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.

Three Wishes To Make LinkedIn Groups more Productive In 2014

I remember a time, five or so years ago, when LinkedIn groups were first gaining traction. It felt like there were good discussions happening and the people that were fellow group members were genuinely interested in connecting and sharing their thinking about the industry or topic around which the group was centered. Now, perhaps it is just the groups that I’m part of, but it seems like most have become shameless dens of self-promotion. The discussions that do happen seem like they are started by one consultant or another, and they often ask some self-serving question like, “What is the most important reason to hire a consultant?” Then, other consultants provide the answers.

I’m sure that there are many great groups out there, and ultimately the group administrators are the ones who have responsibility to set the guidelines and encourage the type of interactions they are looking to promote. However, it feels like the need that these groups were serving in the early days is still there, and perhaps it’s time for a different approach. I’ve completely checked out of almost every group that I’m a part of, and I’m not entirely certain what would bring me back. But here are a few wishes.

  1. I wish that self-promotion could be treated like spam emails.
  2. I wish that discussions felt more like an intimate conversation between peers instead of trying to talk at a sports venue with peanut vendors roaming the aisles.
  3. I wish there was a way to be notified about the discussions which I would truly be interested in, and which the initiator would like me, or someone like me, to participate. Amazon does this with products which I might be interested in, so I’m sure LinkedIn could do the same with discussions.

Do these three wishes resonate with you? What else would you like to see LinkedIn do to make its groups more productive?

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.

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.

How Ron Johnson Could Have Avoided Catastrophe by Listening to JCPenney’s People

The story of the rapid decline of JCPenney under Ron Johnson’s leadership is one of the most shocking business stories of recent years. Bringing in the genius behind Apple’s retail stores seemed like a no-brainer when he first arrived at JCPenney. He came in with a vision and exciting new ideas about how to turn around the struggling retailer. What I’m not sure that he came in with, was a willingness to listen to the smart people around him that had spent their careers at JCPenney.

There seems to be a bias that leaders bring to turn-around jobs like JCPenney, best summarized as the “Outsiders Know Better” bias. It’s understandable why it happens. JCPenney had been struggling for a long time and something needed to change. It’s easy for a new CEO to assume that the people who were working there were not world-class, so the new CEO brings in a lot of people to surround him that he can trust. He’s worked with them before, they share the same experience, and have the same vision. And that’s exactly what Mr. Johnson did at JCPenney.

The problem is, for as much as JCPenney could learn from Mr. Johnson’s and his experience at Apple, he could have learned just as much about the realities of discount retailing from the people who had spent their careers in JCPenney. Perhaps paying more attention to those realities  would have prevented the rapid decline that the company has experienced. I’m certain that there were widespread concerns within JCPenney about how the end of coupons, a staple of their business,  would cause a dramatic drop in traffic. But it seems like those kinds of concerns, among others, were never dealt with. I think that highlights a key challenge that new leaders face – understanding the difference between 1) managing the risk that they have picked the right strategy, and 2) managing the risk that the organization will successfully execute it. What many leaders don’t realize is that the best way to manage both risks is by listening to the people in the organization they lead and enrolling them in the strategy conversation.

I often use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a reference when talking to leaders about making change happen. All too often, resistance from the organization is seen as a case of people being stuck in their ways and a sign that some people need to be shown the door. Tough questions about the strategy don’t get asked, and possible pitfalls don’t get identified. People keep their heads down and keep their jobs safe. That attitude can create a massive conflict for people. Do I open my mouth and disagree with the strategy? Or do I stay quiet and go home every night worrying about when things are eventually going to fall apart? In either case, I’m operating at a very low level of the hierarchy of needs and I’m probably not very productive.

I believe that ultimately, most people want to believe in the direction their company is headed and do their best to help make it a success. And to do so, they need to be given the opportunity to understand rather than being asked to simply follow.  By allowing their teams to ask questions, leaders can understand what is worrying their people about achieving this new future and learn from it themselves. Not only can a leader gain commitment through this course, but they might unearth some unseen land mines in their strategy in the process which they can work together to solve.

The reason that this back-and-forth doesn’t happen is that many leaders don’t have a good understanding of how to design such a two-way conversation in a positive, constructive way. They are concerned that it will open up more issues than it will resolve. Many worry that this would be seen a sign of weakness instead of a sign of leadership, but it certainly doesn’t need to be when handled correctly.

Would following this kind of approach have resulted in a very-different  JCPenney today? Would a more creative and successful strategy been discovered by taking the best of Apple and the best of JCPenney rather than blowing up the business model altogether? While we will never know for sure, it would have provided a forum for important conversations and possibly identified conflicts between the new strategy and the old JCPenney that needed to be resolved in order to be successful. And as we know real innovation most often happens in resolving conflicts, not by simply applying best-practices learned from another company, even one as successful as Apple.

What have been your experiences with living through changes in company strategy?

Why iPhone Users Should Love Samsung Today

First of all, let’s just acknowledge that I have an iPhone. I’ve had one ever since the iPhone 3G (I’m not quite such an early adopter as to have bought the original 2G version). And, for the most part, I love the iPhone. Over the scant few years that it has been in existence, it’s truly changed how the world communicates and shares information. But let’s face it…the last few years have been a little blah as far as iPhone advances go. The headlines have been about the Retina display (iPhone 4), Siri and her associated challenges (iPhone 4S) and the larger 4″ screen (iPhone 5). Sure there have been advances under the hood, but I’ve been wanting something a little more…let’s just say sexy.

And that’s why last night’s announcement about the new Samsung Galaxy s4 was so exciting to watch. Eye tracking technology? AirWave gesture-based interface? A TV control app that uses an Infrared blaster? That’s a lot of buzz to get excited about. And it marks the first time that I’ve actually looked forward to the announcement of a smartphone other than an iPhone. And to me, that means that for the first time since the iPhone was introduced, the ball is truly in Apple’s court to respond. Rumors certainly abound about the next version of the iPhone. Could there be a fingerprint scanner? An even larger screen? I’m sure the iPhone rumor mill will kick into overdrive following Samsung’s announcement, and that is precisely why I believe every iPhone user should be thanking Samsung tonight.

Let’s face it, to remain innovative and cutting edge, we often need a rival to compete with. Coke needs Pepsi. Boeing needs Airbus. Nike needed Adidas (for many years the Nike vision statement was “Crush Adidas”). And, in the world of smartphones, Apple needs Samsung.

Samsung has put a huge target on Apple’s back. The launch of the new Galaxy s4 didn’t take place in Seoul, it took place in New York City at Radio City Music Hall. Samsung wants to beat Apple in the US, one of the few smartphone markets Apple still controls. Samsung might as well have sent a horse’s head to 1 Infinite Loop in Cupertino. Now all eyes will be on Apple, ramping up the excitement for the next iPhone over the summer.

What will make this looming battle even more exciting is that the two companies have seemingly different strategies they are following. Samsung has long competed on hardware, and now has added a lot of “wow” software features. Apple has competed on simplicity of use and an integrated experience. There’s no way to know which will company will ultimately prevail, but I do know that the competition will be thrilling to watch and will likely lead to a slew of new innovations that we can’t begin to imagine today.

While eating lunch together earlier in the week, a friend perfectly summed up the predicament that Apple finds itself in today. Apple faces a lagging stock price and a market where the still very sophisticated iPhone 4 is being offered free to new subscribers in the US and eating into iPhone 5 sales. I asked somewhat rhetorically, “What went wrong for Apple?”

“They didn’t count on Samsung to be so strong,” he responded.

After today, perhaps the rest of us can count on Samsung to be strong enough to keep challenging Apple. And ultimately, we’ll all benefit. Even Apple.

NB: As much as Chipp loves innovation in the smartphone space, he secretly longs for a day when new phones are just introduced and not turned into made for TV spectaculars at Radio City Music Hall, the Moscone Center or anywhere in between. 

This post first appeared on Synecticsworld’s website.

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.

Trust: The Real Casualty at Yahoo This Week

By now, we all know that Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, announced this week that she has banned employees from working at home. After the collective “Gasp!” that swept across a country full of remote workers had finally subsided, we were left to debate the wisdom of such a decision.

Clearly there are good arguments for such a restriction (it allows more face-to-face time with colleagues, encourages unscheduled “collisions” between co-workers that can lead to new ideas, and makes it easier to observe how much and how often people are working). And there are good arguments against such a restriction (lost time spent commuting, loss of flexibility, increased time and stress managing child-care in young families). But the truth is that the real issue that few are talking about is the impact on trust at Yahoo.

Trust is an amazingly important, and easily disrupted, ingredient for any stable, long-term relationship, either personal or professional. When trust exists, we can take risks and change the world together. When trust has been violated, fear and uncertainty rules our world, people watch their backs, and we start playing “cover-your-ass”. It’s not the kind of working environment that a struggling tech company needs.

This opens up a few questions that beg to be answered.

  • Does Marissa trust us? If I were at Yahoo, I’d have a hard time believing that Marissa trusts that we are all working as hard as we can in the best interests of the company. I’d feel like, for all the talk about Yahoo becoming more innovative as a result of this ban, this was really just a way for her to keep an eye on all of us. Are there really that many people working on a start-up on the side while on the Yahoo payroll? If so, doesn’t it say much more about the quality of managers that oversees these remote workers, which will not be solved by simply calling them back to the office?
  • Can I trust Marissa? I’d also wonder if I can trust Marissa to have my best interests at heart. As she is a very highly compensated CEO, I know she has a responsibility to the shareholders and board, but I wonder if she understands what it means for me to upend my life. Especially when the realities of her life are different from mine. Couldn’t there be another solution?
  • Even if she trusts us, does Marissa believe in us? Which is why my biggest frustration would be that Marissa does not appear to trust the rest of us Yahoos to come up with a better solution than this. For all the bluster buzzing around the Internet about the relative benefits and drawbacks of allowing people to work from home, it feels like the thinking is at the wrong level. Instead of debating about whether people should work at home or in an office, the real task Yahoo needs to be solving is, “Develop creative solutions to improve innovation and productivity and regain our standing as a tech industry leader.”

Sitting here in my (home) office I can come up with half a dozen ideas right off the top of my head to solve that challenge, and none of them have to do with where my desk is. Imagine what a team of Yahoo’s best and brightest could come up with! And if they had a team of Yahoo developers with them, they could immediately start prototyping some ideas that could eventually turn into money-making products. Because, if Yahoo is having a problem with productivity and innovation amongst its remote workforce, I’m pretty sure that many of the other 499 of the Fortune 500 are having the same problem. And if Yahoo is saying they can’t find a way to use technology so that I can be innovative and productive no matter where I’m sitting, its time to short their stock.

And if in the end, one of the recommendations is to have people start coming into the office everyday and stop working from home, at least the recommendation would be coming from a group of people who are working from home offices that look like mine, not one in a penthouse atop the Four Seasons San Francisco. And that would be a recommendation I could trust.

Is Miami’s Moment in the Start-up Sun Finally Arriving?

IMG_0621

This past Wednesday I had the opportunity to attend Start-up City: Miami sponsored by The Atlantic and The Atlantic Cities at Miami Beach’s New World Center. For me, this event came at just the right time. I’ve grown frustrated because I keep hearing the same lament from friends around our great city. Talented, driven individuals are faced with the choice of either leaving Miami to get the job they want, or making professional sacrifices in order to stay here in the city they love. Why do people in Miami feel like they have to make this choice? And could a burgeoning start-up scene in Miami provide another option?

After spending the day listening to a wide variety of speakers including celebrity CEO Tony Hsieh of Zappos, local success story Manny Medina, founder of Terremark, and Susan Amat, founder of Miami’s celebrated Launch Pad Tech, I left the conference hoping that a new technology age might be dawning here on the shores of Biscayne Bay. But it’s far too early to declare victory. Sure, having a conference like this take place in Miami feels like a massive endorsement of our city and the potential we have. And while that is great, Miami desperately needs a success story. We need a Zappos like Las Vegas, a Groupon like Chicago, a massive win that brings jobs, venture dollars and, perhaps most importantly, belief. And to the credit of the speakers, this was a theme that was repeated throughout the day.

It seems that Miami’s biggest problem in the start-up world is retaining growing companies. While there are many good ideas that get hatched here in Miami, once they reach the point where they need venture money they are moved to the Bay Area or New York by their investors. And I’m not sure how we reverse this trend without having an established funding source located here in Miami. I did hear the claim that we should expect at least one of the top-tier venture capital firms to  be opening an office here in Miami sometime in 2013, and I believe that would be truly groundbreaking. By serving Latin America out of our fair city, It would mark the beginning of a shift in regional focus from Sao Paulo to Miami, and entrepreneurs in South Florida as a whole would accrue many benefits in the process. The biggest would undoubtedly be the opportunity to grow their company while staying home in the Magic City.

The other request I heard from the panelists was for entrepreneurs in Miami to dream bigger. We have an enormous number of entrepreneurs, just relatively few who are working on world-changing ideas. In Palo Alto, every entrepreneur thinks they are going to change the world. Its hard-wired into the culture. To attract the focus of the venture funds, we need to start thinking about ideas that will do more than just make us our own bosses. We need to think about what the world needs, and how we can take advantage of our blessed location at the nexus of North America, South America and Europe to provide it.  And I think that plea needs to be made even more emphatically to local government. It escaped no one’s attention that there was not a single current elected office holder from Miami Beach, Miami-Dade or the City of Miami in attendance. I believe we need more than that from our local government.

In the wake of such an outpouring of entrepreneurial enthusiasm, we’re left to wonder what comes next. Will it be the arrival of a Sand Hill Road VC? Will it be a new public-private partnership to create Miami’s equivalent of Las Vegas’ Downtown Project? Ultimately, I don’t think there is any magic that is going to immediately change the course of Miami. It’s going to need to be done the old-fashioned way with people taking a chance on a big idea and busting their butts to make it happen.

Susan Amat made a commitment to the audience that I heard said in different ways by many speakers during the day, “Start a business and I will amplify you!” It’s time for Miamians to take up that challenge and give Susan, and others, the chance to make good on that promise.