Tag

KF #19. Cultivates Innovation Archives - How to be Awesome at Your Job

639: How to Get More Breakthrough Ideas with Susan Robertson

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Susan

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

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

Resources mentioned in the show:

Susan Robertson Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susan Robertson
Yes, it is.

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, let’s hear it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s do it, yeah.

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

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

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

Pete Mockaitis
They have to be new, huh?

Susan Robertson
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
The salad dressing enables it.

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

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s definitely innovative.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Well, everybody knows that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susan Robertson
Exactly. Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
All right, yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susan Robertson
Yup.

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And how about a favorite book?

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite habit?

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

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

Susan Robertson
“Let some crazy in the room.”

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

Susan Robertson
My website SusanRobertson.co.

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

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

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

Susan Robertson
Thank you.

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

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

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

You’ll Learn:

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

 

About Stephen

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

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

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

Stephen Shapiro Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Convenient.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[09:07]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Shapiro
Yes.

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Media.

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

Pete Mockaitis
Content.

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

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

Stephen Shapiro
Sure.

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Shapiro
Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Shapiro
Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[30:02]

Stephen Shapiro
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

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

Pete Mockaitis
That is a great title.

Stephen Shapiro
It’s a great book.

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I use it too.

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

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

566: How to Start Focusing and Stop Firefighting with Mike Michalowicz

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Mike Michalowicz shares how to zero in on the most important issues to fix next.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to identify what you need to fix next.
  2. A crucial question you’re forgetting to ask.
  3. The tremendous energy unleashed by providing context for goals.

About Mike

Mike Michalowicz is the entrepreneur behind three multimillion dollar companies and is the author of Profit First, Clockwork, The Pumpkin Plan, and his newest book, Fix This Next: Make the Vital Change That Will Level Up Your Business. Mike is a former small business columnist for The Wall Street Journal and regularly travels the globe as an entrepreneurial advocate.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

  • Magic Spoon. Enjoy free shipping on delicious, healthy, high-protein cereal that reminds you of childhood. Free shipping on the variety pack at magicspoon.com/HTBA

Mike Michalowicz Interview Transcript

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

Mike Michalowicz
Pete, it’s my joy to be here. Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. Well, I’m excited. I’ve really enjoyed your audiobooks, and you’re kind of a goofball which I am too, so I think feel free to cut loose here. It’s interesting. We had another guest, Simon Sinek, who dubs you as a top contender for the patron saint of entrepreneurs, which is high praise.

Mike Michalowicz
Unbelievable. Just unbelievable.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m familiar with some stories of saints, and often they include heroically facing adversity. And one of my favorite stories from you involves a tough night at dinner, and some people coming to your aid. Can you share that with us to frame up what you’re all about?

Mike Michalowicz
Yeah, yeah. So, I started my entrepreneurial journey very early in life right after college and had a couple of early wins under my belt. I sold my first tech company. I was in computer technology. My first tech company was a private equity exit. My second company was a Fortune 500 acquired us, and I’m like, “I am hot shit. I know everything,” which, by the way, seems like to be the impetus or the start of a downfall for many a person when we believe we know all. And I was just full of arrogance and ignorance.

Well, I started a third business that I leave off my CV conveniently as an angel investor, and I sucked at it. I had no idea what I was doing. I thought, “Hey, I’m so smart I know everything about business. As long as I’m here, we’re making money.” I started 10 companies, and within a mere six months, all of them were out of business. I was paying bills for businesses that didn’t even exist anymore and, also, just blew money on just arrogance.

The big house, I got a place in Hawaii for our sabbatical, our family sabbatical. I just blew money on cars and all stuff. And it took me two years, I got a call from my accountant, he says, “Mike, you hit rock bottom. I think you should declare personal bankruptcy,” something actually I didn’t do. I thought I was responsible. But, as a consequence, I had to lose my possessions. We lost our house 30 days later, cars, everything.

I came home the night I heard this from my accountant, and had to face my family because I hadn’t been telling them the truth of the struggles. I really did think, you know, I had a bank account that was dwindling at an exponential rate, somehow, someone would come in and save the day and acquire this mess I had created, but nothing happened. And I came home to my family and told them, “We’re done. We lost it all.” And I was sobbing. I was just devastated. And I had to face my wife, and say, “I’m sorry. We’re losing the house, and we’re losing our cars, and we’re losing our possessions.”

My daughter was nine years old at the time, and she’s sitting there, and I said, “I’m so sorry but I can’t afford for you to go to horseback riding lessons.” That was like 25 bucks for a group session. And she stood up and just ran away. Everyone was crying. And she ran away. I thought she was running away from me. She ran away to her bedroom to grab her piggybank, and she ran back down to me as fast as she could, and she says, “Daddy, since you can’t provide for us, please use my money to support us.” I think I’m getting chills just thinking about it.

I’ve said that story so many times it’s still as devastating. I was so ashamed of who I was, and the arrogance, and the ignorance. And then I forced my daughter, my nine-year old daughter, to save me? Well, that triggered years of struggle for me to reconcile that. I actually went through a depression, I drank, and ultimately discovered that that moment actually has become a source of light, a seedling for me, to realize I didn’t know much about entrepreneurship, that I had to fix these things. And that became a spark for being an author.

I write my business books to solve problems not only for others but for my own problems, my own misunderstandings around business, and simplify the journey and, hopefully, prevent others from experiencing the fallacies and the arrogance and ignorance that I did.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is powerful, and thank you for sharing that again with our audience here.

Mike Michalowicz
My joy.

Pete Mockaitis
So, you are renowned as an author for entrepreneurs and small business owners. And in chatting with your publicity folks, I was like, “Well, I love Mike’s flavor, but we’ve got a little bit of a different audience here, which is more so professionals, kind of in the middle of the hierarchy as opposed to the owners.” But there’s a lot of great sort of tools and frameworks and approaches that are totally applicable in your next opus here, “Fix This Next.” So, can you orient us a little bit in terms of what’s the book about and why is it helpful?

Mike Michalowicz
Yeah. So, what I did is I wanted to figure out, “Is there a common DNA or structure for businesses?” And I’m convinced I found it. And it’s something that we all can use regardless of our title or role. We all have a responsibility for the health of the business because collectively it moves us altogether. So, what I did was I wanted to see if there’s a common DNA.

And I, first, started looking at humanity ourselves – me, you, everyone listening in. If you look at the essence of who we are, we’re identical. If you peel back the stuff we judge, the skin, the height, male, female, and we look at the essence of it, the makeup is basically the same. If I was having a heart attack, the doctor wouldn’t say to me, “Where’s your heart? Do you keep it in your foot? Is it in your ear?” No. The heart is in the same place for all humanity, so they know how to operate on us.

Well, the same is true for business. If we peel back the skin of the business, a manufacturer versus a professional services company, or vice versa, we will find there’s a common structure, that’s what I call the business hierarchy of needs. The business hierarchy of needs, I translated from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which defines human needs.

So, this is a quick session on Maslow. Maslow studied human needs and discovered and argues that all of us have base physiological needs. We need to breathe water, I’m sorry, breathe water. Breathe air, drink water, eat food. And if those needs aren’t being satisfied, then we can’t survive. But once they’re satisfied, we go to the next level which is safety needs. We need protection from the elements or harm. Once that’s satisfied, we move onto the longing, the need for relationships, and so forth. And we keep on climbing up ultimately to self-actualization.

But, if at any time, a base-level need is not satisfied, let’s say you and I are having this conversation, we consider it intellectual conversation, we consider it as part of self-actualization, if I start choking on the food I’m eating, well, all of a sudden, my Maslow hierarchy brings me right down to the physiological need of getting that out of my throat.

Well, our business has a hierarchy of needs too. Real quickly, they are sales, that’s the foundation, that’s the creation of oxygen for business; profit, the creation of stability for an organization, without it a business can’t sustain; order, the creation of efficiency, consistency; then there’s impact, which is the creation of transformation, it’s where we have service to our clients beyond the transaction, beyond the commodity; and the highest level is legacy, the creation of permanence, where there’s no dependency on the people that are running the operation, the company is designed for its continued service, and others can come and go, but the business lives on permanently.

The difference between Maslow’s hierarchy and the business hierarchy, while they’re very similar, is one great distinction. Maslow talked about human needs and how we are biologically, neurologically wired into our needs. If you and I, Pete, are walking down a dark alley, and we get the creeps, like someone is going to kill us, what will we do? We will, hopefully, turn around and walk out. And we should because our senses – sight, smell, touch – those senses are triggering, “There’s danger here.”

But the thing is we, as business professionals, are not neurologically wired into our business. We say we trust our gut. I think this is what we got to do. I can feel it. But, really, we need the empirical data to evaluate exactly what the true needs in our business, focus on that, resolve that, and then move onto the next need, resolve that, and so forth, and continue to progress forward.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, certainly. And so then, let’s talk about the particulars for how that really can be transformational for folks. I’d love to hear some tales about some professionals, some organizations, who applied some of this rigor to great effect.

Mike Michalowicz
Yeah. So, I’ll share a coffee shop that does this, and the team rallied around it with what’s going on. As we’re recording this, with the economic crisis, COVID, this company is responding. And let’s evaluate the business hierarchy needs just a little bit further. So, the business hierarchy needs, the five levels, the foundational need is sales. Now, again, the sales is the creation of cash. If your product, your service, your company, your division does not have consistent sales, is not bringing oxygen into that division, so we need to address that first.

And you address it to the adequate levels of supporting profit. That’s actually the simplest base question, “Do I have enough sales to support profitability? If I don’t, we have a sales issue. If we do have sales so we have profit, but we’re not profitable, we actually have a profit issue. Do we have enough margin? Are we controlling the debt we have, and so forth?” Once profit is addressed, we ask ourselves, “Is it adequate to support the layer above it, which is order, efficiency?”

Now, one argument I want to make here is that we’re not ignoring efficiency. You have to have some order and efficiencies in our sales process when we’re doing that. You have to have some system for profitability. I’m just saying this one becomes your concentrated effort. You don’t ignore sales when you’re working on order. You continue it but they must work in relation.

When you get to the order level, this is where it becomes our concentration to resolve efficiency. Now, actually, let me start off with this story because I think it’s the best. This is Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi, it’s in the SEC conference. I mean, talking about an organization, thousands and thousands, actually, I think tens of thousands of employees, a massive organization. They implemented the business hierarchy of needs in their own form. They did this before I wrote the book, but they’re far in this process inherently.

And what they noticed back in, I believe, it was the early 2000s, that the school had noticeably less applicants than any of the other SEC schools. So, the first thing we do is, when we have a problem, we ask ourselves, “Where does this reside in this hierarchy?” Well, application is as similar as prospects. They have less prospects, and that’s a sales-level need. So, the company identified, “Okay, we have a need in the sales level, the most foundational level of the business hierarchy.”

Then they asked, “What’s the triggers behind it?” And they went through a process called OMEN. I write about it in the “Fix This Next” book, but OMEN stands for Objective, Measurement, Evaluation frequency, Nurture. It simply means identify what the problem is, measure the process, regularly revisit it, and tweak and change things as we move along, nurture.

They identified this challenge of not getting enough prospects, and they start interviewing prospects of why they aren’t signing up. And they find that the primary reason is the campus ain’t so pretty. One of the biggest determining factors of a student picking a college happens within the first five minutes of visiting a campus. It’s their first impression. And back then, Ole Miss didn’t have such a pretty campus. So, they realized, “We have an issue.”

They then went to their frontline, the people that beautify the campus, the landscape maintenance team, and they said, “We need a more attractive campus. What do we need to do?” Well, interesting, and this happens sometimes in the business hierarchy that needs get interlinked. And the maintenance team said, “Well, we want to do beautification projects. We don’t have enough time.” Now, their campus is a thousand plus acres, that’s a lot of acreage to maintain, and they only have a crew of a certain size, and so Ole Miss was forced upon a decision, “Do we double or triple our team, or do we enable our team to find alternative solutions?”

Well, it wasn’t in their budget to triple the maintenance team so the team had to figure it out. And one thing they noticed is the biggest time-consuming element, now this is an efficiency thing, an order level, one of the challenges at the order level was how long it took to mow or maintain the properties. When they were mowing, the fastest way to mow a property is to go in a straight line. But when they were coming upon trees, they had to navigate around the low-hanging limbs. When they got to a mulch pattern, that was in a square, they had to kind of jostle around that pattern. And when a garbage can was in the grass, they had to kind of go around and get out with the weed whacker.

So, the team said, “If we want to increase efficiency here, cut the limbs off the tree so we can go right under them, 10 feet high,” which, by the way, is a great way to beautify trees, they raised the limbs. They said, “Change the square patterns and angular patterns of mulch always to an oval so we can do sweeping motions right around it and continue on.” They made decisions to increase efficiency which allowed them now to maintain the property in half the time, freeing up the other half of their time to work on beautification of the campus.

Well, fast-forward only a mere few years, Ole Miss became the most beautiful campus. It has the reputation for the most beautiful campus in the SEC conference, perhaps in all of the nation, one of the top-rated campuses on attraction, on its beauty. And you won’t be surprised, they had an exponential increase in their prospects, their applications. So, that’s an example where leadership identified, “We have a problem.” But instead of just saying, “We got to fix the way this place looks,” they looked at the hierarchy, and said, “This is a sales issue. Where do prospects first enter the campus?” That was their first beautification project was near the administration building where students will come in, the students center, and so forth.

They spoke with the frontline, the people that are closest to the problem, and got their direction. And in this case, they killed two birds with one stone. They brought efficiency to their organization at the order level while addressing a sales issue. So, that’s an example of how this business hierarchy of needs is a great way to diagnose and pinpoint what we need to work on.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is awesome. And, boy, way back in the day, we interviewed Jeff McManus, who leads up the team.

Mike Michalowicz
Oh, yeah, Jeff is the leader of that team. Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, yeah, he shared some more elements to the story, so that was fun. Well, so then, I imagine then in a business or an organization, you’re going to come up with dozens or hundreds of problems or opportunities, as my favorite reference, that you’d notice that could benefit from some attention. So, if you’re thinking about the hierarchy of needs, how do you determine who wins? I mean, do the sales issues always win because they’re at the base of the needs? Or, how do we kind of navigate and triage that?

Mike Michalowicz
Great question. As opportunities or challenges present themselves, you always address the base level first because if the base is compromised, the entire foundation of the structure is. I set a reference to that coffee shop so let me explain how they did this. This coffee shop was growing, and multiple team members, they built a second location, they then opened a roastery facility where they’re preparing coffee. And what they noticed is they’ve been in business for 13 years, and rapidly growing coffee companies. It’s called Cottonwood Coffee, by the way, in South Dakota.

And the leader of that organization, his name is Jacob, noticed that when he looked at the business hierarchy of needs, that they had some sales issues and prospect attractions and so forth. But, also, said, “We’ve been in business for 13 years. We’re one of the most established providers in this area. We’re beyond sales issues. We’re really about impact and legacy of being of service to our community.” And he tried to continue the focus there but the business kept on kind of getting stalled in its growth. Well, finally, he said, “You know what, maybe it is a sales issue.” And he went back to the community they were serving and how they were serving them. And by getting back to the base, all of a sudden, that opened up sales and it allowed them to build up the rest of the structure.

Picture this like building an actual structure building that has five levels. If you want to build a tall building with a big top and you want to have a huge impact, you can’t have a little needlepoint structure below it. It’ll collapse on that. It won’t be strong enough It’s like a pyramid. You must have a foundation that’s adequate and substantial to support the level above it. And that level must be adequate to support the next. If, at any time, we want to grow up stronger at a higher level, we need to make sure the foundation is appropriate to support it. So, this is not a ladder. You don’t just climb up and aspire to be at the top. You cycle through, constantly strengthening the base and the lower levels to support the higher levels.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I’m hearing that. I guess I’m just imagining an organization in which it’s sort of like, “Okay, we got 60 problems/opportunities. They’re sprinkled across all of these dimensions, and some of them fall into sales.” So, I think it’s a good argument that you got to handle that before to really kind of flourish and have that foundation. I guess I’m thinking, in a way, you know, hey, sales, everything could always be better. So, how do you go about maybe doing the data collection or the benchmarking to say, “Oh, I thought our sales were fine. Oh, but maybe they’re not. I thought our profits were fine. Oh, but maybe they’re not”? Because I think they could always be better. So, what do you think of that?

Mike Michalowicz
Yeah, everything could always be better, but it can only be better in relation. So, the simple question, and there is no specific number I can share, but what I can say is that, “Is the base adequate to support enough and substantial elements to the next level? Is sales strong enough to support our target and goal and profit?” And a lot of this is just communication.

I’m surprised at how many divisions. We have some public companies that implemented the business hierarchy of needs, and these divisions are taking on without consideration of the overall business hierarchy of needs. So, there’s a greater business hierarchy, and then within each division becomes its own little hierarchy so we got to work in relation to that. So, what’s the major corporate goal and need specifically?

Then we look back and we say, “In our division or in our field of responsibility, do I have adequate sales to support the profit expectation for me? And if so, then I actually have a profit issue if profit isn’t there. It’s not a sales issue.” Sadly, I see businesses go, “You know, we just need to sell more. We’re going to sell our way out of this.” It’s the most common thing I see from business leaders, and it’s one of the biggest mistakes because sales do not translate to profit. I see businesses sell unprofitable items. And while their sales dollars go up, the profit margins are getting thinner and thinner, and the business is actually struggling more. So, it’s all in relation.

We need clarity from the next one who we’re connected to, the next leader that we’re working with, and, “What are the proper expectations to drive your needs? What are the sales expectations? What degree of efficiency? How many resources can we use to get this stuff done? And what are the turnaround times?” Those are questions we have to have clarity on. In that way, we’re speaking up the chain all the way to the leader or leaders of our organization to understand the needs and they drive them back down. So, it works in relation and it works through communication.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so then it sounds like there’s expectation setting and communicating that’s going forward.

Mike Michalowicz
Oh, yeah, of course, right? It’s funny, I say of course and yet it doesn’t happen. I’m shocked at how many businesses have arbitrary goals.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s what I’m getting at is the arbitrariness. Like, how do we un-arbitrary them and make them based on something real?

Mike Michalowicz
Yeah. And the similar question is, “Why and how is this serviced?” I worked for a Fortune 500 after they got acquired, and I was blown away by the lack of communication at least around goal-setting. There’s a lot of communication around red tape but there was not a lot of communication around goal-setting. And so, when I was told, “Hey, Mike, your department has to do X.” I said, “Why?” And they’re like, “Because that’s what we told you.” I’m like, “But what’s the reasoning behind it?” And that started an understanding of the importance of how it serves the company in a greater whole.

Now, in context, it actually empowered me in that division. I only worked there for a year before I went back out and started my own business, but then it gave me context of why I need to achieve, what I need to achieve. That’s a very empowering thing, so get the context.

Pete Mockaitis
I love that so much because when you ask why, they’re like, “What?” It’s like, “No one’s ever really asked me that before, Mike. I just got accustomed to telling people what they need to do, and then they try to do it.”

Mike Michalowicz
They just do it. Yeah, it was shocking. And part of it, too, I think was just history, “That’s what we always do. We just pick 10% higher.” “Well, why not pick 50% higher?” “Well, because we never do that.” So, that context. And it isn’t to be challenging in the confrontational sense. It’s we’re challenging in seeking clarity. And just because, in that case, the leader of our department wasn’t telling me that, didn’t mean it was right to ignore that, that I had a responsibility to step up and ask, which made us both better leaders, I think, as a result.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s cool. So, then let’s zoom into the professional who’s somewhere in the middle of things, and they then communicated a target, “We need to reduce the manufacturing waste rate by 10% or the conversion rate of clients needs to be increased by 10%,” it’s like something. And maybe have a good conversation about, “Well, why?” “Oh, I see how that makes sense, interrelates and fits with the other dimensions.” How do you go about making that happen in terms of determining what to fix next within a narrower scope of your responsibilities?

Mike Michalowicz
Yeah, so this is where we present the hierarchy of needs. So, you talked about conversion, you talked about manufacturing, the factor of efficiency.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, so two separate kinds of…

Mike Michalowicz
Two separate things. One was an order level; one was a sales level. So, what we do is we go back to our department leads and say, “Listen, I’ve been given direction in this hierarchy, and there’s two different demands.” The default is we always go to the base. But do we understand, is that a necessity? Because the leader can be giving you arbitrary goals. Do we have adequate sales to, first, drive that efficiency and will have a greater impact on our business? Or do need the sales in place first in order to make the investment in building the efficiency? So, we have to figure out the sequence.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Like, you might be too small to make investing in the super cool technology or robot, but what?

Mike Michalowicz
Oh, my God. I see companies that have so much potential efficiency but so low flow because it becomes actually less efficient. I worked with a major playset manufacturer, one of the bigger ones there, over $100 million in revenue, and what’s so fascinating is they had this massive equipment, and the complexity in setting it up was so time-consuming. Now, they had the demand. Once that system was set, it was just ring out process to process, so the gain was in more volume. But if they just placed one playset through that, the 16 hours of setting up, someone could hand-paint three playsets on their own. It’d be faster, actually, to do hand painting. So, this stuff always works in relation.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s great perspective there. Okay. Well, then I’d love to hear, in terms of sort of what’s the alternative, like if we’re not thinking in this way, I guess it’s not arbitrary and you’re not motivated and inspired because you’re not connected to the why. You could misallocate your resources and attention on things that don’t really matter. Could you sort of share with us kind of what does life look like when you’re doing this versus not doing this? And what are some of the best and worst practices to making sure you’re doing this well?

Mike Michalowicz
So, with the business hierarchy of needs and the fix this next process, the first thing we always talk about is what’s called lifestyle congruence. It is the base of motivation, “How does this serve you? If you do something, how does it serve you?” And this is how all humanity is wired. So, there’s more than just the organizational needs. It’s how the organizational needs translate to the service of you? Does it give you an opportunity to climb the corporate ladder? Does it give you actually more time, more free time? What objectives are you serving on your own? So, it’s that interpersonal relationship.

Without the hierarchy of needs, without the understanding, I’ve seen business professionals get into a very much an action-reaction mode, meaning there’s some trigger, a request, a demand, that incessant string of email coming in, and we just put out fire after fire after fire. Something comes in, we react to it, but there’s no contemplation.

So, the business hierarchy of needs, the differentiator is an action, a trigger that happens, but now there’s contemplation between the action-reaction. There’s an intentional pregnant pause to say, “How is this of service to the organization? How is this congruent with what I’m trying to set as my own objectives?” And now we move much more deliberately.

The business hierarchy of needs helps us focus on the next impactful thing to do. Without it, people focus on the next apparent thing, and there’s a constant stream of apparent issues and so it becomes a randomization. Those divisions, those leaders often make a few steps forward, and a few steps back, and a few steps forward. The ones who are deliberately identifying the most impactful thing and act on it are much more effective in moving forward consistently, and growing to their objectives.

Pete Mockaitis
Right on. Well, can you walk us through maybe a couple more examples of there’s someone, and they are…we got a set of responsibilities for a division, and then they are doing some real smart prioritization of fixing the right thing next.

Mike Michalowicz
Yeah, so I was working with a corporation which I want to leave nameless, but since the COVID incident, they’ve lost a massive volume of customers. Actually, the experience, it’s more massive churn. They’re losing customers but they’re gaining. And I may or may not have said to the board of this company, maybe I just gave it away there, I said to the board of this company, and we had an impromptu discussion. The company was working on the impact level.

Now, by all means, you don’t ignore sales. They had sustainable sales and it continues to grow on its own but where the concentrated effort need to be was on impact of being great and great service. All of a sudden, with this shift and this drop in clients, because these clients were not business or a B2B business, and these other clients coming in, now all attention went to sales. The leadership team redirected their focus and said, “How do we cater to this new market? How do we serve these customers that are leaving us almost at a whim because of fear? How do we protect them and retain the core function?” They provided very necessary function for these businesses. Without them, they may go out of business. You need this function. And then, “How do we re-address it?”

So, very quickly on the dime, they saw an issue present itself just when this case broke, or they noticed the metrics, the empirical data of a drop of customers, and all leadership looked there and said, “We will achieve legacy and impact. We have been satisfying that but, for now, we can’t stop building that third and fourth floor of the building. We got to get back in the basement because we have a crack in the foundation,” and leadership went down there, they responded very rapidly as a result. And the story will reveal itself over the next months, perhaps a year or two ahead, but their quick response and deliberate response has put a tourniquet on potential massive loss if they just said, “You know what, we’re going to just continue to focus at this level and not redirect our attention.”

And I think they would’ve been made aware of it because they always looked at the business hierarchy of needs and are asking, “Where do we need our attention now?” They’re responding quicker than if they weren’t considering that hierarchy.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’d love it if you can give us, are there any sort of shortcuts or really kind of quick questions or indicators or acid tests that might make you say, “Aha! I have a hunch that I need to focus my energies over here.”

Mike Michalowicz
Yes. So, quick indicator is if you’re taking on debt, if you have increasing demand on budgets, and you don’t have increasing sales, so if debt is increasing in excess of sales and profit, that’s a massive indicator that we actually have a profit issue, there’s a margin issue in the organization. One of the shortcut techniques that I love I see companies implementing right now is in repositioning. If an offering, if you are not buying an offering, to try to sell harder, particularly at the macroeconomics that’s occurring now, it’s not usually a right response. We’re using a technique called one step prior.

Here’s what it is. You look at your final offering. I’ll just use the restaurant because probably everyone on this call has experiences with a restaurant. When you go to a restaurant and you sit down, they deliver food to your table. That’s the end product. But if we look one step prior to that, well, what are they doing? They’re carrying the food to you, they’re delivering it. Well, that’s an offering in itself, the delivery of food, and some restaurants are responding that way. What happens one step prior to that? Well, there’s a preparation of food. A restaurant could make that an offering, make it a new product by recording the 10 most popular recipes and deliver that as a new product offering. What happens one step prior to that? Well, there’s the procurement of raw materials, the inventory, the meats and vegetables. Maybe they can sell that.

So, I see organizations reconsidering if they’re to stop in sales, or you some empirical data with a drop off, one option, too, is reconsider the packaging in the first place, and that’s a real simple shortcut to do that.

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

Mike Michalowicz
Yeah. So, the last thing I just want to mention is, well, there’s a resource for you, if I can share that, and there’s a process. So, I’ll do the process first, it’s called OMEN, it stands for Objective, Measurement, Evaluation frequency, and Nurture. Once we identify what to work on, you can use OMEN as a simple structure to measure and ensure the progress, the results you want.

Then there’s a resource that I’m encouraging people to use because it’s totally free and it’s a quick evaluation for your division, your business. It’s at FixThisNext.com. So, if you go to FixThisNext.com, you could go on a free evaluation. You can take a 5-minute, this is a series of questions, to really pinpoint what to work on next. And there’s no download. The results appear on the screen, and you can take action on it. So, it’s a good compass or guidance tool.

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

Mike Michalowicz
Oh, I have it above my desk at home, and I’m going to bring a big one and put it in our hallway here at our office, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” In my final assessment of business and life, the most successful people are the ones who are most joyous, it’s the ones who truly are simply themselves, and allow the business to be a platform to be more of themselves.

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

Mike Michalowicz
Right now, I’m studying quantum physics, and I’m studying this concept of [31:47] but basically that we’re in a box universe. Actually, that’s not even the right term but that all time has happened simultaneously. So, the past, the present, and the future has already all occurred. It’s all available. It’s time slicing effectively, and so it’s a mind wrap. I’ve been studying it intensely and really trying to wrap my head around it, and it’s changing our perspective of life itself.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow! Could you point us to a book, a resource, to get in that?

Mike Michalowicz
Yeah. Well, Stephen Hawking has some good resource around that. “Simple Answers to Big Questions” is a good starting point, and then the BBC has some really great basic teachings in some of these ethereal concepts.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book in general?

Mike Michalowicz
Well, I say current one, it’s appealing to me, it’s called “100 Days of Rejection” by Jia Jiang, I think, is his last name. And it’s just this guy who studied the power of intentionally being rejected. It’s really a cool concept.

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

Mike Michalowicz
A favorite tool? We use a tool called Voxer here in our office for rapid communication. It’s a really cool way to batch communication and keep a record of communication. I think, particularly, in the virtualization of business that’s really being enforced now, you have to, that we need a new way to have still a semi-tactile experience and engage, and this has superseded voicemail or email. It’s just a better form of communication for us called Voxer.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I think my friend Lisa who’s also on the podcast, Lisa Cummings, loves Voxer. And how about a favorite habit, something that helps you be awesome?

Mike Michalowicz
Well, every morning, I exercise. And after that, I do a singing bowl. It’s a bowl that you hit and you can rub a stick on it, and it rings. And I use that for meditation or prayer time. It’s just a great way for me to put thoughts out into our world and universe, and it’s a great way to sense relief too.

Pete Mockaitis
So, you move the bowl and do you say anything or just think or…?

Mike Michalowicz
No. So, a singing bowl, it’s like a bowl, like a cereal bowl made of metal. You tap a stick on it and it makes a chime sound. And then, as you move the stick around, the vibrations continue so the chime actually gets louder and louder, and you can make it softer, and there’s ways to change directions on the chime. And the visualization I use, is it puts out sound waves or vibrations into the world, and so as I have my thoughts, and I put thoughts out for the goodness of humanity, of people, health, I can see it visually going out. So, it’s kind of a cool visualization tool and an audio tool.

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

Mike Michalowicz
You know, one thing that’s been really powerful is “People speak the truth through their wallets, not their words.” And I’ve used that as an asset. It’s measure people by their action, particularly when we’re in a business. Are they willing to spend or not? Because if they’re saying, “We support this. We love it,” and they don’t spend, they don’t support it. They don’t love it.

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve lived that a few times.

Mike Michalowicz
Yeah.

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

Mike Michalowicz
So, you can go to FixThisNext.com to do that evaluation. And if you want to learn more about my research of business and business operations, you can go to MikeMichalowicz.com. But here’s the deal, Pete, no one can spell Michalowicz so I have a shortcut. It’s Mike Motorbike, as in the motorcycle, it’s my nickname in high school, so I still own it. So, MikeMotorbike.com. And if you go there, all my research is available for free on blogs and podcasts. I also have my books there. I used to write for the Wall Street Journal, and it’s all for free at MikeMotorbike.com.

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

Mike Michalowicz
Yeah, listen, this is the time to step up. And the world kind of got punched all business leaders in the face right now, and it’s also asking you to turn up the heat because we need the economy to keep going. So, the call to action is really a call to arms. It’s time for us as business professionals to step up, step forward, and start kicking some ass.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Mike, thank you. This has been a lot of fun. I wish you all kinds of luck as you’re fixing things next.

Mike Michalowicz
Exactly. Thank you.

565: How to Get Out of a Rut and into Your Flow with Jonah Sachs

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Jonah Sachs says: "Stop thinking of yourself as an expert. Start thinking of yourself as an explorer."

Jonah Sachs discusses how a simple shift in the way we think helps us achieve more.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why the experts are often the most unreliable
  2. How to make any task more exciting and engaging
  3. How to turn anxiety into fuel for creativity

About Jonah

Jonah Sachs is an author, speaker and viral marketing pioneer. Jonah helped to create some of the world’s first, and still most heralded, digital social change campaigns. As co-founder of Free Range Studios, his work on Amnesty International’s blood diamonds viral film was seen by 20 million people and was delivered to every member of congress, helping drive the passage of the Clean Diamond Act.

He later helped to create “The Story of Stuff,” which, viewed by over 60 million people, marked a turning point in the fight to educate the public about the environmental and social impact of consumer goods. Jonah’s work and opinions have been featured in The New York TimesThe Washington PostCNNFOX NewsSundance Film FestivalNPR. Sachs also pens a column for Fast Company, which named him one of today’s 50 most influential social innovators.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

  • Pitney Bowes. Simplify your shipping while saving money. Get a free 30-day trial and 10-lb shipping scale at pb.com/AWESOME

Jonah Sachs Interview Transcript

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

Jonah Sachs
Hey, thanks for having me, Pete. It’s great to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m really excited to dig into your wisdom. And you’ve got an interesting turn of a phrase – unsafe thinking. What does this mean?

Jonah Sachs
It’s just the idea that if the world is changing around us, our careers are changing around us, business is changing, that what once was safe, relying on what we once knew, what we’ve always done, what’s worked for us so far, is actually incredibly dangerous, that if the world changes we need to change with it. And so, trying to help people get out of that sense that they need to seek safety and really jump in in a smart way to unsafe thinking, which is about kind of breaking all your own rules.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. Well, so that’s a fun phrase there because unsafe, we think, “Hey, safety is important. We don’t want to do anything that’s not safe.” But here you are advocating, “Unsafe thinking is what’s up.”

Jonah Sachs
Yeah, definitely. I’ve just had my own personal experience of running a business for 15 years that eventually I did sell. But going through this process of being on the wild cutting edge of viral video in the early 2000s, and then getting into that place that so many businesses get once they reach a certain level of success that so many people get to, which is you’re just trying to recreate what you did before. But the internet changes so fast, and every industry changes so fast these days, that that falling back on what you know what you know is just deadly. And it became deadly for my business. And so, I kind of took this quest to learn how to break through and to teach myself new ways to think.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And so, can you share, specifically, you say it became deadly, how did that unfold?

Jonah Sachs
Yeah. So, I started this company called Free Range Studios when I was 22 years old with my best friend from high school, and we had no idea what we were doing basically. We were doing social change, advertising, and somebody once asked us, “Can you make an internet video?” We’d never seen an internet video before back in 2000 but we figured we’d give it a try. And I think that kind of beginner’s luck, that kind of just joy of doing what we love to do, really helped us break into an industry or start an industry in a way. We were getting 20, 40, 50 million views on some of these socially-conscious activism videos.

And then, as time went on, and we tried, more and more people were coming to us, saying, “Can you reproduce that video you make? Can you make me something like that?” We had 35 employees, we were trying to churn it out kind of like a factory. And what I was noticing first was, “Look, we need a lot more structure here. We need a lot more rules. We need a lot more ways of getting people to just do what we know works.” And the more rules I put in place and the more management consultants I worked with, the less fun everything became, and the less excitement there was in the work, and, frankly, the less creative the work was.

And I kept thinking, “All right. Well, how do I put better rules in place? Or how do I discipline people more to get them to just be creative?” And I realized at some moment when people started quitting, when I just looked at our work and I was like, “Yeah, this looks like the same stuff we were doing five years ago,” that all those rules and processes were actually getting in the way of creative breakthrough. And I didn’t know how to get out of it. It was actually a really difficult life moment for me. Really depressing and I doubted myself.

And so, I started reading neurobiology texts, social sciences, and asking how people that I really admired how they were able to break out of these ruts. And I found that almost everybody who was successful got to this point at some point, what makes them continue to be successful is they found a way to break out of it, and that’s what I was really after when I was doing the research for this book.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, speaking of research, I’d love it if you could share some of the most hard-hitting studies and numbers associated with the benefits of stepping out and doing some more unsafe thinking.

Jonah Sachs
Yeah, certainly. So, one of my favorites is they did a bunch of research on expertise, and they did kind of a broad study of about 20,000 expert predictions, and they found that the most vaunted experts over 10 years in each of their fields in business, in politics, in invention in business, were worse than dart-throwing monkeys at predicting what was going to happen in the future. So, they were worse than random chance at making predictions. And how could that be?

Well, they went a level deeper and they found that the more you were quoted on TV, the more social currency you had, the more likely you were to actually be even more wrong than your average expert. So, experts tend to be less accurate in making predictions than someone who’s just a complete beginner in many fields when the world is changing quickly around them. Not only that, the worst thing you can do is believe yourself to be an expert.

Once you believe you’re an expert, then you get even more stupid. So, in a couple of controlled studies, they showed that people who first said that they knew a lot about financial terms, primed themselves to then say that they knew what the meaning of fake financial terms were. So, they would ask them a bunch of terms, and say, “Are you familiar with all these terms?” And some of them were completely fake. The people who claimed that they knew more were the ones who were fooling themselves into believing and too proud to say, “Oh, I’ve never heard of that.”

So, basically, as we gain expertise, we gain also the ability to have impact in our field, and so we start to move up this curve of impact and quality. But at a certain point, most people start to go back down. It’s kind of an inverted U. And you get to the top of that U the minute you believe that you’ve become an expert.

And so, what I learned from that is that you have to break out of that sense that you know what you’re doing. You have to break out of that sense of clinging to what you bring to the table, what maybe people are paying you for, they’re looking for expertise so they’re paying you to have the answers. Really, in a world that’s changing quickly, you have to have more questions. And so, I looked for research on how that actually works. How do you actually break yourself out of that expert’s trap? And there’s a couple of things that do that.

One is kind of humiliating yourself, getting used to the idea of acting and showing yourself to be a beginner and to be an explorer rather than an expert. I tell the story of a CEO of a 56,000-person company. The company was going kind of down the tube when he was brought in. He knew he didn’t have the answers for it. He brought together 5,000 of his employees in an arena, and this is in India where kind of CEOs are known to be sort of emperors in a way or thought to be. And instead of giving his presentation, he started doing this Bollywood dance.

And he was kind of a heavy middle-aged guy, he’s sweating profusely, he’s a terrible dancer, and the arena is kind of rocking it but no one is dancing with him, and by the end, everyone is kind of laughing and wondering what’s going on, and he kind of just sits down and he starts to give the presentation. And he basically said, from that moment, he was able to pull himself down off that pedestal. He was able to admit that he didn’t have all the answers. He was actually asked by the employees then to go give the same presentation to everyone in the company.

So, when you do whatever you have to, to break that sense that you stand above, you start to break that expert’s trap. Other things you can do is engaging in fields where you know nothing. We’re so specialized these days in our work, and we’re so desiring to kind of keep going where we know. If you break out and start to…I think singing lessons is something I’m terrible at, but I do it because I begin to get more creative by stepping into a field in which I have no expertise. People who live abroad for six months are shown to be more creative than people who haven’t had those experiences.

So, the whole take away from that piece of research, which I really love, was stop thinking of yourself as an expert. Start thinking of yourself as an explorer. And the weird thing about it is that when you do that, you will find that people who follow you will not have less confidence in you. There’s a lot of studies now that show that people prefer leaders who are humble and self-effacing to those who act like they have all the answers.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, there’s so much good stuff in there, and that really resonates in terms of like experts and predictions. Like, I can’t help but shake my head when I’m reading financial predictions stuff, it’s just like, “Well, you sound smart because you’re using all the words, and you have a theory, and it kind of adds up that, okay, that theory might indeed result in those financial results.” But, in practice, it’s like Back to the Future or something. It’s like if you could really predict like that, you would just be crazy rich and it’s unrealistic.

Jonah Sachs
That is true. That is true.

Pete Mockaitis
So, okay. Well, so then that’s really interesting.

Jonah Sachs
Those people wouldn’t have to be writing books.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. Right.
Well, so that’s great in terms of, especially, when you think you’re the expert then you’re in even more trouble because you’re not, I guess, seeking the dis-confirmatory – is that a word? The evidence that goes against the expertise…

Jonah Sachs
Yup, dis-confirmatory. Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
…that’s there.

Jonah Sachs
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, then let’s get into it in terms of how should we go about building in the practices so we’re engaging in unsafe thinking and reaching wise decisions as frequently as possible?

Jonah Sachs
Yeah. Well, the book is a long, long exploration of how we do that with kind of six or seven main areas we can do it in. And I can jump to a couple more of the ways that we start actually stepping into those practices. Before we do, I do want to also say that we live in a world now where this has also become this sort of negative feeling about experts in certain realms where I’m not arguing for the idea that, for instance, in the middle of this COVID crisis we shouldn’t listen to what doctors and scientists have to say.

We still, of course, live in a world where gaining information, education, understanding your environment is incredibly important. It’s just that even those doctors and experts perform better when they don’t hold themselves up to have all the answers, when they’re constantly in that curious mode. So, I’m not saying, “Just go listen to your uncle about what to do to treat a pandemic,” but I am saying that the more humble you are as an expert, the more flexible you’re going to be out in your environment.

But, yeah, let’s look at a couple other things that we can do to be more creative and to be more flexible in our thinking. One thing that I found that was just incredibly fascinating and really helped me break out of a few of my traps was this idea of attuning the level of challenge that you have to the level of competency you have. And that’s so often what gets us stuck. When we reach an impasse, and we want to fall back on what we’ve always known, and we find it’s not working, that’s often because our skills are not perfectly tuned yet to the challenge that we’re taking on.

So, if you want to understand this, you look at kind of motivation, right? And there’s been a lot of work done on motivation, and you probably heard some of this stuff about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. They used to think that people were only motivated by rewards like getting raises, making more money, status, all that kind of stuff. But then about 20 years ago, they started to really realize that there’s more deep motivations that people carry with them, that when you actually give them rewards at times, they start to be less motivated.

There are some interesting studies that show that young children who are asked to do art projects are more creative when you don’t offer them candy for who’s going to make the best piece of art. So, that’s called intrinsic motivation. But we often run out of intrinsic motivation when the going gets tough, and that’s when we go back to our stereotypical thinking, and that’s when we begin to really fail.

So, where do you draw that motivation from? Well, usually we think of intrinsic motivation coming from things like, “Oh, I have a passion for the work that I’m doing,” or, “Oh, I’m an artist,” or, “I’m an inventor,” and yet we all have so many tasks we have to go through that are not necessarily intrinsically motivating. Any piece of building a career is going to be of varying degrees of excitement. We have to do them all well to make our careers work.

So, how do we keep that motivation and that creativity up? Well, that’s where this theory called flow theory really becomes important. This researcher named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, you’ll never be able to spell it, I had to train myself to say it, but he was a rock climber, and he began to ask himself this question, which was, “Why do I go out there, nearly break my bones, rip up my fingertips, kind of give up all my money in time so that I can try to get to the top of a mountain from which I’m just going to come right back down? Where’s the motivation coming from in that?”

And he began to form an early theory, which is now one of the best-tested creativity theories, which is that people, when given a challenge that’s just at the edge of their skills, will tune in and almost obsessively work on that problem. It’s why people play so many video games because the video game is always just a little bit better than you are, and it never gets too far ahead, and it never comes too far behind.

So, when you find yourself in a situation where your motivation is beginning to flag, you’re probably out of flow. You’ll know you’re in flow because you’re working for 12 hours and you hardly notice it, or you just can’t wait to get back to that project. You know you’re out of flow when you’re procrastinating, you’re putting it off, and you’re phoning it in. So, what do you do? It’s not really the task itself. It really has to do with whether your skills are just being pressed and just at the lower level of the challenge itself.

And so, what I ask people to do, and which I find to be extremely effective, is, “Look at that thing that you’ve been trying to do, look at that thing you’re procrastinating, either it’s not challenging enough for you, therefore, you’re getting bored by it and becoming rote. So, how could you change the way that you do it so that you gamify it, in a sense, you add challenge to it? Or, on the other hand, it might be a little too far beyond your skillset to do it well. In which case, even when you’re in a hurry, it really makes sense to step back and brush up those skills.” Again, that’s where we go to breaking that ego of the expert, and saying, “I got to learn something here.”

So, the next time that you’re finding yourself flagging and losing motivation, I would really try to chart where your skills are, where are challenges, and where they’re departing. If you’re bored, you know it’s not challenging enough. And if you’re overwhelmed and exhausted, you know it’s too challenging. And in the book, I just give lots of ways for companies to be organized that way, for people to break up tasks into different phases to keep that flow going. So, another tip, that’s what really gets that creative brain going. When you get in flow, you really do better work.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Jonah, I would love it if we could really kind of go through a number of levers or tweaks to make something a bit more or a bit less challenging because I don’t have a whole lot of ideas here. Hey, there’s some humble self-effacing action there.

Jonah Sachs
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess, in practice…

Jonah Sachs
I thought you were the expert here.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I guess if I want to make it more challenging, sometimes I’ll set a timer and see if I can do it faster within a timeline, or I might try to see if I could do a whole batch of them, like, “Have you ever done three in a row?” to turn that into some more challenge. And if it’s too challenging, sometimes I’ll just try to split it into just the tiniest increments, like, “Step one, open up the email where they ask me to do that thing. Step two, list out each deliverable that they want in that email. Step three, open a blank Excel spreadsheet…”

Jonah Sachs
Right.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, it really does help in terms of, “Oh, I’ve been avoiding it. This is hard. I don’t know where to start.” It’s like, “Okay. Well, you do know where to start. It starts by opening up the email.” So, that’s really all I got in terms of tricks to make something easier or harder. What else do you recommend?

Jonah Sachs
Yeah, I’ve got a few of those, of these kinds of tips. And what you’re talking about, in some ways, are these fairly rote tasks, which are very important actually to doing them well. The high level of competency in rote tasks is actually key to creativity. When you’re not doing those things well, you’re acting like the mad professor who’s super creative but not very competent, you’re actually putting a lot more stress on your brain and decreasing your creative abilities.

But I do want to differentiate between really creative tasks and tasks that you just kind of have to slog through. So, talk a little bit about the tasks that you just want to slog through. I looked at a lot of research about how bad, and you’ve probably heard about this, how bad we are at multitasking, and how much stress it puts in our brain to do a number of things at once. So, you might be doing something like, “All right, I’ve got this slog thing, it takes me an hour and a half to update my CRM, or to send out this email, or both.” Take a screencast of what you’re doing for about 10 minutes, see how many times you’re switching apps, see how many times you’re actually working, or checking your email, or picking up your phone, actually look at what you’re doing.

We live in a world where usually we’re doing two or three things at once. And things that seem really hard and take a long time, actually take very short if you shut out all outside distractions. It’s actually part of staying in flow is shutting out distractions. The novelist Jonathan Franzen, he apparently used to put hot glue into his ethernet port, back in the day when you needed a wired connection, and worked out of a windowless non-airconditioned office where no sound could get in. He basically shut out all outside, and he said it was the only way he could work.

And I think it’s really interesting because so few of us do work that way. So, one, shut out the distraction that is probably causing things to take twice or three times as long as you thought they were. It is not easy but sometimes when we see how hard it is, we realize how addicted we are to distractions. So, that’s one of them.

Another one is to break up, just like you’re saying, break things down into tasks, some things, smaller tasks. The creative side of your tasks require intrinsic motivation, and you don’t really need to get rewarded for that. You kind of want to isolate the parts of the task that you really enjoy, and, like I say, if there are parts of the creative side, if you need more inspiration or training, give yourself that time because sometimes we need to up that ability.

But other things that have been shown to really work are to think about a problem very directly and hard for about 15 to 20 minutes, make sure you have all the parameters of the problem, and then go for a walk, take a shower, take a nap, step away from it. It’s usually the background processing in your mind that will come up with original ideas when you’ve ran out of other ideas, because what happens in that first 15-20 minutes, the most obvious solutions come forth, and then it’s when you let your mind rest that new ideas. So, for the more creative ideas and more creative tasks, I recommend this sort of on again, off again burst of creativity and focus, and then open-minded for solution-searching.

And then, finally, because, again, we can go on all day just about this one piece of it, but there’s a lot of research to suggest that some tasks really do require external motivators. And so, sometimes you have to treat yourself like a parent if you’re really procrastinating, and say, “I’m going to give you that cookie, or I’m going to let you watch that TV, or I’m going to give you that reward, if you do these three things,” and set small goals for yourself, and give yourself small rewards.

A lot of people report like having that little treat at the end is a strong signal to their brain and a strong dopamine hit that makes the task not as hard as it once seemed. So, these are all kinds of ways essentially of managing energy through the long task of doing things that are hard as opposed to just reverting to going back and doing the things that are easy.

I can tell you that if your main mode of operation is to always work on the things that are easy for you, you are basically atrophying at your desk, and won’t be long until you’re way underperforming to your potential.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, certainly and that really connects there in terms of it can feel unsafe to do the thing that’s really hard and you’re not quite sure you could do, but it’s so essential to do that. I want to follow up on that point you made, that certain tasks really can benefit from treating yourself like a child and there’s going to be a treat if you do this. What are the sorts of tasks that seem to benefit most from that reward-treat-carrot action?

Jonah Sachs
Yeah, those tend to be the more rote, less creative, left brain type of tasks. So, you have to do things very precisely, you know how to do them, they’re difficult only in that they take attention and they take diligence. Those are things that tend to do better. And if you’re working with employees too, those are the kinds of things you want to give people extrinsic motivations to do, “Clean something thoroughly,” whether that’s a bathroom or a database, “Make sure that we have received all our receipts and accounted for them.” Those are the kinds of things that you want to give external motivation for because there’s really not that much excitement from a job well-done. You’re just expected to do it well and you have to, but there’s no real intrinsic joy in doing it.

Something like, “Come up with a new slogan,” “Pick new colors,” “Come up with a creative solution to a problem that we’ve never solved before.” Those are all things you don’t need to give rewards for in that sense. You will want to celebrate people’s creativity, give them more open space, give yourself more open space, and try to dial back that pressure to do it quickly is always helpful.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, I want to talk about sort of the social dimension here of unsafe thinking. So, we talked about kind of managing yourself and your productivity and the challenges you take on, adjusting the difficulty. Now, it can be tricky and feel unsafe to challenge someone else’s viewpoint in a meeting to say something, in however you say it, to convey, “I disagree. I think that there’s an alternative which may serve us better,” can be quite intimidating and feel unsafe for people, maybe rightly, because there’s retribution and animosity, or maybe wrongly, it’s just a boogeyman. But, tell us, what are some of your best practices, pro tips, for engaging in unsafe thinking and articulating that with others?

Jonah Sachs
Oh, man, this one is really, really hard because so many workplaces are the sort of schizophrenic mixtures of both really wanting creative employees and really beating them down when they don’t fall in line with company flow. And so, let me just start by saying there’s this fascinating study that looked at teachers, asking them, “All right, first, rate all of your kids in your class from your most creative to your least creative.” So, they put them on a spectrum, obviously, without telling the kids.

Next, they said, “Who are your favorite students and who are your least favorite students?” And, across the board, without exception, less creative kids fell into the favorite student category, and more creative kids were in the troublesome category that teachers actually didn’t like. And when asked, “How important is it for you to teach creativity?” teachers said it was the number one most important thing that they wanted to do. So, this tells us exactly that, by fourth grade, we’re already getting these mixed messages, “Be creative and fall in line.”

So, let’s move that into the workplace, what’s happening in the workplace. Meetings are so often hated and so often deadly because there’s this thing called shared information bias, which tends to happen. It’s this deep psychological problem in groups that happens in a meeting. Okay, so 10 people come into a room, right? They’re having a meeting because it’s important for them to share information. They have to find out what they don’t know from the other people, that’s why they’re meeting, otherwise, people just work alone at their desks.

What happens usually is the leader of the group will set the tone, they’ll say what they know about the problem or about the situation, and that makes sense, and then asks for everybody’s input. Well, it turns out that what people value and report liking in meetings is saying what someone else has said before. And usually so the leader says what everybody already knows because the leader is always speaking, and then everybody feels a psychological pull to rephrasing or somehow agreeing with what the leader said. And, in fact, people tend to even forget what they wanted to say once this shared information bias starts to come up.

And so, what happens is everyone knows something, everyone knows A, B, and C when they enter, D, E, and F are held by a couple people in the meeting, everyone gets together, and everyone leaves still knowing A, B, and C, no one mentions D, E, and F, and the company is stupider for it. It doesn’t work. So, there’s all these things that need to happen for that to be changed. Some of those things need to happen at the level of the organization, some things can be done by individual contributors who don’t have the power.

Let’s talk real quick about the top level of the organization. Leaders should not speak first in meetings. They don’t need to give the context. Let somebody who doesn’t usually speak start the meeting with what they know. You will get information that you did not expect. And they find, often, that low-status individuals in an organization, for a number of reasons, have some of that hidden information that’s most needed because it’s not what everyone is talking about. It’s what’s being seen from the edges. And information from the edges is a key ingredient to being more creative in a group. So, that’s one.

Number two, you can teach in your organization a kind of respectful disobedience. They do this in the airline industry, they do this in the Navy, they actually role-play and practice for the co-pilot to say that they have a different opinion than the pilot. That turns out, because in the ‘70s and ‘80s when the pilot was kind of the king of the cockpit and no one wants to speak up to usually him, we had way more airline crashes. But when co-pilots, and even flight attendants, were specifically trained to be disobedient, to speak back to power, and say what they observe, airline crashes have plummeted, because one person simply can’t know everything that’s need to be known and they have biases and make mistakes.

So, in your organization, teaching what’s called intelligent disobedience, which means that you’re going to be totally loyal to the company, but you’re going to speak back when you know something is wrong is a huge plus. From the individual contributor level, what do you do in a group? One, to get over that problem of actually the amnesia that comes from shared information bias, I recommend writing down, before you get to the meeting, everything that you want to say. It’s hugely valuable. So, if you have the courage to speak up, this will help you not forget what actually your point of view was. And by the end of the meeting, if something hasn’t been said that you have written down that you still think is important, make sure it gets out there, and you will then be contributing something that was otherwise missing.

Second, just keep in mind that employees who engage in intelligent disobedience, those who kind of speak up and are willing to outwardly say they disagree, are considered more loyal and more effective by managers, this has been well-studied, than those who quietly disagree and pretend they do agree. So, basically, if you’re going along with the flow, but you’re not wholeheartedly agreeing, people actually recognize it and it’s seen as a sign of kind of subversion. If you’re willing to speak up, and then go along with decisions once the group has made them, being loyal to the larger group, you’re going to be seen as more creative and a more effective collaborator. So, that fear may be a little bit unfounded.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s interesting indeed. I’m putting myself in the leader’s shoes, yup, it’s preferable to have someone openly tell you they disagree than to grumble and quietly muddy the waters with their subversive, I think is a great word for that. At the same time, I guess there’s that teacher effect that you mentioned that the creative ones are more kind of inconvenient because they don’t fall in line, “The meeting is going to take longer if you have a different opinion that we need to cover as opposed to you just sort of nodding and agreeing or else.” But at the same time, that’s what the meeting needs to do, is surface this stuff that wouldn’t get surfaced otherwise. So, in a way, it seems like your leader has to have a little bit of awareness and virtue, I guess, in order for them to appreciate what’s happening there with that intelligent disobedience.

Jonah Sachs
Yeah. Well, first of all, if you’re a leader and you’re turning your hair out because your employees are not creative enough, it’s just important to internalize that message that if you are subtly or directly calling for agreement and for efficiency, that you are the problem, it’s probably not your employees. So, getting that, opening that space for disagreement is going to be the source of your creativity.

Yeah, there’s another kind of key leadership tool here, I think, but it’s also something that team members can help to build. And Google did a landmark study on it, I spoke with Steve Kerr, the coach of the Golden State Warriors, he kind of uses it as well, and it’s kind of a little bit counterintuitive when you think about unsafe thinking. It turns out the most unsafe workplaces, the ones that are the most creative and willing to think outside the box, are the ones that provide the most psychological safety to people within that group.

I know that sounds crazy but what I’m trying to say here is that if everyone feels a sense of belonging, if they feel that their job is protected, and they feel that they matter to the team, they are more likely to be able to go against the grain, to say the things that might sound crazy, to open up their mouth when they see things are going wrong. There are these great studies of you could judge a company’s creativity by setting up a prediction market. So, see how often people are agreeing with what the CEO says when you’re actually asking them in front of the CEO, “Do you agree?” But then have a side market where people bet on whether the outcomes or the choices are going to work or not, and you’re going to get the real opinion.

So, prediction market is actually a better way to know if people agree with you than just kind of asking them. But if you create a sense of psychological safety, you don’t need that kind of output. You get to say, “Look, in this arena of creativity, everybody is equal. We fight it out, we go crazy, we are willing to look at ideas. And when you fail, we don’t punish you. We actually reward smart risks rather than just success,” then you’ll find people are willing to start taking those chances.

Now, you don’t want absolute chaos, that’s why it’s very important for groups to be cohesive when they move out of that exploratory phase and into the execution phase. But in exploratory phases, take a look at, “Are you building psychological safety within your organization?” There are lots of tools for doing that. And, again, that’s how Steve Kerr, when he got to the Golden State Warriors, kind of unlocked all the creative potentials of that team to take them to, whatever, five NBA Championships in a row, was by first setting up psychological safety in the locker room so they could get more unsafe on the court, and he kind of walked me through that, and I tell that story in the book.

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

Jonah Sachs
I guess I’ll just say that one of the things that I found most fascinating has to do with the real psychological mechanisms, and this is just kind of one more tip that I think is helpful when you understand this. I came to understand something that I call the safe thinking cycle. So, what happens is the world change around us, and that creates a certain amount of anxiety. What we’re doing is no longer working. We sense it because we’ve stepped up into a new position, and we’re not quite able to perform in it yet, we need to learn more, or what we’re doing no longer works, or there’s a new competitor in the space, or anything like that. We get a signal of anxiety.

Now, we’re programmed by evolution to see anxiety as a threat to our bodies basically. Anxiety out in the African savannah would mean that there was an animal about to eat you. And in those cases, what happens naturally from anxiety is that our peripheral vision shuts down, our nonessential bodily functions begin to slow down, and we really fall back on what we know works. So, we take what’s called stereotypical actions.

So, anxiety will, first, lead to the sense of, “Okay, I got to do something differently.” But by the time you start thinking what to do differently, you’re programmed by evolution to fall back and do something expedient and safe, and then things get worse because you haven’t reacted to the stimulus, and the cycle just repeats and repeats and repeats. And so, that’s where most people find themselves. The more stressed out you are, the less likely you are to take new and creative actions.

The way to break this cycle is not to respond differently or to force yourself to respond differently. It’s actually to reframe what anxiety means. And this has been a really fascinating look, for me, into sort of a whole bunch of different both kind of biological science and psychological science. But people who effectively break this cycle are those who tell themselves that anxiety is not a signal of danger, but a signal that they’re on their creative edge.

So, if what you’re doing is moving away from situations that cause anxiety, you’re actually creating further and further anxiety. And there’s a lot of psychological research that shows the more we concentrate on avoiding a feeling, the more we’re going to have it. The more you move towards that anxiety and say, “Okay, that anxiety is a signal that I should move toward it not away,” that is where we can experience the anxiety, and then take new action in its face.

So, it was very counterintuitive to me, nobody likes that feeling of anxiety, but if you can take it as a signal that you’re in your creative zone, when you feel it, that can really reshape your relationship to the creative thinking cycle.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, that’s really good, and I think we might characterize anxiety all the more broadly, not just the, “Oh, crap, something terrible is going to happen” sensation, but I guess maybe also like I think about just sort of learning and growth mindset stuff. It’s just sort of in terms of awkward or dread, like, “Ugh, I’m not any good at this. Oh, I feel stupid.” It’s like that whole family of unpleasant feelings you can associate to, “Oh, I’m at the edge of creativity, or of growth, or of breakthrough,” as opposed to, “Oh, this is a thing to retreat from.”

Jonah Sachs
Yeah, for sure. For sure. The things that are like worth doing but don’t make you anxious are the things that you have been doing for a really long time, probably for a decade. So, the first time you give a speech in public, you might feel terrified. Once you’ve given that talk 20 times, you don’t feel scared anymore. If all you’re doing is giving that same talk again and again and again, your days are kind of numbered.

So, it’s great to fall back on the things that we know when we know we can do well. I would say give yourself at least 15% to 25% of your time though doing things that you suck at, and that will make you just a much better, more flexible thinker.

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

Jonah Sachs
I still love the bumper sticker, I don’t know who even said it, but, “Don’t believe everything you think,” always makes me smile, and I kind of take that as a motto for myself.

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

Jonah Sachs
I looked at a study that showed that people, when given a chance between feeling medium-level electric shocks and being bored, would usually, after about 10 minutes, choose the electric shocks. So, when they put four people into a white plain room, and said, “You can have the electric shock and leave, or you can stay for another 10 minutes,” people mostly took the electric shock.

And just amazing to me, I think probably a hundred years ago, 50 years ago, maybe even 25 years ago, we were pretty good at sitting with ourselves and sitting with our own feelings and ideas. The fact that we’re at a place where most of us would rather be in pain than quiet is definitely a sign that there’s a lot of white space, a lot of opportunities for those who could be a little bit more mindful and take their time through processes, and be in that zone where creativity arises, which is in that quiet zone.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Jonah Sachs
Well, I’m reading right now a book called Station Eleven. It’s a post-pandemic science fiction book about a future in post-pandemic. And sitting through a pandemic right now, I’m kind of enjoying its beauty and its quiet, looking at what the world sometimes becomes.

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

Jonah Sachs
I have been really appreciating using Asana lately. It’s a fantastic product and helps me organize the millions of tasks that I try to keep. And I’ve tried many, many different tools, and have really struggled to use one again and again. I’m on kind of month 18 now with it and I find it’s really sticking, so that’s my tool.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Jonah Sachs
I think I mentioned the one that I’m most excited about, which is doing things that I’m bad at and staying out of my comfort zone, so continuing to press, although I’m not improving as fast as I like, continuing to press on my singing is my latest habit that I’m trying to stay in.

Pete Mockaitis
And, now, how about a favorite nugget, something that you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks, and they quote it back to you often?

Jonah Sachs
I find that the thing that most gets quoted back to me from my work, actually, comes from my first book Winning the Story Wars, maybe it’s because it’s been out for so long. But I kind of had three key tips for how to communicate and how to build your own personal brand and tell stories. And that was be interesting, tell the truth, and live the truth, and that gets repeated back to me as a sort of three pillars in life that are always worth following.

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

Jonah Sachs
JonahSachs.com.

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

Jonah Sachs
Yeah, I would just say it all really comes down to move towards the things that scare you, get out of your comfort zone, and if you’ve been saying that you’re going to do things differently, start doing something different today.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Jonah, this has been a treat. Thank you and keep on rocking.

Jonah Sachs
All right. Great talking.

521: How to Generate 100 Ideas in 10 Minutes with Dr. Roger Firestien

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Dr. Roger Firestien says: "The creativity comes in the stretch, the innovation comes in the stretch."

Dr. Roger Firestien shares his simple method for generating more original ideas.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The four guidelines for generating ideas
  2. Why silly warm ups seriously help brainstorming
  3. The magic number for creative ideas

About Roger:

Dr. Roger Firestien has taught more people to lead the creative process than anyone else in the world.

By applying Roger’s work in creativity:

  • Clorox solved a 77-year-old problem in 15 minutes;
  • General Motors came up with a $1.50 solution that saved the company $50,000 a week;
  • Mead Paper developed a world-class line of products and saved $500,000 a year;

Called “The Gold Standard” of creativity training by his clients, he has presented programs in creativity

to over 600 organizations nationally and internationally.

Roger’s latest book Create in a Flash: A Leader’s Recipe for Breakthrough Innovation provides techniques

to grow personal and team capacity for tackling tough challenges and recession proofing any business.

Thank you Sponsors!

  • Blinkist. Learn more, faster with book summaries you can read or listen to in 15 minutes at blinkist.com/awesome
  • Alitu. Coupon code: awesomejob

Dr. Roger Firestien Interview Transcript

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

Roger Firestien
My pleasure. I’m happy to be with you today.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m intrigued, so we’re going to talk about thinking and creativity. And I understand that when you like to think, one of your favorite things to do is drive tractors. What’s the story here?

Roger Firestien
I grew up in a farm in northern Colorado, and one of the beautiful things about being a part of my family is that my father didn’t say I had to be a farmer, right? And I got very interested in music, and the interest in music led to my interest in creativity. So, when I moved out to Buffalo, New York in 1978 to study creativity at the International Center for Studies in Creativity, I really never wanted to set foot on a farm again.

And a number of years ago, I went through some challenging times, and I ran into a fellow named Philip Keppler who owns a cattle ranch near Medina, New York which is about 40 miles northeast of Buffalo, where he grazes about 400 cattle. And so, Phil and I became friends, and I started to just go out to the farm to do what I call farm therapy. And what farm therapy is, is you go and you do stuff but you don’t have to make a decision on what you’re doing. My friend Phil says, “Let’s go move those bales up the north,” and we do it. my friend Phil says, “Let’s go move that tractor over there,” and we do it. My friend Phil says, “Let’s move those cattle over there to that pasture,” and we do it.

So, what it allows for me to do, and I do it regularly now, is that when I get stale with writing or when I get frustrated with what it’s like working in a university, in the International Center for Creativity, or running creativity consultancy firm, I go out there and I spend some time either driving a tractor, or working with cattle, or shoveling cow manure, or even falling in it sometimes, because what it does is it gives me break from what I usually do.

The other thing that farm therapy does to me is that, when I’m out there working on a field, and I’m supposed to, what we call bush hog, which is cut down a whole bunch of brush or anything, there is a tangible result from beginning to the end. You can see when it’s finished and there’s great satisfaction in that. In our work in teaching and writing, sometimes you often don’t see it.

So, farm therapy is what I recommend for folks who do businesses like us to be able to get away, get out in the fresh air, have somebody else make the decisions for them, and then oftentimes after that, I get some new ideas or some new insights for a new book I’m writing on, or program that I’m delivering, those sorts of things. It’s really taking a break both mentally and physically for how you spend your usual day.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. I’m convinced. Farm therapy.

Roger Firestien
I’ll see you on the farm, Pete. We can always use another hand.

Pete Mockaitis
It sounds like our next sponsor is a farm therapy offers.

Roger Firestien
International Harvest or John Deere, right?

Pete Mockaitis
So, I’m excited to talk about creativity and, in particular, I understand that you are capable of generating 100 ideas in 10 minutes, and we can all do this. How is that done?

Roger Firestien
Well, it’s not me that does it. It’s a group. So, let me tell you how it’s done. So, first off, let’s get a couple things clear here. One of the things we’re talking about is that we’re talking about an entire creative process here. Earlier on, in the 1950s, a gentleman named Alex Osborn, who happens to be the O in the advertising agency BBD&O, invented the brainstorming technique. But what Osborn realized was just an idea-generating technique isn’t enough. So, he also invented this process that helps you to define a problem, generate ideas, and then develop some plans for actions.

So, when we talk about generating 100 ideas in 10 minutes, it’s not difficult at all. And here’s the procedure that we follow. First, we’re talking about a group of about five to eight people, that’s about it, right? First thing you need to do is to go over the guidelines for generating ideas: defer judgments, strive for quantity, seek wild and unusual ideas, then combine and build with other ideas. Then, and here’s what’s really crucial, is we do a little warm up activity first, like a 5-minute warmup activity. And some of my favorite warm up activities are like, “How to get a hippopotamus out of a bathtub,” or, “How to improve a bathtub,” or, “What might you be able to do with 10 tons of orange jello,” right? Something fun, something sort of zany like that, and we use Post-Its, and we have people write down their ideas, say them out loud, and jot them up. And so, a warm up activity takes about 5 minutes.

Now, in addition to that, we also do this technique called forced connections, which is a technique that we use to combine different ideas from different perspectives. So, when you get stuck, oftentimes what tends to happen is you’re running down the same route. So, if I’m sitting here and if I’m working on a particular problem on, say, how to write a chapter for a book, and I get stuck, I might look around the room and see what ideas the lamp gives me, or what ideas my model rocket that I made when I was 12 years old gives me, or what ideas I get from pine trees at the backyard. And that’s the real essence of creativity, which is combining ideas in a different way than what they’ve been combined before.

So, we’ll oftentimes use pictures to help people to do that, from various aspects, pictures of food, or nature, or machinery, or people. So, then, let’s take a look at how to generate those 100 ideas. So, let’s say you’ve done a little warmup activity, and you’re working with a group, and you’ve generated about 25 ideas in 5 minutes. That’s not uncommon at all when you’re not judging ideas. Then, give the real problem that you want to work on to the group, take another 5 minutes, and oftentimes the group will generate between 25 or 30 ideas there.

Then we do a technique called brainwriting which actually helps people to write their ideas down. We use a little form where they write three ideas on a Post-It. It consists of nine squares. And what they’re doing this way is they’re working sort of in parallel. So, they’re all working at the same time. You don’t have to worry about a recorder, or a facilitator slowing down the process by getting those ideas up there. At the end of that 5 minutes, we usually have 60 or 70 ideas. It’s not uncommon at all to generate 100 ideas in 10 minutes.

Now, the thing behind that is, oftentimes then, what you’re going to find is about 20% of those ideas, about 20 or 30 ideas, let’s say 20% conservatively, are going to be good ideas that you can take and refine. Pete, what the formula really is in this is the generation of ideas doesn’t take long, but it’s the selection, the refinement, the building of those ideas, it does take the time.

So, let’s say you have an hour meeting and you want to generate some ideas for solving a specific problem you’re working on. First, come in with a well-defined problem, starting with the words that would invite ideas, like “How to…” or, “How might…” Then, give a little break, a little warmup activity work to challenge 15 minutes, and you’ll have about 80 to 100 ideas. Then the rest of that time, the remaining 45 minutes or so in the meeting, that’s what you need to use to select those ideas and refine those ideas and decide which ones you’re going to move forward. So, that’s sort of a formula for about an hour, an hour and 15-minute meeting.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so lots of good stuff in there. Now, let’s talk about the warmup. I imagine the goal here is that you get people have an easier time generating lots of wild ideas about something that is not close to home than they do generating wild ideas about something that they see every day, and so you’re getting their brain in that zone via doing something a little bit more distant. Is that kind of the logic here?

Roger Firestien
Pete, you’re absolutely right. And we do a warmup for three reasons. First, to briefly train the group on the technique. You can’t expect a group to go in there and just get creative, like, “Okay, we need some creative ideas.” So, first, a little training on them. Next, to sanction the time for speculation. And when I say sanctioning the time, people will come in from a meeting and they’ve been busy with other aspects of the day and other things are going on, and so what we do is we draw a line, we say, “Look, the way you’ve been thinking before, judging, putting things into action, executing, we’re not going to do that right now. We’re going to speculate. We’re going to try out some new ideas.”

And then the thing also is to create what we call judgment-free zone where people aren’t judging their ideas. They’re just coming up with those ideas. And you’ve got it exactly, what we want to do is we want to create something that’s fun, whimsical, non-threatening, away from the problem to generate that energy and to also practice the technique.

And so, in the book Create in a Flash, we have a bunch of warm up activities listed on page 69. And so, the whole purpose there, Pete, is for people to defer their judgment, think differently, and sanction that time for speculating. Then you can go in and work on the type of challenge. And I have to tell you, my entire career, when I neglected to do a warmup activity, I did that twice, either I thought the group was already warmed up or I didn’t have time. And what I had to do was go back into a warm up activity.

And, oftentimes, people will say, “Well, warmup activity is silly.” Well, by design it’s silly. Or they’ll say, “Well, I can’t work with my CEO on this.” I’ve had CEOs, I’ve had army generals, I’ve had people in government do warm up activities, they love it because it gives them a chance to loosen up, to have some laughter, and then that energy from that warm up, you move into working on with the challenge at hand. Oftentimes, what tends to happen is, the reason why people are not successful in idea-generating sessions is, one, they haven’t warmed up or, two, they haven’t followed the guidelines for generating ideas.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that makes total sense to me. And the warm up, I think that’s well-stated in terms of the warmup is producing an energy, a state of mind, a groove, and that’s just huge.

Roger Firestien
Thanks.

Pete Mockaitis
I find that when I’m giving a speech that goes amazingly versus, you know, fine between that…on that continuum. The difference is largely what kind of a state did I get into prior to in terms of was I curious and eager to connect with the audience, or was I kind of in my head in terms of I have these eight takeaways that I’m going to convey now.

Roger Firestien
Right. And here they are, one, two, three. I got to get them out, yeah. Yeah, that’s a challenge of every speaker. What I’ve also found too, and I‘m sure you found this too, it’s like less is more. So, yeah, but you get on that track, “I got to get these takeaways out there,” yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
So, excellent point then on the warmup, and I appreciate hearing about the general in terms of, okay, this is a serious person who has lives at stake who takes the time and finds it great. So, very cool.

Roger Firestien
And also, the thing about that is generals, people like that, will use that. For example, generals realize the value of training and being very, very well-trained. And what this does is it gives some training on something that they have no stakes in at all so they can experience the process, they can experience the procedures. And then when you work on the real challenge, and you’re trained already to do it. I mean, you practice target shooting before you have to go into combat. Same thing, you practice generating ideas in a really fun way before you have to apply them to the challenge at hand. And to your point too, it’s simple but it’s huge. It’s easy to do, it’s easy not to do. And so, it’s just that very simple thing when people do it, they’re successful. When they don’t, generally they’re not.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, I also want to talk about, so we’ve got that five to eight people who are able to generate 25 to 30-ish ideas, lickity-split. And then you do some stuff with Post-Its and three-by-three which turn into a whole bunch more. So, can you go into some details, as to what are we doing with that three-by-three and the Post-It stuff?

Roger Firestien
Well, first off, the Post-Its is pretty common in this business, and we use it in those things called brainstorming with Post-Its. And so, the first 5 minutes is people are generally writing their ideas, they’re saying them, they’re getting them up on a Post-It, and then they’re going up on a flipchart that the facilitator is running, and that’s brainstorming with Post-Its.

This other technique, is called brainwriting. And it’s a really cool tool because what it does is have people work individually. And so, we have a little grid here and we have nine Post-Its on it, three across, three across, three across. We write the creative questions at the top, we say to people, “Write three ideas, put the form out in the middle, pick up a form somebody else has not completed, write three more ideas on that.”

And so, they’re writing ideas continuously. The beautiful thing about this, Pete, is that they already have ideas generated from their brainstorming with Post-Its that are up there on the flipchart. They can use those to build ideas off of this wonderful little brain-writing technique, they can build ideas off of it as well. And the key is to use both. First, is stick ‘em up brainstorming, or the brainstorming with Post-Its where you get all those ideas out in a very wide format, and then, using this brainwriting tool to help people to add onto those ideas to refine them. And, oftentimes, the second round with this brainwriting tool, the ideas are a bit more well-defined because people have to write the ideas down, they don’t say their ideas anymore.

So, they write three ideas, put the form in the middle, pick up a form somebody else has used, write three more ideas, so it’s three ideas and go, and three ideas and go, and three ideas and go. And they will often, say, you’ve come up with 30 ideas with brainstorming with Post-Its, oftentimes people will double that with the brainwriting, 60, because they’re warmed up, they have ideas to build off of, and they don’t have to compete for airtime to get those ideas out there.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, when you say pick up a form, what’s on the form and what are we doing with that?

Roger Firestien
Well, if I can refer to the book, on page 78-79, also there’s PDFs that go along with this, if go to CreateInAFlashBook.com, there’s a downloadable PDF of this form called brain-writing, and all it is is just a simple little grid with nine squares. We put nine three-by-three Post-Its on it, and write these three ideas and go, and three ideas and go, so it’s really pretty not complicated at all but it’s a group process of getting those ideas out that really gets them going.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Let me get out of this, but aren’t you writing in both of these phases? So, brainwriting is not actually distinctively different with the writing because writing had happened earlier as well? I’m getting hung up on the word brainwriting.

Roger Firestien
Yeah, the distinction between brainwriting is, first, when you’re doing stick ‘em up brainstorming or brainstorming with Post-Its, you’ll write your idea on a Post-It, you’ll say it out loud, you’ll hand them up to a facilitator that will put the idea on the chart. By saying it out loud, other people in the group can build on that idea and add to it.

Now, with brainwriting, you’re not saying your ideas out loud. You’re simply writing three ideas down, putting the form in the middle, picking up another form, reading the ideas that other participants have jotted down, either building on those ideas or adding more ideas that are coming to mind. So, the second time, the brainwriting is, yes, you’re writing those ideas down, yes, you’re recording those ideas, you’re just not saying them out loud, and you’re doing three at a time.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so then, from there, we got a whole bunch of stuff. What happens next?

Roger Firestien
Well, then what you do is you need to converge on those ideas, all right? And we actually talk about this, in addition to Create in a Flash, there’s 20 videos that go along with it. So, when you go to CreateInAFlashBook.com, you can actually see this process happening. And we have in the front of the book the directions to find those online videos so you’ll actually see what we’ve talked about happening, Pete. And that’s probably the best is go to the website there and look at brainwriting in action.

But after writing those ideas, we do a technique called highlighting. And the first thing we do in highlighting is we take just colored dots and we have the person whose problem we’re working on go up to the charts and mark what we call the hits. These are the ideas that are interesting, intriguing, workable, might solve the problem, you like them. You mark as many hits as you like. Then, from there, you take those hits, you cluster them together into themes, right? Then you restate that cluster as an action or as a new idea.

So, what you’ll have is a whole bunch of ideas for solving a particular issue that will cluster around a certain area. Those build into a concept, then you label that concept with a verb phrase, and then from there you can go further to refine the ideas and develop them. So, that’s the basics around generating them, and then focusing on them. What’s real crucial, after you spent all this time to generate these ideas to not just go up and pick one idea. Well, in that case, why did you spend all those times generating those ideas in the first place?

So, the converge is a very gentle converge. First, what’s interesting, intriguing, workable, how do those relate to each other. And then, once you got that, labeling the cluster with a concept or a phrase that really captures the action, the essence of that idea cluster.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And I’d also love to get your take on when we’re trying to create independently on our own, what are some of your pro tips to do that well?

Roger Firestien
Well, very simple, following the same things, creating on your own as you would create in a group. For example, artists have sketchbooks. A dear friend of mine is an artist, when you look through his sketchbooks, he’s got thousands and thousands of sketches in there just jotting down new ideas, just sketches and those sorts of things.

So, when you’re working by yourself, first, define the problem, have a well-defined problem, like, “How to reduce the cost of this project?” or, “How to raise the money for this project?” or, “How to get my leaves raked in my backyard without too much effort?” And then just defer judgment. Don’t judge. Jot down all the ideas that might come to mind. What you might find is the first 10 to 12 ideas, this probably will come pretty easily for you, you kind of probably thought about those ideas before.

The next one is you might have a bit of a challenge around, so that’s when we recommend using this forced connection tool. So, say, you’re looking at ways to reduce costs on a project, well, then you look around the room, and you say, “Well, what ideas does my telephone give me for reducing costs on this project?” Well, maybe an idea would be, communicate the need to it broader. Broadcast out why you need to do it. My phone has got push buttons on, so separate the project down.

And so, that will spur you on to come up with some more ideas, but I recommend people stretch for about 30 ideas. Now, they don’t have to do it all in one setting. The beautiful thing about the creative process and why tractor time or farm therapy is so helpful is when you step away from the challenge, oftentimes new ideas begin to surface there. And that’s when it’s important to have your smartphone with you to just say those ideas into a voice memo, or have a sheet of paper where you write the idea down, because oftentimes when we find that you start working on a challenge, other ideas are going to be coming in because it stirred your brain up to come up with more ideas and more concepts. We have some good research that shows that that seems to be the case.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m curious, this number 30, is there some magic to it?

Roger Firestien
Yeah, a bit of magic. So, one-third, one-third, one-third principle. And so, early on, when we were working with the creative process back in the early 1980s, I ran a consulting company called Multiple Resources Associates, and this was early on in a lot of the development of creative process where we really had to try and chart a place, “Where are we going to get breakthroughs when we’re working with our clients?”

And so, as we went through many, many, many, many transcripts, we often found that idea 30, 32, 33, 34, 35, that’s when the new ideas were coming. And so, this is also based on an early principle around the old brainstorming technique, and essentially, it’s this. The first third of your idea production, about the first 10 to 12 ideas, tend to be the usual ideas. These are the ideas you’ve of thought before. These are ideas that are already roaming around people’s heads.

The second third, from idea 12 to 20, or 25 or so, those are kind of the crazy ridiculous ideas. It seems that people have loosened up a little bit, they get a little crazy, a little goofier. They’ve exhausted the usual associations that they have around solving that problem. Then the next third, the third third, that’s where the pay dirt comes, that’s when people come up, begin to make new combinations using that kind of crazy stuff they came up with the second third, some from the first third, and that’s where the new ideas and insights begin to blossom.

And so, I say the idea 30 to 35, you’re bound to get some new insights there. But what often tends to happen is we sit around in a group and we generate 10 or 12 ideas for solving a problem, and we think we’re getting real creative, well, you’re not. All you’re doing is getting those ideas out there that already romping around people’s heads. The creativity comes in the stretch, the innovation comes in the stretch. But that’s what’s behind that idea of saving the quarter for about 30 ideas or so.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so then, I’d love to know, you talked about forced connection, hey, you look around, there’s a lamp, there’s a telephone. Are there any other ways you recommend bringing useful stimuli into the equation for association?

Roger Firestien
Well, I want to save your listeners a lot of money because the whole idea of forced connections is really the basis of what creativity is. There’s lots of books out there that give you 101 ways to come up with more ideas, those sorts of things, and they’re all based on the concept of making a sort of remote association, an association with something that’s not related to the problem at all, which is combining ideas that usually don’t appear to be related in any way.

Now, what we use is we use visual forced connections. So, if you’re in a session and the group is slowing down, we’ll have a series of pictures, lots of pictures, and they fall into four categories. One category is people, second category is nature, the third category is machinery or the non-living world, and the fourth category is food. And we’ll just have these pictures just scattered out over a table. When people get stuck, they can take a look at the pictures, see what ideas it gives them, use that to create a connection and come up with a new idea.

Now, you can use pictures but you can also use smells. You can also use sounds or music. You can also use taste. In other words, you’re working on a problem in some way, and you’re tasting cinnamon. What ideas that cinnamon bring to mind? Or you’re working on a problem and you see an ocean liner. What idea does an ocean liner bring to mind? That’s the basics of it, Pete. Taking a look at something or making connection with something that’s not related to the problem at all and use that connection to create a new idea. And that’s my go-to tool.

So, there’s other tools that you can use but if we’re going to give our listeners something that they can use consistently, it’s this forced connection tool. We have an interview on one of the videos of a gentleman named Dr. Robert Gatewood, who took one of my classes and he said, “I would leave class, and as I was driving, I’d be working on a problem, and I’d look around and I’d see what connections I might get from a stoplight, or what connections I might get from a building.”

And there’s an interesting story about forced connections if you want to go into that in a second, but I want to make sure that I’ve responded to your question here.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, got it. It’s storytime.

Roger Firestien
Storytime. So, one of the people that we talk about is a gentleman named Wilson Greatbatch. Now, do you know who Wilson Greatbatch is?

Pete Mockaitis
I don’t.

Roger Firestien
Most people don’t. You know what a pacemaker is?

Pete Mockaitis
Yes.

Roger Firestien
Of course, you do. Wilson Greatbatch invented the pacemaker, and he actually lived about 10 miles from where I live, and I got the opportunity to visit with Dr. Greatbatch a number of times. Now, one of the things that led to the invention of the pacemaker was a lot of failures, a lot of trial and learn is what we call them. And Wilson Greatbatch is wonderful about reframing failure. He said, “I look forward to failure as a learning experience. Nine out of ten things that I worked on fail. But the one that works pays for the other nine.”

So, in my conversations with him, the idea for the pacemaker, he told me, actually came from a hazard flasher on the side of a road. So, he’s driving back from a meeting one time, he sees this construction site, he sees all these hazard flashers flashing. That flashing made the connection between the pacemaker electrical charge and this network with the heart. So, that’s one example.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool, yeah.

Roger Firestien
Yeah, cool. They all are, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Interesting. So, trial and learn instead of trial and error.

Roger Firestien
Yeah, trial and learn because whenever you do something, you create a result. It might not be the result you anticipated, but the question is, “What can you learn from that result?” If you look at highly-creative people, they see failure in a different way. They see failure, they don’t attach a negative value to it. They see failure as, “Well, gee, that didn’t work. What else might work? What else might work?” Edison was famous for his quotes on this, but he was about halfway into inventing the lightbulb, and somebody asked him, “Mr. Edison, how many tries have you tried to invent a lightbulb that haven’t worked?” He said, “Well, I’ve succeeded in proving 700 ways it will not work. When I find a way that will work, I will be 700 ways closer to that.” And so, it’s that whole attitude about failure.

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

Roger Firestien
So, as far as creativity is concerned, and as far as things that your listeners can take away from, I think it’s really crucial that oftentimes people think that creativity is just coming up with lots and lots of ideas. But what I found over my 40-year career is that oftentimes, most of the time, what we think is the problem isn’t the problem at all. And that’s why it’s important to ask a lot of creative questions, which is what we talk about in the book.

Now, Pete, this is we talked about generating lots of ideas for solving a problem. You can use that same principle to generate lots of creative questions. So, if you’re coming up with creative questions, just differ judgments, strive for quantity, seek wild and unusual questions, combine and build other questions. And when you get those out, once again, 30 questions or so, look through those, find the best one, and then you’re going to to be much more on target for generating ideas.

So, I would say that’s one of my favorite things for your listeners to take with you. It’s like don’t accept the initial definition of the problem. And in my entire career, as I’ve facilitated hundreds of groups of creative problem-solving, there’s been one time, one time only, that the initial definition of the problem was the real problem. The rest of the time, that wasn’t it at all. It was somewhere else.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, by asking, you’re brainstorming different iterations of the problem or question to be solved, and in so doing, you’re sort of following the same process of zeroing in on which one seems the most resonant, workable, compelling?

Roger Firestien
Yes. What we do is we have you phrase those questions beginning with a phrase as a question. So, we use words like “How might…,” or, “How to…”, “What might be all the ways to…” And what those do is they setup the question as a divergent question. In other words, they’re opening your mind to search for ideas. So, “How to reduce the cost…” is very different than saying, “We don’t have enough money, okay?” That statement blocks your thinking. “How to reduce the cost…” tells your brain to begin to start to look for some ideas. So, using language in that way really helps to open up your thinking. It also helps to diffuse a lot of arguments and stuff as well.

So, if you’re in a highly-charged situation and people have different points of views, well, just phrase your point of view as a “How to…” or, “In what ways might we…” you get it up there on the chart and people feel heard, they feel valued that way. That’s one of the other things about the idea-generating process when you’re using something like brainstorming with Post-Its, everybody’s idea is valued, everybody’s idea gets up there, everybody’s idea gets heard, and so that builds teamwork. And the best way to solve a problem or the best way to build a team is to solve a problem together.

Pete Mockaitis
With that, could you now share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Roger Firestien
A favorite quote that I find inspiring? Yeah, yeah, I do have a favorite quote. Thanks. And this is one of my favorites. It’s from Create in a Flash, and I didn’t know this was by this person, but Mike Wallace, a columnist, I love this quote, he said, “If you don’t wake up in the morning excited to pick up where you left your work yesterday, you haven’t found your calling yet.” I just love that quote because if you look at creative people, if you look at people that are passionate about their work, that’s what they do. It’s like, “I’m ready to start tomorrow morning because I’m so excited to pick up where I left off.” So, that’s one of my favorite quotes, yeah.

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

Roger Firestien
Ah, well, I’ve got a bit of research. Actually, this is my doctoral research that we did back in 1987. And what we did was we compared groups that were trained in creative problem-solving with groups who were not trained in creative problem-solving. We gave them a real-life problem to solve, we took them over to the television studio on the campus, and we videotaped them while they solved the problem. When we analyzed the videotapes, we found the groups that were trained in creative problem-solving methods, the things that we’re talking about, participated significantly more, they criticized ideas less, they supported ideas more, they laughed more, they smiled more, and they generated twice as many ideas as the groups who were not trained in creative problem-solving.

Now, when we gave those ideas back to the business people that gave us a problem to work on in the first place, we found that the groups who were in creative problem-solving outproduced the untrained groups by about three to one on high-quality ideas. And the output of this is that they had more, better ideas to choose from, so they had a much greater array of ideas that they could choose from. Henceforth, a much greater possibility of solving the problem.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it’s so interesting. So, three to one on quality, and two to one on quantity.

Roger Firestien
Yeah, just about like that.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s intriguing.

Roger Firestien
So, again, Pete, what was that again?

Pete Mockaitis
So, you said it was three to one on quality.

Roger Firestien
On quality.

Pete Mockaitis
And two to one on quantity.

Roger Firestien
Yeah, two to one on quantity. Yeah, I’ve never really looked at it that way before, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
So, that means that the average quality score, if you will, I don’t know, of a given idea was better still.

Roger Firestien
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
As opposed to, “Well, yeah, they had more good ideas. They had 10 times as many so some of them were bound to not suck.” It’s like, I don’t know, the average quality was higher too.

Roger Firestien
You know, that’s an interesting way to look at that, a great way to look at that. I’ve got to write another study, Pete.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

Roger Firestien
Well, come on, “Create in a Flash: A Leader’s Recipe for Breakthrough Innovation.” We just released it. So, I love this book.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit, something you do to be awesome at your job?

Roger Firestien
A favorite habit. Well, I think, yeah, let me give you a couple of things. One is I’m in a wonderful position to be able to kind of control my schedule. So, one of my favorite habits is naps. And if you look at folks that are highly creative, they’ve taken naps, they’ve taken refreshers. And so, if you can sneak in a short 20-minute nap sometime during the day, that gives you what I call as two days. Because you work for a certain pace for a while, and usually about 2:00 o’clock or 3:00 o’clock, I tend to slow down. So, a little nap, a little quick meditation just to refresh, then you’re good for the rest of the day. That’s one.

And then the other thing is just really be aware that you’re always coming up with ideas, and just writing those ideas down whenever they occur to you. So, when I’m out doing farm therapy, I always have my smartphone with me because 99% of the time, I’m going to come up with an idea there to help me with something I’ve been working on, because your brain is working on it all the time just on a deeper level. You just have to get out of the way with your judgmental thinking to let those ideas begin to surface.

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

Roger Firestien
What you think is the problem is not the problem at all. And I think that’s really one of the biggest nuggets that I can give to people that would say when encountering an issue, or a challenge, or a goal, or an opportunity, don’t accept the first definition of it. Challenge your thinking about it to see the other angles of it, to see this might be a symptom. This might not be the main issue. So, I guess I would say challenge your initial definition of what you think the problem is. And, many, many times, that’s going to really help you to come up with some brand-new insights, insights you wouldn’t have thought of before.

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

Roger Firestien
Go right to my website RogerFirestien.com, it’s German. And you can go there, you can take a look at the programs we have available. And if you find the Create in a Flash button, you can click on that and find all those videos for free to download, printable PDFs along with that brainwriting form that we talked about. So, RogerFirestien.com.

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

Roger Firestien
Yes, I think the final call to action would be when you’re working on a challenge, step back from it, right? In other words, first, spend some time figuring out what the real problem is, don’t accept the initial definition of the problem. Challenge your definition of the problem. Step back from it and then be ready to capture those ideas whenever they occur to you. And that I think would be the biggest thing, because we’re coming up with ideas all the time.

And, oftentimes, I think you probably have, Pete, the occasion where maybe you’re falling asleep at night, an idea comes in, and you go, “Oh, I’ll remember that,” or you’ve taken a shower and say, “Oh, I’ll remember that.” Well, no, you won’t, okay? Get that idea down as soon as it comes to mind. So, the big takeaway to help people become awesome at their jobs is one of the things that we know is that when you’re away from work, that’s when you’re going to probably have some of your best ideas. Very few people tell me that they get their best ideas at work. When you’re away from work, that’s the time when the ideas are going to surface, so be ready to capture ideas whenever and wherever they occur to you.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Roger, thanks so much for sharing, and I wish you lots of luck and many great ideas.

Roger Firestien
Thank you, Pete. This has been a delight. I really appreciate it.