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

476: How to Create Courageous Change with Ryan Berman

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Ryan Berman says: "Either you drive change or change drives you."

Ryan Berman offers his tips and tricks for building your courage muscle to make exciting changes.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The three elements of the courage equation
  2. One simple trick to boost your courage
  3. How to convince your boss to make a courageous change

About Ryan:

Ryan Berman is the founder of Courageous, a change consultancy that develops Courage Brands® and trains companies how to operationalize courage through Courage Bootcamp.

He has spent a career developing meaningful stories for household brands—like Caesars Entertainment, Major League Baseball, New Era, Subway, and UNICEF—and he believes that courage is the ultimate competitive advantage for any willing business, being or brand.

Ryan Berman used the courage methodology detailed in the book to launch his own Courage Brand called Sock Problems, a charitable sock company that socks different problems in the world.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Ryan Berman Interview Transcript

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

Ryan Berman
Thanks, man. Thanks for having me. How is it going?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, it’s going well. It’s going well. Well, we’re going to talk about courage a lot. And I want to start us off by hearing about a time that you had to dig deep to find some professional courage. What happened?

Ryan Berman
Yeah, I think that’s a really fair question and a good place to start. I actually talk about, right now, being like I’m in it. The irony here is when you write a book about courage, you kind of have to live it. So, I’m in it right now. I actually, I don’t know how much of my story that you know, but I was running a 70-person creative agency and, to be very honest, I felt the bigger we got the less happy I became.

And I got further and further away from the things that I was most passionate about, which was doing the work. And so, the irony here is that I wrote this book to position that company, and they pretty much gave me the courage to fire myself and to start over. And so, I’m in it right now where I’m actually back.

I’m passionate about what I’m doing but you go from having all these resources to a startup. And when I described Courageous, which is more of like Special Forces, like reinvention company, where we help companies reinvent themselves. I’m back. I feel like I’m back living the premise of the book and it’s terrifying. As it is, I’m also much happier.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so that’s cool. So, then the courage there was, “Are you going to take that leap and to part from reliable income and all that sort of thing?”

Ryan Berman
Yeah, but it’s more than that. I never thought I’d be a guy with a method, and here I am. You go through this thousand-day listening tour, and I still can’t explain why people at Apple and Google and Method and Dominos let me into their lives. It wasn’t like I paid them, and it wasn’t like they were clients. And the leaders of these companies let me in, and I was fascinated by how some of the biggest companies on the planet are also the ones that are the most agile, which doesn’t seem to make sense.

And so, the more I got to dissect those companies, and realized how important being aligned with the values of the company and the leaders were. And when I really look back at like the problems that we had setup in my last company, it just set me up to be ineffective at the level that I wanted to be effective. And it doesn’t mean like my way was the right way all the time, or my two partners who was there, their way or the highway. In order for me to scale and change, and I think if we’re not working on our tomorrow, if we’re not working on sustained relevance, what are do you really working on?

And so, when I looked at it, it was like, “Okay, how do I setup a company, really, to be calculated with our courage, but help us stay ahead of the curve with everybody else?” And when I really looked at that method, it made it easy for me to leave, or easier. It’s never easy but easier to leave, because I just wasn’t aligned with who I was and what my values were.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Thank you. And so, can you tell us, if we’re kind of zooming into the typical “professional” who is working a job, how is courage helpful for them? Like, where are some of the key ways that we can chicken out to our detriment?

Ryan Berman
So, first of all, I think we have the wrong idea, or some people have the wrong idea of what courage is. So, I always wondered if it makes more sense to share, when you look at the dictionary definition of courage, the dictionary definition is the ability to do something that  And imagine devoting a hearty amount of your time exploring the topic that’s going into a book, and you’re vehemently disagreeing with the dictionary. By the way, not a good place to be. Like, the last thing I want to do is to be on the wrong side of the dictionary.

But when I looked at that definition, I didn’t see any utilitarian value to it. I’m like, “How does being frightened really help me in the  So, a lot of my early research was just seeing if I can come up with a definition that can help people incorporate, unlock their courage, and do it in a calculated fashion.

And you go up through these interviews. I call the interview process the 3Bs. There was the brave, which are like Navy Seals and tornado chasers, firefighters, the ER operating chiefs. It’s like I was really fascinated by that process. They didn’t know who was coming through the door but, yet, their job is to save lives.

Then there was the bullish. So, leaders at those companies I mentioned. And then the brainiac was the third B, so just clinical psychologists, Cambridge PhDs, immunologists, just to study our brain and the way that we’re wired. And I came out the other side with this definition of courage that I think plays well for corporate which is quite out rad. It’s just it’s knowledge plus faith plus action

And, look, in business, you’re never going to have every snippet of knowledge you need to make a call. And, by the way, data is not knowledge. Data is a means to knowledge but it still takes those synthesizers to look at the data to get to your knowledge. And you can wait and hope to collect all the knowledge in the world but you’re probably going to get passed from a competitor

And when I talk about faith, we’re not talking about religion. We’re talking about inner belief. Like, what do you feel? Like, what do you really feel? The more your knowledge goes up, hopefully, your faith is going up. And then comes the hard

Two or three in any direction is not courage. So, if I listen to this, and I’m in a workplace setting, and you’re working on something that needs courage, and I do think courage is a journey word, meaning you need it for these tough decisions. Think about it this way. Like, do you have the knowledge to make a call? Do you feel it’s right? And then you take an

So, knowledge and faith with no action is paralysis. You know what you should do, you feel it’s right, and for whatever reason you can’t pull the trigger. Faith and action with no knowledge is reckless. So, I think if some people think that jumping without a parachute, that’s one of my six courage myths, by the way. I think that’s that definition, faith and

And then knowledge and action without faith. Like, if you’re on the inside and you’re going through the motions and you’re working on a project, and you don’t feel like any friction whatsoever, or any little voice inside going, “This is a little crazy.” My sense is, it’s knowledge plus action without faith is status quo. You’re working on safe. And when your idea hits the market, and you’re not there to defend it, it’s just going to blend in with a thousand of other messages or

So, it has to be all three – knowledge plus faith plus action equals courage. And that’s how you know you’re

Pete Mockaitis
And so, what’s intriguing there is like it’s almost like if there’s not a degree of, “I don’t know about this,” then there’s less, I don’t know, juice, opportunity, differentiation, power in that thing that you’re up to.

Ryan Berman
Yeah, it’s like if you don’t feel just that little voice going, “This is a little crazy. This is crazy. Oh, my gosh, we’re going to get fired if we do this.” These are on emotional datapoints actually but you’re actually on the right path to doing something courageous, that’s going to break through.

And I come out of the courageous idea space. So, I always say, “You’re not trying to make a courageous idea that when people see it the first time, they’re like, “Wow!” You want to create this idea when someone sees it at the eighth time, like, “Gosh, I wish I did that.” And that’s sort of the tell of a courageous concept.

Pete Mockaitis
So, can you just give us examples here of some courageous concepts that kind of fit this?

Ryan Berman
Yeah, for your listeners out West, one of the things we helped is Harrah’s, which is a casino. You think, “Oh, casino. Where is this going?” And all of our research showed that people look at it as a destination. But what if we can actually turn that destination into a real destination – a city?

And so, we actually came up with a concept of Funner, California, and how awesome would it be if we made a real-life city. And the good news about Harrah’s in southern California is it’s on sacred land, so we actually went to the Council of the Tribe with the leadership team at Harrah’s, and that just tells you the level of trust we have with the leadership team, and convinced them to change the property to Funner, California. So, literally, the proximity of the property is now a real legal city called Funner.

And once we got the smiles on the face of the team, well, if you’re going to have a city, you have to have a mayor, right, because what city doesn’t have a mayor? So, who would be the perfect mayor of Funner, California? Our first mayor was Mayor Hoff, Mayor David Hasselhoff.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, okay.

Ryan Berman
Yeah. And so, next thing you know our commercials were with Mr. Hasselhoff, I mean, Mayor Hoff, who, of course, had keys to the city and rules to his city. And the irony here is not only did it move the needle for their business, but when you talk about holistic change, this was an example of once we got it right on the outside, we then started to talk about, “Well, what about behind the curtain of the company, the employees? How would the employees of Funner behave if there were burrows? What should a pit boss look like in Funner, California?” You know what’s not Funner? A pit boss with a suit with his arms crossed trying to take your money.

So, we started to like take this concept of Funner and really blow it out inside and outside. And I think that’s the big idea here, it’s like, “How do you come up with ideas? There is no curtain anywhere.” If there’s a curtain between internal and external, you’ve got a problem. And I think Funner was a great example of them having the courage to go, “We are a destination. Let’s do it for Funner.” And once that was their marketing communication, then we started to work inside to make the organization more fun in all directions.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool, yes. And it is kind of different, so I hear what you’re saying with regard to that faith bit. But, at the same time, that there is distinction there which is kind of meaningfully unique in terms of the innovation and being appealing to folks, like, “Oh, I don’t want to go to the one that’s less fun.”

Ryan Berman
Right, right, exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
“I want the one that’s funner.”

Ryan Berman
“Yeah, let’s go to Funner.” Yeah, I think we actually call out, we sign off, like, “It’s not a word, it’s a place.” And to some people, like, “Funner is not a word.” And so, you know, the big insight for me also, and permission to give a quick shameless plug on the book, but the true insight was every single time in my career where we have presented the most courageous idea, and our partners chose them, the return on courage was higher, and their staffs were happier.

And every time, you know, because sometimes you’d present multiple ideas, every time we’d present the safer idea, or our partners went with the safer idea, the return on courage wasn’t even half. And, by the way, our staff was less than happy. They knew it wasn’t going to work at the level it could. So, you have this really courageous idea that makes sense for the business, by the way. Next thing you know, you’re talking about like peer through reinvention.

We weren’t just reinventing their communication. We were reinventing their culture. We’re reinventing new innovation opportunities for them. Yeah, go for it.

Pete Mockaitis
So, you say you’re comparing a return on courage for values. What’s the numerator, denominator here on this formula?

Ryan Berman
For return on courage?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Ryan Berman
Well, again, it’s less algebraic than the first time around. But I think the number one is in involving relevant business that’s sidestepping stasis or death. The return on courage is like you’re back into a relevant position. You’re building internal believers and external believers, and you’re building your courage muscle which breeds more courage, which keeps you ahead of your competition, ultimately try reinvention. So, helping these companies reinvent themselves and stay relevant.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. I think you said that when you took the bolder path, the return on courage was like more than double that of the safer path. What is the number we’re talking about?

Ryan Berman
Yeah. I don’t have like the actual EBITDA number for here but, to me, almost every single time we’ve actually have a client pick the courageous idea, and obviously we’re playing off, “Here’s how you maximize your ROI,” but I don’t have like lock-me-down number on, “Oh, every time we do this, it’ll be 8x or 4x or 10x.” I wish I had more time. Maybe that’s something we can explore.

Pete Mockaitis
But it’s more than double, you said.

Ryan Berman
Oh, yeah, there’s no question. Yeah, there’s no question.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. All right. Well, so that’s encouraging right there. I think that’s a shot in the arm, a boost to the faith right there in terms of thinking, “Oh, okay. Well, this might be a little nuts, but Ryan said that when you do something that’s a little nuts, that makes sense and there’s a lot of energy behind it. More often than not, it’s at least twice as effective.” So, that’s pretty cool.

You made a reference to some myths when it comes to courage. Could you share a couple of those? Like, what’s the most pervasive or damaging and how should we think about these courage myths correctly?

Ryan Berman
Yeah, so there’s six courage myths that were sort of uncovered in the interview process, and some of them were obvious, like courage jumping out of a plane sans parachute, or courage is activated on impulse. I think courage can’t be taught, and I think those are critical. But when I really think of what’s the most debilitating one, I think it’s that courage describes other people, or courage doesn’t have a role

And I truly believe if that’s what you think, then of course it doesn’t have a role in our daily life. But if you look at courage like a muscle, and you can start to build that muscle and train for it, then you start to look for courageous opportunities inside your organization. We’re just not built that way. When you talk to leaders of companies, they see courage as a peripheral thing

And so, to me, that’s just an opportunity waiting to be unlocked. And if you can get your whole organization prepped and trained to look for courageous opportunities, I do believe those start to appear. And, again, if courage breeds courage, then you’re looking for those moments where we can be courageous to push forward those ideas that really change the game for your

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, that’s cool. Well, let’s hear some more myths.

Ryan Berman
You know, again, I think courage is a solo risky journey. I don’t think it’s a solo. I definitely think it’s a journey but I don’t think it’s as risky as people think and I certainly  Again, especially in a corporate setting, we’re all dealing with stuff on our own, our demons on the inside, but to me that’s part of the problems. Like, how do we get out of our own way and properly communicate what we’re afraid of?

There’s a famous proverb that fear and courage are brothers, that you actually can’t get to the courageous choice without first channeling it through fear. But most of us, we suppress those things that we’re afraid of versus  And so, part of this is like, “Let’s look out what we’re afraid of. Let’s actually talk about what those fears look like. Is there a product fear we’ve got? What’s the perception fear? Which is what I would call like the marketing fear. What personal fears are you bringing to the job?” Like, “Hey, if I pick this idea, am I going to be on an island all by myself? Am I going to get fired?” We don’t talk about this stuff.

And so, as leaders, my hope is that people will empower their teams to bring this to the forefront and like I always say FOMF, Fear Of Missing Fear. Like, if you don’t have a fear, go find one and smoke out that fear, and then start to

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, let’s get to a little bit of the how of fear. So, let’s say you’ve zeroed in on a fear, how do you go about doing the shrinking of it?

Ryan Berman
Yes. So, like I mentioned a little bit earlier, I never thought I’d be a guy with a method, and here I am. So, what I wanted to do was almost take the courage out of courage and give people the tools they need to make faster decision-making but do so in a calculated way.

So, if your audience has an opportunity and the book, Return on Courage, the back half of the book is the how. Like, how do you actually know the knowledge to follow, how to build internal and external faith, and then where to take action. And the back of the book is basically the five steps to becoming what I call a courage brand. And there’s a price. There’s a price to becoming a courage brand. And price is an acronym. It stands for Prioritize, Rally, Identify, Commit,

And Prioritize is prioritize through value. So, it’s almost going all the way back to the beginning and really looking at the  And, unfortunately, most of us have, like the values are on a wall somewhere, they’re collecting dust in an employee manual, but they’re not really being operationalized and activated.

Or maybe a company has nine values or 11 values, and I can just speak for myself. Like, I can barely remember four. So, if I’m the leader of a company, and I’ve got a thousand people working for me, how do I make this clean and simple, have less values, have each value be more valuable? And then, how am I rewarding my staff on these values?

And when I say core values, they’re not eyerolls, they’re the exceptional role. Again, this is just for me going out and seeing how these companies, the most relevant companies in the world are operating. Now, are all of them like playing by these rules? No. Amazon, I think, has 16 values. That’s unfathomable to me. But, obviously, it’s working for them.

So, it talks about, “What are the values of a company?” and then, let’s say you’re just on the team, like, “Do you actually mirror those values? Are you a believer of those values?” Which brings us to the second step, which is rally,  And I think organizations even make believers or fake believers. And the funny thing about fake believers is they’re hidden in the organization. They don’t exactly wear a T-shirt that says, “Fake believer.” They don a smile and collect the paycheck but deep down, like conviction is dropped, there’s the eyerolls and productivity isn’t what it could be.

And so, I really do believe that belief is the ultimate currency in an organization. So, when people believe, they’re in, and when people don’t believe, they’re out, and that comes straight down to leadership. So, that leadership team is responsible for creating believers, which starts with the values. And then, again, are you making believers? Are you caring about your team? I think there’s four ways

And so, respecting makes believers, caring makes believers, I would say repeating makes believers, which is really annoying sometimes for the leadership team but you need to be playing on the same playbook and say the same thing over and over again. And then seeing is believing. So, if you say something, and your staff doesn’t see something, that’s a problem, right? If you say something,

And, again, these two steps are organizational health steps. It’s as simple as galvanizing your people and creating conviction. And the number one problem that I see today is this misalignment between leadership and the next-generation workforce where the leadership team can’t wrap their heads around why you don’t want to stick around for  And the next generation is like, “I don’t need a watch. I have a watch on my phone. Like, I need skills. I need to be challenged.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah, that’s my thing. It’s like, “Because you’re going to fire me as soon as there’s a downturn.”

Ryan Berman
Right. And so, there’s this recalibration that’s needed. Both sides need to understand each other and that means talking about it. Like you said, “Hey, if I speak up, am I going to get fired?” Okay, that’s a personal fear that needs to be discussed. It should be discussed. We don’t discuss it. So, again, I think these two steps are just about organizational health, it’s about finding people with conviction that have the right intention, that are on the metaphor of co-rocket ship.

And then we move into the I, which is identify fears, so you have to do that. And the way I try to break down fears is looking at industry fears, what’s the industry fear for your vertical, like what could take down the entire industry. Are you the

And I imagine going to an offsite and thinking through these things. By the way, this concept only came up because I was so frustrated with SWOT. You know, remember the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats? And the more times I did that, my strength ended up on my opportunity, and my weakness ended up on my opportunity, and my weakness also ended up on my threats. And so, I just wanted to come up with a better way to SWOT, which has somehow survived as the standard for the last six decades.

And so, I think an art of fear is a better way to SWOT where you can get really clear about what could take your vertical down or where’s the problems with your product, which is product fears, or service fears, and I guess that perception fears which is marketing. And, again, if you don’t know what can take you down, you can’t put a plan in place and you’re reacting. Usually, it’s a little too late by the time the thing comes to get you. So, the idea is to smoke out what could take your business down and take your vertical down, and then you have a decision to make on if you want to double-down and

The C is “Commit to a purpose.” Again, I think this is a hard thing for current leadership teams to recognize but the next-generation workforce believes that we have an obligation as a business to be purpose-driven, to make the world better,  And so, I think there’s a study where 50% of millennials felt that way, that the point of this was to make the world better not just to make money.

So, if I’m a leader, you can even roll your eyes at that or just sort of accept the obligation that comes with being a business leader. And so, that means committing to an authentic purpose, a truthful purpose. Simon Sinek has spent so much of his career playing in this space. I agree with him that we got to find our why. I think the only sort of addon is, now, I think you need to have a rally cry in that why. What’s the rally cry? Why and how are people

You look at a company like SpaceX, and there’s not a ton of proof that they’re going to be successful on their rally cry purpose, which is life on another planet. But if you work there, you’re committed. You’ll give 20 hours a day to push that boulder up the mountain on what you’re trying to achieve. And I know not every company can be SpaceX, but you’ve got to find that rally cry.

You look at Method Soap, that soap company, and their rally cry and their why was the people against dirty. And what I love about it is they had a clear enemy that they chose to take down which was dirty. Are you for clean or are you for dirty? The people against dirty. By the way, I think they have a 100 million annual sales as a target, and it’s soap, it’s a commodity. So, what I love about it is it doesn’t matter if you’re a commodity or a rocket ship. You can find a purpose and get clear on that purpose and galvanize people behind it.

And then, finally, we get down to E of PRICE which is execute your action. So, knowledge, faith and action, right? It’s go time on the execute  And, again, it just depends on what type of action you’re jumping into. But the book talks about, it’s a little bit of a choose your own adventure on, “Are you reinventing your product? Are you reinventing your story? Or are you reinventing like a new offering?”

And, again, this is the hard part. The hard part is you know what you’re doing and you feel it’s right. Now you have

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I want to zero in on some of the values pieces here because I think you’re right that a lot of organizations, they have values, maybe there’s nine, maybe there’s 16, but they’re not really alive in the sense that they’re sort of hanging out on some materials, in a file cabinet, or on some walls. So, could you maybe give us some examples of company, value, and how that gets lived for real? Because I think a lot of listeners might find themselves as like, “I don’t think I can recite our company values and I don’t think any of them are leaping to mind as I look at how we do business.”

Ryan Berman
Yeah, again, I think this goes all the way back to the basics, right? You would think that we would honor the values of the company. And the problem I think is many companies are honoring the founder’s values which may not mirror what the next generation demands, or what you demand of that next-generation workforce because, to me, that’s what values were made for. They’re supposed to be guardrails to help you make decisions. It’s to drive behavior. And if you have multiple offices and thousands of people, they all should be playing on the

So, one company that comes to mind is Zappos. They do have 10 values but their number one value is, “Deliver wow through service.” The way that comes to life, I mean, from the second you walk into their office, yes, it is wall art, but I just love this idea that they have on the wall, “We’re a service company that happens to sell blank.”

Which I love that fact. And you can go in there and what they’re selling, they see themselves as a customer service company first. It doesn’t matter what your title is, you’re the first one that you’re at the office, you’re working the call center. Their CEO, Tony Hsieh, still works the call center during the holidays and people are sort of floored when he tells them, “By the way, I’m Tony Hsieh, I’m the CEO.” It’s like he’s taking calls so they don’t believe him.

And so, he is operationalizing the values. They also have a reward system. It’s almost like when you go to like one of those game rooms where you get your tickets and you can turn your tickets in for different rewards. They basically have that where other people can give you points on service and you can redeem those points for schwag. So, there’s actual science in Jonah Berger’s book Contagious that says, “We cannot imitate things we don’t see.” Which is why it’s “Monkey see, monkey do,” not “Monkey hear, monkey do.”

And so, Tony, recognizing that, he visualized this everywhere. You see it everywhere. Everywhere you go in that office, you can’t not see something on the wall reminding you of how you’re supposed to behave. I think the military also does a really good job of this. So, the Army does a really good job of this. And leadership is their acronym, and the recognize that everybody coming in through their system is coming from different walks of life, right?

So, the Army officer has a massive advantage that they get 16 weeks of bootcamp here. They really get to train their people. And most of us in the workforce, we get like 48 hours and then we get the metaphorical weapon to go out into the workplace and try to do our job. But if you’ve ever studied Fort Knox, you’ll see, again, written on the walls, it’s leadership. It’s all those values. You get it on the dog tags. They ingrain it in you. They’re training their people.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I see there that we skipped the E and the A. We got loyalty, duty, respect, and selfless service, honor, integrity, personal courage, and these things mean something for real to them.

Ryan Berman
Yeah, it’s everything to them. By the way, you talk to people that are Army infantry men, they talk about how those values play off the field as much as on the field for them. So, they’re making it real. They’re operationalizing their values.

And so, a lot of the work I’m doing now is you kind of have to go back to the beginning, and go, “Hey, the way you communicate to your team, the way you’re driving behavior, it’s like Pavlov are you actually rewarding your team off of the values. And often I’ll get from a leadership team, like, “Are we talking about internal values or external values?” And my response is, “Well, that’s exactly the problem. There’s plenty of words for us to choose from. Let’s figure out the ones that work for both and stand there.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. And I think it gets you thinking right there because when these things are real, it stirs the heart, you know. And when they’re not, it’s sort of like, “Sure,” and they’re just trudging along.

Ryan Berman
Yeah, you can see why value. That’s where the eyeroll comes from versus, “Are you really using them to create the desired results for your company and your people.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s good. Well, so I’d love to hear, when it comes to sort of individuals, would you recommend any sort of small practices or daily activities to help boost the courageousness or courage, if you will?

Ryan Berman
Yeah, I think it starts by recognizing that it can be for you. So, let’s assume we’re past that willingness part. Look, I think, by far, the hardest part of this is the action part. It’s hard. You know what to do. Sometime you feel it’s right. It’s just articulating like, “Okay, we’ve got to experiment, we’ve  And so, I love that word, by the way, in the corporate setting of experimenting. It’s like, “How do you help people just experiment?” Well, that means you’ve got to create a process and a budget for that.

So, let’s say I’m at a company and you’re responsible for budgeting. I would actually create an experimental budget. Like, just throw it away. It’s a failed budget. It can work but you’re literally creating little experiments to learn something new. Or, let’s say you’re not. This isn’t about work, and say this is at home, that I would create

So, one of my favorite things that I like to do is I set different calendar just for myself. I block off time for myself. Sometimes it’s monthly, sometimes it’s quarterly where I’ll send myself actionable messages. So, you can actually go in and you can custom your labels and your alarms, so I actually see things that I need to see in my alarms when they go off that basically . And I think this is a great use for me in controlling technology versus technology controlling me.

Pete Mockaitis
Can you give some examples for alarms and labels that you use in there?

Ryan Berman
Yeah, so one of the things that I had to get over when I was writing the book was, okay, we have this thing called our central nervous system that calls all the shots. And let’s break that down for one sec. So, central, the core of you. System, an operating system and computer, basically a computer. Nervous, don’t say that. Don’t think that. Don’t try that. Like, we’re rooted, we have archaic systems that are basically rooted in nervousness and it’s hard to shake that.

So, one of the ideas I’ve come up with was, “Oh, that’s interesting. I wonder if I can develop a central courage system to combat the realities of our central nervous system?” So, PRICE, that five-step process is basically building your central courage system. But when I first came up with the idea, I felt like an impostor talking about this thing.

And so, for me, the way I got over it was by every morning my alarm went off, I saw, “Build strong central courage systems.” And by the 12th time I saw it, or the 18th time I saw it, or the 36th time I saw it, it was building that muscle for me that I needed to see to keep me on my path for writing the book. And so now, I say, yeah, I help companies or leaders build strong central courage systems. It’s second nature for me. But when I first said it, it was hard for me to say. I’m building that muscle.

And so, I think that’s creating these ritualized triggers and using your alarms to do that. So, if you wanted to write that blog, or start that podcast, I would literally schedule time on your calendar, maybe it’s once a week where you’re like, “Today is the day.” And you see that every week at the same time and start to ritualize that process so you can build that muscle. And that makes it easier to do it again and

Pete Mockaitis
Very good. Very good. And I also want to get your take, we talked about this sort of a whole organization level. If an employee finds themselves in the midst of their organization, they want to do some courageous changes, but they get resistance from teammates and bosses. Do you have any tips on how they can get more influential persuasive and get things moving even though their kind of authority is limited?

Ryan Berman
And, again, I feel this is going to sound like a promotion for the book, but I think whether it’s my book or someone else’s book, just by giving something tangible to somebody, when you gift knowledge, so when someone gives them, “Hey, do you have a minute? I thought about you while I was reading this book. Can we talk about it when you’re done with it?” Gifting knowledge is an easy way to

A hard way to start a conversation is, “Do you have five minutes?” When they don’t have five minutes, they’re not sure what you really want. And so, what I’ve learned is just by gifting knowledge and gifting the book to someone is an easy way to talk about the process of

Another is, and a lot of this statistics are in the book. Statistics are tough because people don’t think that statistics have anything to do with them. They think statistics are for other people, right? But if you actually look at the statistics, you’ve got a 52% of the Fortune 500s since 2000 that are gone. That number is going to hold. John Chambers predicts that 40% of all companies will be .

You’re going to have 9,000 brands that carousels on and off the Fortune 500 over the next six decades. I can do this for a while. The life expectancy of a Fortune 500 brand 50 years ago is 75 years. So, once you made it onto the list, you can coast for a while. Today, it’s anywhere between 12 and 15 years. So, the numbers are there. Like, this is the problem. We have to shake the leaders of the company and go, “Look, if we don’t change, someone is going to change us whether we like it or not.” And I think even you drive change or change drives you, and if you’re not careful,

So, there are house-on-fire moments. It’s just how do you shake the leaders? And, again, a lot of this content, I just mention this in the book, I talk about like, “What’s going on and why is this happening? Why is this business apocalypse really happening?” And my hope is to do that is to help companies start to deal with this and have the conversation that it’s possible for them to change.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. Well, that really hammers it home with regard to you just don’t have the option to coast anymore. You’ve got take a moment to rejuvenate for you and rest and all that stuff, but you just can’t keep doing what you’ve been doing for years at a time because the outside world will not do the same.

Ryan Berman
No, and that’s the thing. You got this iterative strategy and, actually, you will get caught, and incremental growth has nothing on exponential growth. And somewhere, there’s probably five guys in a garage that are trying to figure out a way to take you down. That’s not on your radar yet, and they’re working 19 hours a day to figure out a way to disrupt your category. So, it’s a very real thing and it’s happening all over the country and beyond.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Ryan, tell me, anything else you want to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Ryan Berman
No, man, just obviously I love talking about this stuff. I really do enjoy helping companies reinvent. I think courage is a competitive advantage for anyone that chooses to learn how to do it. And I think you can unlock it in your teams. And a lot of my time right now is being able to go inspire groups and speak in different companies and try to get them to see that courage is for them. And, hopefully, once they do, then we can start working on a plan for tomorrow.

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

Ryan Berman
Yeah, my favorite quote is by a German philosopher named Arthur Schopenhauer who said, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it’s ridicule. Second, it’s wild. It’s violently opposed. And, third, it’s accepted as being self-evident.” So, I just love that because I think that is the process of courage. That is the friction that comes with this lot of change where, first, it’s like, “Really? Like, no, this is a silly idea.” Two, “Absolutely not.” And then, third, “Well, anyone could’ve come up with a Google, right?” Like, there’s no period for joy to celebrate. It’s just sort of, “Oh.” By the way, this quote is like evidently 250 years old and still remains true today.

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

Ryan Berman
Being able to sit with Steve Wilhite, who was hired by Steve Jobs to run marketing, was probably my favorite interview. And I love all my children equally, but to be able to sit with Steve and hear his story of how he was hired and what sort of test Steve Jobs gave him to make sure he wasn’t just a yes man so he would actually stand up to him, was pretty fascinating.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

 Berman
I would say Essentialism is right there by Greg McKeown in just helping you decide what is essential because once you know that, you’ve got the clarity you need to stay on the path of what you follow and leave everything else by the wayside.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool?

Ryan Berman
Today it’s Slack and Zoom because my company Courageous is virtual, so thank goodness for those tools because it allows us to stay connected in real time and see each other.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Ryan Berman
Right now, it’s the one I explained where I’m setting my alarm with different labels to remind myself of what’s important, so these triggers. And so, even for me, after studying these for three years, I want to see those triggers.

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

Ryan Berman
You know what, a lot of people seem to be resonating with the knowledge plus faith plus action equals courage, which is cool. It’s like, “What do I think about this? How does it make me feel? And what am I going to do about it?”

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

Ryan Berman
Well, they’ll learn more about the book, I would go to ReturnOnCourage.com. And if you wanted to get to know my consulting practice a little more, I’d go to CourageBrands.com. And you could probably find me through the ReturnOnCourage.com website.

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

Ryan Berman
If you’re unhappy, you’ve got take your life into your control. And I really do think that’s sort of the aha moment for me, is that it didn’t matter we were getting bigger, I was getting less happy. And so, same thing, either you drive change or change drives you. And if it’s your life, then how are you to take it by being in the driver’s seat of it and make the most of it, and have the courage to drive where you want?

And, again, maybe internally, change starts with one, it starts with you and then find somebody else that’s your real raft mate who can help you make change and then go get another and another and another. And if you like challenges, I’d recommend that.

Pete Mockaitis
Ryan, thanks for taking the time and keep up the good work.

Ryan Berman
Thanks, Pete. Appreciate you having me on.

447: What Innovators Do Differently with Hal Gregersen

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Hal

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

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Hal Gregersen Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
“Go get an idea.”

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

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

Hal Gregersen
Oh, totally. Absolutely. Totally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Right, that’s the majority.

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

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Certainly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, please do. Yes.

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

Pete Mockaitis
I think it was the Drury Lane?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hal Gregersen
Oh, exactly.

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

Hal Gregersen
Totally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

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

Pete Mockaitis
No, I haven’t.

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so good. Same stuff.

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

Pete Mockaitis
The wall.

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

Pete Mockaitis
Captain Kangaroo grew the…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hal Gregersen
Favorite quote. You ask me difficult things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Alton

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

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Dr. Alton Barron Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
But you deliver the goods.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alton Barron
Me too actually.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alton Barron
Yes, yes, exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Alton Barron
That’s great. I like that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, cool. What’s next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
How about that.

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
That’s lovely. Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alton Barron
Wow. Of mine or just -?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alton Barron
And cleaning out our closets.

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

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

405: How (and Why) to Boost Positivity within your Team with Jon Gordon

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Jon Gordon says: "You'll never have a committed team without connection... The more connected you become, the more committed you'll be."

Jon Gordon reveals best practices for building trust and rapport within a team, no matter the circumstances.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Three exercises to build big rapport quickly
  2. The advantages of being an optimist
  3. How to transform challenges into opportunities

About Jon

Jon Gordon’s best-selling books and talks have inspired readers and audiences around the world. His principles have been put to the test by numerous Fortune 500 companies, professional and college sports teams, school districts, hospitals, and non-profits. He is the author of 16 books including 6 best-sellers: The Energy Bus, The Carpenter, Training Camp, You Win in the Locker Room First, The Power of Positive Leadership and The Power of a Positive Team. He is a graduate of Cornell University and hold a Masters in Teaching from Emory University.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Jon Gordon Interview Transcript

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

Jon Gordon
Hey, thanks Pete. Appreciate you having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m looking forward to this chat. I’ve been reading through The Power of a Positive Team a little bit. I chuckled a bit when you mentioned all the teams you’re on and have served. You describe yourself as the second-in-command at home. What’s the story there?

Jon Gordon
Second-in-command. Well, my wife I would say is in command. Then I have a teenage daughter. Well, actually she’s 20 now, so when she’s home I’m third-in-command. The idea that even though I lead in some ways, my wife I would say is the boss at home. I’ve learned to be a great team member at home and a great second-in-command leader, where we work together then lead our kids into the future.

Pete Mockaitis
When they’re asking permission to the kids to go to an outing or a friend’s house, she’s calling the shots?

Jon Gordon
Oh, of course. When we’re deciding what we’re doing for the weekend or where we’re going, she’s calling the shots. I say, “You have to ask my boss.”

Pete Mockaitis
She likes it that way?

Jon Gordon
Of course. She wouldn’t have it any other way.

Pete Mockaitis
Good deal. I also want to hear about your book here, The Power of a Positive Team. What would you say is sort of your key point or thesis here?

Jon Gordon
Well, it’s a framework for how to build great teams. I’ve worked with teams for the last 11 years: NFL teams, NBA teams, corporate teams, non-profit teams, hospital teams, you name it. I’ve discovered what makes great teams great in working with all these teams. This is what I’ve learned over the past 11 years since I wrote my book The Energy Bus.

What happened was leaders and teams started reading The Energy Bus. They would then bring me into speak. I would then get to work with them, talk to them, consult with them and so forth. I just learned so much. In this book I pretty much put everything that I know and then everything I’ve learned on what makes a great team.

My goal with this book was that a team would read it together and they would know what they needed to do to become a great team. They would have a framework and a process they can follow along with the key ingredients and the best practices that would allow them to develop into a stronger team.

When I say proven, it is proven because it’s not based on theory. This is being out in the field. This is working with the teams. This is knowing what works. Now, I’ve done research also for the book in terms of what makes other teams great, but this is my first-hand experience in many ways of what makes a great team.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’d love to hear in terms of your research, both first hand as well as kind of collected elsewhere, that confirms hey, these are the things that really make the difference.

Jon Gordon
Well, one of my favorite pieces of research is Google study, which they called Project Aristotle, where they really wanted to know what made their great teams Google at great, where did their best ideas come from. Then they also examined other teams in other industries. They wanted to know what made those teams great.

What they found was that the best teams weren’t comprised of the A players. In fact, their best ideas and their best inventions did not come from their A teams. Their best inventions, their best ideas, their most successful businesses came from their B teams. These were the B teams comprised of a scientist and experts that weren’t considered rock stars in their field.

The A teams were the people who had the most education, they were rock stars in the company, they had the most domain specific information and knowledge, but the B teams were comprised of people that perhaps were known less and perhaps had lesser education and were not considered rock stars.

But the B teams had what they called psychological safety, emotional safety, where they were free to share ideas back and forth. They were not worried about being ridiculed with those ideas. From the exchange of information and the flow of sharing, there developed a connection, there developed a trust, where they felt, again, safe to share, safe to be who they were. Out of this connection, out of these bonds of trust came the best ideas.

What we realized is that it’s not the genius minds that create the best ideas or come up with the best inventions; it’s the genius within the team. It’s the idea that the collective genius of them coming together and becoming a connected group, led to greater commitment, which then led to great ideas and genius inventions. It’s a great lesson for all of us as we build a team.

What I often say and I’ve been saying this even before I saw this research, so this research just confirmed what I believe and what I had seen firsthand was that you’ll never have a committed team without connection. You need to be connected in order to be committed. The more connected you become, the more committed you’ll be.

You can see a team that is connected, you can see how they then have commitment for each other. When diversity comes and challenges come their way, instead of running away from each other, they run towards each other; instead of fighting with each other, they fight for each other. They become stronger together.

We are better together. Together we accomplish amazing things. It’s that ability to come together as a team that allows you to be successful as a group.

Pete Mockaitis
Then in practice, how does this connecting happen well? Is it about teambuilding exercises and trust falls or what is it that makes that connection and that foundation in place for psychological safety to be present and flourish?

Jon Gordon
Well, there are many ways. Sometimes it happens unintentionally, where people just come together, develop great relationships and you wind up getting a great team out of that. But I believe that leaders need to be intentional in doing this. I’ve created a number of team building activities, exercises that teams do to help them become stronger together.

For instance, I worked with a leadership group in a company, had them come together, and they shared this exercise, “If you really knew me, you would know this about me.” Each person went around and shared that idea. That’s from my good friend, Mike Robbins. I need to give him credit for that.

In doing that it was amazing how the walls of ego just came crumbling down and you saw this group of people really come together and bond as a result of that.

My other exercise I love to do is called the Triple H exercise: hero, hardship, highlight. Hero, hardship, highlight. Who is your hero? Tell me about a hardship that you faced that made you who you are today? Tell me about a highlight in your life. As each person shares their hero, their hardship, their highlight, again, the authenticity and the vulnerability just paves the way for meaningful relationships and stronger connections.

I’ve done this with a number of teams. It’s powerful how that happens. There was one team in Australian rules football. This is the Richmond Football Club. They won a championship for the first time in 36 years. There was a whole article in a magazine about how this Triple H exercise was what developed this team, which is what caused them to come together and create an incredible bond. They all really talked about the power of this Triple H exercise.

If you could see it in these burly and strong Australian rules football player, you can see it in an NFL locker rooms like I do, you can see it in corporate meeting rooms and boardrooms, and you can see it with just a team coming together and having a team building session like this.

A lot of Navy SEALS, I’m friends with a lot of them, they do a lot of programs with companies and organizations. They do exercises where they cause people to face some adversity together. They go into the ocean and they deal with some extreme hardship. I always joke with these guys. I’m like, “Hey, you don’t have to drown together to become a strong team.” You can actually do exercises like this where you really become vulnerable and authentic and that builds a connection.

Then, if you’re a leader, this is something I recommend for leaders to do and teams to do, you can just come together and you can look to connect with one person every day, someone who you lead or perhaps a team member on your team. If everyone intentionally connected with one person every day, would have a meaningful conversation, maybe you go to lunch, maybe you have some established dialogue that you create in your culture, something that you’re going to work on together.

Snapchat for instance, which they’re now known as Snap, has a thing called Counsel, where they create groups that come together within the company and they have these ongoing meetings they call Counsel, where they sit around in a circle and they talk about who they are, they talk about different questions that are presented.

Each Counsel is going to have different questions, different focuses, but it’s all designed to have people from various parts of the company come together and create stronger teams and more of an informal kind of network, which is where we know that most of the great ideas come from. It’s not the actual formal network, it’s the informal network, the relationships that develop that lead to the bonds and the ideas being shared and ultimately the success of an organization.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, what I like about the exercises you mentioned there is you talk about vulnerability, but they strike me as – your proposals – being in the sweet spot. It’s not so shallow as to not be worth much. It’s like, “Okay, whatever. You like barbecue.” And it’s not so intense as to freak people out. It’s in a nice little zone that seems doable and approachable, but you might expect to have some real impact from.

Jon Gordon
Yes. It’s a little awkward at first, I will admit that, when you first are sharing your hero, hardship, highlight.

Just as if you would go to counseling with your wife or significant other – if you’ve ever been to counseling, my wife and I did before we got married – you know it’s hard to share at first, but as you start to do it – even we saw Tony Soprano on The Sopranos, he went to counseling. We saw this guy, who’s a mobster actually, become vulnerable and share.

As you do that, it’s amazing how you start to just let the guard and you start to share and you start to open up and you start to change as a person. You become better.

At first it’s awkward, but as it starts to go around the room, as you start to establish this is part of your culture and part of your team and you explain, “Hey, guys, this is going to be a little awkward at first, but I’m telling you as we go through it, it’s going to be real meaningful.” As you do it, it becomes very powerful.

Again, it’s not meant to be corny. It’s not meant to be touchy feely. You’re really telling them, “Hey, we’ve got to get to know each other. If we want to be a strong team, we have to know each other a little bit better.” When you know someone’s story, you’re going to know them a whole lot better.

The other exercise is a defining moment that made you who you are today. What’s your defining moment? When you know someone’s defining moment, you know their story. You’re going to know them a lot better. Then once you know their story, you want to fight for them and not really maybe be angry at them when you say them acting a certain way. You may understand them a lot better when you know their story.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d love it if you could just make it all the more real for us. I’ll put you on the spot here Jon. Let me know, hey, if I really knew you, what would I know about you?

Jon Gordon
It’s funny, when I’m giving my talks, I do a lot of keynotes – over 86 this year. Actually, no.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a lot of travel. You’ve got some pretty good flier points there.

Jon Gordon
Yeah, 86 this year. When I’m doing keynotes and things like that, I actually share this. I’m not afraid to share who my hero is or a highlight or a hardship or if you really knew me.

I would say if you really knew me, you would know that my father, my biological father, left when I was a year old. My mom was a single mom. I was a year, my brother was four. That was a defining moment in my life because, again, when you have a father leave that sort of imprints on you a lot of who you are. For years we never had a great relationship.

But my stepfather entered the picture when I was five. He was a New York City cop. He raised me to be who I am now. He loved me as his own. I called him dad. He really had a huge impact on my life. It’s a part of who I am. My dad was Italian. My mom was Jewish. I grew up in a Jewish/Italian family, a lot of food, a lot of guilt. It just helps-

Pete Mockaitis
And great skin.

Jon Gordon
Great food as well. It helps form who you are as a person. I think having my father leave and feeling that abandonment in my life a lot was a part of me. I actually came to forgive him and even went to visit him with my daughter right before I started writing. I couldn’t write until I actually went to clear that from the path, clear that and let it go and forgive him. I did. It was shortly after that that I actually started writing.

I let go of all the past, all the pain, all the burden and from there I became in many ways a different person. That was a big part of my past, but if you really knew me, you would know that about me and you would know that my stepfather – I hate that term stepfather because he was my dad – who raised me and raised me as his own, his love really was transformative and had a huge impact on my life.

Pete Mockaitis
Do we have a highlight in there as well?

Jon Gordon
Well, I have many highlights, but it would be I would say – everyone always says this, but getting married to my wife, no doubt. I wouldn’t be who I am if it wasn’t for her. My two kids for sure are big highlights.

I would have to say – I joke, but this is true, I used to be in the restaurant business and I had Moe’s Southwest Grill. I was the first franchisee for Moe’s Southwest Grill. The day I sold my Moe’s was definitely probably the highlight of my life. I wanted to get out of the restaurant business. It was so challenging. I wanted to pursue writing and speaking. I knew that.

The sale almost didn’t happen. Finally it came through and it was like, thank you. I was now out of the restaurant business, able to do what I felt like I was born to do and do this work. That was definitely probably the highlight of my life.

Pete Mockaitis
I can just imagine the release and the relief emerging from that.

Jon Gordon
Oh yeah. My wife laughs when I tell this story, but she knows. I love my kids. I love my wife. But that day, whoo. You don’t think the day you sell the boat or the day you buy the boat, well the day you get a restaurant and the day you sell three franchises that were just draining me every day – again, I was good at the restaurant business, but I did not want to do it anymore. That day I sold was just a great day.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Let’s talk a little about some terms. When you talk about the power of a positive team and optimism and negativity, I want to make sure we’re thinking about these in the same way. How would you define these three words, we’ll say positive, optimism and negativity?

Jon Gordon
Well, it’s funny. I don’t really define them a lot, but I guess through my writing you sort of get the gist. It’s not like I come up with a perfect definition.

But for me positivity is about being the best version of yourselves, to bring out the best in others, like positive in terms of hopeful and kind and empowering. To me, positive is a lot of things.

Optimism is believing in a brighter and better future, knowing that and believing the best is yet to come, that tomorrow will be better than today, so you’re optimistic about things. You have a hopeful attitude.

Research from Duke University shows that optimistic people work harder, get paid more, and they’re more likely to succeed in business and sports. What the researchers found with that because these people had a positive, optimistic outlook. Because they believed in the brighter and better future, they actually took actions necessary to create it. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The researchers said they deluded themselves – I love that they used the word deluded – it was because they deluded themselves thinking and believing in a brighter and better future. Sometimes that’s what it takes, deluding yourself about what’s possible.

To me, pessimism is where you don’t believe the best is yet to come. Pessimism is where you believe that and you are fearful about the future. You worry about the future. Pessimism believes that your best days are behind you, not ahead of you.

I would say negative is where you bring a negative energy, you bring a fear, you bring doubt, you bring uncertainty, which, again, uncertainty is not always a bad thing, but it’s okay at times to be negative about things that help you examine them, improve them, look for where pitfalls can happen that can bring you down. There’s the benefit of negativity.

But when I think about negativity, I think of the bad kind of negativity that sucks the energy out of a team, that condemns people, that doesn’t speak life into them. It actually speaks hate, ill will, that attacks and that also focuses on perhaps sometimes self instead of others. Now that would be more narcissism, but sometimes that can come across as negativity when you put yourself on a pedestal and you bring people down.

Again, so many ways to define, I choose to define it through the body of work, through the stories and the collection of a framework and experience that ultimately creates the definition of positive and negative, if that makes sense.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure thing. I just wanted to kind of get that squared away so that we can sort of dig into a little bit of this negativity because indeed you mentioned that in certain contexts that can really be helpful to examine something, to improve upon something.

How do you play that game optimally as a positive team in which you’re not ignoring problems – there’s no weeds, there’s no weeds, there’s no weeds – but you’re also not sort of I guess dwelling on them and being consumed with worry and your energy is drained and dissipated and you think that the worst is just around the bend? How do you play that game in terms of dealing with the constructive stuff well?

Jon Gordon
Yeah, you always confront the reality of the situation, like this is what we are dealing with. “Yes, we just lost.” “Yes, we had this mistake.” “Yes, we did a poor production run and we just lost this amount of money. Okay, let’s deal with the reality. How do we solve it? How do we fix it? Where are we going now? What is our vision for the future?”

You address the reality of the situation and there is a negative associated with that perhaps. But then you are hopeful and optimistic about what you are looking for and looking towards in order to create that future. Then you have to then say, “What actions can we take in order to create it?” You always address the reality of the situation.

But I love when people say, “I’m just being a realist. I’m just being a realist.” Well, even realism is subjective because Steve Jobs was famous for what they called his reality distortion field. Time and time again, Steve’s team would say, “There’s no way you can create this software, this hardware in this amount of time.”

If you read his biography, time and time again, he would convince them that it was possible. They said he was able to distort their reality from pessimism or realism to optimism. Time and time, they accomplished the very thing that they thought was impossible. Leadership is so often a transfer of belief. You have to believe in what’s possible. Again, you confront the reality of the situation.

I’m a big fan of the no complaining rule, which I wrote a book on. I didn’t invent it. A good friend of mine who’s a CEO invented it. I wrote this book on the rule, which is so simple. You’re not allowed to complain unless you come with a solution. Every complaint represents an opportunity to turn something negative into a positive.

We’re not saying get rid of all complaining. What we’re saying is let’s use those complaints and let’s create justified complaints out of them that lead to solutions. A complaint represents something that we have to fix. It’s a problem that we have to solve. It leads to a new innovation, a better way of doing something, a better process, progress forward.

Think about all of our inventions, every invention came about as a result of a complaint that said, “There has to be a better way.” That’s turning a negative into and turning it into a positive in a very practical way.

Pete Mockaitis
Do you have some other practices for transforming the negativity when it pops up?

Jon Gordon
Well, when you have a challenge, you can look at that challenge and say, “Okay, what opportunity does this challenge present?” because every challenge really is an opportunity to learn, to grow and to improve. You’re always looking for those challenges.

For instance, when I speak to hospitality organizations or companies, I’ll talk to them about “Okay, this guest has a problem, but it’s a huge opportunity to now wow them. It’s a huge opportunity to be a hero and come to their rescue.” You can turn around a very negative situation to something very positive. You can do this with customer service as well. It’s turning that challenge into an opportunity.

It’s all about our perspective. How we see the world determines the world that we see. It’s addressing the negative, but then transforming it and turning it into a positive. Same thing with relationships. You have to have difficult conversations that might be perceived as negative, but you have those difficult conversations in order to grow.

As I wrote about in The Power of Positive Team, every team has to have the conversations that say, “Okay, what’s wrong here? What can we do better? Let’s tell the truth about where we are and where we’re not measuring up.” Those difficult conversations will lead to growth.

In a practical way, I remember my wife coming up to me. She was the boss. She said, “You need to do some things to be a better father.” I was like, “Okay, make me better.” I literally said, “Make me better.” Now in the past, I admit, I would have been defensive, but in that moment I said, “Okay, make me better.”

She started to share some ideas of what I could do. I didn’t agree with everything, but I took two or three ideas, I started to implement them, and I got better as a result. How much better would we be as a team if we just said to each other, “Make me better. I’m open. In the spirit of good intent, let’s talk about it in a positive way.”

Pete Mockaitis
That is a great line there. That’s handy. Any other pro-tips for navigating the difficult conversation waters well? I think a lot of folks are so terrified of them they just never go there.

Jon Gordon
Right. Because we never go there, we never move beyond the surface. We move – we stay stuck. We stay stuck in in a like, so then we never move to love. We never move to deeper commitment, deeper intimacy. That’s what I share in the book.

One of the things you have to do for difficult conversations is to actually say, “We’re going to have difficult conversations. We’re going to make this a part of our culture.”

Then what you do is say, which every culture says, is “This is how we do things here. This is part of who we are and how we do things. This is the way we’re going to have engagement. These are our rules of engagement that we’re going to create when we have difficult conversations.” You’re not allowed to get all up in arms. You’re not allowed to get defensive. You have to be open. But you have to come with a positive intent. It can’t be to berate someone or to ridicule someone.

The Seattle Seahawks have ‘Tell the Truth Mondays.’ Every Monday they get together as a team on Monday because the games are on Sunday and they talk about who messed up and how they messed up. They watch film and they tell the truth. No one’s defensive because everyone knows it’s designed to make everyone better. You receive the feedback. Hopefully you grow from it, you learn from it and everyone gets better because of it. But it establishes part of their culture.

You have to do this at the cultural level. You can’t just say, “Hey, everyone, we’re going to just start having these difficult conversations.” No, you have to explain how you’re going to have them, why you’re going to have them, what the rules of engagement are. Then as you do, those conversations will really help the team grow.

We’ll do it as a family. We’ll sit around and say, “Okay, we’ve got to have a difficult conversation.” We’ll meet as a family and we’ll have a difficult conversation. Our openness has led to a much stronger family and team.

Pete Mockaitis
When you say here’s how we’re going to do it, what are some of those pointers in terms of doing the how very effectively.

Jon Gordon
Well, I can’t tell you how in essence because every organization is going to be different, every team is going to be different. You have to decide the how and how you want to do it. We get together every Monday or we get together every Friday. We sit around a table. This is how we do it. We make sure in our rules of engagement that these are our positive rules. You do it with positive intent. It’s meant to help your team get better. You don’t call someone out in this way.

If you haven’t taken the time to establish a relationship with that person, perhaps you shouldn’t be the one that attacks them or criticizes them. Earn the relationship first. On the negative side you may say, you’re not allowed to ridicule someone. You’re never allowed to make fun of someone.

With Ford, for instance, Alan Mulally, when he turned around Ford, he created a working together management system that helped them become a stronger team. One of his rules were you’re never allowed to laugh at someone at their expense. That only breaks down trust. Even those little jokes that we tell when we make fun of someone or friends do that with each other, that’s not okay in that environment, in that setting. He created a rule that said that’s not okay. He believed over the long run that really created psychological and emotional safety.

There’s many ways on how you can do it. I think the key is you’ve got to sit down and decide the framework and how you want to create these rules.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. Well, so we talked about some of the things to do. You mentioned one thing to not do is complain. What are some other key things you recommend that we stop doing right away in terms of this is a real positivity killer and a real negativity increaser. Laughing at other people’s expenses, that sounds like a nice one for the list. What else would you put in there?

Jon Gordon
We should stop focusing on people’s weaknesses and focus on their strengths. Research shows the more we focus on what people are doing right, the more we’ll do things right.

We should stop ignoring negativity. Too often we ignore it and it persists and exists. Then it winds up sabotaging the team and the organization. Like, you said, we don’t have the difficult conversations. Leaders do not confront the negativity and it winds up sabotaging the team. As a leader, you must make time for it. You must address it. The goal is to transform it and then hopefully remove it. Stop ignoring the negativity.

Stop focusing on the outcome. Instead focus on the process, your relationships, your people and your culture. We live in a world where everyone’s focusing on the fruit of the tree, the outcome, and the numbers, and the stock price, and we ignore the root. If you focus on the fruit, ignore the root, the tree dies. But if you invest in that root, you get a great supply of fruit.

We have to stop focusing on the outcome and start investing in the root. Our culture, our people, our relationships, everything that I’m talking about now and that I talked about in this book is a framework for being a strong team and developing strong relationships that will lead to a strong outcome. I think those are some key stop doings.

Maybe for – I don’t know when you’re going to share this – but we’re about to start a new year and I think one thing we need to stop doing is stop focusing on resolutions because resolutions, research shows 87% will fail during the course of the year.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah ….

Jon Gordon
50% fail within the first month. First month. You don’t even make it past January and you’ve already given up. Instead I believe people should stop doing resolutions and start doing one word.

Pick a word for the year that will help you be your best, that will help you focus on what matters most, focus on your priorities, focus on your keys to success, get rid of distractions, break through the clutter. One word sticks. One word gives meaning and mission, passion and purpose. One word we can remember. One word will guide you in your actions each day.

Pete Mockaitis
Please, give us some examples of these mighty words.

Jon Gordon
Well, it’s the word that you will pick. Every year everyone picks a word for the year on the team. Everyone in the family picks a word for the year. I just posted on Twitter about one word. I’ve been doing it for a number of years now. It is spreading like wildfire, how many people at organizations are doing this.

In the past Hendrick Auto had a one-word car, so all the words were on the car of all the employees. Every day those employees would come in and they would see their words on a car in the lobby of their headquarters. It would be a reminder to live their word for the year.

For instance, my words have been serve and purpose and rise, surrender. Last year was connected. I wanted to be more connected to people, more connected to my family when I was on the road and more connected spiritually. For me, my word was connected.

The year I picked serve, I knew I needed to serve more at home, serve my family, become a servant leader, stop focusing on self. I needed to serve others out in the world more where you use travel a lot, you speak a lot, you start to just try to survive and get through each day. I said, no, I’ve got to model this through the adversity, through the stress, through the busyness and serve. That was a big year that I picked the word serve.

If you watch Clemson football when they won the National Championship a couple years ago, Dabo Swinney on national TV in front of millions of people said, “My word all year has been love. I knew that our love for each other would make the difference and that’s what I told the team.” It’s really cool to see people pick their words.

Kurt Warner, the famous Hall of Fame quarterback just Tweeted my Tweet and he said his word is ‘committed’ this year. Then he wrote and typed in all of why he chose that word. He was going to be committed to his profession, committed to his family, committed to growing in his new role, just a really cool explanation of why he picked committed.

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

Jon Gordon
I think we covered a lot. I really appreciate you allowing me to share it. It’s fun to share these ideas and then it’s even more fun to watch people put it into practice.

In my book I share a lot of personal experience of what I learned and what I did with teams. I’ve had a few people say, “Oh, he was just talking about he worked with this team, that team, this team.” Well, I had to, to be able to share what we did and what I learned and then give an example. I was only sharing all of these examples to be able to help others learn from them so they can implement them themselves.

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

Jon Gordon
A favorite quote. Abraham Lincoln, “I am not bound to win; I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to the light that I have.”

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

Jon Gordon
Being positive doesn’t just make you better; it makes everyone around you better. The research shows that positive leaders, positive teams really do outperform negative teams. I love that.

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite book?

Jon Gordon
So many. It’s almost hard to say one book, but I loved A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller. That was one of my favorite books. And The Last Arrow by Erwin McManus is a great book as well.

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

Jon Gordon
I like Zoom. Zoom has been great to use in terms of being able to connect with others and do podcasts, so I like Zoom. I like Evernote. I use Evernote to keep a lot of my notes for my talks. I’ll go through and I can look at talks I gave a couple years ago and I’ll have the outline of that talk on Evernote. That’s been a helpful tool that I use.

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

Jon Gordon
My favorite habit is the thank you walk because the research shows you can’t be stressed and thankful at the same time. For about 13 – 14 years now I take a walk of gratitude every day. While you’re walking, you’re flooding your body and brain with these positive emotions that uplift you rather than the stress hormones that slowly drain and kill you.

I would say that the number one thing I’ve done to be a more positive person, because I’m not naturally positive, people think I am, but I’m not. This is a practice that has made such a huge impact on my life of a daily thank you walk, creates a fertile mind that is ready for success.

Pete Mockaitis
When you’re walking and you’re thanking, how does that work in practice? Are you just thanking for anything and everything you see or how do you work through that?

Jon Gordon
Different times, different ways each day. I’ll be walking. I’m thankful for my life. I’m thankful that I’m healthy enough to walk. I’m thankful for my family. I’m thankful for my kids even though they’re driving me nuts right now. I’m thankful for these challenges that help me learn and grow. I’m thankful that I was able to write this book the other day. I’m thankful that I get to talk to you right now.

You can find things that are big and small. You can do it for 10 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour. Usually mine starts with gratitude and then I move towards prayer, but for me the gratitude is a really powerful piece. It’s always different. Sometimes I’ll just start being thankful for things that you didn’t know you were thankful for. It’s a really cool exercise. As you do it, again, big and small, sometimes big things, sometimes small things. It’s just all different.

Pete Mockaitis
Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks, is Kindle book highlighted up a storm or retweeted at your talks?

Jon Gordon
“Love, serve, and care” is really a very shareable thing that I say that a lot of people share. It’s something that is very viral in terms of this is what leaders do. The best leaders love, serve and care. A lot of people do hash tag love, serve, care.

The idea is that to be a great leader, you have to love what you do. You’ll never be great at it if you don’t love it. You can’t build a great team if you don’t love your team. You have to love it.

Then you have to serve your team. When you help your team improve and grow, they’ll grow. You’ll grow in the process as well. When you help others improve, you improve. Serving is really a key part of leadership. A great leader doesn’t see themselves. Maya Angelou said, “A leader sees greatness in others.” It’s about seeing that greatness in others then serving them to help them become great. That’s key.

Then care. You have to show that you care. You really stand out in a world where so many don’t seem to care anymore, but caring is the difference. Because you care, you love. Because you care, you serve. Because you care, you go above and beyond to do things that cause you to standout, to build better people, to build great products, to build great teams. Caring is a huge part of that. Love, serve, and care I would say is something that’s really shareable.

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

Jon Gordon
JonGordon.com, J-O-NGordon.com or social media at J-O-NGordon11 is Instagram and Twitter, JonGordon11.

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

Jon Gordon
I love that you’re talking about being awesome at your jobs. I would say – it’s a message I shared in my book The Seed, which is about finding happiness and purpose in work and life.

The idea is that you shouldn’t seek happiness in your job. You’ll never find it in your job or in the life. The key is to work with passion and purpose and to live with passion and purpose. When you do happiness finds you. Happiness is a byproduct of passion and purpose and doing something that you love and doing something that you’re engaged in. Focus on that part of it.

Also, don’t chase success. We live in a world that’s consumed with success, but when you’re awesome at your job, what you’re really focusing on doing is making a difference. When you make a difference in your job and you make an impact and you find ways to love and serve and care and you plant yourself like a seed, where you are, then you’ll start to grow. That seed will start to grow. You’ll become the leader that you’re meant to be. Then what happens is success finds you.

To be awesome at your job, don’t focus on the outcome, focus on the process. That awesomeness will lead to great things.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Jon, thanks so much for taking this time. I wish you tons of luck with your book, The Power of a Positive Team and all you’re up to.

Jon Gordon
Hey, thanks Pete, I really appreciate talking with you.

404: Overcoming Your Creative Blocks with Michael A. Roberto

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Michael

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

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Michael Roberto Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael A. Roberto
We all have.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael A. Roberto
Right, right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, understood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Okay. The next one?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s a bummer.

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

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

Pete Mockaitis
Do it yourself.

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

Pete Mockaitis
That sounds nice right now, Mike.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
That’s a good one.

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
How about a favorite habit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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