Productive Thinking in Groups

Productive Thinking in Groups

There’s a mandate in the corporate world that’s been called the Innovation Imperative. In just about any major organization, people hear it several times a day: Innovate or Die.

It’s assumed that people will know what being innovative actually means. And how to do it.

So employees are routinely herded into innovation sessions, where they’re expected to generate new thinking about products or services, corporate structures, or production processes. More often than not, they walk out of those sessions having accomplished very little.

Imagine someone saying to you, “Ok, go run the marathon.” Unless you’d trained for a marathon before, you wouldn’t have a clue what to do first. You wouldn’t know how to train, how to develop yourself, how to eat, how to avoid injuries, or even how to effectively measure your progress.

And yet, that’s exactly the approach most organizations take when they ask people to put their brains into high gear and think differently.

Whether you want to produce high quality running or high quality thinking, you have to learn how. No matter how athletic you are or how big your brain is, you can improve your performance exponentially by taking a structured approach to the task.

PhidippidesIf you’re a marathoner, your routine will include running sprints and endurance, uphill and flat. You’ll do muscle training, you’ll eat differently, and you’ll learn the importance of vaseline and strategically placed bandaids. If you’re smart, you’ll also get a coach. As a result of all those structures, routines, and coaching, hundreds of thousands of modern-day marathoners accomplish the same 26 mile feat that killed a strapping young Greek warrior named Phidippides. Most of them are older than Phidippides was. And it’s a good bet that a large number of them run faster than Phidippides did. How is it possible that middle-aged business men and women can perform better than a young warrior? It’s because they learned how.

We can do the same for people who need to think more creatively and more productively. We’ve developed structures, sub-routines, and a system of coaching that helps people think better. Guaranteed.

When groups of people need to think better, they are more likely to succeed when a skillful facilitator leads them through a structured process. Like a coach in the world of sports, a skillful facilitator is someone who’s studied the game, understands the pitfalls and how to correct for them, and can bring out the talents of each player so the team performs to its potential.

On two fronts, the academic research is clear: When people learn and use thinking structures and skills, they can generate more ideas, better ideas, more often. And when groups of people are well-facilitated through a structured thinking process, they are more productive.

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Will, Skill, Drill

Being more creative is all about will, skill and drill.

First, you have to want to. That’s the will. You have to have the attitude that there’s always a better way. You have to be dissatisfied.

What that means is that every itch is an opportunity. You don’t have to look far to find something ripe for improvement, whether a product or a service, a relationship, or the way your life is unfolding. Opportunities for creative and productive thinking are everywhere.

Once you have the will, you need to develop a set of skills. One of my favorite quotes is by Jerry Hirschberg, former CEO of Nissan Design. He said, “Creativity is not an escape from disciplined thinking. It’s an escape with disciplined thinking.” In other words, you have to learn how. A very few people learn that by themselves, but most of us need help.

We start with creative heuristics developed by others — thinkers from Leonardo to Edison to Torrance to Parnes — and make our lives a path of continuous development, learning from every source possible.

Finally, you have to drill. In other words, you have to practice. No one becomes a first-rate golfer or tennis player or musician overnight. And no one becomes a first-rate creative thinker overnight. It takes work and mistakes and corrections and more work again.

Eventually you start to make a few minor breakthroughs. In time you have something to build on. And you keep going until you’ve got something that works, that’s really new, that really makes a difference.

One of the most important things we at ThinkX tell our clients is, “Stop thinking there are magic bullets that will make your people more creative in an instant.” The notion of quick fixes and instant creativity is actually one of the biggest barriers to developing creative capacity.

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Entraining Part 3: Language

In the early days of TV, there was a popular afternoon program called Queen for a Day. It took ordinary American housewives, often in unfortunate circumstances, and made them feel special — with attention, gifts, and tiaras. Very touching. Of course, once they went home, these women faced the same realities they had the day before. Nothing really changed.

It’s the same with one-day training programs. They may seem useful while you’re attending, but once you’re back at work, the effect quickly dissipates in the face of every-day routine.

When it comes to skill development and behavior change, most of us know one-day trainings don’t work. So how do you encourage new skills to develop and new behaviors to stick?

In earlier posts, I discussed the move from training into entraining — a deliberate process of skill development, attitude change, and cultural evolution. Entraining starts with Executive Approbation and Quick Wins. This post is about the third requisite of effective entraining — Language.

Think of the way popular culture is carried forward by simple, but pervasive changes in popular language — 24/7 for open all the time, text for a short message, partner for a love relationship, tivo for time shifting a TV program, google for searching the web, or just the web itself. These are more than just words; they are signifiers of new ways of thinking and behaving. The way we speak reflects the way we think, the way we feel, and the way we believe. For real cultural change to take root, you need to develop a language that supports the change you’re looking for.

When ThinkX introduces productive thinking into organizations, we’re careful about the language we use. We ask “What’s the itch?” when exploring what’s not working. We talk about problem questions rather than problem statements. We refer to target futures rather than objectives. We strive for third third answers rather than the first ones that come to mind. And we power up solutions rather than simply developing them. Our aim is to give people a vocabulary for thinking differently.

When I visit our clients and hear people saying things like, “We were discussing our itch the other day,” or “We’re making progress, but we haven’t cracked the third third yet,” or “How can we power this idea up?”, I know something is happening: A new mindset is beginning to install itself into the culture of the organization. Entraining is starting to happen.

If you want to change behaviour you need to offer people a language that allows them to describe that behaviour and embed it, not just in manuals and company memos, but in their collective consciousness.

Next blog, the fourth entraining requirement: Practice.

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Entraining Part 2: Quick Wins

Last week, I wrote about the great corporate training myth — the misguided belief that you can get people to change their behaviors as a result of a one-day (if that!) “training” session:

What we do need are practical approaches that entrain new skills and new behaviors in people so they actually stick — and make a difference. Entraining is a process of skill development, attitude change, and cultural evolution.

In my field — creativity and innovation —entraining productive new skills and behaviors requires five things. I’m going to talk about each of them over the next several posts.

Hooray!This entry is about the second requisite for entraining: quick wins.

By quick wins, I mean opportunities for people to test their developing skills in low-risk, rapid-reward situations where they can see how their new learnings can benefit them, where they can fail without pain, and where success delivers the clear message, “Yes, I can do this!”

Contrast this with the more usual way we try to deploy new learnings. Here’s a typical example of the kind of “just in time” learning strategy used by most organizations:

A new change initiative is mandated. “We need to work faster and smarter,” says management. Training programs are designed to deliver new skills across the organization. On completing their training, employees are thrown into the deep end to implement the change. The pressure to succeed is high. So are the consequences of failure. When the going gets tough (as it always does), instead of practicing their new skills, people fall back on the behviors they’re already fluent in, and which worked in the past. Wouldn’t you? On balance the change program is less effective than expected, and people gravitate to doing things pretty much they way they’ve always done them.

Is anyone really surprised by this?

Try this thought experiment: A colleague has just shown you a more efficient keystroke combination to accomplish a particular task in your spread sheet, word processing or presentation program. Because it’s unfamiliar, you need to actively think in order not to default to your old approach. Now imagine you are working on a deadline. You’re under the gun. You’ve got to finish within the next 45 minutes.

What will you do? Use the new, arguably better, method you’re not yet comfortable with? Or the tried-and-true method, the one you’re used to, which may not be as efficient, but which you know will get the job done? The answer is obvious. You’ll revert to your old behavior, reinforcing it even more.

What you need is a low-risk opportunity to use the new behavior in a way that allows you to feel good about what you’ve learned. You need to practice it on quick-win, rewarding tasks until the behaviour becomes a true skill, and replaces the exisitng habit.

Well-designed entraining programs recognize this. They first demonstrate the value of the new skills. Then they map out a framework for practicing and integrating them. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the major thrust of such programs isn’t to teach skills, but rather to help people learn how to learn them. They encourage experimenting on quick-win opportunities, so new skills can be used and reinforced early and often.

The quick-wins approach is one of the surest ways to entrain new behaviors. After a few quick wins, people discover they actually want to use their developing skills. And the more they use them, the better they get.

Next week, the third entraining requirement: language.

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The Training Hoax

How many emails do you get a week from organizations selling programs to train you or your people to ____________?  (you fill in the blank)

Boring TrainingCorporate training has become the Emperor’s New Clothes of modern business. It’s a hoax. We send people away to make them into better leaders, more creative thinkers, better team players. When the one-day (if that!) “course” is finished, we pat them on the head, and proclaim they’re now improved or empowered or upskilled. Then we send them back to the same jobs, in the same cube farms, using the same language they did the day before. And for some reason, we think they’ll behave differently. That’s called MBH — Management by Hope.

Who are we kidding? The only thing that’s really changed is the calendar.

(The whole exercise is even more absurd when we replace face-to-face interaction with a poorly designed, half-focused-on webinar. At least hanging out with other people might have been fun, if not particularly productive.)

The last thing you or your company needs is more of the training hoax. It costs too much money, takes too much time, and produces too few results. Really. If you think about it, when was the last time you actually learned and applied something of value from a conventional training program?

What we do need are practical approaches that entrain new skills and new behaviors in people so they actually stick — and make a difference. Entraining is a process of skill development, attitude change, and cultural evolution.

In my field — creativity and innovation —entraining productive new skills and behaviors requires five things. I’m going to talk about each of them over the next several posts. Here’s the first:

Executive approbation

That’s a big word meaning overt, active, approval and support. No creative change initiative will survive if it’s just “okay” to be creative.

mixed message

One of my colleagues tells this story: About halfway through an innovation ideation session, a man entered and sat at the back of the room. At an appropriate break, my colleague approached the newcomer and introduced himself. “I’m the Chief Compliance Officer,” said the newcomer. “I’m here to ensure none of the ideas get out of hand.”

That’s exactly the kind of mixed message that’s guaranteed to kill a change initiative before it even gets started.

Creativity (and the mess that goes with it) has to be an expectation of senior management — not just a nice-to-have. That means a whole environment of support has to be created. And that includes acceptance — and the expectation — that people trying new skills will make mistakes.

In the next post, I’ll talk about entraining requirement number two: Quick Wins.

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The Limits of Vision

A couple of weeks ago I bought a pair of eyeglasses. They’re called SuperFocus. They’re the geekiest glasses I’ve ever seen. And the best I’ve ever seen through.

Like a lot of people my age, I need different strengths of glasses — for regular reading, computer reading, and road-sign reading. In my case I have yet another focal distance — for refering to my notes while speaking on stage.

My new SuperFocuses (SuperFoci?) handle all these situations, without the distortions of bi- or tri-focals, because I can actually focus them — something like binoculars — from infinity to watch-repair close, with a small slider on top of the bridge.

Sounds weird, but you get used to it pretty quickly. And it works. Your whole field of vision can be in perfect focus, whatever the distance.

I’m so pleased with my new specs that I went to order another pair.

Craig, my optician, started waxing about how great these new glasses were, how many famous (and smart) people owned a pair, and how he (being in good company) used them himself. He likes to talk, so he quickly moved on to his assessment of his suppliers. The SuperFocus people aren’t traditional eyewear manufacturers. They’re entrepreneurs — the new kids on the block. So when Craig offers suggestions for improvement, they usually respond with, That’s an interesting idea. We’ll try it.

On the other hand, when he offers suggestions to the more established manufacturers, they often reply with, That wouldn’t work or That would be too expensive or People don’t want that.

So it turns out that eyeglasses makers are pretty much just like the rest of us. Too often, they limit their vision to what they already know.

The great Danish physicist, philosopher, and poet, Piet Hein, put it like this:

Experts have
their expert fun
ex cathedra
telling one
just how nothing
can be done.

Of course, none of us are immune. We’re all experts (or think we are) on something. How often have you been the expert who turns knowing into “no-ing”?

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A Little on the Fence

Every September, ThinkX sponsors Mindcamp, a not-for-profit creativity retreat. We do it to offer other not-for-profits and individuals a plunge into the world of creativity. Most people come away from it with a renewed sense of themselves and their potential.

A few days ago, we received an email from a woman who was considering coming to Mindcamp 2011, but had some reservations. She wrote, “I am not entirely sure this is something for me, and so am a little on the fence. I have never participated in anything like this and don’t consider myself to be the most creative person.”

She’s not alone. Many people tell me they don’t think of themselves as creative.

In our society, we’re taught that creativity is about art or music or poetry. And of course it is. But it’s much more than that.

Creativity is about thinking beyond the obvious to solve problems. Sometimes these are art problems, sometimes music problems, sometimes poetry problems. But more often they are business problems, family problems, or practical problems.

The truth is that all of us have creative potential. Anyone who’s ever been flooded with ideas while in the shower knows that. There are a wealth of well-documented techniques for applying “shower thinking” to more practical settings. But most of us either don’t know them or don’t use them, relying instead on the old patterns of thought that caused our problems in the first place.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could learn to adapt your natural shower thinking ability to the practical world – to tame, develop, and refine those crazy shower ideas to address your real-world problems?

That’s what the work my colleagues and I do is all about – introducing people to proven ways to expand their capacity to think more creatively and more productively. That’s what ThinkX does for its commercial clients, and that’s what Mindcamp has been doing, as a not-for-profit, for nine years now.

All human beings have innate creative capacity. It’s just that not all of us have discovered that yet. Once you do, watch out. Your world (and the world of those around you) will never be the same.

By the way, the woman who wrote the email above did sign up for Mindcamp. And although we’re almost full, you’re welcome to apply as well. Check it out at

“Creativity is not an escape from disciplined thinking. It is an escape with disciplined thinking.” – JERRY HIRSCHBERG

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The Safe Path

The Safe Path

The safe path is the one you already know.
It leads to where you’ve already been.

101One of the things I notice as I work with organizations around the world is that the more expert people are – the better their reputations as knowledgeable doctors or lawyers or engineers or managers – the less likely they are to ask questions they don’t know the answers to. That’s not because they know so much that it’s hard to find such questions. It’s because asking questions you don’t know the answers to reveals your ignorance, and that can be pretty threatening, particularly if you think of yourself as an authority.

Ironically, it’s the very urge to feel knowledgeable that often stops us from knowing more.

Asking questions you already know the answers to is the safest path, to be sure, but it also leads you right back to where you already are.

One of the best ways to discover new territory, new ideas, new possibilities is to ask questions you don’t know the answers to. It’s like launching your own personal Hubble telescope, sharpening your ability to see more, and more clearly, than ever before.

“No, no, you’re not thinking, you’re just being logical.” – NEILS BOHR, Danish physicist (1885-1962)

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Three Tools to Help You Think Better

As someone who travels the world consulting with and training corporations in strategic, organizational, and innovation problem-solving, I’m often asked, “What are most common problems you see in the companies you work with?” It only takes a moment to answer. There are three:

One. Solving wrong problems. Almost everywhere I go, I see rooms full of smart, dedicated people, working their tails off – on the wrong stuff. Companies spend gobs of time, energy, and money trying to solve the wrong problems. Often their solutions are well-designed, clever, even brilliant. But if you’re asking the wrong question, it really doesn’t matter how good your answer is. It’s not going to address the real problem.

Two. Heading towards nowhere. Time and time again, I see companies implementing new programs without a clear idea of where they want to go. Sometimes they know what they’re trying to change from, but rarely do they have a clear view of the future they want to reach. It’s like trying to find Waldo without knowing what he looks like. You can’t. Yet many companies spend huge amounts of time and energy aiming their phasers somewhere into the future, hoping they’ll hit a target.

Three. Filling the same hole over and over. Despite what we hear about companies becoming learning organizations, very few of them actually know how to learn from their successes and failures. They institute programs, marketing campaigns, strategies, and then when they’re finished, they don’t really learn from them. No wonder one of the most often heard complaints in organizations is the cynical comment about the latest flavor-of-the-month initiative.

Sound familiar? If you work in an organization of any size, anywhere, I’ll bet you’ve encountered each of these syndromes more than once in your career.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could learn simple thinking tools to avoid these three common mistakes?

  • If you could easily identify the right problems to solve?
  • If you could rapidly define a future worth aiming for?
  • If, like the US Army, you could use After Action Reviews to truly understand what works and what doesn’t?

If your answers are yes, I invite you to join me for a free 60-minute webinar, sponsored by the Global Institute for Leadership Development, in which I’ll teach you three of the most powerful tools in the Productive Thinking arsenal. Please join me August 30 at 1PM Eastern time for 60 minutes that I know will change your life.

“Ideas that we do not know we have, have us.” – WILLIAM APPLEMAN WILLIAMS, US historian (1921-1990)

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