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.

Posted by Tim Hurson, 1 comment

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”?

Posted by Tim Hurson, 2 comments

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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Tweak or Freak?

Every business faces challenges and opportunities. Sometimes it’s a question of tweaking — refining a system or product, sanding off its rough edges. Sometimes it’s a question of freaking — replacing the old with something completely new, like reinventing the way we listen to music, fuel our cars, or exchange information.

When you’re tweaking, your best bet is a continuous improvement strategy like Six Sigma. When you’re freaking, you need an innovation strategy like Productive Thinking.

But what about when you’re not sure — when your challenge doesn’t fall neatly into either the tweak or freak category? If you try to tackle an innovation challenge using continuous improvement, you may not address the real issues. And if you try to tackle a continuous improvement challenge using innovation, you may be throwing out the baby with the bath water. How do you decide?

My friend and colleague Jeffrey Phillips of OVO Innovation has developed a simple test that can help. It’s called STRIP — an acronym that stands for Scope, Timeframe, Risk, Investment, and Perspective. Test your challenge with STRIP and you’ll have a pretty good idea whether you should be thinking about tweaking or freaking.

Here’s a short description of how it works:

Scope: If the scope of your challenge involves discrete, incremental changes that can be managed by relatively few people, it’s probably a Six Sigma project. If it involves significant changes with lots of impact, it’s more likely a Productive Thinking project.

Timeframe: If your challenge can be addressed in a relatively short time, you’re in Six Sigma territory. If it will take longer for implementation and payback, it’s probably best addressed through Productive Thinking.

Risk: If implementing the changes carries relatively low risk, it’s Six Sigma. If there are larger risks to manage, you’ll probably want to use Productive Thinking.

Investment: If the investment needed is relatively low, it’s likely a Six Sigma issue. If your investment is likely to be high because you’re changing not a just part of a process, but the whole game, you’ll want to use Productive Thinking.

Perspective: If the impact of the change is mainly internal, it probably belongs in the Six Sigma camp. If the idea will have an impact on customers, prospects, or market as a whole, you’re into innovation territory and will want to use a Productive Thinking approach.

STRIP is a useful way to help you choose the most appropriate methodology to address your challenges. Jeffrey also has many other useful ideas in his book, Make Us More Innovative. If you’re looking for a sound perspective on how to understand and implement innovation processes in your business, you won’t find a better resource. Learn more about Jeffery’s book by clicking Make us More Innovative.

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How to See What’s Not There

The other day I participated in an innovation day for the supply chain management division of a large company. The morning was spent on several presentations about how the group had innovated over the past year. One of the major innovations was a regular meeting in which suppliers and customers could talk with one another.

Now, I think this is a great idea, and I’m sure it made things more efficient for everyone. But as good an idea as it is, a regular communication meeting is not breakthrough innovation.

I see this kind of thing a lot — companies patting themselves on the back for breakthrough innovations that are really incremental improvements. Incremental improvement is powerful and positive, but it’s not the same as breakthrough innovation. Incremental change results from Reproductive Thinking. But for game changing innovation, you need Productive Thinking. Here’s the difference:

Reproductive Thinking is a way to refine what’s known. Think of continuous improvement, Six Sigma, or positive incremental change. It’s what you need for ferreting out inefficiencies, improving quality, and ensuring consistent outcomes. Reproductive Thinking is characterized by what the Japanese call kaizen, or good change.

Productive Thinking is a way to generate the new. Think of big AHAs, eureka moments, and breakthrough change. It’s what you need for seeding innovation, disrupting the marketplace, and changing the rules of the game. Productive Thinking is characterized by what I call tenkaizen, or good revolution.

Both types of thinking are useful, but if you want to create something truly new, Reproductive Thinking is the wrong tool. You need Productive Thinking.

When you were a kid, you probably had a thaumatrope. A thaumatrope isn’t a childhood disease; it’s a toy, popularized in Victorian England. It consists of a small disk with a picture on either side, mounted on string that lets you spin it. If you get the disk spinning fast enough, the two pictures merge. A common thaumatrope shows a bird on one side and an empty birdcage on the other. When you twirl the disk, you see the bird in the cage. Although there is no actual picture of a bird in a cage, you see it as clear as can be. You see a picture of something that isn’t there.

Productive Thinking is like spinning a thaumatrope. It’s a way of combining old ideas and insights to make something new.

Striving for reproductive efficiency is great. By all means, go for it. But don’t think that’s the same as game-changing innovation. You can’t fool yourself into being innovative. You need to learn how to think productively.

Posted by Tim Hurson, 3 comments

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

Posted by Tim Hurson, 1 comment