This is the second tip in a continuing series about letting your inner Steve Jobs out to shake up your life.
Tip No. 2 Unlock Your Mind
In an interview with The New York Times, Steve Jobs said of his competitor, Bill Gates of Microsoft, "Bill Gates would be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger."
Jobs probably did not mean that illegal drug use is mandatory for entrepreneurs. More likely, it was a suggestion for many straight-laced businessmen; perhaps they would wind up a bit more creative if they followed Timothy Leary's advice and practiced QTCPTFY, Question the Current Paradigm and Think For Yourself. You are urged to question the paradigm and, if necessary, break those rules that hinder you from what is beyond.
So how do you actually do this? How do you learn to detect that a paradigm is even in place? Like fish in water, it's often difficult to see the context within which you are fully embedded. This is what makes it hard to come up with more creative, disruptive and even revolutionary ideas. In fact, my definition for innovation/revolution is that it's really about seeing how things are actually broken, when everyone else thinks they're running just fine. And you know, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Don't rock the boat.
The problem: We often cannot see things that are broken-- this is true for romance and lifestyles, as well as for portable music players and tablet computers. The solution: Push yourself to think "out of the box that you can't see but is definitely there."
Also, Jobs saw the importance of broad life experiences, in general: "A lot of people in our industry haven't had very diverse experiences. They don't have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions, without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one's understanding of the human experience, the better designs we will have." When Jobs was in college, he decided to take calligraphy for fun; calligraphy would probably not improve a person's chances of getting a job after graduation, bu he was enthralled with the beauty of calligraphy, "I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating. None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me."
It's possible to achieve revolutionary change and deep innovation by making three fundamental shifts within your own awareness and within the consciousness of your team. What's more, these three shifts translate to ways that you encourage an innovative culture of success at your company.
The first shift is all about learning new ways to see and hear. This is why they teach art in art school, they first teach you how to see in new ways-like seeing negative space, expanding your visual color bandwidth, learning to appreciate types of art you don't naturally take a liking to right away.
For new ventures, this means learning how to do design ethnography. The top product development companies, like Apple, BMW and many others use design ethnography as a secret weapon. It's about using enhanced techniques of seeing and listening, culled from anthropological expeditions, to detect disruptive product opportunities. It's all about shifting the way you observe the customer, interview them, and more important, to detect discrepancies between what your customers say and what they do, when you're observing them.
I helped build one of the first "enterprise services ethnography" departments at a major bank, it became one of their favorite success stories about generating customer insight. Trust me, this stuff works and if you don't have a core competency at ethnography, you won't fulfill your potential as an innovator and your company won't either; true customer intimacy will always be beyond your grasp. Showing you how to become a design ethnographer is beyond the scope of a "tip," but in essence it has to do with learning how to see and hear more deeply, to catch unarticulated design requirements for your product or service.
The second shift is learning how to expand the way you think. Albert Einstein said, "Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them." You need to think differently than you normally do, to unlock your natural creativity, and to unlock the natural creativity within your team. That's true innovation. Jobs said, "Here's to the ones who see things differently - they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do."
The brain was built to innovate and invent and create. It is every human being's birthright. However, we are the result of both nature and nurture, and you may not have been taught in a way that unleashes your creativity. You may have thoughts, doubts, concerns, fears, and positions about innovation, that simply get in the way. "I'm not very creative." "Why be innovative when someone else always patents it first." "What if they don't like my idea." Thoughts like these stop the flow of ideas that will naturally come from your subconscious. All of these thoughts lock up and inhibit your creativity.
Here's a little test: Take a look at the image above. What do you see? If you see the word FLOP, then you are in the majority. But if you look a little longer, you'd realize that you can also see the word FLIP. The problem is that our brains are hardwired to see dangers and the worst possible cases first to avoid them. And so, our brains first gauge failure using the limbic system, and only then the neo-cortex to analyze the opportunity. We have to flip that around, by allowing the neo-cortex to inhibit the limbic system to operate more freely.
So how do you program your subconscious? Jobs was not known for being supportive of those who were not at the top of their game, but he did once say, "Let's go invent tomorrow rather than worrying about what happened yesterday." That's the key, simply stop worrying and kvetching about whether you can innovate, and get out there and innovate. Practice makes perfect.
A larger issue is how to unlock the subconscious in your team. That's a much harder problem. Jobs said, "As individuals, people are inherently good. I have a somewhat more pessimistic view of people in groups." The problem is that the reinforcement of your culture is 10 percent what you say and 90 percent what you do. You may say you have an open innovation policy, but you sneer when someone produces a less than perfect idea. What's being reinforced? You must be able to reinforce a culture of innovation by being truly innovative. Even the subtle mannerisms and reactions to co-workers ideas by the CEO have an enormous effect on the culture.
The final shift has to do with "multi-visioning." This is a technique for continuously generating ideas by "turning the perspective" on a new idea as you brainstorm. Like a sculpture that needs to be turned to capture all views, an idea needs to be rotated to fill itself out. Hence, we start with everyone contributing ideas in a group brainstorm, until the ideation momentum winds down, and then we start turning the viewpoint. When the initial ideas subside, it's like emptying the teacup; it's only then that true innovation can begin, when we start multi-visioning.
So how do we turn the perspective? Simply by asking a question that leads the group ideation down a different path. Maybe we ask: "So how does the customer see it?" "Hey, how can we enlarge this idea, maybe turn it into a global idea." "How can we open it up, maybe do open systems thinking here?" In general, to beat the other team, you have to have a better facilitator, better innovators in the room, more perspectives than they do, and then remove whatever holds you back.
I developed this multi-visioning technique while doing some research in the psychology of creativity. The actual a-ha! moment came to me while reading the journals of Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci believed that to solve a problem, you begin by learning how to restructure it in many different ways. He felt that the first way he looked at a problem was usually too biased. With each "shift in his mind," his understanding would deepen and he would begin to understand the essence of the problem.
I followed up that discovery by reading some works by Albert Einstein, and remembering a college lecture by the physicist Richard Feynman when I was at Caltech (my alma mater). Einstein said that he found it necessary to formulate his problem in as many different ways as possible, using diagrams and visuals. Feynman felt the secret to his genius was his ability to disregard how past thinkers thought about problems and, instead, "invent new ways to think." He called it "generating different ways to look at the problem, until you find a way that moves the imagination." What these geniuses did is invent new ways to invent; in Feynman's lecture, he related a time when he had to create a new kind of fractional base mathematics to solve a thorny problem.
Therefore, the secret sauce for innovating at a higher level is to come up with fresh perspectives that compel out-of-the-box thinking. Some perspective shifts might sound crazy or feel like a zen koans. For example, one perspective is to flip it around, invert it, reverse it. Reversing an idea may sound crazy, but it usually leads to brilliant thinking. Another shift: How do we billionify this idea? Many ideas may seem like small ideas, but in reality they're seeds of billion-dollar ideas, if we only knew how to enlarge, deepen and modify them.
Jobs used an equivalent approach. He said, "So when a good idea comes, you know, part of my job is to move it around, just see what different people think, get people talking about it, argue with people about it, get ideas moving among that group of 100 people, get different people together to explore different aspects of it quietly, and, you know. just explore things."
In fact, the questions you ask to turn the perspective can define exactly where your culture falls short, and how it can achieve the next level of innovation competency.
By enabling these three shifts, your native creativity will be unleashed. However, your creativity still needs to be refined on a daily basis. This is because human skill, like learning to play professional sports or play the piano, requires 5000 hours for the brain to master. Ideation, the skill of creating ideas that solve a central problem, is no different. Steve Jobs was a virtuoso at innovation because he combined his natural skill with thousands of hours of practice and training. Plus, like a brilliant conductor, he was able to orchestrate Apple's capacity for executing on great ideas.
Honestly, how many hours have you, or your employees, dedicated to perfecting the skill of ideation? If you want to be an innovation virtuoso, you have to start putting in the hours. Ed Macauley, the famous basketball coach, once said, "When you are not practicing, remember, someone somewhere is practicing, and when you meet him he will win." That's as applicable in business as it is in sports. Practice is the way to invite success and the perfection desired.
Note: This is the second tip from my new e-book, Unleashing Your Inner Steve Jobs. If you'd like to get a free copy, just send me a note and say hi. Tell me why you are an innovator and I'll send it to you. Or access the earlier parts: