productive thinking

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

Go Wild!

Often the ideas we come up with aren’t very useful simply because they don’t go far enough. One of the best ways to get good ideas is to get wild ideas. Ad Exec, Alex Osborne, credited with inventing brainstorming, always encouraged his staff to generate outlandish ideas. He’d often say that it was easier to tame a wild idea than invigorate one that had no life to begin with.

Time and time again, working with clients, I’ve observed that the very best ideas are often the ones that would normally be rejected at first blush because they appear foolish, abrasive, politically incorrect, or just too weird. But weird is often where the diamonds hide.

Several years ago a senior executive — I’ll call him Harry — in one of the country’s largest corporations told me the following story:

Harry loved his job. He loved the business he was in. He loved his company. He had advanced about as high as he could in his profession. He had just one more rung to climb.

But Harry had a problem. His boss was a year or two younger than he was — so the chances of Harry getting promoted were slim. And it irked him to think he’d probably retire as number two, just shy of his goal.

So Harry brainstormed. He went through all the regular, “sane” ideas (look for a new job in the company, go to a head hunter, work incredibly hard, etc). None held much promise. Once he’d run out of sane ideas, he moved to what I call third-third ideas, where the wild and crazy ideas live.

One of the ideas he came up with was “Kill my boss!” Now this isn’t politically correct, and it certainly isn’t legal. Besides, Harry actually liked his boss.

Most of us immediately discard ideas like this, but in Think Better, I recommend plumbing “unacceptable” ideas for their hidden value. One of the thinking tools I use is called What’s UP? (the UP stands for Underlying Principle). So what’s the underlying principle behind “Kill my boss?” Well obviously, it’s to get rid of him in some way.

Could Harry sabotage the boss somehow, make him sick, get him fired? None of those answers seemed useful. In what other ways could he “remove” his boss?

In the end, Harry thought of a truly brilliant idea. He wrote the best resume he could and sent it to a head hunter. But the resume wasn’t Harry’s. It was his boss’s. The head hunter was impressed, contacted the boss, and put him in line for a fantastic job at another company.

With his boss out of the way, Harry got the job of his dreams.

“If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.” – ALBERT EINSTEIN

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Resolution Convolution

At this time of year, you may be focusing a lot of energy on keeping one or more New Year’s resolutions. Focused attention can often make the difference between success and failure, but it can also get in the way. Sometimes we can accomplish a lot more by not trying.

Coming up with new ideas is a case in point. It’s often more productive to use the incubation technique than to try to generate a new idea by brute force.

How many times have you remembered the thing you were struggling to remember as soon as you forgot trying to remember it? How many times have you had a great idea in the shower or while driving? Often our minds work best in the background. A basic productive thinking principle is to steep yourself in your issue and then forget about it for a while. Relax. Listen to music. Stroll in the sunshine. Daydream. It’s important to give your subconscious the time it needs to do its magic. So if at first you don’t succeed, take a break.

And have a happy new year.

“You never have to try to breathe in, just out.” — Jan Simons (1925-2006) vocal coach

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