. Then this loan officer was assigned, and that loan officer was researching the neighborhood, the school district, all that stuff. So, this company was spending millions of dollars on a project that felt really, really good, but it was actually siphoning resources away from the company.

And so, this is a perfect example of how you should also be measuring failure metrics. So, we’re going to implement this new initiative, it’s going to help our customer. Great. How would we know if It’s not working, and when would we know? So, those are two important questions that you would add to any business case process, and then revisit every time. If you have those meetings on a quarterly basis or a monthly basis, you just revisit projects that you’ve approved before and look at the failure metrics to see how they’re going.

Pete Mockaitis
I love that. So, we talked about the questions, we talked about process, we talked about thinking about it differently and ensuring that you’re ongoingly revisiting stuff and seeing if it needs to get killed. So, I’d love to revisit the point associated with just being able to stomach it, what’s coming back. Do you have an pro tips on how you develop that resilience or thick skin, or whatever you’d call it, so that you can go there?

Diana Kander
So, there’s nothing I can say that’s going to make it hurt any worse. I literally teach on this stuff and write on it, and it still hurts me a lot. I still like getting compliments every time I speak, but I know that I’m not going to get any better if I don’t hear the “do betters” or the blind spots. So, I try to think about that kind of feedback like weightlifting. So, if you go to the gym and you pick up a set of one-pound weights, and you do all of your exercises with those one-pound weights, you’re going to feel really good, like zero strain, zero sweat. Right?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Diana Kander
You’re not going to feel anything and you’re not going to get any stronger. If you want to get stronger, what you need to do is pick up weights that hurt your body to pick up, eventually. So, I try to think about that kind of feedback and those kinds of blind spots that I’m learning about as things that actually make me stronger.

So, even though they still hurt, I might … like, “She’s getting stronger”, some kind of a comic book character. In your brain, that’s how you improve. The worst thing that somebody could tell you is, “You’re doing fine”, because that is not a way for you to improve or change anything. The biggest kindness that somebody can offer is to say, “There’s something that you are not aware of that’s sabotaging everything that you’re doing.”

So, I’m a professional speaker; I speak on innovation and curiosity. And I had a good friend who’s a standup comedian, and I wanted to add some jokes to my routine. I thought it would be really funny. So I had her watch my speech and I thought she’d help me come up with some stuff. And she was writing the whole time, and when I get done, she puts her pen down and she was like, “Hey, you’re really bad at breathing.” And I was like, “What?” She was like, “Yeah, you are horrible at it.” And I was like, “I don’t know, I’ve been breathing for a pretty long period of time and I feel like I’m doing it okay.”

And she’s like, “Do you ever lose your voice after giving a speech?” And I said, “Almost every time, but I think that’s a professional speaker thing.” She’s like, “No, it’s not. It’s a thing for people who don’t know how to breathe.” She goes, “Do you ever get lightheaded when you’re on stage?” And I said, “Yeah, when I’m giving a talk for an hour, I think I’m going to pass out up there.” She’s like, “See, you don’t know how to breathe.” I was like, “Wow.” To me that was a huge blind spot, something I never knew about.

And I said, “Okay, let’s keep talking about this, but can you give me some jokes? What else did you write down?” And she’s like, “Is that how you walk on to a stage? Because you walk very apologetic.” I was like, “How do you walk apologetic? That seems really weird.” And she goes, “What’s that weird thing you do with your eyes when you’re talking? I couldn’t even hear what you were saying; your eyes were freaking me out so much.”

So, I walked into the room thinking that I wanted some jokes. Just like all of us in our lives we’re like, “Here’s what I think I need to improve.” And there was this whole other category of very serious faults that I had in my presentation style, in my delivery style that were actually sabotaging my professional speaking career. And it was learning about those blind spots that made me 10 times better than any jokes that I could have introduced into the talk. And that’s the power of getting really curious to elevate your game to a whole new level.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s awesome. And I want to get your take on how you frame and prime the people you’re asking these questions of. You mentioned with your email and how, “Being a friend to me is really telling me what’s wrong with this book and how it’s troubling or it doesn’t make sense in certain places.” So, that was a handy way you did it there. Do you have some other perspectives on when folks are asking for feedback, how could they ask for it in a way so as to actually get it?

Diana Kander
Sure. I think this is a super important question. Actually I wrote a whole article on why people lie to you whenever you ask them questions. And they’re lying because they’re good people are they’re trying to be nice. Most people don’t actually want the answers. Most of us, whenever we give a presentation, we walk out of the presentation and we turn to the person with us and we say, “How was that?” That’s the generic thing that people say.

And then all of us lie when somebody says that to us. And we know that we lie when somebody asks us, but we still ask that question because we want them to lie to us. It’s just a terrible circular thing that happens, but we want to hear that we did amazing, because we need that for our ego, and people know that. So they will lie to you unless you create a safe place for them to be honest.

And you really have to tell people several times that this is what you want. What you want is critical feedback. And even sometimes when you say it, they won’t believe you. So, number one – you need to create a safe place; you need to show them that you’re very serious. So, rather than saying, “How did I do? Really, be honest.” Don’t say that; instead you say, “Hey, I’m really trying to improve and grow how much I’m charging. I would love for you to give me three things I could do better.”

And then they’re like, “You know, it was awesome. I really enjoyed myself.” I’m like, “No, really. I really appreciate you saying that; that means a lot. But I’d love for you to dig deep. I promise it won’t hurt my feelings, I promise I’m just trying to learn how to be better. Any three things that you can think of, of how I could have done better, the things that didn’t really quite add up.” So you’ve really got to go a couple of rounds with them, number one.

Number two – you need to make sure you’re asking the right people. So, I wouldn’t play this game with my mom, because she would be like, “I hate your outfit”, which is zero helpful to me. You need to ask professional speakers; you need to ask people who have created value in the area in which you’re trying to create value. So, either your customers in your business, or other people who have reached the peak of wherever it is that you’re trying to go – those are the people whose advice you want.

And then number three – you want to make them feel like putting themselves at risk and being honest with you is worth it, that you’re actually going to act on their advice. So, when people give me advice, then I come back to them and say, “Hey, you gave me excellent advice and then I changed this as a result”, so that when I come back to them for more advice, they know that I mean it.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. That’s great, yes. So think about it not as sort of a “one and done”, but rather, “Oh, cool!” They feel helpful and like they got to make a positive impact, and they appreciate it because it’s like you’ve showed them some honor, or it’s like a compliment. It’s like, “Oh, you seriously listen to me and take what I say seriously. Cool.” It gets them totally primed to do it awesomely even better the next time.

Diana Kander
It’s just like any mentoring relationship in your life. You need to make them understand that you value the advice and you’re going to act on it.

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

Diana Kander
I think curiosity is the secret to accomplishing anything. What I learned during the process – I kept being like, “What else can I apply this process to? Yeah, it works for planks, and keeping companies in business. What else can I do with it?” And I found that you can do three things with it.

Number one – you can use these four questions to significantly improve your relationship with your customers, or any kind of relationship. Actually it works for spouses as well. Any relationship you want to improve, you can use these four questions. Number two – if there’s a persistent problem in your business that you’re trying to solve, this is a really good way to look at it in a different way. Or number three – if there’s a big, hairy, audacious goal that you’re trying to reach, these four questions are going to help you think about it in a completely different approach. So, those are really … cases that I found so far, of using these questions.

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

Diana Kander
Yeah. So, one of my favorite quotes actually has to do with curiosity. And it’s by Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” For so many of us, we walk around very comfortable, thinking that we know all these things to be true about our business and our customers, when we’re just walking around – I think about blind spots – like having food in your teeth. You walk around very confidently with food in your teeth until you get to a mirror.

And if you haven’t been surprised and in a little bit of pain from feedback that you’ve gotten from customers or employees or your boss within the last 12 months, then I can guarantee that you have blind spots in whatever it is that you professionally do. So that’s kind of my gut check – if somebody hasn’t told me something painful and surprising, then there are blind spots that are stopping me from growing to the next level.

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

Diana Kander
I like all those studies that show that you’re the average of the five people you hang out with the most, and how that works for your GPA and your income level, and a lot of things in your life, that they can measure in objective ways that it actually isn’t just your personality or your achievement level. All of these things that are true about the people that you choose to surround yourself with.

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

Diana Kander
The book that I have been recommending for so long is Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi. I just saw it at the bookstore, and it’s been reworked and remastered and it’s got an extra 200 pages that I haven’t seen. But the reason I love that book so much is because it’s about creating real relationships with professional contacts. As opposed to thinking business is a networking or a tool, really creating real, meaningful relationships. And that book just always spoke to me and has been a secret to so many of the relationships that I’ve been able to continue for so long.

Pete Mockaitis
Are you a conference commando?

Diana Kander
What does that mean?

Pete Mockaitis
That was one of the chapter titles.

Diana Kander
Oh, like how to do it, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
He was just talking about this hardcore stuff, like, “Volunteer for the conference, then you get a list of all the attendees in advance, then you research all the attendees, then you invite a select segment of them.”

Diana Kander
I don’t even bring business cards, so I’m obviously not a conference commando. But I do look through the list and if there any people that I really want to get to know on a deep level, then I’ll find the people that I want to meet, figure out who we have in common, reach out and say, “Would you like to get a cup of coffee?” So yes, I’m definitely still using stuff from that book, but again, it’s not about how to meet as many people as possible, but how to really create deep relationships with the people that you do meet.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?

Diana Kander
My favorite tool. My iPhone

Pete Mockaitis
Is there an app that you love and you think is underrated, because it’s crazy useful?

Diana Kander
Headspace. I know it’s not an underrated app, but it’s an incredibly powerful tool for me personally. If I’m having a crazy day, I just take 10 minutes and it works like magic.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Diana Kander
Well, besides collecting feedback? My favorite habit is to tell people that I’m doing awesome or fantastic, which I am. That’s how I feel, but people seem really, really surprised by it. It always takes people back, like, “Oh, I haven’t met anybody who is doing awesome or fantastic today.” And it’s just a funny interaction that I get to have a couple of times a day.

Pete Mockaitis
That is fun, as opposed to “Busy” or, “Fine, thanks.”

Diana Kander
I feel fantastic, so that’s what I say. And people frequently are like, “Oh, well, nice to talk to you.”

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. And how about a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect, resonate, gets retweeted, etcetera?

Diana Kander
“If you never settle, then you will never peak”, which is kind of the thesis behind this book and what I’ve been working on. But if you never settle for being good enough at what it is that you’re doing, you’re going to continue growing. If you’re constantly curious of how to get to the next level, there’s never going to be a time in your life when you peak and get on a downward slope.

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

Diana Kander
I have a website – DianaKander.com, where you can read a lot of my articles, see videos of my talks, and get bite-size nuggets of all kinds of this information.

Pete Mockaitis
Alright. And do you have a final challenge or call to action you’d issue to folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Diana Kander
I would love for them to choose one big, hairy, audacious goal, and it doesn’t have to be at work. What I found in doing the plank challenge and handstand challenge is, if I am curious in my personal life and doing something physical, then I will be more open in my professional life. And if I put myself in a beginner mindset, not like, “I know what I’m doing”, where I’m trying to learn at one of these tasks, then I will be much more open in my professional life, and curious and creative. And so, I try to constantly have a thing in my life where I’m totally out of my element and I’m trying to learn as much as possible, because I find that it affects all of my work in a very positive way.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Well, Diana, this has been so much fun. Thank you for bringing the goods and a multitude of Amazon examples – that was intriguing. And please, keep doing what you’re doing, and I wish you tons of luck with The Curiosity Muscle and your speaking and all you’re up to!

Diana Kander
Thank you so much, Pete. It was awesome to chat with you.

 

342: Getting Creativity to Work with Thomas Heffner

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Thomas Heffner shares how to improve creativity, group brainstorming, and innovation.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The seven rules for effective brainstorming
  2. How to solve the hippo in the room problem
  3. Three improv comedy tips that help you innovate

 

About Thomas

Tom Heffner is a design strategist at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory,  podcaster, author, speaker, and innovation expert.  His goal is to help people thrive at work and in life. Tom believes that every day, purposeful habits and practices are vital to this pursuit. He shares these ideas and learnings through his weekly podcast (Next Year Now), blog, and speaking engagements.

 

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Thomas Heffner Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Tom, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to Be Awesome At Your Job podcast.

Thomas Heffner
Pete, thank you so much. I can’t tell you how excited I am for our conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, me too. I’ve been very impressed by you, meeting you at Podcast Movement and with all the amazing guests you’ve gotten on your show. I was like, “Oh, that person turned me down and that person turned me down.” Tom, what are you doing?

Thomas Heffner
Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, I think maybe part of is that connection with the – is it the masters in Positive Psychology? Is that the name of the program at U Penn?

Thomas Heffner
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. I told my wife if we ever have more money than we need, this would just be something fun I’d love to do is to go to that program. How did that work out for you?

Thomas Heffner
I always tell people it was – outside of getting married to my wife and having my three amazing children, it was the best decision I’ve ever made. I was really fortunate, I’ll just say this upfront, that my work, my organization paid for the whole thing. I probably – looking back on the experience, I would have paid the tuition that I paid. At the time, I wouldn’t have paid it just because I didn’t know.

Pete Mockaitis
The outside looking in. Sure. Cool. Anyway, that’s a good decision you made. Another interesting decision or caper, I don’t know what we’d call it, but apparently it happened in your life at one point that you kissed Alyssa Milano. Tell us all about this.

Thomas Heffner
I wish this was a really cool story where I was like, “Listen, Alyssa and I were in the back seat of the Corvette,” but really it’s a little bit less cool. It’s still cool, but a little bit less cool.

When I was younger and I was 12 years old back in 1992, I was a wrestler on the base of Quantico, Virginia. We had a private wrestling club there and it was a very competitive one. We were selected to go to the Great American Presidential Fitness Workout. We got to go to the White House. At the time it was, I guess it was 1992, it was probably George Bush.

But we got to go there and do a little exhibition. There was other people doing and other groups of people doing exhibitions. Arnold Schwarzenegger was there. That was when he was still known as The Terminator. Lots of celebrities were there and also Alyssa Milano, who was still pretty big at that time. Still big I would say.

I’m doing my thing. We’re doing our little wrestling exhibition. She comes along. Of course, everybody wants to get her autograph and talk to her. I go up to her and say, “Alyssa, Alyssa, can I get your autograph?” I’m 12 years old. I’m old enough to know that she’s pretty hot.

She says, “Well, listen,” she gets down on – bends down and whispers into my ear, she says, “Listen, if I give you an autograph, then I’ve got to give everybody an autograph, so how about I just give you a kiss instead?” Well, listen, I didn’t have to wait long for that one. I planted one right on her. That’s the story where I got to kiss Alyssa Milano. One of my cool, fun stories in life.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting. You initiated the kiss after she said the words, “What if I gave you a kiss instead?”

Thomas Heffner
You can’t let that go by, man.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like, just in case she’s kidding, you don’t want to –

Thomas Heffner
Can never let that opportunity pass.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting. By her logic though, if you had waited and then she kissed you, then she might need to kiss everybody, which would be probably worse.

Thomas Heffner
It’s true.

Pete Mockaitis
You come back with kiss a bunch of 12-year-olds, you’d probably have some kind of a cold or … with that.

Thomas Heffner
She was probably safe with our group.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, because you’re super physically fit. You’re examples of good health.

Thomas Heffner
That’s right. Lean, mean, fighting machines.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. In addition to your physical prowess, you have what strikes me as a super impressive sounding job for smart people is a technical categorization for the industry I guess. You work at the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, which just sounds super smart. Tell me what does that mean and what’s your role there?

Thomas Heffner
It means I’m the most interesting man – no, I’m kidding. What it means is it’s a – the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory is a UARC. That stands for a University Affiliated Research Center. Really what it means is we’re a Department of Defense research center. We do applied research for the DOD, for the military, largely for the Navy. We do it for other services as well, Air Force and Army.

But really it’s a huge organization. There’s almost 7,000 people that work there. We do everything kind of under the sun. I always tell people if you ever see when satellites go up into space—just recently they had solar probe, the Parker probe, go up into space—well, we build and design satellites. We do secondary mission control and NASA does primary mission control.

My buddy actually designed the communications system for it. This is the first every satellite to go the closest ever to the sun. We build missile systems, defense systems, cybersecurity systems. We do health and bio.

A big thing that we’re known for when returning warriors come back from war, a lot of times, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan wars, they were injured. Unfortunately, a lot of them were injured. You had Marines and Army grunts coming back that were – they didn’t have a limb.

One of the things that we designed was a nerve enervated 26 degrees of freedom prosthetic arm, which is to say, it’s nerve enervated so that means if you think it, it does it. If you want your prosthetic arm to pick up that cup of coffee, then it picks up that cup of coffee.

Pete Mockaitis
Whoa.

Thomas Heffner
Yeah, really, really cool stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
That is wild. 26 degrees of freedom. Explain. Well, maybe don’t list all 26, but I mean-

Thomas Heffner
Yeah, so in space – what that means is it’s still probably not going to be artificial – a future world where it’s like, “Wow, this is better than my real arm,” but it means it gives you a lot more articulation, a lot more freedom to move and use that limb as if it was your own.

It’s not going to be quite the same, but they keep getting better and better. They add more degrees of freedom. They add more – miniaturize those electronics, etcetera, etcetera.

But I think what it does and what it shows is kind of the breadth and level of expertise that we have at our organization where really we can do end to end systems engineering all the way through down to microelectronic engineering and everything in between.

It’s a really fascinating place to work. I’m really blessed to work with just the smartest engineers in the world. I always tell people I don’t know how I got in. Maybe I snuck in through the backdoor, but-

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is really cool. Then part of your thing is innovation, design thinking, making new cool ideas happen. You do that both at work as well as teaching other organizations and teams how to do that. I’d love to hear maybe if you could orient us to just a fun story of a nifty new idea taking off and how it came to be.

Thomas Heffner
Yeah, let me back up just one moment. My background is originally in electrical engineering. I did that for like ten years before I switched over doing innovation and design thinking, design thinking being kind of one method that you can drive innovation in an organization or a project, etcetera, etcetera.

That’s what I’ve been doing the last five years, both using design thinking to solve these really tough challenges, but then also to teach it in organizations, be it military organizations or other organizations. If I’m thinking of a really cool project, innovation project, there’s a few to pick from here. What would I pick?

So, one that I think is really neat and I think – this is going to sound self-serving because this one of the ideas that I had – I think it’s really impactful because it changed the way fundamentally that we did business or that we solved problems at the lab.

A while back, about five years ago, our director said, “Hey listen, we want to come up with something to help us do better – to be more innovative at the lab.” He said, “Come up with something.”

We proposed this idea of innovation space. That in and of itself was not necessarily not that revelatory, but what we ended up coming up with was this pretty big space, I think there was maybe 10 or 15,000 square feet – I can’t remember the exact number – of different little areas or pods, if you will.

We had a maker space where you could 3D print. We had an application space, where you could test – where you could create and develop and test applications, so mobile applications and electronic based applications and things like that. We had a design space where you could run design sprints like Google runs or Amazon. We had – we even had a space where people could come in and learn how to sew on sewing machines because we build and design tactical parachutes and things like that.

Building that little petri dish of innovation, if you will, was a real sea-change for us because we had historically been an organization that was very conservative and traditional. Engineers kind of just went into their office and did a lot of engineering.

They sat down with their books and their mathematical equations and differential equations and Maxwell’s equations and all these different things to solve really hard problems, but they did it oftentimes in isolation or siloed communities and things like that.

What we did here is we created this community and started to build a culture from the ground up where it was okay to go and brainstorm on a topic or an idea that we didn’t have business in. It was okay to go and try out new ideas and to prototype ideas really fast. I’m talking in a day or two. I’m not talking breadboarding, which is for all us engineers, we understand what breadboarding is.

It was a way for us to build in engagement opportunities to invite everybody, not just engineers, but program managers, support staff, admin staff, etcetera, etcetera to be part of that ideation process, to generate new ideas and then to test those ideas out.

In and of itself, like I said, it may not sound that amazing, but it was a real sea-change to allow us to be more open-minded to how we do business, to how we solve problems because traditionally that’s just not something we did. It was very kind of linear and waterfall and just “We have these analytical tools. We’re going to spend our time and we’re going to crunch those numbers and that’s it.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s cool. Just what I’m visualizing is just sort of the physical elements and dimensions of it with the 3D printing and the app development area. I don’t know what that would mean.

I’m imagining that you would have lots of different devices, like, “Hey, what’s it look like in iPad? What’s it look like on a Kindle? What’s it look like on a Kindle Fire? What’s it look like on a Samsung Surface?” Is it Microsoft Surface? Samsung Galaxy. Well, I don’t know. All of the devices is kind of what I’m imagining that looks like.

Thomas Heffner
Yeah, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s like, “Oh, that looks sort of screwed up on this size screen. Let’s fix it.”

Thomas Heffner
Yeah, it was really neat actually. I’ll double down on that as well. We had drones in there so people could use drones and try out different things.

One of the things that was really neat was we have this – basically it’s kind of a competitive innovation program, where people can submit ideas and based on the popularity or the merits of the idea, they get X number of funding.

Somebody said, “Listen, I want to come in here and test out guidance and control software for a satellite.” Well, obviously it’s pretty expensive to go and put a satellite up in space and then test out your software. You have to do things before then.

So why don’t I just port it to a drone, one of these parrot drone and just try it and see if it works. That’s a lot cheaper than building some fancy software simulator or worse yet, putting it up in space and actually learning while it’s up in space.

That was something that we had in there because we just wanted to see what can people do with drones. What can people do with, like you said, with iPads? What can people do with – we had a Connect in there, a Microsoft – we still have it – a Microsoft Connect in there. People were using that for mind flight, which is building a flight automation system or a flight navigation system where you can control flight with your mind.

There was lots of different things. Just putting it in there, it forces people to say, “Well, I don’t know what that is,” especially if you’re somebody that’s like “Well, I’ve got 30 years of expertise in radar. I don’t know how to use this Connect. I don’t know how to use this parrot drone,” or whatever it is, but go in there and learn what it is to use a 3D printer or a parrot drone and what can you do new and different.

Just forcing people to be a little bit outside of their comfort zone or inviting/encouraging I guess is a better way to say that.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s really cool. That’s really cool. I was just thinking recently my wife and brother and I, we’ve invented a couple things with baby, which – just little things in terms of “Let’s put a mesh fabric and Velcro and there you go. This will be handy.” It was just really fun to just like physically make stuff.

I just think – I don’t know if this exists somewhere in a college course, but I think that would just be one of the coolest courses ever, like how to make stuff. We got a couple weeks on drawing, on sewing, on coding, on woodworking, on 3D printing, electric circuits, on welding.

It’s just like, oh hey, I know how to make things. That would just I think activate a different part of the brain and it seems like that’s exactly what you guys are seeing there is it’s sparking all the more good ideas and successful evolving of ideas.

Thomas Heffner
I 100% agree. I think what it also does is it allows you – all innovation is, is really hypothesis testing. You have an idea, you have some hypothesis of how that idea is going to exist in the world and so what’s the quickest, most effective way that you can test that idea.

Using things like Play-Doh, using things like parrot drones, using things like 3D printing, all these different mediums, if you will, is a way for you to prototype those quickly and efficiently so that you can learn what’s working and what’s not working in terms of how you – the assumptions you have about that idea.

And that’s really, really important to learn early on while it’s still cheap versus “You know what? We’ve got this idea. We’re going to build it. We’re going to spend a lot of money and design.”

Pete Mockaitis
Make 100,000 of them.

Thomas Heffner
And software. Yeah, and make 100,000 of them and then all of the sudden it’s not what you thought it was because you didn’t get that feedback early and often when it was still cheap.

I always point to the example of Amazon’s 3D phone. There’s 500,000 to a million of those things sitting in a landfill somewhere because they didn’t do a good enough job of doing that rapid prototyping to say, “Okay, would people actually want this thing as you envision it.” They didn’t, so you’ve got about 500,000 phones in a landfill somewhere unfortunately.

Pete Mockaitis
That is a bummer. Yeah. Okay, noted.

Okay, let’s talk about design thinking. It’s a hot topic. It’s a cool phrase. We’ve had a couple guests speak to it a little bit. Could you define what does this mean and who might want to use it?

Thomas Heffner
Yeah,  design thinking I don’t like that term in some ways because it’s jump the shark a little bit. I use human centered design, but for all intents and purposes design thinking, human centered design, they’re interchangeable. What it really is for me and how I define it is it’s a discipline of developing solutions in the service of people. Let’s break that down a little bit.

Discipline , that means what? Practice. Something you do every day, i.e., it’s not a one shot vaccine. So many times people, organizations are like, “I just took this course on innovation,” or “I took this course on creativity and now I’m an expert.” Well, no, it’s a discipline. You have to keep practicing it every day.

Then  developing solutions. If I asked everybody in the room to raise their hands, how many people consider themselves a designer, nobody would raise their hand or very few people, unless you’re in a room full of designers. The truth is is that we’re all designers. This is something that we do implicitly and explicitly every day.

As  a parent if my kid, if my nine-month-old is crying, all right, well, let’s give her a toy. Maybe she won’t cry. I’m designing a better situation. We have to get out of that mode of thinking, “No, no, I’ve got to be some tech entrepreneur. I’ve got to be some technologist.” Anybody can design.

Then  finally, it’s in the service of people. I think this part is really, really important because we’re not designing for things. We’re not designing for widgets. We’re not designing for the heck of it. We’re designing for people to make their life appreciably better in some way. I think yeah, that’s how we define it. It’s the discipline of developing solutions in the service of people.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, very good. Very good. So then, I’m curious when it comes to doing some of this stuff, I think that much of the benefit, or at least my perception, is that suddenly people are getting way more good ideas and those ideas are actually getting to take some shape and some life. How does this unfold?

Thomas Heffner
Yeah,  I think that’s the kind of the very public-facing benefit of design thinking. I think it accelerates collaboration. It accelerates decision making. Ultimately, it accelerates innovation.

One  of the ways that it does that is by generating a lot of ideas in a short amount of time. I think people have to just accept that to get one really good idea, you’re going to have a lot of ideas most of the time.

One  of the ways that we can do this is through brainstorming. Brainstorming gets a bad rap a lot of times. People say it’s not effective, it doesn’t work. A lot of times that’s true; it doesn’t work. That’s because two things. One, whoever is doing the brainstorming, they don’t set kind of rules and expectations for how this is going to unfold and they don’t have a plan for it.

There  are different ways that you can mitigate that. One way is to just set rules, brainstorming rules ahead of time. There are seven rules that we use and that are pretty popular or common across the community.

One  is – I’ll just kind of list them here: defer judgment, encourage wild ideas, build on the ideas of others. This one’s a really important one because oftentimes if you ask people “Are you creative?” or “Are you innovative,” people say, “No, I’m not. That’s for Jack over in graphic design.” The truth is is that one of the easiest ways to be creative is to build on ideas of others.

Think  about the Post-It note. When the Post-It note came out, it was a yellow Post-It note. It was square. That was it. Then somebody said, “Well, what if we made a rectangular one or what if we made multi-color Post-It notes or what if we made Post-It notes that pop up by themselves after you pull it off,” and on and on and on. There’s a variety of ways that you can build on the ideas of others.

Then  there’s stay focused on the topic, one conversation at a time, be visual and go for quantity.

If  you follow these, it’s kind of like going out on the road and getting your license. You wouldn’t just send your 16-year-old out on the road without any kind of rules of the road. You’d say, “Hey, here are the rules of the road. When you stop at a stop sign, if you’re the first person there, you get to go. You have the right of way,” etcetera, etcetera. You give them rules of the road. For me, this is a really important piece.

Pete Mockaitis

It’s funny you talk about building off ideas. The first thing that comes to mind, I think it’s from the movie Bridesmaids, were talking about different potential themes for a shower like Pixar … “Ah yes, and building off of that idea, also Fight Club.”

Thomas Heffner
Sometimes there’s close relationships and sometimes there’s far afield, so it runs the gamut.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. These rules, one of the failings of brainstorming is that these rules don’t get established in the first place. I imagine another failing is that even though we articulate these rules, something in practice shows that these rules are not for real. Could you explain how sometimes that unfolds?

Thomas Heffner
Oftentimes  you can have what I call the hippo in the room, if you’ve ever heard that term, the highest paid person in the room.

One  of the reasons why if you ever see design thinking or human centered design in practice, you will see Post-it notes everywhere. The reason why you have Post-it notes is because the hippo in the room. People don’t want to come up with ideas, especially if it’s something for – something politically sensitive.

I  was just teaching a class and doing some coaching with somebody and they said they were trying to come up with ways to better manage their team and they had Post-it notes. This is another problem that can happen. But their boss was in the session with them. They were sharing out the Post-It notes.

The  beauty of Post-it notes is if you come with an idea and you capture it on a Post-it note and then you put that Post-it note up on the wall, well, now it’s just an idea with everybody else. Even if you do have the hippo in the room, then it democratizes that participation. That is to say, the boss in the room doesn’t know who that idea came from.

Oftentimes , if you don’t do that, what happens is if you come into a brainstorm and the boss is in there and he says, “I’ve got this idea. I have idea X,” well suddenly everybody in the room likes idea X because they’re not stupid.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh yeah, that’s great.

Thomas Heffner
They  know that – yeah, that’s brilliant. That’s amazing. They know everybody – they know that the boss wants to hear that his idea is brilliant. By having Post-it notes and capturing your ideas on Post-it notes, it allows for anonymity. It also allows for the movement of ideas so that you can start clustering ideas and you can start deriving and synthesizing themes or insights from that data.

I  think the hippo in the room can be problematic. If you’re not using some tool – we use Post-it notes – but if you’re not using some tool to democratize the participation, then that can make it difficult for the process to work.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. I guess one implication of that is make sure that the Post-it notes are sufficiently randomized in color or all the same color because if the hippo has blue and Tom has green and Pete has red, well, then pretty soon I’ve defeated a bunch of the purpose.

Thomas Heffner
Right, right. No, you’re 100% right.

Pete Mockaitis
Good to know. I love that very specific tactic that gets a cool result in terms of more creativity flowing through there is Post-it notes such that it’s no longer clear who had the idea and it’s an idea that’s democratized and it’s sort of all of ours, which can then be rearranged. Any other favorite tactics, tips, tools, stuff that gets used here that makes a nice impact?

Thomas Heffner
I  like doing improv exercises. I like pointing to a specific quote from a great improv expert, Stephen Colbert. Maybe you’ve heard of him. Stephen Colbert, I used to be in an improv group as well before I had my third kid and my wife said, “Listen, that’s cool that you like to play improv, but we’ve got a third kid. You should come home.”

Pete Mockaitis
Three is the threshold.

Thomas Heffner
Three  is the threshold. Two, you’re okay. Three, you’re done. But what Steven Colbert had said was, “You’ve got to learn to love the bomb.” What he meant was that you have to embrace failure. You have to embrace this idea of just looking stupid to other people or falling flat on your face because if you don’t, then it’s really hard to do something really impactful. It’s really hard to do something really amazing or just to be successful because we all fall at some point. We all fail at some point.

Truth  be told, when you’re trying to come up with a new idea, most of your ideas are going to suck. That’s just the reality. I always know that to generate, like I said, one good idea, I’m going to have to have maybe 100 ideas that – of which 90% are going to be bad and maybe 10% are things I can work with.

One , just sharing that quote and kind of where it comes from, but then two actually having them practice some improv exercises where they – a couple of examples.

You  can tell a story. If you have a group of people, you can have each person submit a word, so if you start ‘once upon a time’ and each person picks a word and you go around in a circle until you tell a story. Sometimes we’ll do this as “Hey, write a letter to your favorite celebrity.” It becomes quite comical, but it also sets the norm and expectation that “Okay, I’ve got to come up with something here.”

Or  you can do the ‘yes, and.’ I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the ‘yes, and’ principle. ‘Yes, and’ is basically saying instead of oftentimes when we come up with an idea in practice, whether at work or with our friends, somebody says, “Yes, but it sucks because of this,” or, “Yes, but it won’t work.”

Using  this principle from improv called ‘yes, and’ when you’re on stage, whatever your improv partner throws your way, you’re mentally saying “Yes, and,” and you’re building on that idea.

Doing  an exercise of ‘yes, and’ where you tell a story or you build off an idea can be really, really impactful and a way for them to just start to learn kind of the norms or expectations of how to be more innovative, to be comfortable looking silly, to be comfortable making mistakes or looking stupid. Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis
It really does. I think that’s well said, loving the bomb and being comfortable looking silly or stupid. I remember I did a – I’m in Chicago, so we got Second City here. I did an improv intensive, they called it. It was four-ish days just before Thanksgiving a couple years ago. It was really fun.

What was interesting was I remember the first day I was like, “Okay, let’s see what this is all about,” and after being humiliated repeatedly, like the second day I was like, “I don’t know if I want to go back,” but I did. Then my third day, it’s like, “Oh, let’s do this.” It was like I kind of got over that hump. I really enjoyed it.

I was sharing with my friends and family like, “I really kind of liked that. It’s like I got loosened up.” They’re like, “Did you need to be loosened, Pete? You seem pretty loose to me already.”

Thomas Heffner
You’re  kind of already loose. No, I always encourage people that I teach to go and take an improv class because I think even if you don’t want to do improv for the rest of your life, which most people don’t, it’s just a really great experience of learning to become comfortable being uncomfortable.

You  have to do that when you’re doing something new and different, new and innovative because by definition it hasn’t been done before, so there are going to be a lot of times when you’re trying to build something new, where you’re like “I don’t know if this is the right thing. I think-“ or people tell you, “That’s stupid. That’s a dumb idea.”

You’re  going to have that bomb moment, where you can either lean into it and say, “Okay, back to the drawing board,” coming up with some new ideas or iterating on this idea or you can retreat and say, “Okay, I’m not doing that again.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good stuff. Now you also do some training. You’ve trained a number of US Army folk on resilience. Can we hear a couple pro tips in that realm as well?

Thomas Heffner
Yeah.  I’ll give a quick backstory of why we’re doing this. This comes out of the Iraq and Afghanistan war, where basically we have a long history studying pathology and disease. That history tells us we’re not really that great at treating depression, at treating anxiety, at treating PTSD. This goes back decades through all the different wars.

The  idea here was well, what if we could treat or train – what if we could train soldiers, not unlike Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine, what if we could inoculate against the psychological ills of war by teaching them the cognitive tools of resilience. That’s where this came out of. There’s a really great book called The Resilience Factor that dives into a lot of the insights of this. Definitely check that book out.

But  one think that I think is just really, really important is helping people understand a couple things. One, thinking traps. Thinking traps are these things that our brain does every single day for us because we have millions of pieces of data coming our way at any given moment that our brain is filtering. If we didn’t have these kind of cognitive shortcuts, we would go crazy because it would just be too much data.

We  have things like jumping to conclusions. Well, that’s good for a lot of things, but sometimes it can get us in trouble. Can you think of a time when you jumped to a conclusion that might have gotten you in trouble, Pete?

Pete Mockaitis
Well usually I don’t say them out loud. I was like, “Wait, hold a second Pete. That has not been proven. Let’s hold on for just a moment.”

Thomas Heffner
Yeah . Just last night when I saw the dinner plate on the table after we were supposed to clean up I’m like, “Dang it, did my son leave his plate there again? How many times do I have to tell him?” It turns out it was really my wife. Quickly I jumped to a conclusion that got me in a little bit of trouble.

Another  one is all or nothing thinking, which is one way you can operationalize this or visualize this is say you’re in college and you just took your calculus exam and you failed it. You say, “Son of a gun, I failed that math exam, just like I failed all the other math exams. I suck at math because I’m always going to suck at math.”

Well , if that’s your thinking trap in that moment, then yeah, you’re always going to suck at it because you jump  – well, you’re making that cognitive shortcut, when maybe that morning you got up early. The neighbor’s dog was barking and you went to bed late or you missed breakfast. Maybe there was other things that were contributing to that poor result.

What  it’s really doing, these thinking traps, these are a couple of them – me, me, me thinking or you, you, you thinking are some others – but the takeaway here isn’t the thinking traps themselves, those are important to know, but you need to slow down your thinking. This is a way to do it, so being aware of those thinking traps, it slows down your thinking so that you’re not automatically jumping to a conclusion that might be incorrect. That’s one.

Another  component that I really think is important for resilience training is what I call strengths-based learning or strengths-based – understanding your strengths. Have you ever heard of StrengthsFinder 2.0?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Thomas Heffner
Yeah,  so Strengths Finder 2.0 or values in action survey. Helping people to understand – well, one, to identify and then to understand their strengths and how to use them more is really, really important to being resilient. When I say resilient, I think it’s important here to just kind of define what that is. It means your ability to bounce back and push through adversities.

One  of the ways that we can do that is rely on our strengths, but most people, it turns out, don’t know what their strengths are. Walking around if you asked ten people, the majority of them would not know what their strengths are.

It  turns out that’s really, really important to know because if you know what your strengths are and if you use those strengths every day and get better at them and flex them ad cultivate them and use them, you perform better at work, you perform better in school, in sports, you’re happier, and more importantly too, you’re more resilient. That’s another one that’s really, really important as well.

Pete Mockaitis
That is a nice lineup there. Then the teaching is just largely about “Okay, recognize this pattern and see how it doesn’t serve you so well and here are some sort of interrupts or alternative thought patterns to go to instead so that you can bounce back all the better.”

Thomas Heffner
Exactly  right. Help them become aware of those things and then help them to practice getting better at them. Right.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Then I’m curious what are the sorts of results that come from this? What’s really encouraging is if you think about boy, the challenges you see in combat are just massive and very high potential for big stress and tragedy and trauma as compared to many of my work day stresses on a totally different lighter scale. What kind of impact does this make in terms of the results, the data, the outcomes in doing the resilience training?

Thomas Heffner
It’s a really great question. It’s still early in the data they’re deploying. What I will tell you is this data or this program was not built as a standalone originally. It was built off the back of resilience programs for – it’s called the Penn Resilience Program. In Philadelphia they developed this program for at risk kids in schools in the inner city.

What I’ll tell you is from that data, it’s positive in terms of yeah, kids are less depressed, they perform better in schools, they’re less anxious, etcetera, etcetera. The data for the military is still kind of – the jury is still kind of out.

In part because this type of study, it’s a really big, large study because guess what? When you’re in the military, people can just tell you what to do and that’s one of the great things about being a psychologist in the military, you get a lot of data. It’s a longitudinal study, which means it’s over a long period of time.

What they’ve found so far is that – and this was a really important point, so I don’t say this lightly – is that it does no harm, which is really important because there are a lot of psychologists that when we first started this program they thought, “Hey, you’re kind of playing a little bit of God here. You’re introducing this intervention and you don’t know if it’s going to negatively impact somebody.”

To which I’d say they’re right. We didn’t have the data yet to show that it wouldn’t harm them, although it was built on a program, a very similar program, with similar concepts and verbiage that was rigorously tested and that hadn’t caused any harm, but fair enough, fair criticism.

The first thing was, okay, let’s evaluate, make sure that we’re doing no harm. For sure, no harm was being done, which was really good. I think over the next I’ll say three to five years, the data will come back and say probably fairly definitively whether it’s helping or not.

I think anecdotally, just speaking with people that we’ve taught that we’ve stayed in touch with or that have become part of the training programs later, it’s been life changing for those people, but the jury is still out on the military side, at least on the domestic side, where teaching in schools and things like that, the same program, that has been a positive result.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, cool. We’ve had a lot of good stuff here. I’m curious, you’ve got a podcast called Next Year Now, which is how we met over at Podcast Movement. What’s that show all about? Do you talk about design thinking, innovation, creativity, reliance or what’s sort of like the main idea over there?

Thomas Heffner
Yeah, no. Thanks for asking. The show, the tagline I like to say, it’s based on the belief that everyday purposeful habits and practices are vital for us to thrive at work and at life. We interview world-class experts in what they do and try to uncover the habits and practices that have fueled their success.

I’d say it kind of spans three major areas. One being health and wellbeing, one being business and entrepreneurship, and then another one being personal development. What I would throw into personal development as well is creativity, innovation and things like that.

Yeah, we’ve interviewed a few people on innovation and creativity. One in particular that had a pretty big impact on my life is Adam Grant. He is the author of Originals, which is a book all about understanding how people become innovative leaders and thought – basically icons. People like Elon Musk and those cats. Yeah, we cover the gamut from that.

Also people that help out with – in some way with your health and wellbeing, so I would throw resilience in there. We interviewed Cory Muscara, who talks about – sorry, who talks about meditation and kind of the impact that that can have on your ability to be resilient or not. Cover a lot of ground there, but it’s a lot of fun.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s awesome. Very cool. Kudos on your top-notch guests and I’m excited for the future wherever it takes you.

Thomas Heffner
One thing that might be of interest for you all is that when we just talked about meditation and resilience and things like that, is we have a book review of a book called The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal. It’s a fantastic book. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend you read it. Lots of really great tips and insights on how to get better at stress, how to combat stress, counter stress, but also work with it.

I think that’s pretty useful information in there, but if you want to get some of the high-level insights and things like that, you can go over to NextYearNowPodcast.com/Awesome, so for your listeners. They can download the free book review and it’s just a nice way to pick up some tips and tricks to help with stress.


Pete Mockaitis

Cool, thanks. Well, now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Thomas Heffner
Favorite quote. You might remember this one. I don’t know if you were in this session at Podcast Movement, but it was – I’m going to paraphrase it because I can’t remember exactly, but “If you don’t build your dream, then somebody else is going to hire you to build their dream.”

When I first heard that quote at Podcast Movement, it kind of blew me away in part because I’ve spent 15 years working for somebody else until recently in starting my own business.

I think that’s just a really – we’re not all meant to be entrepreneurs, we’re not all meant to go that route, but I think it’s just a nice way to remind us that we all are – we all have that ability, we all have that possibility to create something special in our lives. Yeah, I think that’s my favorite quote.

Pete Mockaitis
That is cool, yes. Within that I would say that – well, I guess entrepreneurship worship is something that I feel like I encounter in the podcast.

Most of my pitches that I receive are for guests who have built a business or done something impressive in terms of going from ten million dollars or to ten million dollars in just two years. Wow, interview this guest. It’s very impressive. That’s cool and I’m happy for them, but it’s not quite as much of a fit here.

But what I dig about that dreams perspective, is that I think it’s very possible to be building a dream or a contributing towards the achievement of your own dream as an employee, either because you’re developing skills that you’re going to go use to go off and be on your own or just the nature of what you’re doing requires a whole lot of people to create.

I’m thinking about movies, TV, or sort of building a rocket ship or inventing an iPhone or something. It’s sort of like this is going to be a collaborative with a ton of people and you have a part of it.

Yeah, I think that quote’s a nice challenge totally for “Hey, is your career really bringing you forward on your dreams or is it not?” Not that the reaction is, “Well, if not, you’ve got to quit and start your own company,” but to gut check it and say this is really what is possible for you earning a living.

Thomas Heffner
Yeah. I think it’s just – if nothing else, if you take nothing else away from that, just be more intentional about what you want to do, because if you don’t – and like you said, this doesn’t have to be an entrepreneurial perspective, just in your career – if you’re not intentional about it, your career will just happen to you.

When it just happens to you, sometimes good things happen, but sometimes good things don’t happen. Just being more intentional about going after your dream. That can be within the context of working in an organization or working for somebody else. It doesn’t have to be entrepreneurial.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good, your career happens to you. Hence the title of the podcast Happen to Your Career. We had Scott Barlow on the show.

Thomas Heffner
Yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
It was – that’s a good one, happen to it. Awesome. How about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Thomas Heffner
I mean I would be remiss if I didn’t say positive psychology. I spent years studying positive psychology. I think that’s my favorite thing to dive into. When I read books it’s typically around something positive psych oriented whether that’s gratitude or compassion or etcetera, etcetera. I think positive psychology is probably my jam if you will.

Probably my favorite practice or one of the things that I think is just really, really important is what I call – you’ve heard it in different things – but I call it hunt the good stuff, which is basically the three blessings exercise, whether you do it by yourself or whether you do it with your family. I like to do it with my family at dinner time, where we say, “Hey, what are three good things that happened today and why did that happen?”

That’s something that’s based out of research from positive psychology. It turns out that it has a pretty robust and lasting effect on your wellbeing, i.e. that makes you happier. It’s just something that we do every night. I love reading about those types of pop psych, social psych data, and research.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite book?

Thomas Heffner
Book. Apropos of nothing that we’ve talked about, a book called Shantaram. Have you heard of it?

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t think I have. How do you spell this?

Thomas Heffner
S-H-A-N-T-A-R-A-M.

Pete Mockaitis
No.

Thomas Heffner
It’s by a guy named, if I get the name right, Gregory David – David Gregory Roberts or Gregory David Roberts. I can’t remember. But it’s a really cool – it’s a fictional book, but it’s kind of autobiographical as well.

It’s about this guy who was in academia. He was a Ph.D. student in philosophy. He gets into drugs like heroin and other things. Then he starts robbing banks. Gets caught, this is in Australia, and he flees – well, he gets caught, he goes to prison, then he breaks out of prison and he goes to Bombay and becomes –

He lives in the slums and runs in this world of the mafia, but also almost kind of like this patron saint, if you will, becomes – because he had some EMT training, there’s no doctors there, so he would help the people in the slums. He became this person everybody would bring their sick children or people to. It goes through this whole story.

There’s a lot of writing about you don’t know if it’s truly auto-biographical or what parts are fiction, but I think what’s really cool about it is – so being a psychology guy and being a positive psychology guy, this will come as no surprise, there’s a lot of philosophy that’s laden in this book with just gold nuggets of what does it mean, what does good and evil mean really, what does it mean to live a good life.

Just a really fantastic book. Great writing. Word of warning, it’s also I think about 999 pages long, so it’s not a short book, but I love the book.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, cool. Thank you. How about a favorite tool?

Thomas Heffner
Favorite tool. I love – I dig Canva. I don’t know if you ever use Canva.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, right the graphics.

Thomas Heffner
Yeah. For somebody that – I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to use Adobe Photoshop or Adobe InDesign, unless you have a Ph.D. in graphic design, I feel like those things are impossible to use or maybe it’s just me.

I really like Canva because I have to make different graphic designs and things like that periodically and I think Canva is just a really neat tool that in a way democratizes the graphic design for the rest of us non-designers.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. How about a favorite habit?

Thomas Heffner
Favorite habit. Here’s probably my favorite habit. I would say meditation or if meditation is not your jam, I also do coherent breathing. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of that.

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t think I’ve heard that exact pairing of words. I can guess what that means, but I’ll let you take it away. What does that mean?

Thomas Heffner
I say meditation because I’ve had a lot of great results and it’s helped me tremendously both kind of my psychological wellbeing as well as my physical wellbeing. But a lot of times people are like, “Look, I don’t like – I’m not a yogi, I’m not a Zen master. I don’t really want to do the whole meditation thing.” I just tell them, “Look, if that’s not your bag, if that’s not your jam, well then, just do some deep breathing.”

Just the act of deep belly breathing can be tremendously positive for your physical and emotional and psychological wellbeing. It’s called coherent breathing. If you Google coherent breathing, you’ll find different patterns and things like that. There’s a four-seven-eight pattern. You breathe in for a count of four, you hold for a count of seven, you exhale for a count of eight.

That’s not as important. I think the most important thing there is just you breathe out longer than you breathe in. It forces you to have these deep belly breaths that calm your nervous system and just – I’ve seen it first-hand where people are just really nervous.

I was up on a ropes course and the lady was freaking out. Her legs were shaking so much the platform was shaking. She was like, “Why is the platform shaking? Why is the platform shaking?” The instructor says, “Hey, well, take a look down.” She looks down. He’s like, “Your legs are shaking.” She’s like, “Oh.”

She’s super nervous. He says, “Look, just take some deep breaths.” She did that for two and a half minutes and I’m sure she was still nervous, but she wasn’t freaking out anymore.

That can be really, really helpful to help de-stress you, to help set the stage for a really good day if you do it in the morning. I always recommend do it the first thing when you wake up, do it may be over lunch time and do it right before you go to bed.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Tell me, is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks and they tend to repeat it, retweet it?

Thomas Heffner
I don’t know if it gets retweeted a lot, but I think one that connects with my listeners a lot is this idea of essentialism. You’ve probably heard of it in some fashion or form. But the idea of cutting out the non-essential in your life.

So many – now more than ever there is no shortage of things we could do, ideas we could pursue, etcetera, etcetera. Being able to cut through the non-essential to that one or maybe two things to pursue is really, really important if you want to be successful.

Pete Mockaitis

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

Thomas Heffner
Yeah, you can go to the Next Year Now Podcast website, which is NextYearNowPodcast.com or if you’re interested in learning more about design thinking and innovation, you can go to TomHeffner.com, which is my consulting site where I talk about the work that I do and the teaching that I do with design thinking and human centered design.

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

Thomas Heffner
I would really say embrace that quote from Steven Colbert, “Learn to love the bomb,” because it will help you in all aspects of life, whether it’s work, whether it’s in relationships, whether it’s in friendships or sports or whatever it is. When you can embrace that – when you can embrace failure, when you can embrace bombing, you will be more successful than other people who can’t.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Well, Tom, this has been a ton of fun. I wish you and the Next Year Podcast tons of luck and keep on rocking.

Thomas Heffner
Pete, thank you so much for having me on the show. I loved this conversation. I can’t wait until we get to catch up in person again soon.

308: How to Make Creative Ideas Irresistible with Allen Gannett

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Software founder and CEO Allen Gannett shares the critical components of successful ideas–and how to create more of them.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The two fundamental human desires that come together in winning innovations
  2. Little things to tweak to make your offering a smashing success
  3. The four laws of the creative curve

About Allen

Allen Gannett is the founder and CEO of TrackMaven, a marketing analytics platform whose clients have included Microsoft, Marriott, Saks Fifth Avenue, Home Depot, Aetna, Honda, and GE. He has been on the “30 Under 30” lists for both Inc. and Forbes. He is a contributor for FastCompany.com and author of The Creative Curve, on how anyone can achieve moments of creative genius, from Currency, a division of Penguin Random House. He was also once a very pitiful runner-up on Wheel of Fortune.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Allen Gannett Interview Transcript

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

Allen Gannett
Thanks man. Thanks for having the best named podcast on the internet.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I appreciate that. I was kind of inspired by Ramit Sethi of I Will Teach You to Be Rich because it’s like, I know exactly what I’m getting from you. I like that clarity.

Allen Gannett
It’s like that movie Snakes on a Plane. It was about snakes on a plane.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Oh, and it was a delight. Speaking – well, you’re a marketing guy, I loved what they did with. Samuel Jackson’s voice–calling people and leaving voice mails like, “Hey Allen, you’ve got to get your butt to see Snakes on a Plane.” I just thought that was the coolest thing.

Allen Gannett
I don’t remember that. That sounds – I need to go look that up. That’s amazing.

Pete Mockaitis
I hope it’s still live. It brought me such joy and probably a healthy return on investment that you could measure with TrackMaven.

Allen Gannett
This is true. This is true.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Let’s get into it a little bit, but first I think we’ve got to hear about your Wheel of Fortune experience.

Allen Gannett
Oh my God. Yeah, I think this is one of those fun facts in the bio.

Yes, when I was 18 I decided – I had this phase where I was like I want to get cast on game shows. How hard could it be? I basically applied to all these different game shows and I got – there was a local audition for Wheel of Fortune, so I went. I never really watched Wheel of Fortune before. I decided instead of studying the puzzles I would instead study the contestants.

I watched like hours and hours and I played like the web game. I did all this different stuff to get a feel for it. What I realized about all the contestants that were on the show is that they weren’t all that good at puzzles; what they were good at is they were all bubbly and they all like enunciated really well.

Yeah, I went in and I did terrible on the actual like written test part, but when it came to do the audition, I did an Elmo impression, which I will never, ever do again and I think they were like, “Okay, this guy’s sufficiently crazy.” Yeah, I went on and I lost terribly. I lost to Joan from Alexandria, Virginia who won 60,000 dollars. I did not win that.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh.

Allen Gannett
I know.

Pete Mockaitis
I wonder where Joan is now and what she’s done with the money.

Allen Gannett
Joan, if you’re listening, if you’re listening, please send me a DM.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh that’s fun. That’s good. All right, cool.

I want to get into your book here, but first to get a little bit of back story, so you are the founder and CEO of TrackMaven, which is marketing analytics software. Can you give us a little bit of a feel for how your experience in that world informed your view of creativity and made you think that you need to write this book?

Allen Gannett
Yeah, I’ve been running TrackMaven for almost six years now. The thing that’s really interesting is so we work with a lot of really big brands to help them find the patterns in their marketing data, so like what are the things that you’re doing, what are the stories you’re telling, the products you’re focusing on, the messages, the audiences, what are those things that are actually driving results for your business.

What we’ve found is that there’s actually a lot of science behind this sort of marketing creativity. I’ve always had this sort of right brain/left brain sort of overlap view of creativity.

A few years ago I started noticing that when I would talk to the marketers we work with, they would say something like, “Well, I’m just not that creative.” I was like, “Uh, what?” “I’m not that way. I wasn’t born like Mozart. I’m not Steve Jobs.” I was like, “Um, but creativity is like this skill that you can develop and learn.” They’re like, “No, no, no. You either have it or you don’t.”

I’d always read a lot of autobiographies and I always read a lot of stories of creative genius. When you read the autobiographies and the memoirs and stories from these people, what’s clear is that they don’t feel like they were just born with it. They also don’t feel it was just the result of hard work. They feel like it was a result of a lot of smart work and a lot of intentionality.

I started giving this talk at marketing conferences all about how we need to get rid of this notion of the creative genius just sort of like walking out of the womb with all these talents and that being a reason why you can’t also be creative.

That’s spiraled into a book proposal, which spiraled into broadening the book to all creatives because the thing I realized as I started digging into the topic was that creativity is one of these things that is actually one of the most misunderstood concepts in popular culture. We all think we know what it is, but there’s actually been tons of new fascinating science and research about creativity that people don’t know about.

It’s actually at this point pretty well studied. We have a really good understanding of what causes people to like certain things, dislike other things, what are the underlying things in your brain that actually drive creative thinking. We have a lot of good science on this.

The book was this attempt to both a) debunk this sort of inspiration theory of creativity and 2) to paint a picture of okay, if creativity is something you can nurture and develop, well, how do you do it.

For that half of the book I interviewed about 25 living creative geniuses. These are like billionaires like David Rubenstein, startup people like Alexis Ohanian from Reddit, Kevin Ryan who did MongoDB, Gilt Business Insider, DoubleClick. Oscar winners. I did YouTube vloggers like Casey Neistat. I did Tony award winners, Emmy award winners, all these different people.

I found that there was these consistent things they did to enhance their creativity over and over again. The book I explain what those things are and I explain how you can do them too.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, yes. I want to dig into these practices, absolutely. But first I’m just so intrigued. Can you unpack a little bit some of the key things that are universal like what makes us like stuff and dislike stuff?

Allen Gannett
Yeah, what I found was really interesting when you dive into the research is that people have studied this question a few different fields. They’ve studied it in psychology, in sociology, in neuroscience. It all sort of converged on this thing where it turns out a big part of our preference is tied around these two urges we have.

The first urge is that as people we crave the familiar. We like things that we’re comfortable with, that we know are safe. This is very much a sort of evolutionary or reptilian effect where part of our job of our brain is to keep us safe.

If we see – if thousands of years ago we saw a cave we had never seen before, we sort of know, “Hm, we should probably avoid that thing.” We have this ability to really seek out the familiar. Like what is – think about your home, think about visiting your grandmother’s home. These places where you feel sort of safe. That’s one thing.

The second type of thing that affects preference, the second urge is that we also are really interested in things that are novel because we like the potential rewards. For example, in the hunter/gatherer days you’re looking for new berries, you’re looking for new sources of food. You’re constantly looking for that next thing.

But the problem is that these two urges, the craving for familiarity because of safety and the seeking of novelty because of potential reward, are in direct contradiction with each other. It almost makes no sense.

The thing is and what scientists found is that this is actually a really elegant way for our brain to balance things because let’s say for example you see a new berry in a field and it looks wildly different than any berry you’ve ever seen before. You should probably not eat it because it’s probably poisonous.

If on the other hand you see a berry that’s basically a bigger blueberry, it’s just a big, fat blueberry, you can probably go, “Okay, it’s probably fine. I’m going to try it out.” Your brain has this really graceful way of balancing familiarity and novelty.

What scientists found is what this relationship looks like is that the more we see something, the more we like it, but only up until a point. Once that point is reached then every time we see it we like it less and less and less. What they found is that there’s this inverse U relationship. There’s this bell curve. There’s this bell curve between exposure and preference.

In the book I call it the creative curve. It’s this relationship where your job as a marketer, as an entrepreneur, as someone who’s tasked with creating anything is to create ideas that have that right blend of familiarity and novelty.

Star Wars was literally a Western in space. It was familiar, but it was also novel. Harry Potter was a traditional rags to riches, orphan rises to greatness story, but it was told in this whole world around witches and wizards and magic in a way which many children’s books had never done before.

That combination of familiarity and novelty, that was the thing that really stuck out as one of these findings that has been so well researched, so well founded, so well supported, but we don’t really talk about that when we talk about creativity.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. An inverse U, I guess I’m thinking of a lower case n, if you will, then how that unfolds. I don’t know who it was, a comedian or just one of my buddies who said, “Oh, that looks like something that I already know and love and yet is slightly different. I will try this new flavor of beef jerky.”

Allen Gannett
Yes. Totally.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. “I already like this brand of beef jerky and yet this is mesquite, so I am intrigued.” That connects and relates certainty to our experience.

I’m thinking about sort of like I guess startups that are really hits like Uber. It’s like, “You’re familiar with a cab? Okay. Well, hey, how about we just do that a little bit differently in a way that you find to be more convenient.”

Allen Gannett
When you think about – I think food trends are a great example of this. You saw, for example when Pink Berry rose to prominence. It was ice cream but it wasn’t. It was a little tangy. It was a little different. It was kind of healthy I guess. Now, obviously, it’s fallen from prominence.

Right now there’s that big trend going around of sort of the sushi burrito, like these giant, oversized sushi rolls. It’s something familiar. It’s sushi. It’s also something familiar. It’s a burrito. But it’s different. It’s a sushi burrito.

That’s one of those things that it was interesting because there’s all this science about it, but in the book I have a bunch of – have some quotes from some of the interviews and a lot of these creatives, they know this. They acknowledge this.

In fact I talk about this really fascinating study that this one professor did. He’s a professor of empirical musicology, which is a study of the math behind music. He did this study looking at how The Beatles used experimental song features over their career and it follows this U shape, where they use it more and more and as their audience started getting fatigued, they started using it less and less.

They always balanced the right balance of familiarity and novelty. They weren’t doing stuff that was too new. They weren’t doing stuff that was too old.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m also thinking about music there in terms of like if there’s a hit song on the radio or always just popping up again and again wherever you go. At first it’s like, “What is this? Oh no, eh.” Then it kind of grows on you, like, “Yeah, I dig this.” Then it’s like, “I’m sick of this. It’s everywhere. It’s just got to go. ”

Allen Gannett
Oh exactly. There’s actually a study in the book that literally did that in a scientific setting where they just played the same song over and over again. Again, there’s this U shaped relationship.

The first time you hear a new Drake song, you’re like, “Oh, okay.” The third time you’re like, “Oh, this is great.” The tenth time you’re like, “Please stop playing Hotline Bling” Then the twentieth time you’re like, “Why is this playing?”

You see this over and over again is that there’s this relationship. Things fall in and out of favor. If you’re going to master creativity, you have to first master that. You first have to master this curve.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess I’m wondering then, so let’s say you’re a professional. You are in an environment working with your folks, your colleagues day and day out. You need to come up with the big idea that’s going to, I don’t know, improve a process or be a new opportunity that we should chase after. How does one apply this principle in the trenches?

Allen Gannett
I think the biggest thing that you can apply from really sort of a micro-perspective is I think too often in business environments we focus on the novel. We focus on – we use words like innovation, brainstorming. We’re constantly trying to find these new, out-of-the-box ideas.

I think some of the most valuable innovation, especially in corporate America, actually comes from taking what’s already working and just updating, just doing those little tweaks, those little changes.

I think we have to get away from this idea that sort of originality and innovation are the key to success because that’s not actually what the science shows us. That’s not actually what history shows us. The things that are successful are actually oftentimes the things that are somewhat familiar. I think making that mind shift change is really important. I hate the word brainstorming. It’s like my least favorite word.

Pete Mockaitis
Is ideation also a no-no for you?

Allen Gannett
Ah, ah, you’re killing me Pete. Don’t say this. Stop.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess I’m thinking in terms of products. I guess you always think of Apple design and innovation and all those words. At the same time though the iPhone is kind of like, well, hey, it’s a phone and a music player and some internet goodies sort of in one.

It’s like you’ve got a thing in your pocket, maybe you have multiple things in your pocket, but you sort of put them all into one convenient package that looks great.

Allen Gannett
100%. You see this a lot – basically what you’re talking about is form factors. Form factors are a really common form of innovation because it’s the same actual functionality but in a different form factor.

Now we sort of joke about Tide pods because of the viral meme about people eating them, but before that they were a really successful product line because it was just taking detergent and making it easier to deal with.

It’s crazy because it’s literally just that – people I guess didn’t want to pour the detergent, but Tide pods were hugely successful just by changing the form factor. That’s all the change they made was. It wasn’t like some huge crazy innovation. It was just let’s put it in a little plastic dissolvable bag.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s true. That’s intriguing how you can also think about it in terms of a Tide pen, a Tide wipe.

Allen Gannett
Oh yeah, all these things. A Clorox wipe, it’s really the same thing.

Pete Mockaitis
A travel size or a jumbo size. That’s intriguing.

I’m almost sort of imagining sort of like a matrix or a spider diagram in terms of hey, form factor is one thing you can tweak a little bit on one axis or dimension. What are some others in terms of hey, form factor is one variable, size is another, what else?

Allen Gannett
It really depends on the creative field obviously. With consumer packaged goods, form factor is obviously one that’s pretty common. Brand’s another one that’s pretty common.

Oftentimes you’ll see this for example when people are writing novels, they oftentimes will use really traditional story arcs. There’s actually all this interesting research about story arcs. There’s like these six recurring story arcs that people always use. People will take that same story arc and then they’ll add their own characters, their own genre.

Sometimes people will innovate on the actual story arc and add like a weird twist or a sort of a surprise ending, but actually more traditionally successful types of art are taking the standard structures and formulas and they’re working off of that. Much more common is you see people using the standard sort of structure of formula in art and working off that.

Most successful radio songs are three minutes. There are the occasional songs, I guess like Bohemian Rhapsody that’s like forever and that are successful from a sort of popular perspective, but those are the exception, not the norm. Typically you actually have to really focus on what are going to be the things you do that are similar to the baseline not wildly different.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Now, one of the key pieces in your book is coming up with the right idea at the right time. You talked about this curve. Any thoughts in terms of the timing? Do you play the game a little bit different if it’s played out in super familiar versus, oh, it seems more novel?

Allen Gannett
Yeah, I think the thing you need to recognize is you need to learn how to listen to your audience to identify where your idea is and whether or not you can change it or pivot it to the right place because you need to be at that blend of familiar and novel, that right perfect blend to really take off.

In the book I talk about these four things these highly successful, creative people do. One of them that I was surprised by is that they all engage in a highly data driven iterative process. I don’t mean data necessarily purely in the data way, although some do, but I mean some sort of systematic rigorous process of creating, testing, editing, reediting, recreating, sort of doing that over and over and over again.

For example, I talk about how I spent a day with the Ben & Jerry’s flavor development, which was like a really fun, delicious day for lots of reasons.

One of the things that I thought was so interesting was you have these people who are like experts in ice cream, they’re experts in flavor, they’re former chefs, they’re food scientists, but the biggest thing, the most important thing for them that they do is every year they come up with a list of 200 flavor ideas and they survey their audience.

They literally send – they have an email newsletter. They send a survey to a subset of the people in the email newsletter. They just ask two questions. The two questions are 1) how likely are you to buy this flavor and 2) how unique is this flavor. They’re basically asking how familiar is it and how novel is it.

The reason why that’s so important is because what they want to do is if they create too many things that are too familiar, that are – people say, “Oh, I love that,” that are similar to things they already like, well, you’ll end up with a whole line of brownie and cookie flavors, which sounds good, but will eventually make the brand feel stale.

If you just focus on novelty, you’ll just get a bunch of flavors that are like crazy, but no one will actually buy them when they see them on the shelf, even if they taste good. They use data to winnow down those initial gut ideas into ideas that they feel have a high degree of success based on listening to their audience.

So much of creativity, so much about doing anything creative is about nailing that for your audience. I think it’s amazing how little we actually listen to our audience.

That was one of the things I thought was most surprising was we have this vision of these great creatives like going off into a cabin in the woods and creating these things and then returning with a finished product. In reality creatives interviewed, they love getting audience feedback because they’re creating for the audience.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. I’m intrigued. Those two questions then is it like a 400 item survey then if there’s 200 flavors and oh dang.

Allen Gannett
Yeah, it’s like a whole production.

Pete Mockaitis
Those are the committed ice cream-

Allen Gannett
Yeah. No I think they split it up, but yeah people get into Ben & Jerry’s. They have a big email list. You’d be shocked.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s very intriguing. I remember one of the first times I had this ah-ha was when I was – I don’t know how it happened. I was with my buddy, Conner, shut up. We were watching The Simpsons movie DVD commentary. I don’t know. It just happened that day.

Allen Gannett
It happens.

Pete Mockaitis
What occurred again and again in the commentary was the creators would talk about, “Oh, hey before in this scene we did this joke, but that didn’t work. Originally we did this, but that didn’t work.”

Allen Gannett
Totally.

Pete Mockaitis
“We tried it out,” and this and that. I was like wait a second. From my perspective as a consumer, okay this is just a silly cartoon movie, but from behind the curtain with the creative folk going after it, it’s like test it, test it, test it. It’s like, yeah.

Allen Gannett
Comedy is so fascinating. Standup comedy, I profile a standup comedian in the book. Standup comedy I think is one of the most interesting examples of this because they literally get on stage and their whole shtick is they’re supposed to look like they’re organic and jokey.

But literally if you ever watch the new Seinfeld special on Netflix, they have this scene where he’s sitting in the middle of a park and they took out all of his yellow legal pads of jokes that he’s written throughout his entire career and it fills the entire park.

Because the whole thing in standup comedy is what they actually do is they’re constantly writing down little ideas and then all these standup comedians, even the big ones are constantly going to small comedy shows to – they call it working out a joke because they want to get the every little pause and facial expression, they want to get that all nailed.

By the time it’s going in their comedy special a year from now, they’ve been practicing and testing and getting that joke just right for them to deliver it on air recorded. Then they mostly throw out the jokes they’ve done for their special and they do the whole thing over again.

Standup comedy is actually one of the most practiced, rehearsed, written types of creativity, but we think of it as this organic thing. It’s like, no, that’s not how it works. These people don’t just come up and start cracking jokes.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. I remember I always wondered when I was watching standup comedy, it’s like that joke is not at all connected to the previous joke. It feels like if this were a conversation, there would be a segue or whatever. It’s like, “Well, what can I tell you. I’ve got a bunch of jokes that are winning and they didn’t happen to be connected to each other, so this is what you got.”

Allen Gannett
Yeah, have fun.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so that’s one great process there in terms of the laws of creative success and you share a couple others. Can you reveal them for us?

Allen Gannett
Yeah, of course. In the book there’s these four laws of the creative curve. One I already mentioned obviously is iterations and these highly iterative processes, so all these creators do that. The other three, the first one is consumption.

One of the things I thought was so interesting is that we think of creators as constantly doing, as constantly putting stuff out there, but all the creators I interviewed actually spend a lot of time consuming information in their vertical.

I explain in the book why. I explain why they do that. But that was one of the things I thought was so fascinating. There’s a huge amount of time consuming information in their vertical.

The second thing is that, again, we talk about this sort of originality myth, but every single one I interviewed talked about at some level how they spend time imitating the greats. Imitation is a huge part of the creative process. The second law is imitation.

The reason why is that there’s these common structures, these common ways in which creative products are presented to an audience. When you have to balance familiarity and novelty, knowing those structures is very, very important to create the familiar.

The third one and the one that I think is probably the most important and the one that’s often underappreciated and misunderstood is creative communities. We have this sort of myth of the solo genius. The idea that there’s these creatives like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and they’re doing these things all by themselves.

This is so far from the truth. It’s so destructive because so much of creativity is a social phenomenon. You have to create work that other people recognize as creative. They have to tell people about it. People have to agree that it’s creative.

When you actually look at these stories, like look Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, he had investors. He had employees who worked for him. There’s all these people involved. In the book I break down the different types of people you need to have in your creative community.

But one of the ones that people always sort of forget about is all the creative geniuses I interviewed have what I call prominent promoter, someone who gives them and lends them credibility because if you are creative and no one ever hears about your work, sure your work may be technically proficient, but from an academic perspective, it’s actually not creative.

Creative work by definition has to be recognized as creative. People have to see it in order for it to be labeled as such. Having people who lend you credibility, who lend you air time, who do that is actually incredibly important.

The sort of social construct around creativity is one of the things that I thought was really interesting when you dive into creativity because if I asked you, “Hey Pete, is that painting creative?” It’s actually a hard question to answer because if you’re looking at a painting of the Mona Lisa, well if you’re looking at a new one today that’s an exact reproduction well, you’d say, “Well, it’s not creative.”

Okay, but what makes the original one creative? There’s other paintings from a similar time period that are just as well painted and just as interesting. There’s actually a really big social phenomenon aspect around creativity that really is actually an important sort of nuance to understand.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that turn of phrase prominent promoter. I’m just imagining sort of like a … man like, “Yeah dog. What he said. Oh, that’s so good.” What are a couple other key roles?

Allen Gannett
A couple other ones are – the other one is a master teacher. All the creatives I interviewed had someone who is a world-class expert as a teacher not just sort of middling level.

The prominent promoter and the master teacher, sometimes people find them in one as like a mentor but I think it’s important to break those two because they’re actually two separate roles. For a lot of people those came from two separate people.

The other one is what I call conflicting collaborators. Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs are a great example of this, where Steve Jobs didn’t want to design his computers. Steve Wozniak did not want to go around selling them.

Oftentimes we talk about these people as okay, they’re the face of it, they’re the name, they’re the genus, but they also have all done a good job of acknowledging their weaknesses and bringing other people in who conflict with them, who have those different talents to actually get to where they want to go.

That is so, so, so important because if you buy this myth that it’s all about you, it’s just about this one person and you have to do it by yourself, you’re never going to get there. You’re never going to get there and frankly, you probably shouldn’t because you’re going to need to learn how to engage with other people to really once you have a great product to actually get distribution.

The final one of the four types of people in a creative community is what I call a modern muse. What you find with these creative people is that they often surround themselves with people who inspire and motivate them. They’re not necessarily like a teacher or a mentor.

But for example, I interviewed a couple of really popular YouTube vloggers. I interviewed Casey Neistat and Connor Franta, who probably combined have like 20 or 25 million subscribers, like a lot.

What was interesting was that all of them would surround themselves, their friends, their friend group with other creators, other YouTube creators, other people and would keep them motivated, to keep them pushing, to give them that energy and it also gave them that friendly competition. It gave them that push of saying, “Okay, he or she did that, so I want to do that too.” They inspired each other. They did that.

Those four elements were incredibly important to have. Even missing one of those can be fatal to creative success.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool. Thank you.  I also want to dig in a little bit. You talk a bit about neuroscience and what it has to say about inspiration and ah-ha moments. What are some tidbits there?

Allen Gannett
Yeah, one of the most amazing things is that ah-ha moments, these flashes of genius we have that we think of as so magical are actually really well studied, Pete. People know, we know a lot about why they happen and all of that stuff.

The thing is that as people we can’t explain it. Oftentimes for things we can’t explain ourselves we ascribe sort of like magic, like it’s unexplainable. It’s not unexplainable. It’s actually pretty simple.

We have two different types of processing that go on in our brain. One is logical processing the other is sudden insight.

Logical processing happens in our left hemisphere. It’s very step-by-step. It’s like when you solve a math problem or work out a word puzzle letter by letter. It’s all conscious. You’re aware as the steps are going through. You know it’s happening.

The other type of processing is sudden insight. This happens in your right hemisphere. This type of processing is all subconscious. This is more connecting dissonant ideas together. Only once the answer comes together and three’s sort of like the left hemisphere is quiet enough, only then do you actually consciously experience these things.

That’s why we have this idea of sudden insight because these ideas suddenly pop out of consciousness but that doesn’t mean they’re magical. They’re in your right hemisphere and in fact this is why you have these so much when you’re in the shower or a lot of these stories people were in bed or they’re on a train or they’re on a commute is because in these moments your left hemisphere has sort of quieted down.

You kind of think about your left hemisphere and your right hemisphere as your left hemisphere is your noisy lab partner who won’t shut up about working through the problem and your right hemisphere is your quiet, smart lab partner who’s like working through and they say like, “Hey, I got the answer. I got the answer,” but you can’t actually hear them say it until your noisy lab partner kind of shuts up.

The thing is that since it’s really just a different type of processing, we actually have pretty good insight into how to have more of them. It’s more complicated than this and I explain in the book. But the short version is that if you want to have more sudden insight, you need to do two things.

One, obviously, you need to have the time, the sort of quiet time for your left hemisphere to sort of be settled. The second thing, the thing most people miss, this is why consumptions were in the laws, is you need to consume a large amount of information. You have to have the raw ingredients in your right hemisphere to actually connect.

I experienced this in the book where I’m reading thousands and thousands of pages of peer-reviewed research on creativity and so when I have ah-ha moments in the shower or whatever, I’m having ah-ha moments about these really dorky creativity concepts. If I hadn’t been reading all that, I wouldn’t have had those moments.

People are like, “Well, J.K. Rowling had these ideas for Harry Potter,” but she also spent her entire childhood reading because she had this chaotic household and she wanted to get away from it. Yeah, those are the raw ingredients in her brain. Those are the things that were percolating around.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that notion in terms of the quiet. I’m finding – we had a great podcast conversation with Dr. Michael Breus talk about optimal timing and our ultradian rhythms and neurotransmitters and goodies kind of internally biochemically you’re kind of predisposed to functioning in one or the other place better.

For me, I see it all the time, I actively sort of schedule my workday around it, sudden insights, creative goodies happen in the earlier part of the morning and then logical processing happens when I am kind of more fully woken up, breakfast and cruising.

I kind of deliberately try to schedule, “Oh, I’m going to write something for the early morning and then I’m going to categorize all these tax transactions in the later part of the day.” My brain is happier having the task match up what is required from it in the state that it happens to be in.

Allen Gannett
Totally.

Pete Mockaitis
Well this is so cool, so good. Allen, tell me anything you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things.

Allen Gannett
No, that was great. I think that the one thing that I worry about is that the book is saying that there is science and a path towards creative success. Pete, I’m not saying it’s easy. I think that’s a really important thing. In fact, I think it’s incredibly hard.

I think oftentimes we sort of think because it’s like a luck-based thing that, “Well, I don’t have it so I have an excuse not to try.” I actually want to challenge people. I think you can do it but you do have to try, you do have to lean in, you do have to really, really push yourself if you want to achieve that.

It’s not that I’m saying it’s easy. Actually, it’s really, really hard, but there is a path. That I think is an important thing to know.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool. Thank you. Now can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Allen Gannett
Oh my God. I have so many. I love Ben Horowitz book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things. I mean there’s like 500 quotes in there that I just think are – speak to me so much because I think at the end of the day if you haven’t read that book, it’s a book by Ben Horowitz, who’s one of the early employees of Netscape and he went on to found Andreessen Horowitz.

He talks about sort of the – he talks about what it’s like to be an entrepreneur in a way that I think is very authentic and real. The big point he makes is that the stuff isn’t easy. It’s not simple. It’s not straightforward. There aren’t silver bullets. I just think that message really resonates with me.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh beautiful. How about a favorite study or experiment or a bit of research?

Allen Gannett
Oh, I think anyone who gets into creativity will tell you that the study Robert Zajonc did the mere exposure effect study a long, long time ago. It has such a big influence in marketing and neuroscience and creativity research.

Basically the finding was that people’s exposure actually has a pretty big relationship on whether or not they like something. From there we’ve sort of gone down the rabbit hole and there’s been all this fascinating research around preference and likeability. That study started the whole thing.

Basically it’s kind of cute. He showed people these fake Chinese characters. They didn’t mean anything. Then he showed it to people different numbers of times and would ask them a) how positive or negative they thought it was and how much they liked it.

It’s really funny because people are like – people actually have opinions on it. “Oh, that’s a positive meaning word.” It turns out how that often people see it does affect it.

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

Allen Gannett
Oh my God. I love Boomerang. I’m one of those people who tends to write emails at like 1 AM in the morning. I don’t want to be that obnoxious person or obnoxious boss who’s sending emails at 1 AM, so scheduling stuff for 9 AM is like – keeps me sane and makes people think I’m sane, which is good. We want people to think that.

Pete Mockaitis
But you just ousted yourself. We all know that you’re not sane.

Allen Gannett
Yeah, I know. Everyone’s like why do these emails come right at 9 AM.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite habit?

Allen Gannett
For me every Saturday I take an incredibly long walk with the dog. It’s one of those times where it’s just like – I just think. I have that moment. I have that breath. I have that pause sort of in life. It gives me a chance to check in with my body. I can sort of feel is something wrong. Am I anxious? Am I tense? Usually we may stop and get a doughnut along the way. It’s a delicious habit.

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

Allen Gannett
I think the biggest think I’ve realized just in running a business is that everyone you work with is so human, people on my board, the people we sell to, the people who work here. Everyone is so human with flaws and contradictions and messy feelings.

I think as you come to realize that it really opens up your mind to how to interact with the world, how to interact with other companies and customers, and prospects, and all these different people because you realize that you need to treat people with the sort of respect and dignity that you treat any new friend or any new human you meet.

That for me has been a really powerful experience personally and something that I think has benefited other people.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m intrigued. Dig into that a bit in terms of have you shifted your behavior in terms of how you’re interacting with folks based upon this kind of core premise?

Allen Gannett
Yeah, I mean the thing is I tend to treat people with respect but as peers and I think it tends to be the biggest impact, especially for someone who is younger, is not overly formalizing things. I think you realize as you sort grow in your career that if you make everything overly formal, people don’t really want to work with you or interact with you. I think that’s a very common mistake that people make early in their careers.

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

Allen Gannett
My website is Allen.xyz. That’s A-L-L-E-N-.-X-Y-Z. You can check out the book at TheCreativeCurve.com. It comes out June 12th everywhere books are sold.

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

Allen Gannett
My call to action for all of you is that every single day when you walk in, know that if you are responsive, if you are responsible and you get done what you say you’re going to get done, you will outpace, outshine 95% of the people you work with.

If you’re building a team, you want to build a team of people who are all performing at that level and that’s where the magic happens. That’s where you get the lift. That’s where you can really step back and see a team grow.

Pete Mockaitis
Usually that’s the final word for that, I must know more. Tell me then, it seems like that seems foundational, “Yes, but of course I should do the things that I say I’m going to do.” Can you unpack a little bit in terms of common practice versus what you’re saying is an exceptional practice that makes an exceptional difference?

Allen Gannett
Yeah, the thing is that as people we’re busy. We get tired. We generally have a tendency towards homeostasis. We don’t actually always want to put in that extra incremental 10% effort. I know for me sometimes I’m tired. I don’t want to respond that email. I don’t want to do these things.

Those little actions, those actions that seem so small and inconsequential that you can write them off, that’s actually where the magic happens. That’s actually where high-performing teams happen because when the basics, when the foundations are taken for granted, when they’re assumed that you got that done, that’s when you can focus on the big stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, Allen, this has been a lot of fun. I wish you and TrackMaven and The Creative Curve tons of luck and success here.

Allen Gannett
Thanks man, I appreciate it.

294: Generating Greatness from Creative Workers with Todd Henry

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Founder of The Accidental Creative, Todd Henry, shares lessons learned from managing creative employees AKA “herding tigers.”

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why bounded autonomy produces the best creative results
  2. The right–and wrong–way to provide feedback on creative output
  3. How you may be subtly eroding trust

About Todd

Todd Henry teaches leaders and organizations how to establish practices that lead to everyday brilliance. He is the author of four books (The Accidental Creative, Die Empty, Louder Than Words, and Herding Tigers) which have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and he speaks and consults across dozens of industries on creativity, leadership, and passion for work. His book Die Empty was named by Amazon.com as one of the best books of 2013. His latest book, Herding Tigers, is about what creative people need from their leader, and how to give it to them.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Todd Henry Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Todd, it’s great to have you on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Todd Henry
It is great to be here, Pete. Thanks so much for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
I think we’re going to have so much fun. I’ve seen your podcast, The Accidental Creative, again, again, and again in the iTunes rankings that I probably check more than I should. Here we are talking to the man behind the brand.

Todd Henry
I’ll tell you, having been podcasting for a very, very long time I know how hard it is to build an audience and how hard it is to create something that so many people find valuable. Kudos to you because you have really climbed the top of a very difficult mountain and have stayed there for a very long time. That’s a testament to the value that you’re providing to the audience that ….

Pete Mockaitis
Oh shucks. Well, flattery is always a great start Todd.

Todd Henry
That was not planned, by the way. We didn’t talk about that in the pre-show that I was going to do this.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, you’re going to compliment me and then I’m going to compliment – let’s go back in time a little bit. Speaking of large audiences, you mentioned that once you were a country singer full time and you had audiences as large as 40,000 people.

Todd Henry
Oh my, I think we’re done here. Okay, this has been …. Yeah, I actually as I now call it – it’s funny with my kids I call it my misguided 20s. This was like 25 years ago now. But, yeah, I actually toured as a country musician singer. We played like West Coast Bakersfield, Buck Owens kind of really sort of rowdy honky-tonk kind of country music.

It was really fun for a number of years. We got to open for some great bands. One time we got invited to play at this festival over in I think it’s called St. Clairsville, Ohio, it was called, get ready for this, it’s called Jamboree in the Hills.

Somebody told me there were like 40,000 people there that day. It was really amazing. Seriously, I have never been in a situation before where it was like people as far as you can see. I speak events now and do all kind of – I have never seen a crowd like that before. It was literally – like I hear the phrase a sea of people, it was literally a sea of people. I couldn’t even see the end of the people.

That was really fun. It was a great experience. Then like so many of those kind of stories, I met a girl and realized that maybe the music business wasn’t necessarily going to be a long-term thing and ended up choosing gainful employment and marrying an amazing woman, which has absolutely been the right course of action. 25 years later here I am. That’s it. That’s my life story.

Pete Mockaitis
That is good. The thing is with meeting an amazing woman, you have so much more fodder for your country songs.

Todd Henry
That’s true. That’s true. Well, see, that’s what happened. I got happy and then I didn’t have anything sad to write about anymore and I had to give up country music.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s unfortunate in a way but in another way we’re all being enriched by your work. Maybe you could orient us a little bit to what is Accidental Creative all about.

Todd Henry
Yeah, I started Accidental Creative about a decade ago. The goal of the company is to help people and teams be what I call prolific, brilliant, and healthy all at the same time. Doing a lot of work, doing great work, and doing it in a sustainable way, in such a way that they can continue producing high volume of quality work over the course of time.

It’s really difficult to do because we’re all facing the pressure to do more. Resources are scarce. Expectations are only rising. I’ve never worked with an organization and had someone say, “You know, it’s just amazing. Expectations keep going down.” No, of course not. Expectations are rising.

With that, we all have to adapt and learn how to build practices, and rhythms, and structures, and systems into our life to help us approach the work that we’re doing on a daily basis, which when we’re dealing with the creative process, when we’re trying to solve very complex problems is challenging because you can’t force creativity into a predictable system. You don’t know when that brilliant insight is going to happen.

The only way that you can systemize around creativity is by having rituals, practices, systems, wells that you draw from. The thing is, Pete, that you have to build those systems before you need them. If you’re going to create on demand, if you want to have a brilliant idea at a moment’s notice, you have to begin far upstream from the moment you need that brilliant idea. The way you do that is by building practices, systems, rhythms into your life. That’s really what we do is we work with companies to help them do that.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. We’re going to talk about that in sort of group settings with your book Herding Tigers and management and collaboration, but while we’re talking I can’t resist, could you give us maybe one or two practices you’ve found for yourself, for clients, for listeners that just rock in terms of a little bit of effort and a whole lot of result.

Todd Henry
Absolutely, yeah. Well, one is, it’s going to sound like the most basic thing in the world, but it’s not what we know, it’s what we do that matters. The practice is implementing a ritual of study into your life.

By study I don’t mean pull out the trigonometry textbook and dust it off. That may be fine. Maybe that’s what you’re curious about. But what I mean is are you building time into your day to fill your mind with valuable stimuli. Are you exploring your curiosity? Are you, as Steven Sample from USC called it, are you communing with great minds.

Are you allowing other people to fill your well so that when you’re in a moment, because creativity really is just connecting things, as Steve Jobs famously quipped? We’re connecting dots, sometimes no intuitive dots that live just outside the periphery of our field of vision.

The more stuff we put into our head and the more we begin to think systemically, the more non-intuitive dots we can connect. As we do that, we begin to create disproportionate value.

But it begins by not just putting things into our mind, but actually taking time to stop and think about, “Okay, how does what I’m absorbing right now affect or in some way relate to the work that I’m doing?”

I might be reading a book about gardening or particle physics, but I can glean insights from those books and apply them to the work that I’m doing and try to force them together and try to play with what Steven Johnson calls the adjacent possible. Explore and experiment and try to connect dots and play around with ideas.

I can do that during that study time in a way that I often can’t do in my on-demand role at work because we simply don’t have the time or the resources to be able to play around forever. Do you have a ritual of study in your life? That’s a huge, huge thing.

Then sort of on the other end of the spectrum. I’ll tell you that one of the most valuable practices that I’ve personally implemented and now many other people that I have talked to have implemented is taking a midday walk. It sounds incredibly simple. It’s well, like yeah, duh. Okay, but are you doing it? Is that something you’re actually implementing?

What this does for is it gets us out of our environment. Often when I’m trying to generate ideas with teams, I’ll send them on what I call a stimulus dive, which means I want you to go out into the environment. I want you to go out into the neighborhood around this office building or whatever, wherever we happen to be and I want you to just observe.

I want you to come back with one piece of stimulus. It could be something you find in a store. It could be something you pick up off the street. It could be something you see. You can snap a photo of it. Whatever it is, I just want you to observe your environment and think about how are the things I’m seeing and observing potentially helping me solve this difficult creative problem that we’re working on right now.

It’s amazing what just getting out and being active and getting out in the environment and allowing new stimulus to wash over you can do for your creative process. Those are two very simple things. There are a thousand more I can talk about right now. Two very simple and immediately implementable practices I think people could put in play to help them jog ideas more consistently.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. It just sounds like that would be a fun place to work. “Oh, my job right now is to – okay. I’m down with this. Thanks Todd.”

Todd Henry
Frankly one of the biggest hurdles I have to get people over is like, “Okay, are people actually working right now?” “Yes, they’re working. Yes, that’s what they’re – right now they are working.”

As a matter of fact if you just have them sitting and staring at the problem, that’s probably the least effective thing you could have them do right now. Very rarely do you solve a problem just by sitting and staring at the problem.

You have to go out. You have to look at parallel problems that have been solved in the past. You have to go out and challenge assumptions. You have to go out and look at what’s going on in the environment. You have to immerse yourself in different kinds of stimuli. Go do a dumpster dive, see what happens. It feels very inefficient, but these kinds of things reveal intuitive connections that are just beneath the surface that we often sort of overlook in our mad dash to try to solve the problem.

Pete Mockaitis
That sounds wise. You’ve collected a number of these practices, and mindsets, and mechanics, and goodies in your book Herding Tigers. Can you give us the overview on what’s this all about?

Todd Henry
Yeah, for many years I like creative teams and I would always hear this phrase, and you’ve probably heard it too Pete, that leading creative people is like herding cats.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Todd Henry
Every time I heard that it took everything I could, I mean seriously not to punch the person.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m not a cat. How dare you.

Todd Henry
Well, because what’s implied by that is that creative people are flighty, that they have no discipline, that they just bounce from thing to thing, that they think they are the center of the universe. They’re egomaniacs. I mean that’s really I think what is implied by that.

One time I was speaking at a conference and it just came out of my mouth. I said, “How many have heard this phrase, that leading creative people is like herding cats?” and all the hands went up. I said, “It’s not like that at all. It’s actually more like herding tigers. These are powerful, majestic creatures capable of great beauty one moment and then turning around and ripping you to shreds if they’re not led properly.”

Everybody laughed and I thought, oh, that’s really cute, so I put it as a line in the book and then that became the title of the book thanks to my editor.

Really what I wanted to communicate to leaders is listen, if you want to get the best work out of the highly talented creative people on your team, who are by the way very driven and very driven to do great work. They want to do great work because often they identify themselves by the work that they do.

Then you have to know what it is they need, which sounds intuitive, but I think we often make assumptions about what creative people need that aren’t actually true.

For example, we tend to think that creative people are all about freedom. “Just give me freedom. Don’t fence me in. No boundaries. It’s all about the idea. All about freedom.”

That’s not actually true. If you talk to creative pros who are in the trenches, who are professionals, who are really doing great work, they’ll tell you that a lack of boundaries is detrimental to the creative process. They need some kind of bounding arc. They need some kind of boundary to help them focus their attention, focus their assets, focus their time, their energy.

Orson Wells, the great filmmaker, once said that ‘the absence of limitation is the enemy of art.’ I think that’s a brilliant observation. Without some sort of limitation, some sort of bounding arc, it’s difficult for creative people to focus their energy on what really matters.

The book is really about what does it creative people need from their leadership and how do we create an environment in which highly talented, driven creative people can thrive.

Pete Mockaitis
That really resonates with me as I’m thinking about – so I’m making this course right now. I’ve been working with some designers and more. It’s like great creative folk in my own experience, it’s like they eat it up when I give them some guidance.

In terms of like, “You know what? That question mark there that you’ve put into that logo, to me it feels a little bit like looming and scary, like a monster being projected over a flashlight. I want it to be more calming and sturdy and stable, like we’ve got guidance coming for you to this question.”

Part of me thinks I’m a little bit crazy when I say these things out loud. It’s like, “Okay, Pete has some odd associations maybe from his childhood about a monster in his closet.” But then great creative folks like, “Oh, thank you. That is so helpful for me.”

Todd Henry
Yes, absolutely. That is super helpful and the way you provided that feedback is very helpful. It’s very specific.

One thing that drives highly talented creative people crazy more than anything else is when somebody says, “It’s not working for me.” Oh, thank you. That’s very helpful to me.

But when you say, and this is really important as well, when you say, “Hey, I see what you’re doing here. I see what you were going for. I think I understand your strategy and your logic here and it’s not quite working for me. Let me elaborate on why it doesn’t quite resonate with me. Do you think we could do something like this or do you think we could change this thing or do you think you can think about it through this lens?”

That is super helpful feedback for creative people because listen, they want to get the project right. It’s not just about following their idea. It’s about accomplishing the goal of getting the project right. You’re the client or you’re the manager, whatever. They want to please you. They want to do what satisfies your objectives, but they need very specific feedback.

They need to understand that you use them and you see what they’re doing and that you care about the thought that went into the project. When you just go up to someone and you say, “Well, it’s not working for me,” basically what you’re doing is you’re discounting the last three weeks of their work. You’re saying, “That’s not working. What else have you got for me?” Okay, not helpful.

I would, just as encouragement to you, Pete, the way that you offer that feedback, being very precise about what you like and what you don’t like, that’s exactly what creative people need from you in order to produce their best work.

Pete Mockaitis
Good, good. Sometimes I wonder or worry like, “Am I driving this person to the edge of their sanity?” Like, “Oh, this guy. Listen to-“but, so thank you for that affirmation that that is indeed helpful as opposed to pushing people to a breakdown of sorts.

Todd Henry
Well, I will also say that one of the other things that’s a struggle is that this exists in tension. Yes, feedback is important. Yes, being very precise and specifically setting boundaries is important, but there has to be freedom within those boundaries to explore, to take risks, to try things.

Some leaders go overboard on the controlling piece. They go overboard on the feedback piece. Instead of saying, “Hey, here are the boundaries. Here’s what I’m looking for. Why don’t you play around with this and see what you can come up with?” Instead they say, “I want you to make a video for me that does this and this and this. And here’s the look I want. And here’s an example of something that’s just like it. Now go make it.”

Well, that’s not very motivating either because there’s no challenge there. Yes, there is stability for the creative, but there’s no challenge there for the highly talented creative person. What they’re going to do is basically just say, “Okay, just tell me what to do. That’s fine. Just tell me what to do.”

You’re not going to get the best work out of them. You’re not going to get the blessing of their intuitive perception, that dot connection, their years of experience because you’re basically telling them what to do.

What we’re aiming for is a bounded autonomy. Freedom within boundaries. Then frequent checkpoints in which you give feedback, like you gave before, which is beautiful. It was wonderful feedback. That’s exactly what you need.

“Hey, here’s some feedback. Now why don’t you go work on it within these rails?” Then you check back in and say, “Okay, we’re getting closer. Now, let me give you a little bit more feedback. Now, go work on it. Great.” That’s what healthy creative process looks like.

Pete Mockaitis
That is well said. Thank you. If folks are making the leap associated from – they were doing the creative making of stuff and now they’re beginning to do some management of folks who are doing that for them or for the team, what are some of the key mental shifts, adjustments that need to go down?

Todd Henry
This is a real struggle. I love how you say the mental shifts. I call them in the book the mindset shifts that you have to make when you transition from maker to manager.

Listen, when you’re early in your career and you’re making work, you’re a tactician – again, when I say making work or I say creative people, we’re all creative as a function of our job. We have to solve problems. Creativity is solving problems. That’s what we do every day. If you have to go to work and solve problems every day, this applies to you. You are a creative professional.

But when we go to work and we do something functionally, so if we’re performing a task or producing some kind of work, and basically we’re accountable for making sure that that work is great. That’s our job and we produce a result or a product or whatever it is.

At the end of the day, we measure our success as a maker by how great the product is. I can draw a very direct line between my efforts and the end result. I can say, “I made that. That’s how I define myself.”

For example, in the world of agencies, creative agencies, which is where I spend some of my time, a designer can define themselves as a brilliant designer. They become known for their work. They have a style. They have a thing that they do.

Maybe if you’re a salesperson, you have a specific way that you approach sales, specific way that you approach relationships, and you become known as the person who does that thing. That’s what you’re known for. You’re the closer. You’re the person who can get the result, which is great.

But the moment you transition from maker to manager, you have to make a couple of significant shifts in how you think about it because you are no longer defined by the work you do. You’re defined by how you lead other people who are doing that same work, which is a difficult transition for people to make who have defined themselves their entire career as a person who does a thing.

“Okay, well if I’m no longer defined as a person who does a thing, who makes a thing, who manages a relationship, whatever that is, if that’s no longer me, how do I define myself as a leader? Who am I anymore? I don’t even recognize myself.”
Which is why many leaders when they first transition to a manager role, default to control. They default to clamping down, to stepping in, to doing the work for their team because they think I can do it better than my team members can. I’ve been doing it for five years. I know the job better than they do, so I’m going to step in and make sure that the job is done the way it needs to be done.

But there’s a problem with that and the problem is you’re not giving those people the chance to grow, to take risks, to develop their skills, and over time your entire team’s sphere of influence and their capacity never grows beyond your direct sphere of involvement.

You’re going to train your team just to stop and think, “Okay, you know what? Just tell me what you want me to do. I’m just going to wait for you to tell me what to do.” That’s what you’re going to train your team to do and you’re not going to retain people with a lot of potential, highly talented, creative people for very long if that’s your mindset.

You have to transition from a mindset of control, which is all about getting the work right now to a mindset of influence, which is “I am going to lead you and guide you and provide that bounded autonomy for you, give you a chance to play and take risks and try things with frequent checkpoints and I’m going to check in with you and make sure that you’re on course.

But I’m going to give you the freedom to experiment and play and develop your skills so that the capacity of our team is growing over time beyond the sphere of my direct involvement.”

That’s a really difficult thing, Pete, for leaders to do because they have been defined by the work they produce. You would think that when you get promoted to a managerial role, you would think, “Oh, hey, I’ve arrived.” Now the ego’s kicking in, all of that, but for a lot of people there’s a bit of an identity crisis that happens because “Who am I now? How do I define myself?” We have to define ourselves as people who lead by influence not by control.

Pete Mockaitis
Well said, well said. Now I’m curious when it comes to the influence and control point, a lot of listeners have shared that they don’t even have the option of control. They don’t actually have direct reports that they have the power to reward, to review, etcetera.

And yet within their sprawling matrix-y whatever organization, they need to be persuasive and influential and have folks indeed produce something and something good. I’d love it if you have any sort of special prescriptions for being influential in that space and getting things done and getting things done brilliantly.

Todd Henry
Absolutely. Well, first of all, you have to prove yourself as component. That’s the baseline for any level of influence in any setting is if you’re not doing the work, if you haven’t shown yourself capable of doing the work, no one is going to respect you. When I say stop doing the work when you transition to being the maker, that implies that you have actually proved before that you can do the work, that you’re stepping back from it.

But the main thing with regard to leading by influence is it’s really important when we talked earlier about making sure that you understand what drives other people, leading by influence is letting other people know what drives you. It’s letting them understand your leadership philosophy.

What is it that you expect from other people? How do you think about work? What are the battle lines that you draw when it comes to how you do your job and how you interact with other people?

For example, it’s really important that other people understand how you define what quality work looks like. That can be such a subjective thing.

You need to communicate to the people around you, “Hey, when you come to me with something, here’s how I measure whether this is good enough or not. Here’s how I measure whether an idea is right or not. Here’s how I believe conflicts should be handled. Let’s talk about that philosophy of how conflicts should be handled. Should it be handled individually? Should I be involved every time there’s conflict?”

It’s important that you communicate to other people. There has to be some overriding leadership philosophy or point of view that you’re communicating to other people so that they understand how to interact with you and they understand how you’re making decisions and they understand the guiding philosophy that is informing your personal choices and interactions with them.

There was an Australian business man who once told author Tom Peters that he basically had a very simple leadership philosophy. It was I want to reward excellent failures and punish mediocre successes, which means if you succeed in a very mediocre way, I am going to punish you because that’s not what we’re aiming to do here. I expect you to take risks and try things.

If you fail, but you fail in an excellent way because we’ve learned something, because you’ve learned something, you’ve developed a skill, you’ve given us a head start on our competition even though we’ve failed in some way, great. You will be rewarded for that.

It’s really important that we communicate those kinds of rails to the people around us and help them understand the grid through which we’re making decisions, the grid through which people are rewarded, the grid through which people will be reprimanded.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that a lot. I’m thinking now about how do you measure quality. I think if we zoom into just the realm of reports, proposals, spreadsheets, maybe it’s not as sexy as a logo or a website or something, but in that realm, I’d love it if you could maybe share a couple sort of precise examples of how someone might articulate, “This is what I expect from an outstanding write up sent to me.”

Todd Henry
Yeah. That’s a great question.

Again, part of the challenge is that quality is, it’s right there in the word, it’s qualitative. It’s part of the challenge. What is quality in one circumstance may not be quality in another circumstance. It just totally depends on the objectives, depends on the client. There are probably clients who want something fast more than they want it to be maybe of the utmost quality from your sort of subjective opinion.

But I always like to encourage people at the end of any project to basically ask three questions to determine whether it’s quality or not, whether the project was successful or not in that way.

Number one, did we accomplish our objectives. We went into the project knowing we were trying to accomplish something, we were trying to create something, so does the thing that we did solve the problem we were trying to solve. If the answer is yes, great, wonderful.

Secondly, did we maintain our values in the process because if you produce something but in the process of producing that, you destroyed the team around you or there is all kinds of backbiting and infighting and everybody hates one another now, well, okay, I would be really hard-pressed to say that was a successful project because yeah, you produced a quality end product that accomplished the objective, but the team hates itself, so the process was in some way corrupt.

I think you have to include the process in that definition of quality too. Did we engage in a quality process? Did we maintain our values in the midst of it?

Then finally, and this is a little bit subjective, but I always encourage people to ask this question because I think it’s important, are we poised to do it again. If we had another project just like this come across our desk tomorrow, could we do this again? Are we able to do it again or are we completely spent? Are we completely burnt out? Are we at a place where I need three weeks in Hawaii to recover from this project, which is often the case?

This is what a lot of teams do. They sprint, sprint, sprint, sprint and it’s like, “Okay, we’ve just got to climb this mountain. Once we get to the top of this mountain, we’re going to be good.” They get to the top of the mountain and everybody’s like, “Okay, okay.”

Then they get to the crest of the mountain, they look over and there’s another bigger mountain right in front of them that the leader’s like, “Okay, let’s go take that one.” The people are like, “Are you kidding me? You told me this was the mountain we had to climb. Now there’s a bigger one in front of us.”

I think we always have to ask ourselves are we poised to do it again. Can we continue producing work at the rate that we’re producing this work or are going through cycles of crash, burn, refresh? I think that has to be included in the definition of quality and excellence as an organization in order to continue producing what can be prolific, brilliant and healthy over the long term.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that a lot and it’s resonating. I’m thinking about my own exhaustion, like, “Hm, what needs to change here? Is it more help? Is it – yeah, is it just a clearer sense for how long things actually take because I’ve never used those tools before and it takes some time to learn those tools even though they say it’s supposed to be really easy on the sales page of the website.”

Todd Henry
Sure, absolutely. This gets sort of to the issue of trust. As a leader, you will lose your team if you do that.

If you are not being realistic with them, if you’re not painting a clear picture of what’s going to happen, when it’s going to happen, what’s expected of them, if you say things like, “Well, let’s just get through this and then we’re going to  have a couple days break,” and then you get to the end of the project on a Friday and you say, “Actually, I need you guys to come in this weekend because blah, blah, blah.” Whatever.

You’re like Office Space, right? Yeah, I’m going to need you to come in this weekend.”

You’re going to lose your team. Now you won’t lose them immediately. They’ll show up. They’ll do their job begrudgingly, but they’re not going to be engaged. I guarantee you they’re going to be looking for other jobs before too long if that happens very frequently because most leaders don’t blow trust in the big ways.

You’re not overtly lying to your team. You’re not overtly underpaying them. You’re not overtly doing things that are causing dissention and all that. It’s the little things that cause us to lose trust.

Trust is the currency of creative teams. You cannot function as a creative team without trust because trust is what enables us to take risks. Trust is what enables us to collaborate even when we disagree with an idea, I trust you enough that I’m willing to go your direction because I believe I trust that you have my best interests at heart. I’m willing to do that. If we begin to forfeit trust, we forfeit everything as a creative leader.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I would love to hear a few little examples of how trust gets eroded that might really strike home and cause people to look themselves in the mirror and go, “Uh oh.”

Todd Henry
Yeah. I’ll give you one very quick story. I live in southern Ohio. A couple of years ago there was a bear spotted in southern Ohio, which is an anomaly by the way. I’m not sure where you’re based, but we don’t really have bears around here.

My kids were freaked out. They’re like, “Oh my gosh. There’s a bear in southern Ohio.” They’re envisioning this bear climbing up the wall of our house and sneaking into their room and eating them in their sleep. I’m like, “Listen, listen, listen. That bear is like 100 miles from here.” I live in Cincinnati.

I was like, “Okay, the bear’s like 100 miles east of here. It’s out in the woods. That bear has no interest whatsoever in coming into the city. That bear is perfectly happy. It’s going to make its way back over to Kentucky, where it belongs. It’s going to be fine. Everything’s good. Don’t worry about the bear. You’re never going to see that bear in a million years.”

Two weeks later, Pete, two weeks later, I pull out of my driveway, I turn right, I go down to the bottom of the hill and there’s a news crew camped out at the bottom of the hill right down the block from our house. I roll down my window and I say, “Hey, what’s going on?” They say, “You’re not going to believe this about a half hour ago two joggers saw the bear run into the creek across the street,” a block from my house, Pete.

The bear was in my neighborhood. The bear was literally in my backyard. The bear that I had promised my kids, “Oh, it’s 100 miles away. There’s no way you’re ever going to see that bear,” was in my neighborhood.

Over the course of the next two weeks that bear was seen basically in every place we go: restaurants – it was in the trash at some of the restaurants we eat it, it was seen in the trash of some of our neighbors, it was running around the neighborhood, people say it running in the moonlight, all around our house.

Let’s just say that dad lost a little bit of credibility with the whole bear thing with the kids. For like three months after that it was like, “Now dad, is this really true or is this kind of like the bear thing?” Not a good thing, but super cute. Cute story. Not cute for dad, but cute for the kids.

But we do this as leaders all the time. We do. I call this declaring undeclearables. We say something because we think, “Oh, this is most likely going to happen, so I can declare this as an undeclearable. Hey, if you work this Saturday, I’m going to give you next Friday off. Well actually something came up. I didn’t have anything to do with it, but somebody up above me said that we need to work on this thing, so I’m going to need you here on Friday.”

It’s a little thing. It’s a very little thing, but it’s not little when your team takes your words to heart.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and they made a plan. They were going to do a cool think on Friday, now they’re not going to do it.

Todd Henry
That’s exactly right. They made a plan.

Pete Mockaitis
Had to disappoint their family, their friends.

Todd Henry
That’s right and it’s really easy to navigate yourself to a place as a leader where your words mean nothing. They mean nothing.

When it comes to encouraging your team to take a big risk to follow you into the metaphorical battle of doing complex, difficult creative work, they’re not going to follow you. They might follow you begrudgingly. They might go behind you, but they’re not really following you because they don’t really trust you anymore. It’s the little things we do as leaders that forfeit trust.

I encourage people to think about is there a place in my leading right now where I am saying things because most likely I’m going to be okay, but I can’t guarantee that it’s really going to happen because that’s a way that you potentially setting yourself up for a breach of trust. You have to be careful about your words because your words actually have weight to the people on your team. Your words matter.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s potent. Thank you. Todd, tell me, is there anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Todd Henry
I think the main thing that I want to encourage people in is listen, if you have hired talented, bright, sharp, amazing, driven people for your team, understand that they care about the work and they care about the mission and they care about you as a manager. It may not always seem like it, but they care about you as a manager and they want – it’s really important to them that they’re doing work that matters to them.

You have to know them. They need to know that you see them, that you believe in them, you know what makes them tick, that you see the great work that they’re doing, the sacrifices that they’re making. This is another thing we often overlook. As managers we don’t recognize the blood, sweat and tears that actually goes into doing creative work.

I just want to encourage people, “Listen, you need to know your team. You need to provide stability for them and protect them from the chaos monster of the organization. But you also need to give them permission to take risks, to be themselves, and to know I see you, I value you, I believe in you and I know that you’re capable of great things. It’s just that we need those great things to be within a kind of bounded autonomy and creative pros will respect that.

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

Todd Henry
Yeah, it’s kind of a long one. I could say it verbatim, but I often share this when I speak. It’s by Thomas Merton, who’s one of my favorite thinkers and writers. He was a cloistered monk in Kentucky actually, just outside of Louisville in the mid-1900s and wrote I think some of the most potent observations about life and art and work and spirituality.

But he said ‘There can be an intense egoism in following everyone else. People are in a hurry to magnify themselves by imitating what is popular and too lazy to think of anything better. Hurry ruins saints as well as artists. They want quick success and they’re in such a hurry to get it, they cannot take time to be true to themselves and when the madness is upon them, they justify their haste as a species of integrity.’

The part that really resonates with me is the part about being in such a hurry, they want quick success that they’re in a hurry to emulate other people in order to get it.

That’s a reminder to me that I need to step back on a consistent basis and ask, “Am I navigating according to where I believe I should be or am I navigating according to what everyone around me thinks I should do.”

Because it’s really easy, Pete, and I’m sure you’ve seen this in your work as well, it’s really easy to get to a place and look back and say, “I never wanted to be here. I just did what everybody else told me I should do or what they would do in my circumstance.”

There are all kinds of reasons people will tell you to take a risk or do something, Pete, right? There are all kinds of reasons. They will say, “Oh yeah, you should go do that,” because they just want to see if you’ll jump off the cliff. They don’t have your best interests at heart. “Yeah, you should go do that.”

You have to be really careful to make sure you’re navigating toward something meaningful and not just emulating others for the sake of quick success. That’s what that quote does for me.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s powerful and wise and I wish I took that to heart maybe in the first three years of my business. I just sort of said, “Oh, I should start a blog? Okay. Oh, I should be on Twitter? Okay.” It’s like, no, no, no. The very first step is to identify a need that I can contribute to in a helpful way that real people have.

Todd Henry
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
And from a business perspective, will ultimately pay for. It’s like, oh, okay.

Todd Henry
That’s exactly right. Yes, absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s more important than starting a blog.

Todd Henry
Absolutely. We see this, right? We see people copying tactics because tactics seem to work in the short run. That applies to large organizations as well as small.

How many times have I come into an organization and you see the book du jour on somebody’s desk. It’s like, well, okay, everybody in the organization is reading this because it’s the book du jour. But it’s just the latest trend. It’s just the latest thing that everybody’s reading, but it’s not really solving their problem. It’s just we’re chasing after something.

It’s always important that you step back – by the way, if you want to make Herding Tigers your book du jour, I would fully endorse that. That’s totally great. But if not, if it’s not for you, that’s great too. We have to step back and ask what problem are we really trying to solve here and what’s the best way for us to solve this problem, not what would everybody else do in our circumstance.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely, thank you. How about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Todd Henry
Yeah, I’m actually – it’s funny, the first thing that comes to mind right now is I’m reading a book called The Hit Makers, which is about how things become popular in an age of distraction. It’s really fascinating.

One of the studies that they reference in the book is a study about the fact that people tend to – we tend to think that people like things that are extremely novel, extremely new, extremely creative from that perspective. The reality is we actually don’t. We actually like things that slightly push the boundary, but also feel extremely familiar.

That’s why a lot of the pop music that is so popular, people are like, “Oh, that’s so repetitive and mundane and whatever,” well, but there is something about it that is unique. There’s some hook or something that makes it feel a little bit edgy, but it’s still rooted in something very familiar to people, which is why a lot of pop music, popular music sounds very similar on the radio.

They all have sort of a unique hook, but really if you dissected the songs, they’re all often very, very similar because as human beings, that’s what we gravitate to.

If you’re in a place where you want to introduce an idea into your organization, it’s not always best to go in and say, “I have something nobody has ever thought of before.” No, no, you need to say, “Hey, here’s kind of where we are and here’s the ground that we’re kind of taking right now and here’s kind of an intuitive leap just beyond the bounds of where we are. What do you think?”

You have to contextualize it for people and help them connect the dots if you want it to resonate. I can’t remember the name of the study. I can’t remember who did it. But that’s the one that’s really clicking with me right now.

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

Todd Henry
Yeah, I use the writing tool Scrivener. For anyone who does long form writing, it is by far my favorite tool I’ve ever used for writing.

It allows you to write in a non-linear way. I tend to write my books from the inside out. I don’t write them from the beginning to the end, so I can work on sections at a time and just put a couple hundred words in a section and whatever I’m thinking about at that point in time. It’s great. Yeah, highly recommend Scrivener.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool, thank you. How about a particular nugget, something that you share that really seems to connect and resonate for people?

Todd Henry
It’s funny. The one that gets shared so often on Twitter, like every day there are probably 50 or 60 people that share this is ‘Don’t let your rituals become ruts.’

I think I spend so much time talking about rituals and building rituals into your life, but it’s really easy to allow the ritual to become the objective.

I always tell people, “Listen, your systems in your organizations exist to serve you, not the other way around. You don’t exist to serve your systems.” People think systems are set it and forget it. They think rituals are set it and forget it.

You know, “We have a recurring meeting every Monday. That’s what we do.” Really? How long has it been since that meeting’s felt extremely productive for your team?

I would just encourage people look at all the rituals, the systems, the methods, the things that are going on in your life and consider have any of these rituals become ruts for me and do I need to shake them up and do something different to jog my creative self.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that. Thank you. If folks want to learn more or get in touch, Todd, where would you point them?

Todd Henry
The best way to find me is at ToddHenry.com. That’s my personal site. From there you can get to Accidental Creative, the Accidental Creative podcast, which I’ve been doing for 13 years now, twice a week. You can check that out at ToddHenry.com as well and also find all my books.

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

Todd Henry
I do. Listen, friends, because I’m in the same boat that you are. I care very deeply about my work as I know that you do. I care very deeply about the people I work with, as I know that you do.

It’s important to recognize that that project you’re working on is going to be forgotten in 50 years. That company that you’re building right now, nobody is going to remember that in 50 or 75 or 100 years. That amazing campaign you did that won all of those awards, nobody is going to care about that in 50 years. Not to depress anyone, but that’s the reality.

The truth is the way that you influence the people around you, the way that you lead other people, the way that you impact their life for the better is going to continue to resonate down through generation, after generation, after generation. They way that you build into people is going to echo for generations to come.

That is your legacy. That is your body of work. That’s the only thing that’s going to last from how you spend your days right now.

My encouragement to anyone out there who has any form of leadership responsibility, which is all of us because we lead ourselves and lead other people, lead the people around us, but if you have influence over people, I encourage you to commit to being a leader who makes echoes because that is your legacy.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Todd, this has been so much fun. Thank you for sharing this. I wish you tons of luck with Accidental Creative and Herding Tigers and all the cool stuff you’re doing.

Todd Henry
Thanks so much Pete. And thanks for the great work that you do. Very few people understand how hard it is to continue to produce great content like you do week after week. Thank you for committing to all of us who are fans of your work and continuing to stay committed to producing great work.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you.