Archive for: October, 2013

For innovation: Better questions, better answers

If you want to improve your, and your company’s strategic thinking and innovation capability, take some time to write down some questions about challenges you are facing.

Any time I talk with fellow innovators, a large part of the conversation revolves around “what questions are we not asking that will help us find out where to make a difference?”. Granted, as we move along the project we discover more questions that don’t have an answer.

For an innovator, this is great territory to be in. For a delivery-driven executive, on the other hand, this is the twilight zone!

Yet, if these executives really want innovation, then they should create a space for people to ask questions they would never think of asking.

Some companies have weekly Town Hall type meetings used to update employees on company activities, as well as get feedback from them. This is a tradition. But, what if we create another type of meeting where employees are given the chance to question what the company is doing?

A “Challenge the status quo day”. That could be enough to get people to loosen up 🙂

Why? What do we want to accomplish by letting others have a go at making decisions?

Because in traditional companies it is the leader who is looked upon for answers. But for most situations, this is flawed thinking. Work in the behavioral economics and decision bias domains suggests that every single decision-maker—no matter how senior—has flawed, less-than-rational decision processes. The unaided human brain is not that great a decision engine unless it has made the same decision many times and learned from its mistakes. This means that major decisions should rarely be made solely by the CEO or any other single individual. A variety of individuals should be consulted in decisions, with a systematic process for sampling their perspective.

Great leaders lead with questions, not with answers. With that said, if you want better strategic thinkers in your organization, not to mention innovators, then questioning is where it starts.

Greater challenges ahead for those who don’t ask questions

Uncertainty is the norm, how do we cope with it? To start, we can anticipate and make peace with it. The next step is to consider what we don’t know yet by asking questions. For example, while we’ve been talking about social business for more than a few years, we’re just barely entering the mainstream of this trend.

But, most established companies have yet to consider what “social business” looks for them. The kicker is, most of the ones I’ve talked to, they think it’s about social media. This is wrong because they fail to consider the changes and opportunities social technologies create in the way companies hire, communicate, collaborate, execute and innovate.

This is the larger picture.

Taking it a step further, as it relates to creating the conditions for employees to make decisions, because of geographical location, some organizations benefit from diversity in their ranks. But, for others who may not be located in innovation hubs where diversity of thinking is expected, they have to create the conditions for cognitive diversity to flourish.

If you are like me, located in a non-risk taking environment, you won’t get the benefits of cognitive diversity if don’t let people question the status quo. Much less create a capability for innovation.

Today, and at all times, thought diversity is a leadership imperative for various reasons. Chief among them is the fact that the global workforce is shifting to the east or their respective country, taking their talent with them. Even though cloud technologies add a new dimension to innovation by enabling us to collaborate with anyone from anywhere in the world, there’s nothing like face to face contact to get the creative juices going.

A virtual workforce, collaboration without boundaries, and other trends make innovating an exponential, but not insurmountable, challenge for bigger companies. Small upstarts are using these trends to their advantage, leaving bigger companies in the dust. The next generation of innovators come from the world of online gaming, where players collaborate with others players who are scattered around the world to accomplish game goals.

This behavior translates to a different way to getting things done in the workplace.

Are most companies prepared to work as agile as the new generation work? I don’t think so. And the reason is very simple: established companies fail to ask questions that anticipate great challenges.

What can companies do to anticipate great challenges?

Don’t look for answers, ask questions

For me, it means deliberately asking myself questions and write them down. To do this, I scan my environment, be it people, texts, books, videos, audio, for interesting questions. I take these and add them to my Question Bank, either in my Moleskine notebook or Evernote.

Below is my notebook full of questions that I collect:

Bottom line: Asking questions is a key innovation skill, and the best way to create the habit of asking them is by taking the time to sit down, grab a piece of paper and write down some questions. It doesn’t get any easier than that 🙂


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To innovate start with inspiration, not need

In the world of innovation, we routinely talk about addressing needs as a starting point to frame our thinking. That is what the vast majority of innovation approaches, and practitioners, consultants; preach. There is a huge industry that is booming at the moment because of this, and a dominant model is slowly taking over both the startup and corporate world: Lean Startup.

We can sum up The Lean Startup like this: identify a need that isn’t being addressed, think of a solution, validate that solution with potential customers, iterate to get close to a solution as fast as possible.

While I don’t disagree with addressing people’s needs, I do believe that is a limited view over the long run. It is simple logic, how long does it take for a framework to become a best practice? And, how long until we have undifferentiated products and services?

For this reason, in my workshops, I like to get people to redesign/rethink things for themselves. As I take them through a process of thinking critically about what’s around them, I tell them to “look beyond the problem and see possibilities”, and then create something for themselves.


Innovation is not a short game. It’s the art of playing the long game

Will this move the needle? What is the ROI? When will we see a return on our investment? How fast can you prove this will work?

No, I wasn’t at a BIG company meeting when I heard these questions. I was at a Startup Weekend this past weekend, and the people asking these questions were participants. Not the judges. What?!

As one of the original founders of SW in Tijuana, I get a lot of feedback from participants about their experience at SW. From what they think sucks, to what they like, to what they think would add more value, I hear it all. Besides the questions above, one particular group of participants (composed of a lawyer and a couple of MBA types) noticed that most of the people who come to pitch are of the “let’s create this because it would be cool” variety, not the “let’s do this because we’re going to make a lot of money”.

You would not be surprised if big company executives were making these types of remarks, or asking these types of questions. In big companies, being able to prove that your idea will make a significant impact on the bottom line is a criteria your idea must have if you want to move your project through the gauntlet.

What a 16 year old magician can teach you about exceeding expectations

Imagine seeing an ad about a restaurant that makes fish tacos. Now imagine seeing a comment on Facebook from a friend about a restaurant he is at that not only sells fish tacos, but also poetically entertains you. And, next to that text is a picture of a hand written poem by the waiter that serviced him.

Which one makes you more curious?


Culture tells us what to do when the leader isn’t in the room

How does a leader build a sustainable company cultureCulture tells us what to do when the leader isn’t in the room. We’ve all heard this before, and being able to achieve this is one of the daunting challenges of leadership.

It is not unusual to be in a strategy session and come up with all kinds of great quotes and soundbites, that are quickly forgotten when everyone leaves the room. The key is to be able reduce those great quotes into “concrete behaviors” that happen on a daily basis.

For me, the challenge is ongoing. And to face this challenge, I use a code: FLUSH.

To innovate better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission

Cultures of innovation are naturally dynamic. Employees think of new ideas and try them on the fly. Processes and procedures are fluid. There often is no one right answer to a problem, but rather experimentation drives many projects, efforts, assignments, and ultimately opportunities for improvement.

With that said, in my neck of the woods, businesses are the complete inverse.

Take a recent experience I had with the marketing manager of a telecommunications company based in Tijuana. With Startup Weekend Tijuana 4 coming this week, this marketing manager enthusiastically let me know that she signed up to participate. “Great!”, I said. But there was one minor problem: she didn’t want me to tell her boss about it.


According to her, the boss doesn’t want people to have their head occupied in anything other than what they’re supposed to be doing at work.

Sound familiar?