Defying Gravity

Creative change takes hard work — examining promising opportunities, generating potentially useful ideas, assessing their risks and merits, refining them, recruiting “assisters”, persuading “resistors”, testing, implementing, adjusting, and implementing again…

True creative change takes the drive to try, the courage to fail, the humility to learn, and the persistence to try again.

Often the most difficult challenge is overcoming the gravitational pull of the past. Anyone who’s worked in large organizations knows this syndrome well: try to make a change, gravity pulls you back; try to make a change, gravity pulls you back. Sometimes the past can seem like a black hole.

Here’s an approach that may help: Describe your target future as vividly as you can. Make it something really worth the sweat and tears and frustration. Then take a grappling hook and hurl it into that vision. Let it grab on to a future so compelling that you can’t even imagine letting it go. Once it is firmly lodged, seize that rope and pull yourself towards it. I call this future pull – a way to overcome the gravitational pull of the past.

“Tradition should be a guide, not a jailer.” – SOMERSET MAUGHAM (1874-1965)

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You Can’t Do That!

When do you feel uncomfortable with new ideas? Probably when they challenge your assumptions or, worse still, your core beliefs.

It wasn’t till 1920 that American woman acquired the right to vote.* President Grover Cleveland was convinced that “sensible and responsible women do not want to vote.” Even Mark Twain, as a young man, was opposed to Women’s Suffrage (though he later changed his views). So contentious was the issue of Suffrage that protests often ended in violence. Today, it’s hard to imagine that the question of a woman’s right to vote would be an issue at all.

The most difficult environment for new ideas is when we think we are firmly in possession of “the truth” — whether about the competence of other people, the causes of climate change, or simply our own potential.

And yet, it’s precisely when we challenge our assumptions that we find the most exciting and productive ideas: surgery without knives, telephones without wires, generating energy from thin air, drinking recycled pee (as they did on Atlantis!), or a new direction for personal discovery…

Our discomfort is often the signal that a new idea may have promise. So tune in to your emotional responses. Whenever you feel uncomfortable about a new idea, pay attention — you may be on to something.

*New Zealand was the first major country to grant voting rights to women in 1893. Australia did so in 1902, Canada in 1917, the UK in 1918.

“Always listen to experts. They’ll tell you what can’t be done and why. Then do it.” – ROBERT HEINLEIN (1907-1988)

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You Can’t Mow the Lawn with a Chainsaw

People often ask me if Productive Thinking is the right approach for every problem. As you can probably guess from the title of this post — NO!

The Productive Thinking Model is great, and can often help you solve problems you’d never be able to solve otherwise. But as with anything else, there can be too much of a good thing.

Productive Thinking is a powerful tool, but it’s not always the right tool. There are lots of issues that productive thinking won’t help you with.

Here’s a useful way to determine if your issue might benefit from productive thinking. It’s called I3:

List all issues you want to work on. Then, for each one, ask yourself the I3 questions:

  • Do I have Influence over it?
  • Is it Important to me?
  • Does it need Imaginative thinking?
If you can answer “yes” to all three I3 questions, then you’ll probably benefit from taking your issue through the Productive Thinking Framework. If not… well, here’s a simple grid that might help.

Remember, you can’t mow the lawn with a chain saw.
If the only tool you have is a hammer, you treat everything like a nail. ~Abraham Maslow (1908-1970)

or perhaps…

If the only tool you have is a hammer, you treat everything like a thumb. ~Anonymous

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Why and How

I often help clients with strategic planning, and I’m consistently amazed at how complicated people make it. They debate about visions and missions and strategic priorities and goals and objectives, usually without defining what these terms mean. Then it starts getting really weird, with terms like strategic intent, integrative dynamics, KPAs, KRAs, KRIs, and strato-tactical objectives flying around the boardroom table like hockey pucks at a pre-game warmup.

Is it any wonder that so many people sit around so many strategy sessions so confused? Sometimes I think we gravitate towards complexity because the more complex we view something, the more heroic we imagine ourselves to be for tackling it.

Here’s the elephant in the room about strategic planning: the secret that big box consulting companies don’t want you to know. Planning doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, it’s really pretty simple. It may be time consuming, and there may be a lot to cover, but don’t let your local snake oil salesman fool you: useful planning is actually pretty basic.

Start your strategic plan with a set of simple statements that describe what you think you want to accomplish. Here are four that probably apply to a wide range of businesses:
We want people to see us as providing high value at a fair price.
We want to be able to attract investment capital to grow our business.
We want our employees to feel good about working here.
We want to make a genuine contribution to the communities we work in.

Is doesn’t matter if you call these goals or objectives or visions or missions or BHAGS or flapdoodles. They’re simply descriptions of things you think you want (you may change your mind of course, but at this point what you think is what you think, so start there).

Then, for each statement, ask Why? and How?
Why? questions make things more abstract: they take you into strategies and purposes.
questions make things more concrete: they take you into tactics and action steps.

For example, asking Why do we want people to see us as providing high value at a fair price? might get you to: because we want them to buy our products. Keep asking Why? and you’ll quickly come to your core reason for being in business — your purpose. If you’re happy with that purpose, great. If not, now is the time to rethink what you’re in business for.

Next, start at any point on your ladder and ask How? That gets you into more and more tactical levels. Perhaps one answer to How are we going to get people to see us as providing high value at a fair price? is: by understanding their needs. And one answer to how to do that might be: by building the best R&D capability we can, and so on. How? tells you what you have to do to get where you want to go.

Try the Why?/How? approach. You’ll find it much more straightforward and useful than throwing around a bunch of MBA terms whose meanings no one really agrees on anyway. But fair warning: you may have a tough time convincing some of your colleagues to give up complexity for simplicity. After all, being a hero has its rewards.

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What if you left right out of the equation?

Isn’t it interesting how firmly we hold to our opinions, even when we suspect they may be wrong?

We’re often more concerned with being “right” than moving forward.

Admitting you were wrong is simply acknowledging that you’re smarter now than you were then. Admitting you were wrong is a pathway to creativity, growth, and positive change.

What are you missing out on because you have to be right?

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” – RICHARD FEYMAN (1918-1988)

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Think Better Chosen as One of Top Ten Business Books of 2008

“Best of the best: intelligent, clear, filled with advice” according to Harvey Schachter, business columnist for The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper.

“He provides a six-step process that you can use in brainstorming sessions or in tackling problems solo, designed to push beyond the predictable, mundane ideas that usually come to you initially and even better ideas that follow, stretching boundaries but still essentially constrained by what you know. He helps you to reach the next level, the ‘third third,’ as he calls it, where unexpected connections occur, as you keep asking yourself what else might be possible.”

Click here to see the whole article.

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Bigger. Faster. Dumber.

Have you found yourself asking how we ever got into the economic mess we’re in?

I think one reason is that we’ve allowed ourselves to be seduced by the twin sirens of greed and speed.

Because we want more (or maybe because our bosses or shareholders want more), we assume we have to do more, so we develop a fanatic devotion to multi-tasking as a way to get more done in less time. But it doesn’t work, does it?

Multi-tasking doesn’t make you perform better at all. Just the opposite. You can’t really hear what’s going on in the meeting while you’re checking messages on your Blackberry. And no matter how hard you try to convince yourself that you can, you’re wrong. Either the meeting or the message is going to suffer. You know it’s true. And so does just about every cognitive researcher who’s studied the matter.

Multi-tasking is the assassin of clear thinking. With each additional parallel task, your thinking becomes less focused, your memory less reliable.

The answer? Take it easy. Tackle one job at a time, and give it your full attention. Real value comes from thinking better, not faster.

Try it. I guarantee you’ll think better. Your results may even astonish you. You’ll make fewer errors, have less rework, come up with better ideas — and probably finish sooner.

You have to slow down to speed up.

“It is an ironic habit of human beings to run faster when we have lost our way.”
– ROLLO MAY (1909-1994)

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Bury the Box

I give a lot of keynote speeches about creativity and innovation. Often, the people who introduce me ask for texts to read from. The last line of my prepared introduction is, “Tim thinks the phrase ‘out of the box thinking’ should be put back in the box and buried in a deep hole.” It almost always gets a laugh and sets a nice tone for my talk.

But it’s more than just a cute line. Like so many other clichés, “out of the box thinking” has been drained of any significant meaning by overuse and underthought. OBT and countless other meaning-drained phrases — like “paradigm shift”, “light at the end of the tunnel”, and “it is what it is” — seem to exude from people’s mouths when they don’t really have anything to say, but feel the need to say something.

My biggest gripe with OBT is that it makes it sound as though creative thinking is something we should go away somewhere and do as an exception. It makes about as much sense to say, “Let’s take a few minutes and think creatively” as it does to say, “Let’s take a few minutes and think ethically.” Creative thinking should be available to us on demand, not as an exception.

The real problem is we’ve seduced ourselves into believing that creative thinking is something special. It’s not. We’re all pretty good at it. If you doubt that, think about the last time you took a shower, or a long drive, or simply dozed off to sleep (though I hope not while driving!). You probably had dozens, perhaps hundreds, of creative ideas.

All of us are creative thinkers. Where we fall off the wagon, though, is that few of us are creative receivers. We don’t honor, celebrate, or often even remember the wonderful creative ideas we have. We have them — and then they’re gone — either because we’ve rejected them or forgotten them. Wouldn’t it be great if we could harness all that creative thinking! Wouldn’t it be great if we could bring the shower into the boardroom or the family room or the factory floor? That’s where we need creative ideas.

So how about we stop talking about thinking outside the box and start looking for ways to open the box and let our natural creative thinking in?

“A cliché or cliche is a phrase, expression, or idea that has been overused to the point of losing its intended force or novelty, especially when at some time it was considered distinctively forceful or novel… A cliché is also a term historically used in printing, for a printing plate cast from movable type… When letters were set one at a time it made sense to cast a phrase used over and again as one single slug of metal. That constantly repeated phrase was known as a cliché.” – WIKIPEDIA

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Getting Out of the Way

A few weeks ago I co-led a session called “Writing to Be” at our annual Mindcamp creativity retreat. The feedback from participants was astonishing. People loved it. Many of the evaluation sheets were filled with big bold caps reading AWESOME! or WOW! or BEST SESSION BY FAR!

Here’s what’s interesting: my partner and I hardly did a thing. We set up the premise (that you can alter your recollection of an event by the stories you tell about it) and then let people experiment and discover for themselves. Then we made room for them to talk about their observations. In other words, we stayed out of the way.

One of the things I’ve noticed leading innovation sessions over the years is that it’s all too easy to get in the way. Teachers, facilitators, and coaches often seem to try to justify their positions (or their fees) by dominating the room. Unfortunately, just as often, that means they get in the way of the very people they’re trying to help – taking up so much time and mental space fulfilling their own need to talk or perform or be a star that there’s very little room for the group to talk or learn or be stars themselves.

In my experience the best facilitators are the ones who are almost invisible, the ones who get out of the way. The last thing I want to hear in the hallways after a session is “Wow, wasn’t that facilitator great!” What I want to hear is “Wow, weren’t we great!”

And what’s true for professionals who lead groups is probably even more true for us on a personal level. How often do we get in our own way? How often are we so concerned about being smart or knowledgeable or “right” that we prevent ourselves from being the best we can be? Wouldn’t it be great if we could just get out of the way?

“When people thank and tell you how much you’ve helped them, what they say has nothing to do with you. This is just their way of expressing joy in their own experience. Remember this, too, when people complain or criticize.” – KEN McLEOD

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Fishing with Ghost Nets

Earlier this month, my wife and I took the trip of a lifetime — to the Galapagos Islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. The archipelago is one of the world’s special places, where animals and humans can and do share the environment in harmony. The experience of sitting on a beach within arm’s length of sea lions and penguins, or swimming with giant sea turtles and reef sharks is an amazing and humbling gift.

That the Galapagos remain almost as pristine as they were when Darwin visited in 1835 is a testament to the government of Ecuador and the work of hundreds of passionately dedicated naturalists who devote their lives to study and conservation.

One of these special people is Juan Carlos Avila, who guided several of our out trips. Juan Carlos told us about the many human threats — some systemic and some mindless — to marine wildlife. One such threat comes from fishing vessels operating hundreds or even thousands of miles from the Galapagos. Some operators, when their nets become damaged or frayed, simply dump them into the sea since they are cheaper to replace than to repair. Unfortunately, these discarded nets keep fishing, trapping and killing thousands of creatures, sometimes for years — a phenomenon known as “ghost fishing”.

Juan Carlos’ story made me think of our own “ghost nets” — the many outdated thinking patterns (some personal, some organizational) that we unconsciously harbor. These old habits of thought may once have served a purpose, but now they trap us in unproductive ways of thinking. Often we assume we’ve thrown them away. But they’re there. And they keep fishing, controlling our responses to new ideas and new people, limiting our ability to embrace change.

One useful way to recognize our own ghost thinking nets is to pay attention to those instant reactions we all have when confronted with “different” ideas. Whenever you feel uncomfortable about a new idea, ask yourself why. Is it because the idea really is a non-starter, or is it because your ghost nets are still fishing?


The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.

John Maynard Keynes

photo by Rick Gunn
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