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. Placing any idea into a bigger construct offers perspective. Can it swim or not in the pool in which it is placed? Most ideas in a small, protected 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. After identifying the appropriate context, I then build out the attributes of a successful solution. I do not design the solution, but rather define how to know if a solution is viable.
If you understand the context of the problem and how you will know if it has been solved, you can then spend time exploring dozens of ways within those constraints to attack the problem.
Personal approach to learning
The other day a potential client observed that my analysis of their market was surprisingly different from others they had received. My answer was shifting contexts. They look at the market through a particular lens. I try to look at markets through multiple lenses. This makes for messy presentations that ramble down dead-ends–but they are interesting if you have the patience. I see questions as learning opportunities. I don’t want to just converge on an answer within a given constraint, I want to explore the solution space. This can be done faster than might be imagined once you learn how to shift contexts. The practical implementation may be asking better questions of the source material (better meaning multiple perspectives)
I approach learning this way not because I follow Malcolm Gladwell’s prescription of 10,000 (Outliers on Amazon here) hours of practice doing one thing well. I approach learning this way because I spent my 10,000 hours learning how to challenge assumptions, and one of those assumptions is you should get really good at one area. The area of expertise need not be limited to a domain, but can, as I think I did, apply it to a process, a practice, a perspective. If you spend 10,000 hours doing nothing but playing tennis, you see the entire world through the lens of balls, rackets, tournaments, exercise, and if you are good, competition and fame. You may do other things, but tennis is how people will define you, and it is probably how you define yourself.
If you spend time learning how to learn, how to challenge, how to synthesize you end up mastering pattern recognition in a way that the best machine learning cannot yet fathom because most training sets focus on the best answer in a context. Today’s AI isn’t very good at shifting perspectives. An AI trained on identifying cats in a picture cannot identify birds. The same algorithm can be taught birds, but it needs to spend its 10,000 hours doing that, and then likely run in sequence, first cats, then birds. It does it in a very short period of time, but it is really siloed and sequential.
Humans have the ability to learn much more holistically, to jump around and wander, to explore and ignore. I learn not by deep diving, but by riding the currents.
Decision making in the approach to innovative thinking
I am not a believer that more data makes for a better decision when it comes to innovation. I think the right data is crucial, but once I see a path, I see no reason to keep accumulating evidence about what is happening today. Innovation is about breaking with the linear path. The trick is to know when to make the decision to leave the path.
There is no data about the future. I only have evidence about the present. Even if I have data about what people think about what they will like in the future, I still only have current data in a speculative context–and I don’t know the context. That is why I return 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. And scenarios offer a way to create a defined alternative set of contexts for testing the innovation. While only one future ultimately unfolds, and we place our bets on where we think that will happen, I want to inform those bets by playing on multiple fields, none of which assume tomorrow will be like today as each of those fields is informed by a different set of social, technological, economic, environmental, and political assumptions.
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 of numbers. When I start a new leadership job, I rapidly find someone who LOVES numbers to help me 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. We need to 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).
Innovative thinking: What do I regularly ask myself?
My primary motivation for innovative thinking comes from my need to continuously improve everything 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 learning? 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 inspire a decision-maker 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 which is frustrating and destructive. Those who want to revitalize a business need to embrace people who are willing to make others uncomfortable, to take risks.
I ask myself I can better encourage people to take risks. 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 created programs and developed contexts that had not been done before—they invented things that people didn’t think could be done. I hope the members of my previous teams look back at their work with me as a good or great career moment.
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 perceived problems, and to define new ones.
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 famously quested how the Internet is affecting our brains. My brain was doing what the Internet causes other brains to do before it was cool. Anyone who knows me knows that I go from idea-to-idea, book chapter-to-book chapter (no, 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 about possibilities, I read science fiction. Those are starting points, not destinations. The initial reading suggests jumping-off points. If it doesn’t I poke my head into a new space.
I also listen to music when trying to disassociate. Usually jazz.
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 introduce a new point of view.
I find learning one of the best states of mind. I often create interesting concepts by taking in what I am hearing and mushing it up with what I know, and finding a unique way to represent the mash-up like 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 on the path to success. But I also know those choices don’t make people better than other people. Everyone is uniquely special in the choices that they make – and that means we should respect everyone, not just people in positions of power.
Holding a position of power should not mean that if asked to contribute, to help improve something or develop something new, that ownership and execution, or vision necessarily falls to the person in power, and if it does, that ideas from that source arrive involatile, unchallengeable. People in positions of power make mistakes all of the time. They might make fewer if they listened better and if we all spoke up more often.
This exercise 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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