In this episode we interview innovation expert and speaker, Stephen Shapiro. Stephen cultivates innovation by showing leaders and their teams how to approach, tackle, and solve their business challenges. Applying the knowledge he has accrued over decades in the industry, Stephen is able to see what others can’t, opportunities to improve innovation models and the cultures that support them. Enjoy.
Full Transcript Below:
Jenn DeWall: Hello, everyone. Thank you for joining this episode of the leadership habit. Today we are going to be talking to Stephen Shapiro, who is an innovation expert, author, and keynote speaker.
Jenn DeWall: So, today, Stephen is here to share with us how we can be successful in our innovation efforts. This comes down to both our mindset and how we look at innovation and also what we can do in our organization to help create an innovative culture. Thank you, Stephen. Thank you so much for joining us to be here. He traveled all the way from Orlando, and you’re here with us in Denver, Colorado. We are huge fans of your work. I have read a few of your books, and you have a new book that’s coming out, and I just wanted you know, our listeners to get to know a little bit about you and what you do.
Stephen Shapiro: Sure. So, I’ve spent my entire business life focused on innovation. Slightly earlier in my career, I was focused on optimization. So I’m an engineer by background, and one of the things that I was focused on was how do we optimize businesses? How do we make them more efficient? And one of the things that I realized is that if you optimize a company, they’re going to downsize the people. And I woke up one day and realized I was personally responsible for like tens of thousands of people losing their jobs. And I’m like this, and this is not what I want to do with my life. So I started focusing on innovation a little more than 20 years ago, and that’s all I’ve been doing since then.
Jenn DeWall: And what excites you about the topic of innovation?
Stephen Shapiro: So I like it from a number of different perspectives. One is I liked the intellectual aspect of innovation because it is a really cool thought process. It’s fun. It’s enjoyable. But I also like the outcome of innovation because the outcome of innovation is obviously a company being more successful. But for me, the goal has always been job creation. I think if we’re going to create a powerful society, we want people to have jobs they love and the more companies that are successful; the more companies are growing, the more people they can hire. So, that’s been really my main driver.
Jenn DeWall: My gosh, how exciting to look at innovation through that lens of what can we create, not only from a product perspective but that people side. How can we create jobs for people to be able to go out and maybe create new products or do their services and acts in their communities and support a global culture? That’s very exciting.
Stephen Shapiro: Yeah, it’s what’s really nice too is because it has moved beyond just product. Everybody can be involved in innovation, and I’ve worked with finance organizations on helping them be more innovative, which you think finance shouldn’t be innovative, but actually, they should definitely be innovative because there are different ways that we can do our work. It’s about experiences. How do we create a better experience for our customers? That’s all innovation. Innovation is anything that makes a company better.
Jenn DeWall: Great. And I think that’s a good point to clarify because I know that for me not having a ton of familiarity around the topic innovation, I think I always just looked at it as something that was reserved for someone that was exclusively in product development. You never look at it as something that can be applied to your organizational structure or some of your processes. I think you do think of innovation in that way, but it’s not necessarily held in that same regard as what they think of the people in organizations that are more disruptive. So whether that’s innovation in terms of a car like Tesla and how that has shaped the way that we look at vehicles and low emission vehicles. But you know, for me it’s, it’s great to hear you say that innovation is really just not something that’s reserved to someone in a product development area or their research development area. It’s accessible and should be practiced by everyone.
Stephen Shapiro: I think we’re seeing a democratization of innovation. So the past in the past, innovation was sort of the privileged few who are wearing long white robes, and they were handing down the tablets from the mountain to the organization and say, here you go- implement. And the reality now is we want everybody to be innovating every day if possible. Now it might be small incremental improvements to the way that they’re doing their work. It might be bigger business model changes, but we want to be able to get better at collaborating across an entire organization because when we can deal with the collective wisdom of the organization, we get the best results.
Jenn DeWall: So where does the innovation process start? You know, does it start with the problem? Does it start with the vision? Where would you say the innovation process starts as if you’re someone that’s looking at, maybe I want to do things differently.
Stephen Shapiro: So when you look at it at a macro level, I would say it starts with getting clear on the use of the word vision. I would say getting clear on your differentiator cause I think it’s really important for organizations to understand why people do business with you and not someone else. And if you can get clear on that, then it allows you to focus your energies. I always say innovate where you differentiate, the biggest problem that I see as most companies are dissipating their energies on innovating problems that aren’t important or they’re not relevant, or customers don’t care. It’s not going to create a lot of value. So the first thing is to get that clarity around where you’re going to innovate and why you’re going to innovate. And then from there you just figure out what are the problems, what are the opportunities, what are the challenges we need to solve? It’s not about the idea, and it’s not about sitting around and you know, looking at the clouds and, and trying to just come up with some cool ideas. It’s not that it actually is a very purposeful engineering-oriented type of discipline.
Jenn DeWall: So it’s almost like we complicated it a little bit more too by not looking at it as the problem is that everything to say, maybe not, but just, you know, sometimes people think that innovation needs to be something big and new and just gigantic in terms of scope, but it’s not necessarily about that. Would that be a fair thing to say?
Stephen Shapiro: I think that’s a totally fair thing to say. I mean there’s all types of innovation. So you have incremental innovation, you have more radical innovation, your product innovation, you have business model innovation. So we have, there’s a whole wide range of innovation that we’re going to focus on inside of an organization. And I think the reason why it becomes complicated is not so much the process, but it becomes complicated because we don’t have a process. We seem to think that innovation is sort of this unstructured free thinking. Think outside the box approach. And that is the very thing that tends to destroy innovation in organizations because we don’t have an infinite amount of time, money, or resources to spend on innovation. So we need to get people focused. And if we focus people not on ideas, but we focus them on opportunities and problems, then we can really unleash the greatest amount of value with the least amount of energy.
Jenn DeWall: That’s great. So you said focusing on the problems. So how do you solve your innovation problems?
Stephen Shapiro: The first part of solving a problem is actually to make sure that we’re asking the right question. And I think this is the big mistake that most companies make is we get caught up in solutions rather than the problem. We get caught up in answers rather than questions. And I think the key thing is anytime you’re making any investment and improving the business; you need to stop and ask yourself, what is the problem we’re really solving? And can we frame it a different way such that we could get a potentially a completely different range of answers because you could change one word in a problem statement and get a completely different range of possible solutions? So I think the reason why it becomes complicated is that we don’t have structure, although it seems to go against what most people think, the structure creates simplicity. And so when we have the right structure, we’re able to become much more efficient in what we do. And I think that’s really one of the big key misconceptions around innovation.
Jenn DeWall: Right! You think that you don’t want to put, or you don’t want to try and take away, right? So you look at the structure as the enemy. Like if I do this, it will stifle their innovative efforts. They’ll feel bound to this. But it sounds like what you’re saying is structure is really that key to helping them solve their problem. When you say structure, what does that look like?
Stephen Shapiro: So let’s take a very simplistic example. I give you a blank sheet of paper and come up with all the different ways you can improve your business. You will come up with a lot of ideas, but I guarantee you they’re going to be the same ideas that everybody else has been thinking about. They’re not going to be very creative. They’re not going to be very valuable, most likely. And they’re probably going to be incremental concepts that people have been thinking about previously. But if I say, how do we improve productivity? Now, that’s still a really big, broad question and I would never ask that question. But if you start there, well now we’re getting people focused on a particular mindset. Structure helps people find better solutions. So instead of thinking outside the box, you want to find a better box. And that better box is the right question, framed the right way, solved by the right people to unleash the greatest amount of value.
Jenn DeWall: Can you give me an example or give our listeners an example of what that right question looks like and maybe what a not so good question looks like.
Stephen Shapiro: Yeah. And you know, I guess there’s not really ever a right or wrong question. It’s just that particular questions yield particular results. Okay. And the goal with all of this is to make sure that we’re asking questions that are going to produce the results that we want. So I’ll just give a very simple example. NASA was doing some work where they want to take a washing machine and bring it into space- this is back when they were doing manned space travel, and they’re getting back into that now- because they want to be able to wash their clothes. And so if you think about that question, how do we bring a washing machine into space where there’s zero gravity? It’s a very complicated problem. There are pipes and pumps and valves, gravity and all these other things we have to start worrying about. And they, they were not successful in coming up with useful solutions.
Stephen Shapiro: So they went back and okay, maybe it is the wrong question and then realize the question was a much simpler question, which is how do we get clothes clean. Now one was focused on the process, the solution, which is the washing machine, whereas the other one was focused on the outcome, which is the result of getting clothes clean. And that led to a whole bunch of different innovations, which were interesting. They’re all about cleaning fluids, but you don’t need pumps, valves, and pipes. And then they changed one word in the statement. And they went from, how do we get clothes cleaned to how do we keep the clothes clean? Now all of a sudden you’re talking about a material science problem. You don’t even have cleaning fluids. You’re now talking about antimicrobials. And so one word in a problem statement can really fundamentally change the direction you take a problem. But most people get an idea; I want to put a washing machine into space. Great, okay, how do we do that? And they don’t step back and say, what are we really looking to do? Is there a different question? Because if I changed the question, I’m going to get different answers.
Jenn DeWall: Great. Just changing the question. And too often I think it is true, people get that idea and right, wrong or indifferent, they get really excited to make it happen, right? Finding that solution. And so they’re less likely to take that step back. So for what you’re saying is to take that step back, think what is that outcome, the overall solution or idea or result that you are seeking and how do we accomplish that? So it sounds like you actually simplify it more.
Stephen Shapiro: Well, you do what, when you give people that clarity and whether, whether it’s simpler or not simpler, you give people clarity. And I think inside of organizations, people are so busy that if you say, “go innovate,” they have no clue what you want them to do. And at the same time they’re not going to be very efficient at doing it. So we’re going to get a lot of wasted energy. But if we give them a very well framed problem, now we increased the likelihood of getting something valuable from them in a very efficient manner. And I think that’s really the key. And the other advantage of focusing on questions than solutions is there’s a psychological challenge associated with people focusing on solutions, which is something called confirmation bias. And basically all that means is once I come up with a solution, an idea, a belief in something, no matter how much convincing someone else tries to do that, it might be a bad idea. I’m going to ignore all the evidence that contradicts my belief. I mean, we see this in all areas of life. So it eliminates all these psychological biases that we have. It eliminates the inefficiencies that we have in the way we do work. It really is. I mean, we tend to think about innovation as this big divergent activity where we want a volume of ideas. But I always say asking for ideas is a bad idea. Everybody has an opinion, suggestion or idea doesn’t mean it’s good. So we need to get to a point where people feel that they have clarity around what the organization wants them to focus on.
Jenn DeWall: You know, you said you were talking about the ideas and in one of your books you talk about an engineering term called the signal to noise ratio. And I found that just fascinating to think about how you’re actually harnessing and, or excuse me, how you’re actually getting your innovation ideas. Could you tell our listeners what the signal to noise ratio is and how that relates to innovation?
Stephen Shapiro: Sure. So if you think about a typical suggestion box, suggestion boxes are still asking people to solve a problem, but in most cases is very broad problems. So like how do we improve the business? And what ends up happening is you could get hundreds or thousands of ideas on how to improve the business. From my experience, between one 10th of a percent and 1% of the ideas that are submitted actually have enough value, enough merit for them to be implemented. So that means that 99% of the time that we spend thinking about the problems, submitting the problem, and evaluating the problem is a waste of time. And the signal to noise ratio is basically just the ratio between what you want, which is the signal and the noise, which is everything that you don’t want. So back in the days, I’m dating myself here, but back in the days of cassette tapes, you know, obviously everything now we’re doing is digital. But back in the day when they were cassette tapes, there were chromium dioxide tapes. You had ferric oxide tapes, you had regular tapes and each of them had a different signal to noise ratio, which was the ratio between the sound and the background hiss and what ends up happening is when we look at innovation we tend to have very little sound and a lot of background his, so it’s an extremely inefficient process, and when you flip the whole process on its head, and you focus on the questions rather than the ideas, you now increase that signal to noise ratio because we’re focused on high-value opportunities for the organization.
Jenn DeWall: So it’s not just casting this broad, this broad net and then hoping that you find a solution. It’s creating a very focused net to be able to grab those solutions and filter through. And I think one of the parts that you also may have addressed in your book, if I recall this correctly, was just the decision fatigue that can result with filtering through all of those ideas and how that can really be something that only probably puts you further away from innovative thinking.
Stephen Shapiro: Yeah, you have a decision fatigue, you have idea fatigue. I mean idea fatigue is really the first part, which is if you ask your employees for their ideas of how to improve the business and you got like, I remember one of my clients had brought me in after everything failed and they said what happened? They got about 2000 ideas of which they implemented two. And so what happens is you think about what people are taking time out of their busy day to think about an idea to submit that idea and then you don’t do anything with it. It creates a huge morale issue inside of organizations. So that whole idea fatigue, okay, I need to think of new ideas, but nobody’s doing anything with it. People burn out. Decisions- you know, people have to go through and evaluate each of these things. I get 2000 ideas submitted. I have to go through those 2000 ideas and see if they are any good. And in most cases, they aren’t. So I feel like I’m wasting my time. And that’s what we do is we’re just wildly inefficient, or you know, organizations are wildly inefficient in the way that they have tackled innovation.
Jenn DeWall: Okay. And you brought up a really important aspect, which is how you are applying your innovation efforts and what you are expecting can actually create disengagement from your employees. So if you’re asking them to think of the next big thing, look at this that way, and solution, solution, solution and then they give you everything, and maybe they’re super excited, and then they give it to you only to have you say, Oh, that’s not going to work. Yeah. Who hasn’t had those up, those experiences in life where you are so excited, you really thought you came up with the next big thing or a new way of doing things. Only to find that all of your effort and time was all for not, yeah. It’s maddening in that that is
Stephen Shapiro: A reality. You know, if you look at, I mean, so like 3M is known for their 15% rule, which they do brilliantly, which basically means that 15% of their time they can spend on something other than what they’re actually tasked with doing. So if I’m working on adhesives, I’m working in the adhesives group, maybe I’ve got an idea for reflectives and adhesives and abrasives and how they can come together, and I can spend 15% of my time trying to create something new and different, and they do a brilliant job at it. But most companies do a terrible job at it. When you say 15% of your time, you can do whatever you want. Most companies end up wasting 50% of their time because people don’t know the parameters. Again, there are parameters. Sometimes it’s cultural parameters. So 3M it’s been, they’ve been doing it for decades. So there’s clarity around what that 15% means. It’s not just going off and doing whatever the heck you want. It’s still very purposeful, and there are constraints around it.
Jenn DeWall: How do you bridge the gap between the problem that might be identified in the board room or in the upper-level leadership meeting to bring it down to your employee that might be able to make that impact? Like how do you help them understand that problem? Because I think sometimes in organizations the problem is lost in translation.
Stephen Shapiro: Well, there is in most organizations, a frost layer and the frost layer tends to be in the middle of the organization. And what happens is people at the top who see the vision of what’s needed, that message comes down, and it gets stuck in the middle. People who are closest to the customers and see what real issues are going on on a daily basis with the customers have ideas, but they don’t get to filter up to the top. So what’s wonderful now is because of technology, we have the ability to go from the top to the bottom and the bottom to the top and bypass anybody that’s going to stop the process. So if you’re an executive and you know this is an important problem, we need to solve this. If we can solve this one problem- I remember one client we were working with, they started with an idea platform and it was great. They got a lot of interesting ideas. But then after about nine months, the quality started to diminish. So we worked with them on creating what I call challenge-centered innovation, which is an approach where the question is the primary focus, and we ask people to solve it. And so the executives identified a series of challenges that if we could solve these problems, would create incredible value. And then they open it up to the tens of thousands of employees that they had to provide solutions and they got some brilliant solutions. And here’s the great thing is once you get a solution, you know that you want, you’re in a position to start implementing because you’ve planned in advance, you have the resources, you have the evaluation criteria, you have everything laid out. It is a wildly efficient method for being able to translate that vision that the executives might have and get engagement from everyone involved inside the organization.
Jenn DeWall: That’s great. Challenge-Centered innovation. That is just one of the pieces that I think is really, really valuable. And how as a leader, how you’re looking at making an impact. You want to understand what challenges you’re trying to solve to be able to be effective. You don’t just want to say, Oh, I’m going to do this. I think it could work to boost margin or to grow our sales. It’s really what challenges do we want to focus on.
Stephen Shapiro: Right? Absolutely. And what we need to do when we ask people what problem we want them to solve, is we need to go through a thought process to make sure it’s not too abstract. So if it’s, how do I improve productivity, how do I increase revenues? How do I improve margins? Whatever it might be. When we ask people for their solutions, we’re going to get a lot of noise in the system. We’re going to get a lot of fluffy answers. So it’s really then deconstructing that, breaking it down. If it’s too abstract into something more manageable, because when you ask people for solutions, you don’t want thousands of solutions, you haven’t improved the process if that’s what you’re getting, you want dozens, and hopefully those dozens can be combined together in ways that will help create a new solution that we hadn’t even considered before.
Jenn DeWall: Well, and if you think about challenge-driven innovation is a great way just to think about how we can be productive as a leader in general, right? Too often we have so many different problems that we’re probably trying to solve, and we have so much responsibility that it’s hard to filter in focus because we’re overwhelmed by the amount of data responsibility, so on and so forth that we’re giving. And so those challenges are really a way that we get to save our time because it gives very clear, definitive, this is what we’re looking for, this is what we know, that we’ve hit the right solution for it. And now we can take action to what you just said.
Stephen Shapiro: Exactly. It speeds things up because if you think about the traditional idea-driven process, which is the suggestion box, essentially somebody submits an idea, Hey, we could go do this. Now we have to go through the process of evaluating it on its own merits. Okay, is it going to create enough value? Okay, well we think it’s a good idea. Now we have to get somebody inside the organization who’s going to support it? Okay, well now we need to go find somebody who has money, a P & L owner or product line owner and we go to them. We say, what do you think of this idea?
And in many cases, it doesn’t really fit us, but if they say yes, now we have to get the money, now we have to get the resources, and it’s a very long process. Whereas if you start with the problem statement, you start with the opportunity. We have the owners, we have the sponsors, we have the funding, we have the resources, we have the evaluation criteria, and we have the evaluators defined upfront before we even ask anybody to think about solutions. And then once we get solutions submitted, we have that objective criteria to help us be able to determine which ones are the right ones and we have everything in place just start implementation. It is so much faster, so much more efficient. One of my clients measured their idea-driven innovation program versus the challenge centered innovation program, and they found on an average they were getting a minimum of a ten-fold improvement on their ROI because they eliminated the wasted energy and they were only solving important problems.
Jenn DeWall: That’s fantastic. And I feel like it’s also applicable to any area of your life, right? Even when you’re asking your friends or what, my husband says, what do you want to do for dinner? And then he gives a ton of suggestions without saying, what are you craving to eat right now? Where then I could say I would like some Buffalo wings, please. Versus him giving everything. I mean, you know, I know that’s a more fun example, but really it’s, we can look at how we can be more efficient and all of that, or our interactions, whether it’s negotiating with your spouse or what you want for dinner to figuring out what type of problems your organization wants to solve.
Stephen Shapiro: Well, I love that example of dinner because if you think about it, if you say to somebody, where would you like to go to dinner? The first thought is, okay, where all the places that I can go to. And so they’re mind is on now what kind of food am I interested in? And so the brain goes all over the place. And that’s basically what happens when you give somebody a blank sheet of paper. Now the other thing is they may give you an answer that you don’t like because you had something you were thinking about.
Jenn DeWall: So that’s absolutely me with my husband.
Stephen Shapiro: So what I find to be useful as I figured out, okay, these are the three or four things I’m really craving. And then I’ll just say which one feels best to you? So I know I’m going to get something that meets my criteria, but I give them some level of choice. But it’s not an infinite choice because it actually makes it easier on the other person too. Because when you say where do you want to go to eat, it drives most people crazy because they are like, I don’t know, especially for your town where you don’t even know what restaurants there are.
Jenn DeWall: Right. Or if you’re busy and the last thing you want to do is make another decision or research or think about it, you want it to be an easy choice for you. And it’s not that it has to be, you know, in the case of dinner it should be easier than trying to solve some of your organizational challenges, but you want it to be clear. You want those guard rails and those compass points to be established for you. So it’s, you know, just an easier way for you to make that transition into solutioning.
Stephen Shapiro: Yes. I mean when you, I mean I, I love the restaurant example, but mainly because it is such a simple way of describing the complexity that actually goes on inside of organizations. Because where do you want to go for dinner is a simple question, but it’s a very broad question and if you think about, but it’s still relatively narrow in the scheme of things because you’re still talking about just food as opposed to saying, where do you want to go? Well, that’s a much broader question, and that’s the whole beauty of asking questions is we can make them more specific, and we can make them less specific. We can shift them a little bit in a different direction and have a number of tools that I use with my clients that help them really say, okay, well I think it’s this problem, but no, actually it’s this problem.
Stephen Shapiro: Or it could be this problem, or it could be that problem. That’s the beauty of it. And I love a quote from Einstein, he actually never said these exact words, but he’s been quoted as saying this if I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem, 1 minute finding solutions. And I love that it’s a much shorter articulation of something that he said that was much longer. But what I love about that is most organizations are running around spending 60 minutes solving problems that don’t matter. And if you take the time to think about the question, figure out what is it that we really need to achieve and is there a different problem we can solve? You will unleash so much more creativity, so much more value and will be so much more efficient. Which, to me, is so important because companies are way too busy.
Jenn DeWall: What are some ways that companies can solve their problems?
Stephen Shapiro: Well, when it comes to solving problems, my favorite assumption is somebody else has already solved your problem. If you are working on a problem and let’s say you work for a hospital and one of your big problems is we’re trying to get people checked into the emergency room quickly. Okay, well that’s now what most people will do in that situation is they’re going to talk to other hospitals again. But the solution to that one is actually talking to hotels. Someone has solved the check-in problem already. So if a hospital talks to a hotel, there’ll be much more efficient in the way they do things. So I always ask who else has solved a similar problem? And if you can get it to that level of simplicity when you can start thinking about who else has solved the problem, but in a completely different area of expertise, a different industry now all of a sudden, not only do you get much higher quality solutions, but you get them much faster. And that’s also one of the beauties of crowdsourcing when it’s done right, is you can find solutions from people in completely different areas of expertise who can find solutions to a problem that you’re working on.
Jenn DeWall: I wonder if this is just more was sparked from hearing you, but I wonder how much was sparked from the, not necessarily the invention, but the coming of ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft, how many people saw that convenience that people were striving for and then built into maybe thinking about GrubHub or Postmates, which are different things of where we get our food, and it’s fast and it’s on-demand. And that just made me think like if they were looking at the Uber who thought about how can we get transportation in a different way that’s simple and easy and on-demand. And it’s thinking, how can we apply the same thing to the fast-food chain? But that’d be, would I be understanding that correctly or way off?
Stephen Shapiro: No, you’re spot on. Well, and Uber figured that out too because Uber eats is now crushing it. I mean, I think they think, I saw a statistic that they sold $10 billion in food last year. I mean, it’s like unbelievable. So, and, and the model that the, whether it’s the sharing economy, you know, that, okay, that now opens up a whole new set of models. And that’s the other thing there are; there are different models. You have the access model versus the ownership model. So instead of having to buy MP3s or CDs or DVDs or whatever it might be, well now you just need access to it. And then, okay, well what does that do? Now we get Apple music, we have Netflix, we have all these other different models where people have access to things, but they don’t own it. They end their subscription and boom, everything’s gone. So it’s a different model. And these cool models apply to every single industry. The concept of a Netflix rental has been applied to boat rentals. There’s a boat rental come in. It’s done some really cool things by applying that Netflix mindset to a physical product. So it is that cross-pollination where you get some really cool solutions and again, you’ll, you’ll accelerate the process.
Jenn DeWall: Oh my gosh, I love that. Do you have anything else that you would want to add in talking about a challenge centered innovation before we go on to talk about Personality Poker, which is one of the, your innovation tools and books that organizations can use to help encourage better innovation?
Stephen Shapiro: Yeah, I would say that with challenge centered innovation, the key is asking the right question the right way to the right people. That’s probably the simplest way to put it. So the right question is to make sure that you’re asking something important. So not all problems are equally important. If you try to be the best at everything, you’ll be the best of nothing. So how do we get people to focus on our differentiator? How do we innovate where we differentiate? So those are the right questions and then asking them the right way is that reframing? If it’s too abstract, how do we make it more specific? If it’s too specific, how do I make it less so? How do I look at it from different lenses and different angles?
Take the time. Anytime you’re working on a project, anytime you’re making any kind of investment, just put the pause button on it and just say, what’s the problem we’re really solving and is there a different solution? We jump to solutions so quickly, and the reason for this is because we’re not wired for innovation. We’re actually a primary wiring is around survival and so what we do is we survival, for the most part, the brain believes that what we’ve done in the past kept us alive, so we’re going to perpetuate the past and unfortunately unlike a lot of commercials that say, you know, past success is no indicator of future success. I would say it’s much worse than that. Past success is a pretty good predictor of future failure because expertise is the enemy of innovation and once you are successful at something, you now add in your brain. It is. It’s a survival mode where we’re thinking, okay, this worked. I’m going to do it. I’m going to hang onto it. I’m going to do what I’ve done before because it was so successful, and then the world changes around you, and you’re out of business. That to me is one of the key challenges for organizations is to just get out of their own way and recognize that your past experience, the deeper you understand your industry, the deeper you understand your customers, the deeper you understand what has worked in the past probably is a good predictor of what you will not see in the future.
Jenn DeWall: I love that expertise is the enemy of innovation and to some of our leaders out there that may feel that pressure to always have all of the answers to get everything right the first time. It sounds like this has also given you permission to say it’s not the time to always be the expert. We need to lean into different ideas. We need to hear from different people to understand if there’s a new way that we can look at things. So you don’t have to put the pressure on yourself to always be disruptive, but just remember that you don’t want to hold onto your past because it’s going to dictate your future. And that may bring you right to a place where you’re going out of business, or you’re losing a job or X, Y, Z. The adverse consequences that we don’t want from building on the past. Successful thinking.
Stephen Shapiro: Yeah, and I love the way you described that because there is freedom. I mean we hire people because of their knowledge and their expertise, but there’s a point where their knowledge and expertise will get in the way. And especially as you move up the ladder, as you become a manager, you become a director. Once you get to these levels, you should not be the expert. You should be the person who pulls out the best thinking of everyone else on your team. So what you want to do is actually, instead of giving people answers and dictating what should happen, you want to give people the frameworks and the structure so that they are able to come up with the right questions. You know, there’s this mantra we always have in business, which is don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions. And I actually think that’s the wrong mindset. I want bigger, more important, better problems. And as a leader, if we teach our employees, teach our teams to become better at problem identification and problem formulation, they will become better at problem-solving. But you don’t start with a solution. You start with important problems that are reframed.
Jenn DeWall: Yes, and helping them see the big picture of where you’re trying to go. And I’ve seen that before in a few different tech companies where they have it as a sign on their wall that says don’t bring a problem unless you have a solution. Right? And it’s, it actually is the opposite way to look at it, bring the problem, but make sure you’re asking the right questions to identify the problem. And then you can go into the solution.
Stephen Shapiro: Yeah. And even if you don’t have the right question, if you have a question that is important, other people can then help you look at the problem from different angles. And now what you thought was the problem. I remember one client I was working with; they thought they had a call center problem. The call center for some reason, just their response times were going down, the call volumes were going up. And so the original problem, that statement that they were focused on was okay, how do we improve the efficiency of the call center to handle the increase in volume? And you know, when we looked at it I said, okay, is that really what the problem is? And the issue was they had changed a few lines on the bills that were confusing and that one change caused this increase in call center volume, which then led them to think they had to be more efficient when in fact when they made the bills clearer, the call volumes dropped, and they solved the problem. So instead of it being a call center problem is actually a billing and invoicing problem. So it’s things like that we need to just make sure, are we solving the right problem? Are we solving the symptom? Are we working on something that – you know, because they could’ve made the call centers as efficient as possible. They could have hired more or used new technology, spent millions of dollars when in fact they could have spent one hour fixing some code on the billing system to just say, this is what’s really going on here.
Jenn DeWall: Right? So it’s what’s your innovation costing you? One piece of it is what is your lack of an innovation process or lack of identifying the appropriate challenge costing you in terms of your time resources. What is it doing to your organization? How is it impacting morale? That’s, you know, I love your whole philosophy around how to identify the appropriate challenge and then what we can do to be innovative and that it’s something that it’s accessible to all of us just by asking the right questions. Yes. So another book that you have and it’s also a tool that organizations can invest in is Personality Poker. What is Personality Poker? I mean it sounds like a fun game that we’re supposed to play. Is that what it is? Well, it is a fun game, but it does have a point.
Stephen Shapiro: So when I was in the consulting world, I led a very large consulting practice, and I had this belief that there were some people who were innovative and then there was everyone else. It was, and I thought it was just a small percentage of the people were innovative. And what I realized over time was I was, I was wrong, I was totally wrong. Everybody’s innovative. We just innovate in different ways. We have different ways that we contribute because innovation is not the same as creativity. So if you think about innovation, the way that we’ve been talking about is it starts with the issue, problem, challenge, or opportunity. And we have to develop solutions, but then we have to implement, and we have to engage people because innovation doesn’t happen unless we get people involved. And what I realized is those four steps are four different people, four different categories of people.
Stephen Shapiro: We have some people who are great at analytics, the data, the numbers, of being able to look at are we solving the right problem? Is it important? Are we focused on what’s going to give us the greatest result? That’s one group of people. And Personality Poker helps you identify those people. It could be the people who are to finding solutions. And so the four steps of the innovation process link back to the four suits in a deck of poker cards. So basically the way it works, quite simply, 52 poker cards suits, colors, and numbers, but also words. And on the cards there are words that describe behavioral attributes such as organized, empathetic, creative, analytical. And what we do is we deal out five cards to everybody in the audience, and we have people trade. And the goal is to get five cards where the words best describe how you see yourself and whatever you end up within the end. So you have five cards with the words that really do describe you. The suits, the colors, and the numbers are going to help you determine how you contribute to innovation, how you detract from innovation who you need to partner with that you probably wouldn’t typically be inclined to partner with. We also use it to help understand what’s your innovation culture, what do you value as an organization and how is that driving innovation? So it’s a simple deck of cards that can have a profound impact on the way an organization thinks and utilizes its people.
Jenn DeWall: What are some of the impacts that you’ve seen from people that have used Personality Poker?
Stephen Shapiro: So I think there are a few things. The first one is you want to make sure that everybody’s playing to their strong suit, which basically means, look, I’m, I’m a diamond and personality poke, which means I like new experiences. I like novelty. Novelty’s what I value. So I’m, I’m good at coming up with new ideas because I’m good at connecting dots. Now if you start giving me spreadsheets, I’m going to be, I’ll be, could I do it? I could do it, but I would be miserable. So the first thing is we get to see, and we’ve seen this so many times where people inside of organizations, we’re just in the wrong roles based on the work that they do that they aren’t naturally inclined to do. So that’s the first thing. The second thing is we look at teams. So individuals want to play to their strong suit, but we want to make sure that the teams are playing with a full deck.
Stephen Shapiro: And basically what that means is if you have, it’s natural for teams to hire people who fit the mold. The problem is if you’re hiring people who fit the mold, the team’s going to grow mold because it’s going to become stale. If everybody’s thinking the same way, you’re not going to get that innovation. So we need to make sure we have all the different styles somehow involved in the innovation process, that full deck. And there are so many other ways that we use it, dealing out the work to make sure we’re dividing and conquering and shuffling the deck to make sure we’re getting that creative tension. So there are so many different ways you can use it. But the results have just been profound in terms of retention and recruitment because now people feel as though they’re valued for the way they want to be valued.
Stephen Shapiro: But also when we look at it from a cultural perspective, we can also start now seeing what we tend to value the people who produce results, who follow through on plans. And that’s a typical “club” in the deck of cards; these are the people who are the implementers. The problem is the “diamonds” are- the creatives are- very different. And if you only use a one size fits all strategy for evaluating people, and if you look at your performance reviews, it will explain why you tend to lose a lot of people at particular styles. So we need to be able to evaluate people, praise people the way they want to be praised, not just one uniform way that the organization thinks that should be praised.
Jenn DeWall: Right. And I love how you describe it, playing with a full deck. I think that with innovation, sometimes you can assume that innovation is only for the creatives. We don’t necessarily assume that it’s for your analyticals or for your implementers. And so I love that it’s really all about how can we make it where we’re all playing, that there’s diversity and it’s not just dependent on one person. It’s all of us together
Stephen Shapiro: For sure. And in fact, if you, my definition of innovation is innovation as an end to end process that starts with an issue, problem, challenge, or opportunity and ends with the creation of value. The “spades” are the people who are great at defining the problem. So that issue, problem, challenge or opportunity, we don’t think of them as being creative, but they’re the starting point of the innovation process. And if it’s about implementing, creating valuable, those are the clubs. Now, the black cards, the spades in the clubs, we never think we think of them as being left-brain analytical pain in the butt, “yeah, but…” people have nothing to do with innovation. But the reality is, the reason why innovation fails in so many organizations is not that they need more ideas, not because they need more creative people. They’re using the analytical people, they’re using the process-oriented people the wrong way, and they’re not tapping into the value that they can provide
Jenn DeWall: So it’s looking at it as like, how can we create the environment for you to be able to thrive, to really help us solve this problem and this challenge. Now, I mean, it’s fair. I think that given that I’ve, I created myself, I think sometimes you do have that generalization that the more analytical is going to stop the innovative efforts. So then you kind of want to do things around them so they can’t stop it. Not that you’re trying to hide it, but you’re more concerned with them not necessarily wanting to, wanting to do what you’re doing because of the, yeah, but, or like, yeah, well this is going to cost or yeah, we’ve done that before. And I think instead of avoiding them, it’s about bringing in, inviting them to the table and saying, how can we all do this together?
Stephen Shapiro: For sure, for sure. I mean, we need all these different perspectives. And when I, I know for myself as a “diamond,” as a creative person, the first person I will bring onto my team is my opposite, which is a particular form of “club” — the person who’s really anal-retentive. I want- now they’re going to drive me crazy. I’m going to want to strangle them. I’m not going to have fun working with them, but I know I need them. Cause if I don’t have them, I’m just going to be off in La-La land. Because the red cards like to chase bright shiny objects, I’m like, Hey this is cool, but tomorrow something’s cooler, and nothing gets done. So it’s having that understanding that we all have blind spots in terms of what we’re good at and what we’re not good at and we need to partner with people who are going to complement us. And I mean that complement with an E, not an I. People are going to, if I’m a creative, I need a planner. If I, if I’m an analytical person, I might need someone that is more empathetic and about the people, not just about the numbers. So how can you establish, or I guess, how can you start to build a team that values diversity and thought the keyword is values. So the biggest mistake that I think most diversity programs make using the term diversity very broadly is it’s about numbers of people rather than appreciation. And one of the things we found is even with Personality Poker; if I have a spade,a diamond, a club and a heart working together on a team, and we don’t do anything to help them appreciate the value they provide, it is the most dysfunctional team you’ll ever have. But when you give them the tools to say, okay, I understand how you operate, what your contribution is to the process, I understand that this is where I’m going to be weak, and this is where you’re going to be strong. I understand here’s how you’re going to drive me crazy and how I’m going to drive you crazy. But we need each other. When you have those conversations, that’s the value. So for me, personality, poker, yeah, look it. It’s fun. You get to gift cards to other people. So you get to see how you’re perceived by your coworkers. That’s cool. But it’s the conversation that matters most. Why am I going to be valuable? Why are you going to be valuable? And that to me is the real cornerstone in the real value of anything like this.
Jenn DeWall: Out of my own personal curiosity. I wonder what personality I would fit. I identify as a creative. I also have the shiny object syndrome where I definitely see something that’s great, and I want to follow that. So what does that make me in terms of the Personality Poker deck?
Stephen Shapiro: That’s a diamond. So diamonds are the bright, shiny object people of the worst kind. They’re creative, I think of diamonds is multifaceted. So Steve jobs said creativity is just having enough dots to connect. That’s what the diamonds are great at because we don’t necessarily want to be nailed down into a very narrow box. We’d like to bounce around and try new things. So we might not have depth, but we have breadth of experiences that we can then connect those dots and come up with solutions that other people might not have considered. So I would say you’re probably primarily a diamond. I think you probably have some heart in you. I, I sort of feel that you have a connection to people and that puts you in what we call the influencer category. So diamonds and hearts are the influencers. They have a lot of really cool and interesting ideas, and they’re able to share those ideas and get people excited about them. I find a lot of professional speakers fall into that influencer category, whereas program managers tend to be Hearts and clubs, they’re very good at the process. They’re very good at the plans, but they’re also good at getting people involved because if you have a great plan but no people to execute it, you have no results. So those builders, those clubs and hearts are really powerful. And there’s so many other different combinations, but it’s, I think the most important they want to leave with Personality Poker is who you are – is less important than who you are not. Who you are is less important than who you are not. And if you have five cards in your hand, 95% of the people in the audience, will be missing a suit from their hand. That is the big insight because whatever suit you don’t have in your hand tells you that’s the person you need the most. I always say the person you liked the least is the person you need the most. The person who’s going to drive you craziest because they are not who you are is the person you absolutely have to have on your team, and you have to value them and nurture them and make sure they feel like they’re being valued and you have to figure out how to communicate with them.
Jenn DeWall: Oh my gosh, I love this. And I’m excited to do that with activity like with our organization and just get to see each other in a different way and through a different lens. So the last question that we like to ask everyone for The Leadership Habit Podcast is around understanding what brought you to your success. And so I want to end this podcast and this great conversation that we’ve been having with you, Stephen, with the question: what is your leadership habit?
Stephen Shapiro: Being a diamond, I don’t have a lot of habits. I lack discipline. The things I find that really do help me, and I find that environment is important to me. So I live in Orlando. I have annual passes to a number of the theme parks there. And I love to take my iPad and go to Disney or Universal or SeaWorld or wherever and just sit down, feel the environment, sit in a different place, go to a different park and see what’s going on and see how Disney creates these experiences. And then I like to write about it and think about it and reflect on how, you know, others can apply that. I like to-I have a hot tub. I love to sit in my hot tub. I mean, when I’m doing writing. So I just wrote another book and every morning before I would write, I would sit in the hot tub for about 45 minutes and just sort of really just clear my mind so that when I sat in front of the computer, my brain is quiet, and for some reason the words just flow much more easily than when I’m thinking too hard about things.
Jenn DeWall: So it’s taking a step back. It sounds like for you, trying to observe and instead of just always thinking all the time. Would that be fair?
Stephen Shapiro: I think that’s right. Fair. And one of my challenges is I described myself sometimes the head on a stick. I think a lot; getting my brain to be quiet is very difficult. So anything I can do to quiet it is important. Like when I go to sleep at night, I have to read mindless mysteries because there’s something about if I try, if I’m trying to, I particularly like short stories because if I am trying to solve a who done it, I can’t be thinking about all of my work things that are going to be rolling through my head. So I start focusing on the more I focus on something other than work, and it requires concentration to solve the mystery. I tire myself out, and I pass out and fall asleep. So it really is just quieting the brain in any way possible.
Jenn DeWall: Perfect. Well, thank you so much for sharing your leadership habit with us and also just spending your time and giving us more of an understanding of how we can be successful in innovation. I really enjoyed our conversation today, Stephen; and I’m really happy that we had you on the show.
Stephen Shapiro: Thanks. It was my pleasure.
Outro: Thank you for listening to today’s episode of The Leadership Habit. If you want to learn more about Steve, check out his website, https://stephenshapiro.com . You can find his book, Best Practices Are Stupid: 40 Ways to Out-Innovate the Competition as well as his game, Personality Poker: The Playing Card Tool for Driving High Performance Teamwork and Innovation on his website. In addition, be on the lookout for Steve’s next book, which will debut in early 2020!