This time, we explore a process to improve innovation, learn from Pixar about the importance of changing direction and muse on whether you are asking the right questions.
1: Follow the 4-step plan to innovation
Shlomo Maital, senior research fellow with Israel's Samuel Neaman Centre for Advanced Studies in Science and Technology, suggests the following four-step creativity and innovation technique:
- Describe the product or process in a sentence.
- Break down the sentence to zoom in on the part you'd like to innovate.
- Ask yourself how that part could be improved. Generate possible solutions.
- Determine whether your favored solution can be implemented.
Let's see how this works with one of my projects.
My description: The Breakthrough Strategy Program is an online mentoring program that helps people set and achieve their goals in 60 days.
Breaking down the sentence reveals the elements that I could vary:
- set & achieve goals
- 60 days
Here are the questions I'd ask about each and a couple of alternatives:
- online - what other formats and delivery systems are available? A DVD or multi-media version, or a book.
- mentoring - what other relationships could there be? I could just use case studies and let people derive their own lessons.
- people - what more specific types of people could I target? Writers, free-lancers.
- set & achieve goals - what other personal development breakthroughs could I address? Developing more confidence, marketing yourself.
- 60 days - what other time periods might work better? Could offer a version you can join at any point rather than every 60 days.
Many of these could be implemented, but the ones I think are worthwhile are targeting a more specific population (writers) and setting it up so you can join anytime.
ACTION: What product or process could you improve using this method? Set aside an hour or so to work through the process.
2: Learn from the success of Pixar
The Economist recently ran an article about Pixar, the only studio to have had nothing but hits. The article points out that there is a culture of giving and receiving feedback and criticism at every phase of the project. It conducts formal post mortems when a project is done, including at least five things that didn't go well in the movie as well as five that did.
This is more difficult than it sounds because nobody likes to feel criticised. It takes time for people to realize that the focus is not on blame but rather on improving the product. They have reframed feedback as helping each other and make it clear that the creator doesn't have to follow anybody's advice, just to consider it openly.
ACTION: What's your attitude toward feedback or criticism? Try this method: as you hear the criticism, do a "simultaneous translation" by asking yourself, "what's in this comment that can improve the product or service?"
If the person is suggesting changes, ask yourself, "What's the problem behind this comment?" Sometimes people jump to offering a solution; while their solution may not be good, there is a problem to be solved.
3: Have the courage to change direction
On the Economist website there is an interview with the company's president, Ed Catmull, who mentions that they had two projects where they had to scrap what had been done and start over ("Toy Story 2" and "Ratatouille").
In both cases this meant giving up material that had cost a huge amount of time and money - and in both cases it led to huge successes. Sometimes it pays to let go.
The biggest obstacle usually is our attachment to what we've already invested. This is why people hang on far too long to bad investments - of money, time, their business, or their relationships.
ACTION: Is there anything you should let go? In deciding, forget about past investment and consider the future of each of the situations/ products/ relationships.
4: Are you asking the right questions?
The questions you ask will define your reality, says Marilee Adams. I've been reading her book, "Change Your Questions, Change Your Life." Her key point: "The ability to intentionally shift our internal questions puts us in charge of our own thoughts."
The process has two steps: (1) Be aware of the questions you are asking and (2) change them if you think different questions might produce better results.
Here are some questions that don't have constructive outcomes: "Why me?" "Whose fault is this?" "How can I prove they're wrong and I'm right?"
Here are some better questions: "What's useful about this?" "What is the other person thinking, feeling, needing, wanting?" "How can this be turned into a win-win?" "What are my choices?"
ACTION: The next time something negative happens, be aware of the questions that pop into your mind. If they're not constructive, consciously switch over to better questions.
5: Find the weaknesses early
Steve Loranger, CEO of ITT Industries, shared this technique with Business 2.0: "If you're working on an important contract, a 'must-win' program, give your team a much shorter deadline than actually exists. Afterward you tell your team, 'I just got a phone call from the buyer today and he told us that we lost - he didn't tell us why.'
You ask them why you lost. You'll be amazed at how they come up with things that they hadn't thought about before...as soon as you capture what your team is guessing, you use those points to rework your proposal."
You can apply this to any project even if you're working on it yourself. Get into a relaxed state and imagine the project is done and you've sent it to the target audience (e.g., for a writer, this might mean imagining submitting a book proposal to a publisher). Now imagine that this buyer likes a lot of what's there but turns it down anyway. Why might that happen? What features might he or she want that aren't there? Make notes of the ideas that occur to you and use them to strengthen your project.
ACTION: What project of yours might benefit from this exercise? Set aside a half hour to give it a try.
6: And a quote to consider:
"Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you've imagined. As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler." - Henry David Thoreau