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 Right Stuff

Almost everyone would agree that athletes can learn skills and train themselves to perform better, but we rarely give credence to the notion that people can learn skills and train themselves to THINK better. I often hear corporate folks say, “If only we had the right environment and the right leadership, if only we celebrated and rewarded our people appropriately, then we could be more innovative.” That might feel nice, but it’s simply not true.No one would assume that you could transform a bunch of untrained, out-of-shape folks into international basketball champions just by cheering them on and rewarding them for their efforts. You don’t win gold medals with good intentions. You win with skills and training and discipline.

Just as in basketball, innovative skills are not homogeneous. There are guards and forwards, centers and free throw specialists. Each of them is critical to the team’s success. And each of them needs to learn, develop, and practice their skills in order to be the best they can be.

So the number one pre-requisite for stimulating innovation in an organization is people who know how to think creatively. There are specific skills required to do that. They’re not terribly difficult to learn, but it’s amazing how few of us have them naturally. Just telling someone to feel free to compose a musical score won’t produce the musical score, let alone a good one. First they have to understand the language of music.

“There is a vast difference between training and education. Training teaches skills and competencies. Education teaches insight and understanding. If you don’t see the difference, think about the difference between sex education and sex training. Which would you send your kids to? Which would you go to yourself?” – MICHAEL HAMMER

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