For years I trained consultants in the ambiguous and complex art of innovation at a prestigious consulting firm. I was amused at their indoctrination which included an unbending adherence to the rule of three. No, not that bad things happen in threes but rather that a client should always be given three paths to action: most ambitious, most cautious and a middle way. These correlate to best case, worst case and most probable case. The objective of this rule is to provide some perspective as to the range of options available, cover as much of the upside and downside of the issue in question as reasonable and to gauge the client’s level of aspiration. Given that most of us can only really remember three things at a time, this rule is simply a strategy to break habit bound thinking by showing obvious alternatives.

Lately I’m beginning to see the wisdom in the rule of three. Where it used to be that the center of the bell curve marked the gathering place of consensus or at least cooperative collaboration, it is now the right and left edges of the curve that define the places that keep us apart. These segments are defined by their oppositional relationships. Social media has exasperated the situation as it has become a micro-segmenting forum for marketers and provocateurs alike. Spin becomes the opinion of the segment, and in turn, the segment takes opinion as fact. Consider how many postings you have seen in the last week that not only express a contempt for an alternative point of view but support it with a barrage of partisan data, dubious facts and conspicuous omissions. These segments are motivated to act in a unilateral way sometimes with tragic consequences. The old adage “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts” appears to have little gravitas in a world where the two are now indistinguishable.

The most dangerous thing an innovator can do is to believe that they know something that is actually untrue and be unwilling to make adjustments to this belief as their experiences provide information to the contrary. So how do we gain real perspective in an environment designed to coopt our own thinking?

  1. Look in Your Blind Spots: When we drive, we know that our mirrors don’t reveal the entire situation so we glance over our shoulder just in case to see what we may have missed. The same is true when it comes to our thinking. Instead of “unfriending” that person in your social media network who is always rambling about politics or religion take a moment to actually read their posts. Ask yourself why they believe what they believe. Consider what it must be like to be in their shoes. Look for a deeper rational. This will enhance your understanding.
  2. Feed Your Head: Read, watch and listen to sources that you seldom encounter or fully engage. If you are straight read The Advocate, if you are progressive, read The National Review. Keep an open mind. Most importantly, look for information or a point of view where you can see a glimmer of truth even though you don’t necessarily adhere to it personally. Psychologists call this counter-attitudinal advocacy: making a strong argument for the opposition. This will increase your range.
  3. Check Your Facts: To gain perspective, you must move outside your normal sphere of influence. Talk with others who take a higher point of view. Consult experts who are more likely to be objective about the situation. Step away from your opinions for a moment and consider the salient facts these experts may possess. Listen for disconfirming feedback: where your ideas are proven to be wrong and your course of action erroneous. This will improve your accuracy.

Innovation requires us to have deep and wide field of vision and an open mind to see the reality of the situation. The challenge is to overcome our own limited perspective. As the philosopher Schopenhauer put it, “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.” The next time you encounter a disagreeable idea count to three and consider how with a little creativity it might present some valuable new options that you may have overlooked.

The fastest way to build something is to deconstruct it. Think about all those companies that produce complicated things on an insanely large scale: Toyota, McDonalds, Boeing. If you want to build enough cars to move the entire world or sell a trillion burgers or create an aircraft with millions of moving components, you need to first prototype the final product and then systematically divide it into its individual pieces. If you look at each part separately, you can develop a product faster and more flexibility. I call this process modular design and development: breaking down complex systems into parts that can be developed and tested independently. (more…)

The four F’s of effective brainstorming.

Have you ever tried to get your team to brainstorm a breakthrough idea for a product or service only to find the process mostly yields extensions of existing ideas?

Research on creative thinking gives us these four simple suggestions that will greatly aid in generating great ideas in a short period of time:

Fluency: Whoever said one good idea is better than a thousand mediocre ones probably never invented anything. More is better. One of the inhibitors to creative thinking is your voice of judgment that kicks in when you think too long about the viability of your idea. The key is to generate ideas a faster than you can evaluate them. This will produce some unusual and impractical ideas that will serve as triggers for novel ideas that work.

  • Practice: Give your team a quota of at least 100 ideas in 15 minutes for each challenge. Post them on the wall for all to see. Use these raw ideas to trigger new ideas that are both novel and viable.

Flexibility: Steve Jobs remarked, “Creativity is just connecting things.” Creating a breakthrough idea may simply be a matter of reapplying an idea from one situation to another. For example, to improve their patient experience during hospital stay, a medical center sent their doctors to live in a posh hotel one week and their own hospital the next. The center simply applied the practices of the hotel to the hospital to completely transform the patient experience.

  • Practice: Ask your team to look at the challenge from the point of view of successful companies outside of your domain or setting. How would [Company X] approach this opportunity? How did [Company Y] solve this problem? The farther away from your own industry you get the more novel the ideas will be.

Freedom: Power dynamics don’t change just because a team is brainstorming off-site. The boss is still the boss. Even subtle forms of authority can stifle creative thinking. Whoever stands by the flip chart or white board writing down the ideas is either the most powerful person in the room, because they can edit all responses, or the least powerful because they act as a scribe for others. You can’t change power dynamics so it’s better to organize your teams and brainstorming session to manage them.

  • Practice: Divide and conquer. Break your team down into sub-groups and have them brainstorm in different locations. Staff each sub-group so that no one can dominate or stifle the others. Make sure that everyone writes and every idea is heard. Recombine these sub-groups in a sequence so that truly original ideas have a chance to develop before being evaluated.

Flow: Most of us have experienced a feeling of effortlessness and timelessness when doing something creative like painting. Researchers call this our flow state: when we are the most creative and “in the zone.” Some people are creative in the morning while others at night. Some people are most creative when listening to music while others need contemplative silence. The key is to find a time and place where team members typically enter these flow states.

  • Practice: Ask team members when and where they are most creative. Plan your brainstorming session around these preferences. Give teams sufficient time to get into a flow state but don’t expect it to last longer than an hour.

Getting bigger and better ideas is only the beginning. Next, you need to find the courage and minimal resources to create a wide array of experiments and prototypes and sustain the momentum all the way to commercialization.