An Approach to Innovative Thinking
An approach to innovation…I was asked recently by one of my former Microsoft colleagues to answer five questions about how I approach analysis and solutions as part of an ongoing employee mentoring program. Here are my answers.
I start with an outside-in perspective on all ideas. If one examines ideas from a very local perspective, using any definition of local (cultural, geographical, existing customers, etc.) there is a great possibility that the idea will reinforce what its owner is after. By placing any idea into a big construct, we can see if it can swim or not. All ideas in a small bowl will survive. Those same ideas in an ocean either drown or get lost.
This is why I use scenarios. Scenarios force a discipline for seeing a problem from outside of itself. Once the idea is put into context, the next thing that needs to happen is to define the attributes of a successful solution, not the solution, but how you will decide if you have a solution.
The middle is the easy part. If you understand the context of the problem and if you understand how you will know if you can solve it, you can then spend time exploring dozens of ways within those constraints to attack the problem (or take advantage of the uncertainty).
Personal approach to learning
The other day I was in a meeting, and I was told by the potential client that my analysis of their market was surprisingly different from others they had received. I do this because I have not followed Malcolm Gladwell’s prescription of 10,000 hours of practice doing one thing well. I spent my 10,000 hours learning how to synthesize stuff from a number of different areas. I don’t do anything one thing really well, except perhaps, finding patterns in broad information.
Decision making in the approach to innovative thinking
I am not a believer that more data makes for a better decision. I think the right data is crucial, but once I see a path, I see no reason to keep accumulating evidence. A delay in action is often worse than an action that is 98% informed. Now, if we look at patterns, however, and at big challenges, we often don’t have data. There is no data about the future, which is why I go to scenario planning. If I admit I don’t know, I will be more honest about acknowledging a range of possibilities, not just the one I believe is right. I do make a choice though. We all have to. Only one future ultimately unfolds, and we place our bets on where we think that will happen, but I want to understand the playing field first, at a minimum. I don’t want to assume a single course.
I also want to say here that I go out of my way to acknowledge my deficiencies and team with people who complement my capabilities. I am not a finance wiz. I do not plan, ever, to spend 10,000 hours playing with numbers. Not in physics and not in finance. I recognize the importance of both, I understand the basic principles and the language, and I rapidly find someone who LOVES numbers to work with me to make sense of that aspect of the world. In other words, we don’t need to possess all the tools ourselves. We do need to understand what it takes to make a good decision and make sure the elements are in place in a credible way, and that we trust the data (or at least, know what data to trust and what data not to trust).
What do I regularly ask myself?
My primary motivation is the continuous improvement of anything I am involved in. I ask how I can improve it, make it better. Now, that is not limited to products or processes, which has caused me some consternation in my career. I ask about things like, why do we still use industrial age measurements? How can we reinvent education? Why don’t the executives of a firm understand that their strategy has derailed?
Those questions lead to others, questions like:
- What perception filters are people using that make them believe the status quo is OK?
- How do I craft a perspective that will get the decision-maker’s attention and get them to move?
I personally ask myself all the time how I can improve my approach to intransigence. I find managers who have set ways, refuse to be transparent about their reasoning and play the power card frustrating and destructive. If we want to revitalize American business, we need to embrace people who are willing to shake us up, to make us uncomfortable, to take risks. I ask myself how I can get people to better take those risks, both peers and managers. Most of my teams have been slightly askew of the conventional track at all the organizations I have worked for. I am proud of that. The teams I have worked with did things that haven’t been done before, invented things that people didn’t think could be done, and I think most of them look to those teams for inspiration when they are under the draconian thumb of some manager who thinks they have the answers. I am happy that I was able to ask myself, several times in my career, what kind of team I wanted to be associated with, and was empowered to build it and to let it attack the problems, and to define new problems.
My other frequent question is why? Why do I keep doing work that requires such a broad perspective on everything? Why don’t I just take a nice, focused job where I can do the same thing, master it, get rewarded for my mastery and live happily ever after? Why, because I would no longer be engaged in co-creating the future. I would be trapped in maintaining the present, and that is the last place I want to spend my time.
An innovative state-of-mind
Nick Carr is on the stump questioning how the Internet is affecting our brains. My brain was doing what the Internet causes others to do before it was invented. Anyone who knows me knows that I go from idea-to-idea, book chapter-to-book chapter (not, not books, but chapters – this is about context) and domain-to-domain all the time. Really, all the time. If I am working on a business problem, I read science. If I am trying to understand education, I read philosophy. If I am trying to clear my mind for possibilities, I read science fiction. I also love Jazz and all kinds of music. Some people can’t write well when listening to the lyrics. I have found a way to turn lyrics into background music, to separate the meaning of the words from the music of the words, and I often write my best, not when it is quiet, but when I am channeling the energy of the music into the poetry or prose I am creating.
For group sessions, I use the energy of the people and channel it back to them. I try to create a safe, judgment-free zone of creativity (I say judgment-free, not evaluation free. Saying an idea doesn’t fit isn’t passing judgment, it is discovering fit and unfit – very different things from judgment). I especially find it fulfilling when I can bring someone in who doesn’t usually participate to gain a new point-of-view, see the problem through a new lens. I find learning one of the best states of mind and have often created interesting concepts by taking in what I am hearing and mushing it up with all I know, and finding a unique way to represent something, a new framework or an emergent pattern.
A final thought
I think the other thing that frames my thinking is a complete lack of respect for hierarchy. I have spent time with powerful people in many cultures. They are all people. All brilliant and fallible, brave and reckless, respectful and egotistical. Just because the black swan floated by one’s door and caught its owner in a power curve, does not mean that that person cannot learn from others, that they are right more often, that they have some special prescience about the future. Many people work very hard to get where they are. I have no doubt of that, and I respect the hard work and long hours and the choices made between success and family. But I also know those choices don’t make people uniquely special. Everyone is uniquely special in the choices that they make – and that means we should respect everyone, not just people in positions of power. And a position of power should not mean that if we are asked to contribute, to help improve something or develop something new, that we need to find ourselves executing the vision of others without challenge. People in positions of power make mistakes all of the time. They might make fewer if they listening better and if we all spoke up more often.
This made me think. To be self-reflective. It was a good learning experience, even though I now know I haven’t thought about it as much as I could. I’m not sure that I want to though, as most of the time I would rather perform magic than perform well on a standardized test.
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