Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Skills: Paradigms and Metaphors

Image by Igor Putina under creative commons license
A key to innovative thinking is the ability to learn new paradigms and apply them as metaphors.  A paradigm is simply a model for how some part of the world works. This could be engineering related like reciprocal engines, capacitive touch screens, wireless communications, etc.  or about any other aspect of life, like supply and demand, bourgeois revolutions, or the macarena trend.  The important part is being able to distill something you’ve learned into a general concept.

When you read an article, a book, attend a lecture, or just have an enlightened discussion,  try to distill what you just learned into a couple of sentences that captures the essence of what you just learned. For instance, many of you are probably familiar with the urban myth of how Gillette invented the disposable razor blade (true) and also the business strategy around it (not true).  The basic story is that Gillette invented a way to make razor blades so cheaply that they could be disposable. The advantage was that you’d always have a new sharp razor blade.  But it was hard to get people to buy into this. So he started giving away the razors for free knowing that once people were hooked, he’d be able to sell them blades for life. This is the “Give 'em the razor; sell 'em the blades" strategy. Though the story may not be completely true, the paradigm behind it is very valid, and it’s the important lesson here. This is often referred to as “freebie marketing.”

Now you’ve condensed an entire story into two words. This is very powerful because you can now apply this concept to other problems and situations easily. When we apply paradigms to other situations, we are using them as metaphors.  This is an extremely valuable tool for communication.  For instance, instead of saying everything in the paragraph above, I could just say, “We can try a razer blade strategy,” and your collaborators will know what you mean.

It’s easy to see how applying a paradigm to a similar situation makes sense. It’s not much of a metal stretch to apply the razor blade strategy to other products like printers (and cartridges).  However, when you start thinking of the paradigm as a metaphor rather than a direct strategy, you can apply it more loosely to situations that are less obvious. And less obvious = more innovative.

For instance, let’s say you’re talking about trying to get agricultural growers to use less water, but no one will invest in drip irrigation because the upfront costs are too high.  Sift through the metaphors in your mind and try them out.  For instance, we could set it up “like razor blades”.  Give away irrigation systems but use proprietary hoses so that you make the money back in replacement parts.

Will this idea work?  Don’t know.  But over your lifetime you will collect tens of thousands of paradigms which you can apply as metaphors to any situation.  It’s a way to expand thinking outside of the typical solutions.  Now there’s no shortage of ideas to explore, and one of those may inspire a new line of thinking that leads to the innovative solution.

You can also use the paradigms you already have in your head to make digesting new content easier.  As you read a story, you can summarize and distill as you go. “Oh, this is just like razor blades except that they are making their money on services rather than products.”  For some people, this makes it easier to pull out the nuggets of wisdom.  But whether you do this while you read or afterwards, the goal is to take a complex concept, understand it, and then distill it into a paradigm that you can easily access in other situations.  This collection of paradigms is your basic toolset for developing innovative ideas.  Try it now.  On this Blog.  And the next one you read.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Recipe for Innovation Stew

Image courtesy of wikimedia commons
Every culture in the world has a stew.  It is humanity’s original recipe and still one of the most efficient ways to cook food.   In wilderness survival training, you’re taught to make a bowl by leaving hot ash on a piece of wood.  Then you place water and ingredients in the bowl along with a hot rock from the fire.  No calories are lost as everything stays in the broth.

For innovative thinking, there are many methods that you can use.  But the most basic is a stew made of these three steps:
  • Gather ingredients
  • Combine ingredients
  • Heat

This is probably the most important and time consuming step.  Learn as much as you can about the topic at hand.  Do this in as many ways as possible.  The more difficult it is to gain this knowledge, th more likely it will be to spawn something truly innovative.  Want to create an innovation in the garden gnome industry?  Sure, you should start with a Google search, but the real juicy nuggets are going to be through finding the people who sell garden gnomes, the people who produce them, and the people who collect them.  Be a knowledge sponge.  An go as wide as possible.  Anything remotely related to your target is fair game.  Doing this as a team is even better.  More people researching means more perspectives gathered.  Happy hunting!

This is the step most associated with innovation: the infamous brainstorm.  After gathering all the research, you need to combine it in one physical place and (if done as a team) bring everyone together.  We'll talk more about brainstorms later, but they key aspects are:  
  • the right preparation (make sure the gathered ingredients are accessible)
  • the right people (around 6 max)
  • the right scope (you need to define the problem you're trying to solve)
  • the right space (you need a standup space conducive to discussion, not presentation)

Step 3: HEAT
People often stop there, but for true magic to happen, you need a catalyst.  Heat turns water and bone into a delicious broth.  Now that you have the right people with the right knowledge, you need something to get the reaction going.   We'll talk a lot about these methods in the future.  They include:
  • "What if?" prompts
  • Trends extrapolation
  • Insight and quote sharing
  • Scenario based discovery
  • Combining, filtering, and separating
  • and many more!

Directed innovation is when, over a short period of time (weeks), a team goes through a process to solve a specific problem.  Undirected innovation is when a team works to spark innovative concepts over a broad arena over a long period of time.  I like to use innovation stew as a general recipe for undirected innovation with teams and individuals.     

Specifically, to create an innovative team, you want to make sure individuals are dedicated to learning a broad and diverse set of knowledge (GATHER).  Then you need to provide opportunities for the individuals to collide and combine their knowledge in informal as well as formal settings (COMBINE).  Finally, you catalyze innovation by building some of the methods mentioned above into the culture of the team (HEAT).  Done well, you end up with a tremendously powerful innovation engine that spawns new ideas preemptively.   Feed your ability to innovate with this hearty stew!

Anyone Can Innovate: but it ain't easy

“Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist *can* come from *anywhere*”
- Anton Ego, from the film “Ratatouille”

“Genius Is One Percent Inspiration, Ninety-Nine Percent Perspiration”
- Benjamin Franklin

Innovation is that ill-defined buzzword that dominates the headlines in our world of billion dollar tech startups and rapidly evolving society.  It’s that bit of magic which we don’t truly understand but recognize years after it has already changed out lives.  Innovation is the creator of new billion dollar industries and the slayer of once-powerful corporate dinosaurs.  We’ve learned that the key to innovation is not some secret recipe written on a post-it note and locked in a safe in Silicon Valley.  Innovation processes are tools that can aid innovation, but by themselves, they create nothing.  The secret is people.

Innovators are the new rock stars of the Tech Boom that is leading the way into the next century.  Engineers and venture capital don’t flock to processes.  They follow innovative leaders.  The media loves to promote the belief that innovation is a gift bestowed on the few.  But this hero-based mythology of the extraordinary that permeates our culture is far from the truth.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers”, he debunks the myth of exceptionalism and shows that what makes world class “talented” piano players. rock stars. and sports stars is practice.  The Beatles simply practiced more than anyone else (10,000 hours to be exact).  This is no less true for “innovators” like Bill Gates.  But it is important that HOW you practice IS very important.  Focused practice is required to reach expertise.  

I believe that innovative thinking is a skill.  It’s a skill that anyone can achieve, but like any other skill, achieving mastery isn’t easy.  Honing your innovative thinking isn’t a weekend project, but a lifelong philosophy. The good news is that in this case, practice consists of mostly fun and creative exercises.  In this blog I will lay out my thoughts on how to train innovative thinking and publish exercises to get you in the habit of innovating.  

To practice something, you must first define it.  I posit that innovative thinking is:

“looking at a problem or a situation in a unique way, resulting in insights that drive new solutions.”   

In the following posts, I’ll start detailing out

  • INGREDIENTS: key aspects of innovative thinking
  • KNIFE SKILLS: fun exercises and games to hone your ability think different
  • RECIPES: methods to try when looking for innovative solutions
  • TOOLS: resources that aid innovation