Interview: My thoughts on the power of innovation

A few months ago I was interviewed by Media Shower about my thoughts on innovation. Here are the questions and my answers about the origin of the Game-Changer blog, my background, how companies can foster free thinking and the development of new ideas, recruit creative thinkers and how anyone can learn to think innovatively.

Hi, Jorge! Tell us the story behind Game-Changer. When and why did you start your site?

Game-Changer was born almost six years ago simply because I needed somewhere to dump my brain. I have wide interests and, before I started writing my own blog, I blogged for the startups I was a part of – I experimented with 15 different blogs before. But none of them stuck, until Game-Changer.

Those 15 different blogs became Game-Changer. And my initial objective of having somewhere to dump brain turned into a widely read blog. Right now it’s going through another evolution.

I chose the name Game-Changer because I’ve been described as such for as long as I can remember. My mindset is that there is always a better way, and one should always aim to make a difference in even the smallest ways.

What’s your professional background? How did you become interested in entrepreneurship? What makes you want to share your knowledge with others?

I’m a computer engineer. When I was in school, I was a restless learner and preferred action to theory, so I used to jump into courses from other domains on campus. I was always experimenting with what I learned, so in the last few years of college, I was already doing IT consulting; though I wasn’t supposed to.

Then, when I was 24, I started my first business, which failed. But because it was in another domain I didn’t know anything about, eCommerce, I had to learn everything about it on my own, including marketing. This experience later became valuable for me in the next two startups I was a part of.

The interesting part of all of this is that before my first startup, I had never once heard the words innovation, entrepreneurship, game-changer, but those are the words is how people/colleagues/clients described me.

By the time I was 28, I’d already done quite a few things, so this knowledge combined with my own point of view is what I thought would make a blog I would want to read. I also saw that many bloggers are researchers or academics, so many of them have never walked the talk; that also motivated me to write more because I’ve been in the trenches.

By your definition, who or what is a Game-Changer? Why do Game-Changers excite you so much?

A Game-Changer is a person who dramatically impacts the world.

Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan were my first heroes because I thought they were the best at what they did but also impacted their craft, and the world along the way.

Game-Changers excite because it means a new beginning, a clean slate. Things will never be the same. That’s inspirational to me.

What do you think drives innovation and new ways of thinking within a business? How can we foster environments where employees feel free to try new things?

What drives innovation and new ways of thinking within business is dissatisfaction with the status quo and imagining a different and better reality in one’s mind. What is unfortunate is that a crisis usually has to exist in order for people to be really motivated to shift, so the challenge isn’t to just thinking differently, but to persistently act differently.

With that said, to get people to think differently is easy; the challenge is to make them act differently. And what motivates innovators is an original challenge, an opportunity to master their craft and lots of freedom.

To cultivate an environment where employees feel free to try new things, organizations must give them time to and freedom to try ideas. A common example of this approach is Google’s 20 percent time where it gives its employees 20 percent of their time at work on projects that could improve a Google product, create a new one or any idea that aims to make Google better.

Another idea is for organizations to be proactive and organize hackathons around key challenges the organization is facing.

There are many mechanisms organizations can use to develop an innovator’s ideal environment, but it can’t be set-it-and-forget-it; it has to be proactive.

What do you think are the biggest killers of game-changing ideas?

At the moment of conception, there are two things that kill potential game-changing ideas: Groupthink and Expert-think.

For as long as I can remember, this quote by Walter Lippman: “Where all think alike nobody thinks too much,” has resonated with me. It speaks to the Groupthink effect, where people in a group try to reach consensus even though some group members might not agree with the decision.

Then there’s Groupthink’s more powerful friend: Expert-think.

Experts are good at working on problems that require known skills. But innovation requires that you make new mistakes, which is something that experts don’t do. Also, experts supposedly have all the answers, but innovation requires that we ask new questions; experts don’t do this.

Now, both of these enemies are always present, and we have to fight to consistently find a way around them.

Why is failure so critical to innovation?

You’ll never know if you don’t try. And what you get from that is learning. Failure is learning.

Can you tell us a story about one of your biggest failures that in retrospect offered you a big leg up in your career?

Yes, it has to do with leadership. I worked at FedEx Ground when I was 18; in my first three months there, I deliberately killed some stupid rules that I believed were blocking us from a way better approach at running the logistics of loading trucks.

Essentially, I reduced a process that had 10 steps to five. As a result, the hub where I was started breaking volume records for 27 consecutive weeks, including matching the volume of the international hub in Los Angeles. I also built a team, SEAL Team, which acted as a catalyst of all the changes that we made. There were also some third-order effects of these changes: People’s attitudes toward the work they were doing changed; they looked forward to coming to work because we were doing something important.

I also got to meet Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx. Later on, these new practices were implemented in other FedEx hubs in the nation and around the world.

Unfortunately, I had to leave FedEx because of school. At the time I left, I believed they were in good hands since I had trained most of the people who took care of the day-to-day operation. But that wasn’t the case, as I returned nine months later to see that what I had done was mostly replaced by more and more processes.

I was told that when I left, most of the members of the SEAL Team and other non-team members followed me out the door. And as a result, chaos ensued, so they took action and created more processes to control it.

Frankly, I wasn’t too happy to know that I was indispensable for the operation. I knew that I had the respect and admiration of my colleagues and managers, but I also knew that most didn’t respect the managers. So when I came back, I was greeted with enthusiasm as if everything would go back to how it was before I left.

The lesson is simple: It’s a great feeling to know that you are indispensable to others, but leaders create more leaders. I failed at that, no matter the circumstances. So I made it a personal mission to make sure it never happens again.

What tips do you have for businesses finding and attracting creative people?

Hiring for innovation requires a new set of recruitment rules. It’s important that your company have a unique point of view, that you solve hard challenges, and have a purpose to what you do. This will at the least put you in the radar of innovators.

When it comes to finding and hiring creative people:

  • Look beyond the job description;
  • Hire for passion and entrepreneurship;
  • Look for people who have wide interests and opinions;
  • Hire for potential, not past experience;
  • Make room for weird.

For someone who might not describe themselves as innovative or creative, what advice do you have on developing these skills? Where can they find inspiration? What tools can stretch their brains to think in new ways?

Innovation is as much about attitude and perspective as it is about process and methodologies. We’re all creative in our own way. I always tell people to make an effort and remember when they came up with their best ideas, what triggered it; pretty soon they begin reflecting on that. Most of the time, what triggered those ideas was something that irritated them.

Research indicates that there are six skills that all innovators share: association, questioning, observation, networking, visualization and experimentation.

Association is the ability to connect the unconnected. This is creativity at work. The other skills, primarily questioning, observation and networking, help feed new inputs to connect in different ways. Visualization is about communicating our ideas, and experimentation is about putting our ideas into practice.

Frankly, we all have these skills. But we forget to make use of them.

Here are a couple mental techniques anyone can use to get their creative juices going:

  • Killer Questions. Great ideas usually begin with a question, and it begins with asking “why?” In asking “why?”, you are probing for the truth and find out what assumptions you are making. Next, ask “what if?” to shift your perspective and find an unexpected solution. Then ask “how?” to think about how that unexpected solution might work.
  • Creative stretching. A quick way to shake things up is to exaggerate it. And to get you thinking in extremes, ask yourself: How might we go bankrupt if we do this? How could we get into trouble? Radical ideas may seem impractical at first, so scale them back a little bit to make them doable.

To quickly put these skills to work, think about something that irritates you in your day-to-day life. It can be anything, something you completely take for granted. Ask yourself: Why does it have to be this way? What is driving this? How might I make it better? Who else has solved a challenge like this, and what can I learn from them?

To find a better solution, it is important to shift perspective. To do so, a key question anyone can ask themselves to shift their perspective is: What can I learn from (insert company name/institution/solution) about (insert key challenge)?

The next step is to do some research about where you might find an uncommon solution. In your research, you might find there are many sources of inspiration, and you can use those sources to create new ideas by combining them. To aid you on that, you can use an Idea Box.

Once you come up with an idea you think might work, sketch it out!

Inspiration is found everywhere. Look far and wide, not in the same place as you’ve always done. To connect the unconnected and come up with creative ideas, you need to feed your brain new stuff. This means that you have to read widely, experiment, do things you’ve never done before, ask new questions, be curious about your environment, etc.

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