Ideas Need a Story to Survive

One of the biggest challenges that good ideas have is making the jump out of the original inventor’s head into the mind of the first person she shares it with. Explaining your idea in all of its richness and glory so that others will understand it is not an easy task, and a lot of good ideas will never successfully make the jump.

The next time you have a good idea that you want to share, try sharing it as a story. In the excellent book, The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall, we learn that people are programmed to be suckers for stories. We get sucked into stories of all kinds every day: sitcoms, movies, novels, commercials, even lunchtime gossip about who said what to whom in a meeting that morning.

In his book, Gotschall presents a simple formula for story: Character + Predicament + Attempted Extrication. For those of us who watch Mad Men, we know this formula is how Don Draper is always making his pitch for a new ad campaign to a client. But this is not how most of us think about pitching the ideas we have every day to our colleagues at work.

Your story about a character + predicament might be about a customer facing a challenge in their day, a factory facing a bottleneck, a company facing a changing market. They all need an “attempted extrication”, and that is your idea.

A story is not a guarantee that your idea is the right idea, but it will increase the likelihood that others will understand it and accept it well enough get a conversation started. Once that jump has happened, there is no telling what you will make happen.

This post originally appeared on the Synecticsworld website.


Optimal Decision-Making and Doing More with Less Time

This week, I read an eye-opening article about the mathematical challenge known as “The Marriage Problem.” In this challenge, a person, let’s call it a man, is faced with a conundrum of deciding which person, let’s call it a woman, to marry. The man has a list of a finite number of women, and after he has met each one he must to decide whether to propose marriage to her or not. If he gets to the end of the list, he must marry the last woman no matter whether she was the best option or not.

If faced with this challenge, what do you do? According to mathematicians, the best way to decide is to count the number of women on the list and date the first 36.8% without proposing to any of them. From that point forward, as soon as the man meets a woman who is a better match than any in the first group of 36.8%, he should immediately propose (well, maybe after a sufficient number of dates to not appear too desperate). This formula comes from the mathematical constant “e”, which is the base of the natural logarithm and was discovered in the study of compound interest. When following this rule, it does not guarantee an optimal outcome, but research has shown that the optimal selection will be make 1/e, or 36.8%, of the time.

While we might not all be fond of choosing our mates this way, there is a real lesson for business in this story. It is fairly typical to find, at any hour of the day, a “brainstorming” meeting taking place in some corporate office. The team often spends the whole hour coming up with ideas, and at the end they are left with a long list of ideas, but no clear idea of where to go next. The team members resign themselves to scheduling another meeting and then they file out, grumbling about what a waste of time that was.

But, ideas are like a strong marriage; they are worked on and developed. Let me give you this alternative to try out the next time you are trying to come up with a new idea. Instead of spending the whole hour thinking up ideas, apply the lesson of “The Marriage Problem”, with a twist. Start the hour thinking about alternative ideas, but after a little more than 20 minutes, go back and pick the best idea you’ve seen so far. Then, spend the rest of the hour developing that idea into a solution, looking at the plusses, solving for concerns and completing it with next steps. I can all but guarantee that after 20 minutes there is at least one good idea that the team has identified, but typically they get overlooked because the team is waiting for the perfect idea to emerge. Don’t fall into the “perfect idea” trap.

By following the development method, you’ll not only walk out of the room with a good solution in hand, but also with a team that has a bounce in its step because it got something accomplished in the time they spent together. Trade in the griping about another wasted hour, for a meeting where they will marvel at their success.  This kind of feeling can be contagious!

This post originally appeared on the Synecticsworld website.

Trusting Your Gut As A Critical Ingredient For Creating Innovations

Call it a hunch. An Instinct. Intuition. Following these kinds of “gut feelings” often lie behind the creation of great companies and great products that we love.  Steve Jobs is often held up as a leader who deeply trusted his gut, going so far as to say, “You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

In this short article, The Neuroscience of Trusting Your Gut, the idea of the “hunch” is presented as a somatic marker, or physiological clue of what to do next. The example given in the article is one which most of us are familiar with. We find ourselves in a bad neighborhood, we see a suspicious looking person and our instincts tell us to run instead of spending time collecting other fact-based inputs. We unquestioningly trust our gut in this situation.

In business, however, trusting the gut can often much more difficult. I frequently see clients I work with struggle with the decision of pursuing something they believe to be the right path in their gut vs. what they think they should do. One of my very favorite examples of this was a wonderfully visionary leader who I remember holding (and caressing) a piece of paper that had Option A on it while she made the logical case for choosing Option B. Luckily, I was fresh off of spending a week learning about somatics  at Strozzi Institute, and quickly picked up on this clue. After it was brought to her attention, she acknowledged the conflict she felt and we worked through the concerns she felt about Option A that had unconsciously held her back from choosing it. Ultimately, she followed Option A to great success, partially because it was such a new and exciting path to pick.

It is so easy for us to suppress our gut instincts in favor of logical though in business that sometimes we are not even aware of doing so. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that, unless you are at a certain level (CEO?) in an organization, following your gut alone can be a punishable offense. Without the right supporting data or research, it can be impossible to get funding or investment dollars to explore a new line of business. And while there is good reason for businesses to be so pragmatic, knowing how to conduct research in the pursuit of discovering new products requires very specific expertise. So instead, many tend to err on the side of the safe and predictable. Things that we can easily, and logically, explain having done if we need to. Things that we know how to accomplish, even if they are not very exciting.

In reality, the gut is a repository of experience that we build over time, intertwining our emotions and reason. “You don’t just remember facts, whether the outcome was good or bad, but you remember whether what we felt was good or bad,” says Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California and head of the Brain and Creativity Institute in the attached article. “That tandem of fact and associated emotion is critical: what we construct as wisdom over time is actually the result of cultivating that knowledge of how our emotions behaved and what we learn from them.”

If you are up for a challenge in 2014, I’d suggest trying to listen to your gut more often when pursing new, innovative work. Not to follow it down blind alleys with reckless abandon, but as a helpful check to gauge the wisdom of the decisions you make. If you feel a sense of excitement surrounding an idea that the numbers don’t support, take some time to investigate it more fully to understand what makes it so appealing. Likewise, if you feel disappointment or loss when discarding an option that you were considering, take a moment and look deeper into that feeling. What exactly is it that is hiding inside the idea that you are leaving behind? In either case it’s likely your subconscious was trying its best to give you a clue to your next move.

One of my favorite tricks for checking in with my gut is to flip a coin when making a difficult decision, then check in to see if I feel reaffirmed or disappointed with the result of the coin flip. It is a surprisingly simple and helpful tool.

Another Brilliant Chipotle Video

Chipotle has followed up on its incredible “Back to the Start” video with an equally outstanding production in “The Scarecrow”. Watching it, one would hardly believe that it will end up as an advert for an iOS game of the same name (coming to an App Store near you). The video, and the game, both support Chipotle’s message of “Food with Integrity” and take a swipe at factory farming in the process. Additionally, Fiona Apple supplies a haunting soundtrack with her cover of “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, providing a worthy follow-up to Willie Nelson’s version of Coldplay’s “The Scientist” from the original video.

I can only hope the next video in this series comes out in less than two years. I can honestly say that there has never been a corporate-produced video that I have watched over and over for pure enjoyment, with the exception of Chipotle’s work. It combines story, emotion, and a message with great direction. The result is incredibly impactful. There is a reason that we take our kids to Chipotle every weekend, and it’s not because I like paying $1.80 for guacamole. It’s because Chipotle is one of the few places where I can always feel good about what our kids are eating. And that is something worth promoting.

Think About The “User Experience” When You Write Your Next Email

I thought this article was pretty brilliant. It brings “user experience” into the conversation, as in, “what is the user experience you want to create for the reader of your email?” I know that from personal experience, the concise emails that I receive are more quickly responded to, and that longer rambling emails that I receive typically sit in my inbox for months.

Lessons in Team Dynamics From Despicable Me’s Minions

A well functioning team can make work a joy.  A poorly functioning team can make work feel like drudgery.  The surprising thing for many teams is just how fine a line there is between the two.

Why?  Although there are a myriad of possible reasons for team performance, the minute interactions that bounce between people while they work together often play an outsized role.  These almost invisible interactions can quickly build a healthy team or shift people away from their positive intent into a subconscious, destructive, escalating game of tit-for-tat.

I love how a very common disruptive interaction is so perfectly captured in this great video of the Minions singing their catchy little Banana Potato Song.

This video has provided endless hours of fun in our household with our five-year-old occasionally exclaiming, “Potato!” when he walks into a room.  I love the brilliance of the subtle expressions that the animators captured in these little creatures and how accurately they portray the underlying emotions.

Take a moment and watch the video again and see what is happening in a different way.  Imagine this as a team meeting and the solo is an “idea” offered by a team member while the party horn is the well-intentioned “voice of reason” saying things like, “But you can’t do that because… (budget constraints, resources, not realistic, etc.)”

Go ahead, hit play again and see it how I see it…




The meeting begins with a welcome from the first Minion.


The second Minion from the left (Soloist) has a flash of inspiration and offers his idea, his solo, to the group.  He looks excited about it and wants to share it.


The third Minion from the left (Party Horn) looks disengaged with his hands in his pockets and gives Soloist a sideways glance.


Party Horn interrupts Soloist, explaining why Soloist’s idea won’t work.  Soloist keeps going.


Party Horn again interrupts.  Soloist looks at Party Horn, possibly annoyed.  Others do not appear to have noticed the growing tension between Soloist and Party Horn.


Party Horn interrupts again.  This time Soloist appears visibly upset at Party Horn.


Soloist seems to shrug it off and rejoins the meeting with a fresh idea.


Soloist now has an angry look and stares at Party Horn who is constantly interrupting now.


Soloist raises his voice to talk over Party Horn.


Soloist now positions his body to be turned away from Party Horn.  The fourth Minion looks towards Soloist and Party Horn, perhaps sensing a growing tension.


Soloist, apparently fed up and unable to take it anymore, extracts his revenge by lashing out at Party Horn.


Party Horn, flat on his back, asks, “What did I do to deserve that?”

I think the most instructive part of the video is to watch Party Horn.  At no point does he look like he has anything but good intentions.  His intent appears to be doing what he believes best supports the group’s goal, while the effect is that Soloist gets more and more upset.  Party Horn keeps on tooting along, oblivious to the situation.  Soloist’s big moment has been ruined, and revenge will be his with a swift punch to the head.

Believe me, we’ve seen this exact situation play out thousands of times in teams, so many times in fact that we have a name for it – the “Discount-Revenge Cycle”.  The only difference is that “Revenge” in most companies is not a punch to the face.  Typically, “Revenge” shows up as making pointed or defensive comments in the moment, complaining to others offline, or eventually withdrawing from a working relationship if these interactions happen frequently enough.

So how do we have great teamwork when there is a “Party Horn” in the room?

The next time you find yourself working in a team and someone else (or you?) is continually interrupting or pointing out the flaws in the ideas of others, stop and ask if they (or you?) are acting like Party Horn.  Do they (or you?) think they are adding to the “song” while being unaware of the frustration they may be causing within others?

You might be surprised that my primary offer is for the Soloist in this video.  If he can “Assume Positive Intentions” in Party Horn’s actions, he will be able to change the dialogue and understand the value that Party Horn is trying to bring to the team and avoid coming unhinged.  We’re all imperfect communicators and the more latitude and understanding that we give as we listen to each other, the better we will understand each other, achieve successful outcomes, and avoid giving / receiving an unexpected punch to the face.

This post first appeared on Synecticsworld’s website.

Creating an Innovative Mindset in I.T.

By Chipp Norcross & Joe Gammal

Recently, we had the unique and special opportunity to present at the CIO Executive Summit in Seattle alongside Kirsten Simonitsch, CIO of Premera Blue Cross.  In Kirsten’s presentation, “Driving Customer Engagement Through Innovation”, she detailed her experience of leading her team to find a deep and meaningful understanding of what people want from health insurance companies, and how they have used that knowledge to invent successful new tools and apps such as Juice and Proof.  More revealing, however, was the candor in which she described the journey she has lead within her 500 person IT organization to create a new, innovative mindset.

She illuminated a common misperception that it requires a particular type of person to be “innovative”, and that they are the people who wear cool clothes, sit around in beanbags and eat Skittles all day.  If that was the case, what could those of us who are non-Skittle-eaters ever hope to achieve?  Were we fated to a life of executing the cool ideas that the Skittle-eaters come up with?  Or was there an opportunity for everyone to become more innovative thinkers, and more successful at creating the breakthroughs they need?

In her story, Kirsten found inspiration in the Synectics model of “Cycling Worlds”.  Within the concept there is an important “Operational World”, in which we execute, focus on P&Ls, and deliver to timelines.  There is also an “Innovation World” in which we create new solutions, think differently, and dream up new ways of doing things.  While we all have the capability to work in both worlds, it’s impossible for us to be in both at the same time.  Our minds don’t allow us to be both speculative and critical at the same moment.  We can, however, go back and forth between these two “worlds” rather quickly, and that was Kirsten’s epiphany.

Cycling Worlds

Kirsten knew she had an organization that excelled at “operational excellence”.  What she wanted was “innovation excellence” as well.  She wanted to create a balance of innovative thinking inside her IT organization, and the discipline to know when and how to use each of these two very different modes of thought.  With so much focus and training put into the “Operational World” in our society, such a change would require a concerted effort with a focus on building new skills and a new, collaborative culture modeled by Kirsten herself.  So that’s exactly what she did.

Over the last two years we have had the pleasure of working with Kirsten and her team to help them build this vision and turn it into a reality.  With almost 400 members of her organization trained in Synectics and a growing cadre of facilitators and trainers within IT, there are truly amazing things happening at Premera.  Not only are exciting new products being developed, but Associate engagement has increased dramatically and a new, collaborative spirit has taken root.  None of this would’ve happened without Kirsten’s courageous leadership and that is why we were so proud to share the stage with her.

Kirsten’s presentation was the highest rated at the conference by the other CIOs in attendance.  It was a pleasure to see that her colleagues thought as highly of what she has accomplished as we do.  As members of Synecticsworld, it’s always rewarding to see a client recognized for the hard work and courageous leadership they have shown, and this conference was the perfect forum for Kirsten to share her story.

This post first appeared on Synecticsworld’s website.

How A Determined Adoptee Used Google Earth To Find His Hometown and His Family

I love this Vanity Fair story about an adoptee who used Google Earth to find his childhood home, and eventually his mother, twenty years after hopping on the wrong train in a busy Indian train station. For anyone that has ever felt a longing to find and understand where they came from, this is a heart-warming story.

And The Winner Of The “Hershberger Award” Is…

This is a great article about how a group of students at William and Marry created a fake All-American team back in 1972, just to honor their schools best player. I have to wonder if it could ever happen again in our advanced age of technology and media…or if it would be even easier to do today. In any case, kudos to these guys for having the creativity and perseverance it took to pull this off and keep up the ruse for 40 years!

How to Stop Trying to Do Everyone Else’s Work (And Enjoy Doing Your Own)

Over the last few years of working at Synecticsworld, I’ve noticed different themes that have appeared in my work. Over the last couple of months, the theme of “clientship” has come out in a lot of conversations. For those of you that may be hearing this term for the first time in a Synectics context, clientship means putting the ownership for an outcome in the hands of the person who is ultimately responsible for delivering on it.

As straightforward as that concept may sound, many of us are susceptible to making a mistake or two when it comes to recognizing clientship. As I’ve personally experienced it in the past, and I’m hearing again lately, the easiest mistake to make is to take on ownership for someone else’s problems. This is especially problematic when the person who really owns the problem has not asked me to help in that way.

Here are a couple of straightforward examples that might resonate for some of you.

  1. Example #1: Trying to do more than I’m asked. Now, this might sound like heresy in a working environment where everyone is trying to do all they can to distinguish themselves, but few things I’ve witnessed will sap a bright, talented, young person’s energy than doing a ton of extra work for someone that didn’t want it in the first place. I’m sure many of us have been there…we see an opportunity to grow the business, spend a bunch of time doing research, developing a business case, and preparing a meticulous presentation only to find out that the person at the top really isn’t interested. “But the opportunity is so clear! I can’t understand why they would pass on it!” Well, neither can I, but as the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. (NB: Old sayings become old sayings for a reason.) Beating ourselves up because someone else doesn’t want to grow as fast as we do will only lead to us bruising ourselves.
  2. Example #2: Giving advice to someone that doesn’t want it. This is something that likely resonates with many of us. This is what happens when we’ve heard someone vent, or watched someone go through a difficult time in his or her life, and we jump in with a helpful, “Here is what I think you should do…” And we are surprised when that offer lands on the floor with an audible thud and perhaps a dirty look.

The thing that both of these situations have in common is that the person who really owned the problem, the “client” didn’t ask for any help from us. But because we are born as awesome problem-solving machines, we can’t help but try to solve any problem that comes our way. At best, we cause ourselves a lot of extra work and frustration. At worst, we jeopardize friendships or our jobs.

So, how can we avoid this pitfall (in three simple steps)?

  1. When you sense you might be entering a situation where you could be treading on someone else’s clientship, first ask, “Who really owns this problem?”
  2. If it’s not you, figure out what your role might be in helping them. Do you want to help them talk through, or facilitate, solving their issue? Do you want to offer ideas and act as a resource to them in that way?
  3. Once you have figured out the role you want to play, ask for permission. For example, “I think there might be some additional ways to grow the business beyond what has been identified. Can I look into that and provide you with some ideas?” Another example would be, “It sounds like you’ve been going through some tough times. Could I offer a few ideas that I thought about while I was listening to you?”

And, no matter what, if the person says no to your offer of assistance, my offer is to drop it then and there. The sooner we give ourselves permission to pay attention to the people in our lives that want our help and expertise rather than those who don’t, the happier and more productive we are going to be.

Special thanks to Harry Barrett for always reminding me of the importance of clientship.