Friday, May 20, 2011

Dumb Question

I wish I had an answer to that because I'm tired of answering that question.
Yogi Berra

I once had a nice market opportunity but I didn't know how to build the product. So, I asked 5 PhD scientists and 15 science graduate students to help me design the product. They all said it couldn't be done and had some very good reasons for it. A year later, someone else had a product on the market....and everyone of the scientists, including me, knew exactly how to make the product....and we had known how to make it since our sophomore years of college.

Read on for the details.

One day, a polite, well dressed, well spoken man entered my office. A mutual friend had sent him to me. The man, Charles, said he needed help with two projects.

The first project was an exciting, creative, valuable concept for microfinance. I gladly helped him with what I could and connected him to others who would help him make it happen.

The second project was nicely described as weird. You see, Charles had a few dogs and he hated the squishy feel of picking up their poop. So he said, "I want to spray it with a foam that would quickly harden so I can pick up the foam and dispose of it".

I immediately wished he wasn't sitting there; however, he was a friend of a friend, so I let him go on. He presented to me a massive volume of market data. After listening to it all, I had little doubt that there actually was a market need...perhaps you don't believe me, but hang with me on this because the need, or lack there of, is really not the point of this article.

At the time I was teaching innovation and creativity courses. I always told my students that what might start as a crazy idea can be transformed into something valuable if you are patient and put a little effort into it. So I set out to practice what I taught.

Fortunately, I was located near some of the world's leading minds in polymer science and many of them were experts in making rigid foams. Five of them told me, independently, that we'd never be able to get a foam that would set up fast enough, be reasonably cost effective and non-toxic. I knew enough of the science to agree with them. I should point out that they all laughed at the market and were hardly taking me serious, but they were friends so they humored me.

But I wasn't done. I took the idea, along with Charles, to my creativity class of polymer science and medicinal chemistry students. These 15 students laughed and joked along with Charles about the market. They spent an hour brainstorming solutions, spent a week more outside the classroom working on (or joking about) the idea. They came up empty.

A year later, a colleague came into my office and handed me a USAir catalog. In it was "Poop-Freeze". Yes, a product for turning squishy poop into hard poop that could easily be picked up. Click on the link if you don't believe me.

Poop-Freeze was simply compressed air. Every scientist I spoke with understood very well that compressed air could freeze poop when it expanded. It's such a simple solution, everyone knew the answer, but we were asking the wrong question. We were asking how do we create a rigid foam when we should have been asking how do we make the poop rigid.

It could BE different, had we asked the right question.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Moldy Cheese

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss
Pete Townsend

If you find the book "Who Moved My Cheese" to be informative, inspiring or relevant, then you'd be ill advised to read any further.

If you thought, like me, that the book would be a turn of the century fad, I am sad to report that I find its advocates almost daily.

For those of you fortunate enough to have avoided reading "Who Moved My Cheese", it is a parable with two men in a maze getting fat, dumb and happy eating cheese from the same spot every day. One day, the cheese disappeared. One man eventually goes deeper into the maze in search of the cheese while the other sits and complains.

The book is rather quaint, enjoyable reading and captures the basics that I'd want my six year old to understand about reacting to change. Similarly, I want my six year old to understand the concepts of boy that cried wolf, the three little pigs and little red riding hood. However, I hope by sixteen she will understand the world as a more richly complex place than these simplistic parables and fables.

I have no issue with the author, the style or the message, but rather with the people who put more meaning into the book then it should be allotted.

It seems especially popular with newly appointed 'leaders'. These 'leaders' often view themselves as bringing great change to their organization. Generally, the only change that actually happens to the organization is the name on the 'leaders' door.

If you give a copy of "Who Moved My Cheese" to your new employees, rest assured that they will interpret it as two things. One, that you want them to recognize your new authority. Two, that they are stupid. After all, it would be the rare adult to argue with the basic principals quoted from the book:
Change Happens
They Keep Moving The Cheese
Anticipate Change
Get Ready For The Cheese To Move
Monitor Change
Smell The Cheese Often So You Know When It Is Getting Old
Adapt To Change Quickly
The Quicker You Let Go Of Old Cheese, The Sooner You Can Enjoy New Cheese
Move With The Cheese
Enjoy Change!
Savor The Adventure And Enjoy The Taste Of New Cheese!
Be Ready To Change Quickly And Enjoy It Again
They Keep Moving The Cheese.
Setting aside that your employees will be insulted, having them read the book does not help them understand HOW to make the changes. It doesn't help them SEE the changes that are occurring. It doesn't UNIFY them around a certain set of actions that will lead to a desired change.

It could BE different, but don't expect that giving out copies of Who Moved My Cheese will cause it.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

On the Bus

Anyone who said he wasn't afraid during the civil rights movement was either a liar or without imagination. I was scared all the time. My hands didn't shake but inside I was shaking. James Farmer

There are far more detailed and well written histories of the Freedom Riders available then I could ever provide. However, a blog on innovation and change would be a sad blog indeed to not recognize the 50th anniversary of the first Freedom Ride.

The Freedom Riders were imprisoned, beaten, permanently disabled and almost burned to death while being labeled unpatriotic by the Kennedy Administration, much of the press and often their friends and families.....for riding on a bus.

These people epitomize innovators, not because they tried something radically new with little chance of success. Rather, they copied the tried and true methods popularized by Ghandi, innovated by adapting them to their specific situation, knowing that it could BE different.