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

679: How to Become an Everyday Innovator and Unleash Your Creativity with Josh Linkner

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Josh Linkner breaks down the habits of great innovators and how you can become a great innovator in your own right.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How you can develop your creativity–no matter your role 
  2. The habits and mindsets of the greatest innovators
  3. How to spark new ideas when you’re in a rut 

About Josh

Josh Linkner is a Creative Troublemaker. 

He has been the founder and CEO of five tech companies, which sold for a combined value of over $200 million. He’s the author of four books including the New York Times Bestsellers, Disciplined Dreaming and The Road to Reinvention.  As the founding partner and former CEO of Detroit Venture Partners, he has been involved in the launch of over 100 startups. 

Today, Josh serves as Chairman and co-founder of Platypus Labs, an innovation research, training, and consulting firm. He has twice been named the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year and is a recipient of the United States Presidential Champion of Change Award. 

Josh is also a passionate Detroiter, the father of four, a professional-level jazz guitarist, and has a slightly odd obsession for greasy pizza. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Josh Linkner Interview Transcript

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

Josh Linkner
Truly appreciate it. Excited for our conversation.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me, too. Me, too. Now you’ve had a lot of cool innovative moments across your career. I’d love it if you could share with us one of your favorite eureka aha moments that have happened to you.

Josh Linkner
Well, one aha moment is that I realized that human creativity is not born as much as it’s developed, and the research bears this out. In fact, Harvard came out with a study that shows that human creativity is as much as 80% learned behavior. And many of us think that you’re either creative or you’re not, you’re born that way or you have to suffer. And the truth is that it’s more like, I would say it’s more like your weight than your height. Try as I may, I’m not going to be a foot taller by next month but my weight I can control. And creativity is very much the same. That was the big moment for me.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. And so, I want to talk a lot about exactly how one learns to become more creative. But, first, if we could make the case for creativity, innovation, particularly for listeners who are like, “Hey, you know, I’m in the middle of the organization, and my job isn’t creative per se in terms of I’m not doing design or new product stuff. I’m a program manager, maybe.” And so, can we make the case for those professionals? What do they have to gain, personally and professionally, by sharpening their creative skills?

Josh Linkner
Yeah, awesome question. The truth is that the way that we get ahead in organizations has really changed in the last few years. In the past, maybe it was your knowledge of hard skills or whatever, but nowadays, those would become outsourced, commoditized, and automated. And what allows us to really soar in our professions, to be awesome at our job, if you will, is to bring inventive thinking and creative problem-solving to the game. When you really unpack, “Why does somebody get promoted? Why does somebody achieve more in their career?”

Most often these days, it’s tied to their ability to use, get inventive thinking and solve problems in fresh ways. So, I think it’s really become mission critical, in fact, and especially as automation and robotics and artificial intelligence, that’s the one thing that’s uniquely human about us all.

The other thing I’ll just quickly say is that, too often, unfortunately, we attribute job title with creative needs. Like, for example, people in marketing should be creative and people in accounting should not. But the truth is that there’s room for creativity in every single aspect in an organization, every single box in an org chart. We can be creative in our own ways whether you’re selling or running a customer service team or, yeah, doing finance. So, I think it really applies to us all, and I think that’s the one thing that we can truly harness to get ahead in our careers.

Pete Mockaitis
I dig it. Thank you. Okay, I’m sold. So, then let’s hear it, with your book Big Little Breakthroughs, what’s the big idea here? And, particularly, what are micro-innovations and why do they matter?

Josh Linkner
Yeah, so the book Big Little Breakthroughs: How Small, Everyday Innovations Drive Oversized Results so the big little idea is that it sort of flips innovation upside down. And, too often, we think of innovation, it’s got to be a billion-dollar idea, it’s got to change the world, and it feels risky and out of reach, and just inaccessible for most normal people.

And this really flips it upside down in that it’s cultivating small daily acts of creativity as opposed to these wild swing-for-the-fences things. It’s taking the small bites of creativity, which are way less risky, way more within the grasp of us all, they build critical skills, and they add up to big things. So, that’s the premise of the book.

I like to think about it as innovation for the rest of us. It’s kind of helping everyday people become everyday innovators. And a micro-innovation is just what you might think of. If a big innovation is inventing penicillin or the assembly line or something, that’s awesome. Nothing wrong with that. But, again, most of us won’t do that. Those happen once every generation.

On the other hand, all of us can generate micro-innovations on a regular basis everything in our personal lives. An example would be you can chill a glass of white wine by using a frozen grape in that way you don’t dilute the wine with an ice cube. So, that’s a micro-innovation. It doesn’t change the world but it’s helpful.

In a professional sense, a micro-innovation might be something as simple as how you greet a customer, or how you prospect for a new client, or how you interact with the boss, or how you conduct a job interview. And so, these are things that don’t change the world in and of themselves but they add up to big things and they do create meaningful outcomes.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m not one to get too nitpicky over definitions here, but it’s interesting with that white grape example in white wine. It’s interesting. Well, now I’m going to try it. And, in a way, that’s an innovation in that I wasn’t doing it before but I didn’t invent that. I just heard it from you and thought it was pretty cool, and I’m going to try it, and it might just enhance my life that little bit. But it feels like innovation is happening in my world as a result of trying it. Can you noodle on that with me?

Josh Linkner
Sure. Well, first of all, you don’t have to invent something to take advantage of it. I love borrowing and sharing ideas that’s awesome. How great is that? Every time I get to learn a new way to do something that’s better, that’s an aha moment that can be savored. But when we’re taking advantage and noticing them around us, it actually encourages us to come up with them ourselves.

And so, it’s funny, the best way to get creative is just the same way that I learned to play a guitar. I’ve been playing guitar for 40 plus years. I put myself through college as a working musician. I still play today. The way you don’t play a guitar is one day you wake up and say, “Eureka! I’ve got a lightning bolt from the heavens and, all of a sudden, I’m a master musician.” Of course not. The way you play a guitar is you practice day in and day out. And the more you practice the better you get.

Same thing is true with creativity. So, when we think about we want to create our Mona Lisa’s in our lives, or things that we want to be remembered by, you don’t start there. I mean, Da Vinci’s first painting wasn’t the Mona Lisa. First, Da Vinci had to learn to paint, and he had to paint bad stuff, and he painted every day. And, over time, his Mona Lisa was revealed. So, for us, even cultivating small ideas like putting frozen grapes in wine is a wonderful step along the process of unlocking your full creative potential.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, what’s so funny is that that can just sort of take you down a path in terms, “Oh, I can do the same thing for Gatorade. I have a frozen chunk…” or just insert beverage. Or, then you can extract is a little farther in terms of, “Oh, if I put a modified version of the like something on a something, it can be enhanced in some way.” I don’t know. Like, “I could extend my Post-it note by taking the same color sheet, I don’t know, and put it to the top of where the adhesive is,” whatever. I think there are some bad ideas along the way to good ideas, right?

Josh Linkner
Well, really, to go with that, I really like because you’re doing pattern recognition. You’re saying, “If this applies here, can I apply it there?” And that’s actually a wonderful technique to come up with creative ideas. We don’t need to be imbued by the gods with some original thought every 10 seconds. We can borrow from all these things around us. A lot of times innovation comes from borrowing from one part of life and applying it to another. So, that’s not a cheat. That’s actually a really productive approach.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. All right. Well, I dig it. Well, so then you talk about a number of particular simple habits that some creative folks like, Lady Gaga, Banksy, Lin-Manuel Miranda, have adopted that helped paved the way for their creative success. What are some of these habits?

Josh Linkner
Well, so you focused on helping people become awesome at their jobs, and if you want to be awesome at anything, I feel like you got to examine the mindsets, the habits, and the tactics of people who are awesome at something, and then you can replicate and follow their lead. So, that’s what I tried to do in the book.

I covered the eight core mindsets of everyday innovators, I covered a lot of tactics, which I’m happy to talk about with you, but I did, also, really examined, “What are the habits? What are the daily habits of people like Lady Gaga all the way down to normal people like you and me?” And what I really examined was a few different things.

First of all, people do work at it on a regular basis. There’s a real sense of habitual repetitiveness to it. And people are always changing those habits. It’s not like you just have to adopt one habit forever. It’s always in flux. What I do actually, I keep tweaking my own. I have a five-minute a day creativity habit that I do. It’s sort of like taking a shot of espresso for your creativity and it lasts me for the rest of the day. But even that, like since I wrote the book, I’d modified it a little bit and that’s kind of healthy. But I’m happy to give some, a really beginning entry. I know we’re not talking about tactical things on your show, but try this.

First of all, do an experiment 14 days. Instead of worrying about, “I’m going to do this forever for the rest of my life,” don’t over-commit. Try to for 14 days. Try this – two minutes a day. Two minutes, 14 days. Here’s how it goes. Minute number one, I call it guzzle inputs. In software engineering, they always say, “If you want to change the outputs of something, you got to change the inputs.” So, take one minute a day and just absorb the creativity of others. Maybe watch a YouTube video of a concert. Maybe you stare at a painting. Maybe you read a poem out loud. Nothing to do with you or your work, just guzzle creativity of others. And it’s sort of like priming the pump.

The second minute of your two-minute a day routine is try riffing on an unrelated problem. Pick up any problem. Look at a news source and just find any problem that has nothing to do with you, your life, or your career. So, maybe you see plastics pollution in oceans. So, okay, that’s nothing to do with you. And here’s what you do. Spend one minute, seeing how many small ideas you could think of that won’t cure it but will help it.

When we try to cure a problem all at once, it has to be so perfect that we just get all caught up and it’s hard to be creative. Don’t do that. Instead, say, “Can I come up with five little ideas that might help plastic in oceans? Can I come up with 13 little teeny baby things that might make a teeny little difference?” And so, here’s what happens. That’s like Jumping Jacks for your creativity. It’s getting your mind going on something that you’re not responsible for, it’s not going to impact your life. So, again, two minutes a day, one minute of inputs, one minute of outputs on an unrelated problem. Do that for 14 days and people will text me how crazy creative they feel.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s interesting. And just to be clear, like it’s okay if your idea happens to be big, right? You shouldn’t be like, “Oops, no, that’s too big. Never mind. I did it wrong,” because as I’m thinking about plastics, I was saying, “Well, what are the plastics that actually dissolve over time into something that was healthy for the oceans? Or what if we had ships that already trans-oceanically moving have some nets and it gets some governmental subsidies?” So, those are kind of big but that’s okay. That’s not what we’re shooting for but if that’s what we land on, I mean, count it, it’s all good. Or, how do we think about that?

Josh Linkner
Fantastic. It’s great. By the way, I love those ideas. There’s creativity in action right there. Yeah, you don’t have to restrict yourself at all but here’s what happens. The risk is when we try to solve something that big all at once, we freeze up. If our goal is getting a Nobel Prize, or becoming a 10X billionaire, or something, it’s too complex and our mind is just locked, it’s deer-in-the-headlights. Whereas, if you start with little ideas, then, all of a sudden, you’re right, big ones come.

And just really quickly, since we’re talking about that, plan that question. So, here’s a perfect example from the book that I just love. There’s a problem in oceans that’s actually bigger than plastics. And the problem is cigarette butts. So, cigarette butts, I guess, is the bigger issue in ocean than plastics, and it also is a big problem in major cities. It’s a terrible environmental challenge when people discard their cigarette butts on the ground, and most major cities spend millions of dollars a year, no luck cleaning it up.

So, enter a guy, who I interviewed for the book, named Trewin Restorick. Trewin lives in Central London, he’s not a famous guy, he’s not a celebrity billionaire. He’s like a normal dude. Anyway, he was faced looking at this problem of cigarette butts, and none of the solutions had worked so far. So, he invents something called a Ballot Bin. A normal guy just had an idea. And a Ballot Bin works like this.

Let’s say you and I were having fish and chips at a London pub. We walk out into the street, we’re about to throw our cigarette butts on the ground but, instead, we see a glowing metal yellow box 10 feet away, maybe mounted on a pole. So, you walk a little closer and realize that this metal yellow box, the front of it is glass, and at the top, there’s a two-part question, like, “Which is your favorite food? Pizza or hamburger?”

And underneath each of those is a little slit where you can vote with your butts. In other words, you drop your cigarette butt in there and it falls in. There’s a divider so it’s almost like two bar charts, and you can instantly see which of these two selections is in the lead. And the thing is totally low-tech and it didn’t require a billion dollars, and it didn’t require six PhDs or regulatory approval, but the Ballot Bins work. And when these Ballot Bins were installed, Trewin told me, they reduced cigarette litter by up to 80%.

So, this guy, who just had an idea was like a normal guy, starts a company, now has 55 employees, and these Ballot Bins are in 27 countries, reducing cigarette litter. So, you’re exactly right, man. He came up with an idea. He just started riffing on small ideas, and that small idea actually became a really cool big idea, changed his life, changed his career.

Pete Mockaitis
And what’s so fascinating is that gets me thinking, like, huh, what was so darn appealing about the Ballot Bin, I guess, it’s sort of like there’s maybe a bit of fun in terms of, “Ooh, I have an opportunity to cast a vote with this thing and I’m not going to let it go to waste.” I don’t know what’s going on in the psychology of the smoker.

Josh Linkner
Part of it is you’re not shaming the person into compliance. You’re involving them, it’s an optional thing, and everyone likes to express themselves and so they sort of capitalize, you’re right, on this human psychology of things, but it’s this really fun simple thing that any one of us could have come up with.

And it’s funny, like to me, that is the perfect example of what the book is all about and what a big little breakthrough is all about. Again, most of us look at SpaceX, and like, “Yeah, that’s pretty awesome. But who’s going to do that?” Most of us cannot. But most of us can come up with the Ballot Bins in our lives.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Okay. So, you mentioned we got mindsets, we got habits, we got tactics. When it comes to mindsets, you’ve got eight of them and you also call them obsessions. Can you tell us why the word obsession? And can you give us a quick overview of what are those eight?

Josh Linkner
Sure. So, just to give you a little backdrop. This is borne out of utterly 20 plus years of research on my own but in practical experience but, for the book, I interviewed people all over the globe. Some were people like Trewin that you’ve never heard of. I also interviewed billionaires, and celebrity entrepreneurs, and Grammy Award-winning musicians, and people from all walks of life.

And I tried to extract from these amazing people what are the commonalities, how do they think and act on a daily basis. And I kind of discovered these eight core mindsets. I call them obsessions because a mindset is sort of like, yeah, you think about it when you think about it. But an obsession is sort of like it’s ever-present. It’s a stronger word. And that’s how these people sort of live. These are ever-present guidelines as they think and act and perceive.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, what are they?

Josh Linkner
Well, I’m happy to share as many as you like but I’ll share a couple to start. And, by the way, most of these are counterintuitive. They’re the opposite of what we’ve been taught. So, one of them is called start before you’re ready. And, truthfully, most of us, we see an opportunity or a problem, and we wait, and we wait until we have a directive from the boss, or till we have a bullet-proof gameplan, or till we have ideal conditions, and the risk is that we just miss the opportunity altogether.

So, innovators of all shapes and sizes do the opposite. They just say, “Okay, I’m going to get started,” recognizing full well they don’t have all the answers. They recognize full well they need to pivot and adapt and adjust to changing conditions, and figure it out as they go but they don’t wait. They just get started and find their way.

Another one, again, most of these are counterintuitive, fall in love with the problem. A lot of times we’re all solution-oriented. We see a problem, and we’re like, “Okay, what’s the fastest idea that I could think of to solve the problem?” But then we become fixated on our solution rather than the problem itself and it may or may not be the best way to solve it.

The best innovators do the opposite. They become fixated on the problem they’re trying to solve. They bathe in it. They study it from all different angles. They look at it from all different lenses, and they are willing to quickly forego one potential solution in favor of a better one. So, they remain committed to solving the problem by whatever means necessary and that allows them to actually discover more innovative routes in doing so.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool.

Josh Linkner
One of them, there’s a couple fun ones. One of them is called don’t forget the dinner mint. And the idea behind the dinner mint, I’m sure you’ve been to a nice dinner, and at the end there’s, “Oh, here’s something, chocolate. Compliments of the chef.” And if you had ordered it, it would be nice, but because it was unexpected, it made all the difference in the world. And as a proportion of the restaurant’s overall cost structure, it was negligible, but that little dinner mint made a difference for you.

So, the translation for us as innovators, as everyday innovators, is when you ship a piece of work product, when you send an email, when you give a presentation, you say, “Okay, now that I’ve done what’s expected, what can I add? What’s a dinner mint that I could add? Maybe it’s a new fresh idea. Maybe it’s an extra formatting. Maybe it’s an over-delivery or a time saving.” But the idea is plus-ing it up with something unexpected to make it transcendent.

The root issue is that competence is not a competitive advantage with organization or a person. So, if you’re trying to get a promotion, you’re competing with four other people, just doing the job well and doing it on time and being pleasant, that’s table stakes. So, if you really want to get the promotion, you want to beat people to the punch, you have to look for what’s that little extra creative edge that you can add, extra little dose of creativity that can make you separated from the competitive pack.

And one other fun one, while we’re talking about fun ones, it’s called reach for weird. Most of us tend to gravitate toward the obvious tried and true approaches. Reach for weird is challenging us to find that bizarre, unexpected, unorthodox approach because sometimes those make all the difference in the world.

There’s a really fun example of that. There’s a little town in Iceland, and they were facing a problem in that traffic incidents involving pedestrians had risen 41% over a 10-year period. That’s people getting hit by cars. And so, how do you normally solve that? Well, you install more traffic lights, you hire more police officers, you issue bigger fines. The reach for weird approach, instead, is here’s what they did. They painted the crosswalks as an optical illusion.

So, as people are driving their car up, it looks like there’s slabs floating in thin air. And so, it completely encourages people to slam on the brakes instead of barrel through the intersection, solved the traffic problem, and it’s pretty fun for taking selfies. So, the little weird solutions that we may discard at first can ultimately lead to great gains.

Pete Mockaitis
That also reminds me of Katy Milkman. In her book, It’s somewhere in Europe, they wanted more people to take stairs instead of the escalator. And so, they turned the staircase into a piano, so like you’re making notes, and now it becomes just a whole lot of fun. You’re like do, do, do, do to utilize those. And that’s weird, no one had done it before, but it made the impact in terms of folks naturally think it’s now more fun to use those stairs because it’s a piano.

Josh Linkner
That’s a perfect example. I love her book, by the way. It’s a wonderful book. So, the other thing is the minds just interact. So, another one is called use every drop of toothpaste. So, the notion there is around being scrappy and resourceful. Even if we’re in a resource-constrained environment, because most of us don’t have billions of dollars to play around with, we can still be creative. And sometimes being that every drop of toothpaste can combine with being weird.

A quick example of that, you probably had this dilemma, I certainly had. You go to the market. You want to buy bananas. So, what do you do? Do you buy the yellow bananas or the green ones? If you buy the yellow bananas, they’re good today, four days later, the rest of the bunch is all mushy. You buy the green bananas, you have to wait like a month for a decent banana.

So, anyway, if you were in the banana business, what can you do about that? Not much. Well, this is the kind of fun one, it was a reach for weird approach, also using every drop of toothpaste because it cost them zero. They basically took the bananas off of the bunch and put them in a package organized by ripeness. So, imagine seven bananas next to each other, ranging from bright yellow to green. And as each day goes by, they’re perfectly timed, so your banana for that day is ripe.

And so, here’s the deal. First of all, they crushed the competition in terms of sales volume. Second of all, they’re charging three times per ounce of banana compared to the competitive set. So, really, it’s amazing. Weird is fun but weird simply works.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, Josh, what’s so funny is I have actually plucked bananas across multiple bunches to get that same gradation from green to yellow, and never in my wildest dreams did it occur to me that, “Oh, they should just do this for me and charge me more.” I maybe even communicated that instruction to an Instacart shopper, or maybe I censored myself, it’s like, “This poor person already has enough on their mind. I’m not going to make their job any harder with my weird banana preferences,” but I thought about it.

So, okay, cool. So, those are some obsessions, some mindsets. And as you adopt those, and play, and role with those, it seems like you just get more ideas naturally because that’s what’s going on. I think, in particular, fall in love with the problem resonates because if you find that it’s enjoyable to explore and play with, as oppose to get rid of the darn thing as fast as possible, then you get more kind of reps or more minutes on engaged in the thing than kind of hurry up and find the answer and knock it out now, now, now, now.

Josh Linkner
That’s exactly right. And so, if you think about it, again, these three things, you got mindsets, we talked about a few of them; habits, we talked about a couple habits; and then we start to move into tactics. And, for me, I wanted this book to be a very pragmatic guide. It’s not just about your head in the clouds, go do be creative, draw all over the walls with crayons. It’s not that. It’s really saying, “Okay, how can we harness a skillset, human creativity, and deploy it for effective results?” And so, you get into tactics. Most of us, when we get together to come up with ideas, what do we do? What is it called?

Pete Mockaitis
Brainstorming.

Josh Linkner
Brainstorming. Here’s the problem. Brainstorming was invented in 1958, and I’m sorry, a lot has changed since 1958. And so, I kind of view brainstorming as outdated technology, an outdated tactic, because, actually, brainstorming is wildly ineffective. We tend to share our safe ideas; we hold our crazy ones back because we don’t want to look foolish.

So, the whole dynamic of brainstorming, where you’re spitting out ideas and everybody else judges them simultaneously and shoots you down and tells you, like everybody else becomes the idea police, and then you’re responsible if an idea doesn’t work out. It really, at best, yields mediocre ideas.

So, over the last many years, and I’ve interviewed people all over the world, I’ve developed a toolkit of 13 way-better techniques to generate ideas. I call them idea jamming because I don’t like brainstorming. And I’d be happy to share a couple of them. They’re actually really fun and they’re way more effective.

Pete Mockaitis
Alrighty.

Josh Linkner
Here’s one that works beautifully. It’s called role storming. So, role storming is brainstorming but in character. In other words, you’re pretending that you’re somebody else. Here’s a thing, if I’m in a normal brainstorming session and I’m brainstorming as me, and everybody else is judging me, again, I’ll share my safe ideas, hold my crazy ones back out of fear. But if I’m role storming, in other words I’m pretending I’m somebody else, I’m free.

Here’s an example. Let’s say I’m playing the role of Steve Jobs. No one’s going to laugh at Steve for coming up with a big idea. They might laugh at Steve for coming up with a small one. So, now I’m liberated. I’m playing Steve Jobs, I’m not responsible, I can say anything I want.

And it’s funny, man, I did this with a group of executives one time at Sony Japan. I met this guy. He was the stiffest human being I’ve ever met – dark suit, white shirt, his tie is strangling him. Anyway, we got him role storming as Yoda.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Josh Linkner
I’ve never seen personal transformation like this. This guy’s jacket is off, his tie is undone, he’s like leaping around the room, and the whiteboards were filled with ideas. And I didn’t teach him to be creative. He had that inside him but we needed to liberate him. He was in a role that forbid it.

So, the technique is actually really simple. Everybody in the room gets to choose anyone they want. You can be a hero. You can be a villain. You can be a movie star or a supermodel. You can be a sports legend or a literary figure. Anyone you want but you got to stay in character. And when you stay in character, attacking a real-world problem or opportunity, you’ll be blown away with the creative results.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. That’s cool. Well, so let’s hear a tactic or two.

Josh Linkner
Sure. Another fun one, I recommend people trying, this is called a bad idea. It’s a bad idea brainstorm. So, presumably, we get together, we got a problem to solve, we’re responsible for coming up with good ideas. But the problem is, again, all this pressure, we get consumed with incrementalism. So, instead, here’s a way you do it. It’s a two-part brainstorm.

Step number one, set a timer for like 10 minutes and everybody in the room starts by coming up with bad ideas. What’s a terrible way to solve the problem? What’s the worst thing you can think of? What’s immoral or illegal or unethical? Again, you’re not going to do them. You’re just coming up with bad ideas.

Now, part two, crucially, is you then stop and examine the bad ideas, and say, “Wait a minute. Is there a little kernel? Is there a nugget in the bad idea that I can flip around to make it a good legitimate idea?” And so, what happens is you push your creativities so far to the limit, way beyond what you would ordinarily think, then, yeah, you need to ratchet it back to reality a bit, but it’s better going all the way and having to ratchet it back than trying to push spaghetti up a hill. So, that’s a fun one.

One that’s really simple, I call it the judo flip. So, let’s say, again, you’re trying to seize an opportunity or solve a problem. Start by taking an inventory. What have you always done before? What does conventional wisdom dictate? What is traditional thinking? How are things have normally been done in our industry on a problem like this?

Then you draw a line down the page, and next to every previous entry you simply ask the question, “What would it look like if I judo flip it? What would it look like if I did the polar opposite?” And what happens is that oppositional thinking can unlock really fresh ideas and help you break free from traditionalism.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. All right. Well, so I’m curious, those are some great things to do. What are some things we should stop doing?

Josh Linkner
One thing we need to stop doing is, really, the ideation process. Again, I call it idea jamming, really needs to be separate from the executional process, and we tend to squish them together. As mentioned, I come up with an idea, and the first thing you say, if you’re in the room, is, “Oh, that’s not going to fit in the PowerPoint slide. And, Jim, the boss, is never going to support it. That’s going to break the budget.” And so, we get so focused on the executional challenges that we extinguish our ideas prematurely.

A better approach would be to send your analytical brain out for Starbucks and let the ideas really fly. One of the things I like to do is I call it idea spewing. So, in other words, if you have an idea almost, or even call it idea sparking sometimes. An idea, it sort of means, “Oh, it’s an idea.” So, that merits scrutiny. But a spark or a spew, that implies that it’s early version. It’s the clay that has yet been molded to perfection.

And so, that helps us prevent the premature extinguishing of a good idea because, often, it’s not the first thing that comes to mind. It’s the idea that leads to the idea that leads to the next idea that’s the killer. And if you extinguish it prematurely, you can really cut yourself short.

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

Josh Linkner
Sure. The core thing I would really reinforce to people is that every single person on this planet has creative capacity. Period. And, again, I’ve researched every academic journal neuroscience up and down. We all have the ability to be creative. And we can do so in our own ways.

Like, I play jazz guitar pretty well. I can’t draw a stick figure if I try. So, just because, if you’re listening, you can’t paint on canvas, doesn’t mean you’re not a creative person. You might express your creativity in the way you interact with a colleague or the way you solve a problem on a project. But, truthfully, we can all harness and build this.

And I always like to think about it like this. If you’re outside your home had an oil well, like you just learned that, oh, good news, in your backyard, on the property that you own, there’s a billion dollars of oil sitting under there. Pretty sure you wouldn’t be like, “Nah, forget it. I don’t really have time for that.” You’d be like, “Yeah, I’m going to go buy a drill and suck that, get that resource to the surface and use it.”

Well, I would suggest to everybody listening that we have that oil well and it’s inside of us right now. That’s dormant creative capacity. I have it, you have it, we all have it. And so, that’s our oil well. It’s waiting to be tapped. And when we bring it to the surface, we can unlock fresh possibilities which manifest in terms of winning more customers, and getting the promotion that you want, and making more money, and pursuing your calling, and driving impact. All those things that we crave, gaining competitive advantage, etc.

So, I just feel like if that dormant capacity is there, and we know we all have the ability to bring it to the surface, why not learn the mindsets, habits, and tactics to fully deploy it so that we can enjoy the results?

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

Josh Linkner
One of my favorites is a Chinese proverb, “Man who says it can’t be done, should not interrupt man doing it.” I’ve always loved that. It’s just so impactful.

And I have my own quotes, and I don’t really boast or anything. I say this with humility, but I’ve said this again and again as I was building my own company so much that my people got sick of hearing it, is that, “Someday, a company will come along and put us out of business. It might as well be us.” And that applies to us personally, too. Like, I feel that someday, like the Josh of tomorrow is going to put me out of business. Might as well be me.

And the notion there is that challenging ourselves and our organizations to proactively reinvent, to rethink our approach, to be the one to put ourselves out of business rather than waiting for someone else to do it. And that also ties to another quick quote, “If you don’t like change, you’re probably going to like irrelevance even less.” That’s from General Eric Shinseki.

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

Josh Linkner
One thing that’s so cool to me is that the littlest adjustments can actually unlock the biggest gains. So, there’s one study that I read about out of a university in Italy, where they brought people together, same demographics, age, education levels, divided them in two, and they showed each group a video, and then asked them to take a standardized creativity test.

The only difference was the video they were shown. One group was shown a really boring video, like sheep grazing in a meadow. The other group was shown an awe-inspiring video, majestic, cliffs, and soaring eagles, and all kinds of stuff. That was the only difference. They gave them the same test. The awe-inspired group outperformed the boring group by 80%. And it wasn’t like they learned a new skill in that three-minute video. It’s just that the brains that we have, we are hardwired to be creative, and the slightest adjustments can unlock fresh possibility as evidence in that example.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, that makes me feel better about paying more for the office space with a great view.

Josh Linkner
Totally. I mean, think about that. Artists, musicians, playwrights went to inspiring places for years to do inspiring work, but most of our offices look like a sensory deprivation chamber, and then we wonder why we’re not delivering great creative work. So, yeah, you’re right. Environment matters for sure.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite book?

Josh Linkner
Recently, I thought Adam Grant’s new book Think is excellent. Jon Acuff’s new book Soundtracks is excellent. One of my all-time favorites is by Robin Sharma, The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari which is excellent and spiritually inspiring to me. So, it’s always hard to choose one. I guess one that I’ll just add to the list is Grit by Angela Duckworth which is also incredible.

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

Josh Linkner
Yeah, my favorite tool, I think, is really having a guitar in my hand. And I think the nice thing is we all can have our own muse. But the notion is whatever your muse is, whether it’s a painting or music, it’s just like having it nearby. So, when I’m stuck on a problem, I like grab my guitar and start noodling. And, of course, the guitar doesn’t solve the problem but it helps me solve the problem.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share, you already did one, that really seems to connect and resonate with readers and they quote it back to you frequently?

Josh Linkner
You know, I hear a lot about this concept of judo flipping, taking the traditional approach and flipping it upside down. I’ve had people come. I’ve been sharing that nugget for years and people come up to me years later, and like, “Hey, I was just in a board meeting and we couldn’t figure out what to do, and we judo flipped it.” So, that’s what I do hear frequently.

I think the other one I talk about often is this concept of option X. The general idea is that when we make decisions, when we’re trying to solve a problem, we very quickly go from unlimited possible ideas to a very short list. I think about it as A, B, and C. Somehow it becomes a multiple choice. And your A, B, and C choices are based on historical reference, they’re generally really safe, and we pursue those.

And I always just say, before you choose A, B, and C, just pause for one second, and say, “Wait a minute. Is there a D? Is there an E?” Or, I say, “Is there an option X?” which is that bold and provocative and unexpected idea that might make all the difference in the world.

One other quick add, I’ve written about this and I’ve gotten a lot of feedback, speaking of letters, reminded me. So, most of us pursue a career, and often it’s pretty safe, like we’re taught to play it safe. And then we build a secondary plan called a plan B, which is what happens if everything goes wrong, then that’s your plan B.

I would encourage people not to discard their plan B but have an extra plan, and it’s not what happens if everything goes wrong. It’s what happens if everything goes right. I call it your plan Z. So, the plan Z is expecting a good outcome instead of a bad one. And it’s like, “What would you do if you couldn’t fail? What would you do if you had a magic wand? What would you do if you’re pursuing your true calling?” And I’m not saying we should throw caution to the wind. Have a plan B. Awesome. But let’s not do that at the expense of also having a plan Z.

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

Josh Linkner
I would suggest you check out BigLittleBreakthroughs.com. Certainly, you can learn more about the book. But even if you don’t choose to buy the book, there’s a lot of free resources. There’s a free creativity assessment you can take, there’s a quick start guide, there’s all these downloadable worksheets on habits, mindsets, and tactics. So, it’s a good place. It’s a resource library, really, if you want to get your creativity on and take your game to the next level.

If you want to reach me, I’m on all social channels at my name Josh Linkner, and my personal website is just JoshLinkner.com.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Josh, this has been a treat. Thank you. And I wish you all the best in your creative adventures.

Josh Linkner
Thank you. You as well. I really appreciate the impact that you’re creating for everybody listening.

639: How to Get More Breakthrough Ideas with Susan Robertson

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Susan

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

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

Resources mentioned in the show:

Susan Robertson Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susan Robertson
Yes, it is.

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, let’s hear it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s do it, yeah.

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

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

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

Pete Mockaitis
They have to be new, huh?

Susan Robertson
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
The salad dressing enables it.

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

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s definitely innovative.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Well, everybody knows that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susan Robertson
Exactly. Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
All right, yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susan Robertson
Yup.

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And how about a favorite book?

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, sure.

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite habit?

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

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

Susan Robertson
“Let some crazy in the room.”

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

Susan Robertson
My website SusanRobertson.co.

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

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

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

Susan Robertson
Thank you.

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

 

About Stephen

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

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

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Stephen Shapiro Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Convenient.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[09:07]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Shapiro
Yes.

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Media.

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

Pete Mockaitis
Content.

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

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

Stephen Shapiro
Sure.

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Shapiro
Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Shapiro
Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[30:02]

Stephen Shapiro
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

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

Pete Mockaitis
That is a great title.

Stephen Shapiro
It’s a great book.

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, I use it too.

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

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

584: How Curiosity Can Help You Reinvent Your Career and Stand Out with Francesca Gino

By | Podcasts | No Comments

 

 

Harvard professor Francesca Gino discusses why we shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions and nurture our curiosity.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The mindset shift that leads to great innovation
  2. Why our fear of judgment is often overblown
  3. How to resolve conflict peacefully with curiosity

 

About Francesca

Francesca Gino is an award-winning researcher who focuses on why people make the decisions they do at work, and how leaders and employees have more productive, creative and fulfilling lives. She is the Tandon Family Professor of Business Administration in the Negotiation, Organizations & Markets Unit at Harvard Business School and the author, most recently, of Rebel Talent: Why it Pays to Break the Rules in Work and Life. Gino is also affiliated with the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, the Mind, Brain, Behavior Initiative at Harvard, and the Behavioral Insight Group at Harvard Kennedy School.

Gino has been honored as one of the world’s Top 40 Business Professors under 40 and one of the world’s 50 most influential management thinkers by Thinkers 50. 

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Francesca Gino Interview Transcript

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

Francesca Gino
It’s awesome to be here. Thank you for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yes. Well, I’m thrilled to be chatting. And, first, I need to hear a little bit about your motorcycle racing hobby. I don’t hear too many Harvard professors racing motorcycles, or maybe there’s a bunch of you.

Francesca Gino
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Tell us, what’s your story?

Francesca Gino
I actually thought that you were going to say, “I often don’t hear of moms with four small children.” So, they contributed a little bit of putting the hobby to the side since they are still quite small, but we’ll get back to it.

Pete Mockaitis
So, when you’re racing, it’s not just riding them but you’re actually going trying to beat opponents with speed. What’s the story?

Francesca Gino
Yeah. So, I think I grew up in a family where the Sunday afternoon activity was sitting on the couch watching races, whether it was MotoGP or any type of races with my dad and brother. And so, I think that that stayed in my blood a little bit. And growing up in a small town in northern Italy, where you have a lot of freedom, so I had friends who were older than me and I started using their scooters and motorcycles much earlier than, I should say, before having the proper driving license for them. Maybe this is not a good start. I’m already saying about rule-breaking right off the start.

Pete Mockaitis
No, we want it more exactly. sometimes I try to force a segue between the “getting to know you” part and the “your expertise” part, and this makes it easy. So, yeah, that’s all we need…

Francesca Gino
Exactly. How do you study what you study.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s totally rebellious. So, you’re breaking rules. That’s one of your main messages in your work and research and writings, is that it pays to break the rules in work and life. Can you give us some of the most compelling examples or bits of research behind that?

Francesca Gino
Absolutely. I was struck by the fact that I spend a lot of time in organizations, and often you go in, or at least that I started going in with a set of cynical eyes, if you will, and I would try to pay attention to processes, ways of working, or systems that, to the eye of a person who doesn’t work there, really make little sense. They didn’t seem optimal. I had all sorts of questions about them.

And then I would go to people, leaders and employees alike, and say, “Why is it that you do things this way?” Always the same answer, which was, “We’ve always done it this way.” And it’s interesting that it’s very easy for us to get used to the usual way of working and it’s tough to break away from that. So, I wanted to write this book to say, “Look, there are people out there who are very capable of breaking away from the mold in a way that creates positive change and brings all sorts of benefits to themselves and the organization.”

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, I knew that was what you’re going to say in terms of the answer is, “We’ve always done it that way,” which I think really means we don’t actually remember the original purpose and impetus for how this got started but we’re going to keep doing it.

Francesca Gino
Yeah. And also we stop asking questions. Think about, I mentioned the four little children, so I’m in the land of curiosity, pushing boundaries, asking questions. And if you look at the data, you’d see something quite striking, and in my mind, also sad. Curiosity peaks at the age four and five, and then it declines steadily from there.

And I thought, “It can’t be true. Maybe when we get into our jobs, the ones that we love, curiosity is going to pop back up.” And I was wrong. I collected data across jobs, industries, roles, hundreds of people, and at first, when they start a new job or a new role, you see the curiosity is high, some variation across job, across roles, across locations, but not much. And you go back to the same people eight, nine months later, curiosity had dropped by at least 20% across the board. And I think it’s because we conform, we get used to the usual way of working, and we stop asking questions.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I love that you’ve actually done the research. Actually, not like I’m surprised but, you know.

Francesca Gino
You know.

Pete Mockaitis
There are authors who borrow from the research of others, and authors who do their own research, and you are in the latter category, so I’m going to really have some fun with you here. So, how do we measure curiosity? And just what is the extent of that decline? Like, is it like you’re half as curious as you were when you were four or five? Are you like a tenth as curious as you were at four or five?

Francesca Gino
As a scientist at my core, I really puzzled over that data because I was like, “What happens? And why is it that kids so naturally ask questions and stay curious but somehow they grow older, we all grow older, and that disappears?” And it was kind of an interesting exercise because I recognized that, even as a parent, I do things that probably are not good for curiosity. My children ask a question, I give them an answer instead of saying, “Why do you think the sky is blue?” or, “Why do you think we have to pay for things when we go out to the grocery store?” And it’s a different way of reacting. Or they make a mistake and you have that worried face that tells them that, fundamentally, “Yes, we’re learning but I would’ve been happier if we didn’t mess up things around the house.”

And so, it brought much more attention in my own behavior, in my own reactions to what others are doing. And now I’m giving you some examples as a parent but I have equally good example in my role as leader of my own group or the interactions that I have with colleagues. How do you react when they say something that you might disagree with? Do you seek to understand and show curiosity? Or do you just shut them down? And so, there are lots of meaningful opportunities where I think maybe unconsciously we just shut down the conversation and, with it, we shut down curiosity.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s great. The subtle things in terms of non-verbal shows of disapproval with a facial expression or a tone of voice.

Francesca Gino
In fact, I’ll give you a story that actually comes from a business, it turns out to be a yummy one since it’s a three-star Michelin restaurant that in 2016 became the best restaurant in the world. It turns out it’s an Italian restaurant so I’m saying this with a little bit of pride even if I have nothing to do with it. But this is a restaurant where the owner and chef that opened the restaurant decided to go to traditional Italian dishes and completely reinvented them.

Now, I find that to be profound. First, it took courage. I don’t know how much you know about Italians, but I can tell you that two things are true. First, there are lots of rules when it comes to cooking, from all the ways you pair a certain type of pastas to certain type of sauces. In fact, I’m married to an American, and, to this date, my husband doesn’t understand why is it that every time he has pasta, we’d have fish-based sauce, he can’t put Parmesan cheese on top of it. It’s just wrong. You don’t do it. It’s against the rules. And, second, we cherish our old ways, especially when it comes to recipes that have been passed on for centuries.

And so, here you have a guy who went exactly to that context with an open mind, with curiosity, and he started saying, “Look, why is it that we cook the dish this way? Maybe it made sense 20 years ago but not today.” And he completely reinvented traditional Italian dishes, and has been very successful with that. So, quite an inspiring story. And if you spend time with him, you realize that in every interaction, he really takes on the opportunity to look at the what-if or why.

In fact, there is a beautiful story, it’s one of my favorite out of the restaurant, when it’s a very busy night, and one of his sous chefs is working on the last dessert of the night, and it’s a lemon tart, and the name of sous chef is Taka. He’s obsessed with attention to detail. He’s Japanese. He really cares about doing his work well. And, as Taka is working on this dessert, he’s arranging all the different pieces, and, all of a sudden, the tart dropped to the floor, and now he had a mashed tart. And at that point, Taka started to panic but chef Massimo Bottura walked into the kitchen and saw the mistake.

Now, ask yourself what it is that you would’ve done. I can tell you that many leaders in his position would’ve started yelling, but Bottura didn’t. And not only that, he looked at the plate, and then, at Taka, said, “Taka, I think we have a new idea for a new dessert.” And, sure enough, they come out with a new dessert, it’s a deconstructed lemon tart, and is now the most popular dessert at the restaurant. And if you look at it, you look at this mashed tart on the plate, and the name for the dessert on the menu is “Oops! I dropped the lemon tart.”

It’s just a beautiful example of, even in situations where there are accidents, he’s able to turn them into sources of inspiration. I think it requires a shift in mindset.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is beautiful, and you do sort of see sort of that childlike perspective in terms of…

Francesca Gino
That’s exactly right.

Pete Mockaitis
…”Oh, this is interesting that this is all over the floor now,” as opposed to, “This is a disaster that it’s all over the floor now.” Just to make sure that we check the box though, can you share, how do we measure curiosity? And what is the level of the decline from four to being grown up?

Francesca Gino
You’re going to check yourself, right? So, there are scales that colors I’ve developed to measure curiosity, and so it’s often self-reported. So, I ask you a bunch of questions that allow me to understand in which situations you keep on looking for information because you really want to discover something. And it’s not just learning because there is an objective, but you fundamentally want to get to an answer because of the pleasure of that discovery process.

And so, there are many different other personality factors that are related to it, like being open to experiences, but curiosity is on its own category, if you will. And if there are people that are interested, I’m happy to share the scales since they exist and you can measure it on yourself. In the data that I collected, I was looking at adults, and the drop of 20% were adults from the day they started a new job to nine, ten, some cases eight months later. And so, that’s where you see the drop in a way that allows you to ask the question, “Why is it when we join organizations, it’s almost as if curiosity gets squeezed out of us?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I hear you. And it’s a shame, I guess I’m thinking about how when I’ve been at my best, when there’s a new person who comes and ask sort of new-person questions, you know, I mean, sometimes that’s sort of annoying, like, “Oh, isn’t this all covered already?” But when I’m on my game, “Oh, what a lovely fundamental question to ask, and I guess I didn’t look at it that way, way back when I invented this process.” So, that’s beautiful.

Francesca Gino
But you’re saying something important, that reaction of, “Oh, maybe this was covered already.” So, when I am the person joining and coming into the organization, I’m thinking, “I’m not sure but I think I have this question, I’d love to ask it.” Often, we don’t ask it because we’re fundamentally fearful that there’s going to be a judgment. And what’s interesting about small children, when they’re three or four, that is not there at all.

In fact, just this morning, I was talking to my son and he was noticing that his underwear got way too tight. And so, he had this nice red marks around his belly, and he turns to my nanny and said, “Hey, do you also get the red marks on your belly because of wearing tight underwear?” And you should’ve seen the embarrassed face on my nanny who knows him really well. But, again, that’s an example where it’s a perfectly fair question, and he’s just curious about asking. He had no way of thinking that there is going to be a judgment attached to that question.

And I think that that’s what we learn and what we become fearful of as we grow older. We’re much more aware that there are other people who might judge us in all sorts of ways, and, fundamentally, we want to belong and be part of the group, and so we stop asking questions.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’d also love to hear more about, so we’re talking about curiosity, and it’s almost like we’re just assuming and taking for granted that curiosity is good, and I like it, it’s fun, it’s interesting, keeps things spicy and interesting. Could you lay it out for us sort of what difference does it make if you have a team who is highly curious versus highly not curious?

Francesca Gino
Yeah. So, that’s a really important question. There is a business case for curiosity. Curiosity leads to more creative ideas, more innovation. It actually leads to better team performance because the team tends to be much more open in discussing ideas. It leads to conflict resolutions more quickly, which I think is interesting and potentially counterintuitive. And it also leads to broadening of networks.

So, this is the data that I collected in a large study with a Canadian bank where what we found was that if you look at curiosity as a trait, so you have a certain level of curiosity versus not, or higher or lower, and then look at things like, “How do people communicate over email across functions or across departments?” What you see is that the more curious people are, the more they tend to reach out a variety of people in a way that really help them as they move throughout their career, in this case in the bank, but also in performing well in their jobs. So, I think that the outcomes and implications of being curious are actually quite profound.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you.

Francesca Gino
I’ll give you another one that is more recent. It came from the fact that we’re living through a crisis. So, when we’re curious, we are better able to look at stress as something that can enhance our performance rather than finding it to be paralyzing. So, I think that in thinking about this idea of staying agile and transforming ourselves, staying curious is quite important.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, then so how do you recommend that we go about continuing keeping curious?

Francesca Gino
I think of curiosity as a turbocharger. And, in fact, back in 2018, I had a book coming out called Rebel Talent, and curiosity is a really big talent that these rebels seem to have. And when I was thinking about what I had observed leaders and the police across organizations do to retain their curiosity, some of the suggestions are very simple. And then, since I’m a scientist, I went off and backed them up with data. But here are some simple ideas.

First of all, adding learning goals for ourselves. So, I think whether in our professional life, sometimes also in our personal lives, we have some form of performance goals for ourselves, or a little mission that we want to accomplish. Adding learning goals can be incredibly helpful not only in making our performance higher, but also in retaining our curiosity.

Pete Mockaitis
And now when we talk about learning goals, I can imagine there’s…what are the best practices in structuring those? Because I could articulate a learning goal many different ways which will have many different implications for when I get to claim victory and how I go about approaching it. So, how do we formulate that ideally?

Francesca Gino
I’m curious now to see what you have in mind. So, I would keep the same timeline that you have for your performance goals so that the two track together, and what we know from theories and a lot of writings around goals is to make them somewhat difficult but within reach. So, having said all of that, if I think about one of my learning goals since this little crisis started was to learn piano. I’ve never played piano before. And the way now that’s happening is with one of my children actually teach me what he knows, and often is just memorizing songs rather than really understanding the philosophy behind it. So, keeping ourselves honest. But, again, even with that caveat, I think that it’s making me ask a lot of questions about something that fundamentally I don’t know in a way that it’s quite positive.

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. And I imagine that would be some carryovers into other domains. I’m thinking about Einstein and the violin, that was one of his things. And he thought this was absolutely an excellent use of his time and energy and genius, and working with children in particular, because they ask great questions, and they got things moving mentally in other areas.

Francesca Gino
Yup, that is good evidence that often not being entrenched and deeply specialized in a context or in an area of study can be helpful as you’re trying to come up with something creative, because you just have a fresh perspective rather than thinking through the old lenses of looking at that problem.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s one thing is to set some learning objectives. And it sounds like, to the point of how they’re articulated, maybe it doesn’t matter that much, but you tell me. Like, learn the piano, I mean, I could articulate that in terms of, “I will learn five songs on the piano. I will be able to play songs picturing 16th note triplets on the piano.” Like, we can have all sorts of levels of specificity or depth or not. What do you think?

Francesca Gino
I think that just the general idea of having learning goals is important. Specificity, I think, can help us so that you track your progress, which can be very motivating, so I love that part in what you said, but not necessary per se.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, that’s one practice is the learning objectives. What else?

Francesca Gino
I love the idea of becoming people who actually model inquisitiveness for others. What are the opportunities to ask questions more often without that worry of being judged? In fact, many years ago, I took some improv comedy classes. It was actually a Christmas present for my husband to go to classes together. He hated it at first, but then since the course was 10-week long, he actually got used to it and really got to love it.

But what I’ve learned from improv, one of the lessons which really was an important one, is that curiosity and judgment cannot coexist. I think that it sounds simple but is actually profound. Think about when we’re suggesting ideas in a meeting, or we’re just brainstorming, or we are talking, or we’re disagreeing. I think that curiosity can really be helpful. And when we model it for others, so we’re the first one asking questions, really trying to understand the point of view of the person suggesting the idea, or as a statement whose different from our own, we end up faring much better. And so, I think a lot about, “What are the opportunities where I can ask more questions without the fear of being judged?”

Pete Mockaitis
And let’s talk about that fear for a bit. To what extent is it real versus all in our minds? And is there a way we can clear the air or address it with our counterparts that we’re talking to? How do we tackle it?

Francesca Gino
So, surprisingly to many, asking questions is something that leads to positive outcomes. So, this is a question that my colleagues and I actually studied. And what we found is that when we ask questions in conversations, in meetings, others end up judging us more positively, and they also end up trusting us more and liking us more. And we looked at this in all sorts of context, from meetings at work to speed-dating events. Question-asking does not lead to the type of negative outcomes that we somehow expect to see.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess part of it probably depends on what the question is. My wife and I, we have this recurring joke when we had our first child. There was a class on taking care of your newborn at the hospital, and we just thought it’d be funny to say, “Wait. Time out for a second. I keep hearing us saying the word ‘baby.’ What’s that?” So, I guess that, beyond the ridiculous, like, we all know what a baby is, I guess there’s some kind of a threshold in terms of if the question…I mean, they say there are no stupid questions but there, kind of, are some, you know. But then, again, there’s the judgment. Help me out, Francesca.

Francesca Gino
Yes. So, absolutely, there are limits in the sense of there might, in fact, be questions where if you went through a welcoming process, like the example that you were using, you should know the answer. But I have to say that we often err on the side of not asking where we should ask. What we tend to forget, which I think is quite interesting, is that we feel that you are going to feel the cost of giving us an answer or helping us figure out whatever it is that we’re asking about. And what we forget is that it’s actually flattering for you to be asked.

So, for instance, we’ve looked at this in the context of asking for advice. And what we find is that people feel fearful that, “I’m going to create cost on your time, on maybe a meeting that you don’t want to have, when, in fact, the fact that I’m asking is actually quite flattering to you.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. You know, that’s true. And I’m thinking about my buddy Mawi here who’s episode number one. He’s a real mentor and inspiration and friend. And he will often ask me questions, and I think, “You’re so much smarter than I am and better at this business, this industry that we’re in.” But I do, I really do feel flattered when he asks and not at all sort of put upon, so I think that makes sense. So, we like them more, we trust them more, and we feel flattered when they ask the question maybe because we perceive that they are really interested, or really committed, or really think that we have something to offer. Or are there any other sort of explanations or mechanisms by which that result comes to be?

Francesca Gino
So, you are mentioning then that people feel that they have something valuable to offer and that feels good. It doesn’t feel like something negative or something at a cost. So, I am hoping that the evidence that we produce in this discussion is going to help people feel a little bit more comfortable next time that they want to ask or express their curiosity. And, again, I’m not suggesting that they come out with questions if they don’t have any, but what I’m suggesting is that, with authenticity, if there is something that you’re curious about, not to be afraid of being judged.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Okay. Okay. So, with that perspective understood, we have a little bit of insulation from the fear just knowing, “Hey, actually, you’d probably be better off asking those questions.” Do you have any additional tips for the fear or things…? Are there any magical phrases you might use to preface your questions that feel like they give you a little bit of cover or can be secure for you?

Francesca Gino
Hmm, it’s interesting. We have not looked at that but I guess giving an explanation for why you’re asking can always be helpful because you’re just giving the other side a little bit more context for where your question is coming from. I should also say that one important application of what we’re talking about in the use of curiosity is in situations where you’re in disagreement with somebody.

And I’ve seen this happening so many times at work, also in family conflict where you’re in a heated situation, we are butting head-to-head, and the thing that we end up telling ourselves is, “Oh, maybe, you’re not as committed as I am to this cause, or to this project. Maybe you’re not as smart as I am or maybe you don’t have the right capabilities as I have for this project in moving this forward.”

And if at that very moment, we remind ourselves of the importance of curiosity, there is a really important shift that happens. Because, let’s imagine, let’s say, okay, now you’re zoned out, you’re as committed as I am to this, or you’re as smart as I am in approaching this, then you’d really start saying, “Then why is it that your view is so different from mine?” And you really want to investigate and seek to understand, and so you’re going to ask a lot of questions that the other side, or the other people involved, are really going to welcome.

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

Francesca Gino
No, the other point to keep in mind is, which has become a reminder for myself, is going through the day with more “What if…?” or “How could we…?” so that you consider alternatives. So, I’ve become pretty good at trying to remind myself, and then hopefully implement the idea of asking, “What could I do?” rather than, “What should I do?” since the ‘could’ retains your curiosity and actually allows you to expand on the possibilities.

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

Francesca Gino
“Break, transform, create.” This is a quote that comes from Chef Massimo Bottura, and it’s a great reminder of how we can all benefit from breaking away from tradition, routines, the usual way of working, and transform these routines to create something better in our own success.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And could you share a favorite study, experiment, or bit of research?

Francesca Gino
These days one of the pieces of research I’m reminded of, which I love, is the research that Carol Dweck has done on the idea of growth mindset. Thinking of others as people who have a lot to offer and ooze intelligence and competencies can be developed rather than thinking of them as people’s intelligence and competence as fixed. That leads to very different interactions where we get to invest in them and in their development rather than not.

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

Francesca Gino
A favorite book is the book called “Yes, And.” It’s a book that Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton from Second City wrote about what it is that we all stand to learn from improv comedy.

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

Francesca Gino
A favorite tool these days is Zoom.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Francesca Gino
As I’m becoming much better at trying to leverage virtual and make it fun.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

Francesca Gino
A favorite habit of mine is arriving at a time when I’m sitting down for dinner with my family, my four kids and my husband, and asking my children what are the two or three things that they’re grateful for.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite nugget, something you share that people seem to quote back to you often and you’re known for?

Francesca Gino
I gave it to you already, “Rebelliousness can be constructive rather than destructive.”

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

Francesca Gino
I would point them to either my personal website FrancescaGino.com or my book website RebelTalents.org. The book website has an interesting test potentially for those who listen in that can tell them which type of rebel they are. And if they come out as a pirate, it’s a very good thing.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m picturing the eye patch and the sword and the hat.

Francesca Gino
You’d be surprised. You’d be surprised. It was actually a really interesting organization to study as I was working on the book because, at a time when it was about 200 years before slavery ended in the United States, they were the most diverse organization on the planet. So, just for that, I think they get a lot of credit, especially in a world like the one that we’re living through today. And they also were interestingly organized. So, the crew was in charge of choosing the captain, and the crew could actually rule the captain quite easily if the captain was not behaving well towards the crew.

And, to me, that raises the question, that is one that I ask myself quite often, which is, “Am I the captain that my crew would choose as its leader today?” And you can ask it if you’re a parent, you can ask it if you’re leading a group of people, you can also ask it in relationship to how you relate to your friends, or to your spouse, or to you colleagues.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that is some fascinating stuff. I had no idea about this and the history of pirates. Where would you recommend, if there’s a book or a resource I could pick up, to educate myself on pirates?

Francesca Gino
So, there, I’m going to be self-serving since I did a lot of integration across resources as I was working on the book. So, I would read one of the chapters in “Rebel Talent” that talks about the pirates.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m scanning your table of contents right now. Oh, “Becoming a rebel leader: Blackbeard, “flatness,” and the 8 principles of rebel leadership.”

Francesca Gino
That’s exactly right.

Pete Mockaitis
Page 191. Thank you. All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Francesca Gino
I would love for people to think about ways in which they can break away from their mold. As I was working on the book, I was surprised by how much courage it takes, because we’re breaking away from tendencies that we all have as human beings, but also how really satisfying and exciting the experience is. So, if you’re like me, after you tried the rebel life, you’d want to go back.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Francesca, this has been fun. I wish you lots of luck in all of your rebellions.

Francesca Gino
Thank you so much.

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

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

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

You’ll Learn:

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

About Jonah

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

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

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Jonah Sachs Interview Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonah Sachs
That is true. That is true.

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

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

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

Jonah Sachs
Yup, dis-confirmatory. Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
…that’s there.

Jonah Sachs
Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonah Sachs
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess, in practice…

Jonah Sachs
I thought you were the expert here.

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

Jonah Sachs
Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite book?

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

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

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

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite habit?

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

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

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

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

Jonah Sachs
JonahSachs.com.

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

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

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

Jonah Sachs
All right. Great talking.