In the Before Times, we attended conferences to learn, make connections, and promote ourselves and our businesses. Then COVID hit, and conferences became virtual. Although that made them easier to attend, it also made them easier to skip. Because, if we’re honest, most conferences were more about connecting and promoting than learning.
Last week, I went to one of those rare, almost mythical, conferences more focused on learning and connecting than promoting. It was fantastic! It was also in Nebraska (which is a pretty interesting place, btw).
It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but if you asked me to define “Strategy,” I’d respond with a long and rambling answer. Which means I can’t define “strategy.” This admission is especially embarrassing because I have a resume littered with places where I developed, drafted, and implemented strategies, so I should have learned what the word means. But nope, I didn’t.
I suspect I’m not alone.
Asking for the definition of strategy is like asking if you must wear clothes to the office. You should know the answer. But unlike whether or not clothing is mandatory, most of us don’t know the answer, AND it’s easy to get away with never knowing the answer.
The elegant simplicity of Kareen’s definition of strategy blew my mind. It’s short, memorable, and something that most people can understand. Maybe I should share the definition with my alma maters and past employers.
“When we feel threatened, our IQ drops 50 to 70 points”
When I first heard talk about Psychological Safety and Safe Spaces in today’s business world, I rolled my eyes. Hard. As a Gen X-er, I grumbled about how we didn’t need “safe spaces” when I grew up because we were tough and self-reliant, and I lamented the inevitable downfall of society caused by weak and coddled Millennials.
I was wrong.
Psychological Safety is absolutely and unquestionably essential for individuals to grow, teams to work, companies to operate and innovate, and societies to function and evolve. I’ve seen teams and businesses transform and achieve unbelievable success by discussing and living the elements they require for Psychological Safety. I’ve also seen teams and businesses fail in its absence.
These results aren’t surprising when you realize that you feel threatened when you are in a complex situation in which you cannot accurately predict the outcomes. And when you feel threatened, you are half as intelligent, effective, and creative as you are when you’re calm.
So, if you’re a manager and you’re upset that your people aren’t as intelligent, effective, or creative as they should be, it may not be their fault. It may be yours.
“Stage expertise, not industry expertise, is key to innovation success“
There is deep comfort in the known. It’s why we gravitate to people like us. It’s also why companies ask job candidates and consultants about their experience in the industry and choose those with deep experience and impressive expertise. Often, there’s nothing with this question or the resulting decision.
Sometimes, it’s precisely the wrong question.
Sometimes, functional expertise is significantly more important than industry experience. After all, if you’re the hiring manager at a healthcare company looking for a Director of Finance, who would you hire – a Marketing Director from a competitor or a Finance Director from a CPG company?
That’s the case with innovation.
Decades of real-world experience (not to mention the successful launch of 100+ startups) show that successful corporate startup teams had expertise (mindsets, skillsets, executional drive) in the startup’s phase and a working knowledge of the industry rather extensive industry expertise and little to no innovation experience.
Questions are good. The right questions are better. So, the next time you’re staffing up an innovation team (or hiring a consultant), choose based on their innovation experience and willingness to learn about your industry.
Innovation happens everywhere
That’s why people from San Francisco, Austin, Washington DC, NYC, Toronto, Boston, and dozens of other places converged on Lincoln, Nebraska.
We went to see innovation in action and learn about the thriving startup community in the middle of the country. We also went to learn and connect with others committed to creating new things that create value.
Giant corporations need big innovations to move the needle
Entrepreneurs need big ideas to get attention
Investors need big returns to take risks
But innovation thrives in constraints.
And “Go Small” may be the biggest constraint out there.
Here are three stories about small innovations that created big value
Lollipops Reduce Violence
Closing time at the bars is never pretty. It can be downright dangerous. What starts as a few insults shouted back and forth between individuals or groups of friends can quickly devolve into brawls, assaults, and even murder.
Every year, dozens of cities and towns run experiments to find ways to decrease incidences of violence around bars and clubs:
Closing bars earlier
Keeping bars open 24/7
Training bouncers in crowd control tactics
In 2001, various cities and towns in the UK began giving lollipops to people as they streamed out of pubs and clubs. The rationale varied:
“It’s hard to suck and fight at the same time.” – Leicester, 2001
“Research shows the sugar content helps to stabilise the behaviour of those who have consumed alcohol.” – West Oxfordshire, 2006
“[Offering food] can stop people shouting, make them less aggressive and prevent post-alcohol hunger” – Camden Town, 2010
It’s estimated that these efforts, which eventually expanded to include flip flops and cookies, cost “tens of thousands of pounds,” a drop in the bucket compared to the millions of pounds spent each year on police and medical resources to deal with the drunken behavior.
Waffle Maker Saves the Planet
Imagine throwing away 20 BILLION wax-coated bowls and plastic spoons every year.
Imagine that you could keep 12 BILLION of those out of the waste system by doing just one thing.
Giving up ice cream.
Would you do it?
Yeah, me neither.
This is why we should be very thankful to a Syrian waffle vendor at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.
Even though ice cream cones were in use as early as the 19th century, it wasn’t until a chance encounter at the World’s Fair that they went mainstream. In the sweltering summer heat, ice cream was a popular treat for the 20 million people visiting the fair. So, it’s not surprising that vendors eventually ran out of serving bowls.
Luckily for us and the planet, one of those popular ice cream vendors was next to Ernest A. Hamwi and his very unpopular warm waffle stand. Seeing his fellow vendor’s plight, Ernest took one of his waffles, rolled it into a cone, and a tasty partnership was born.
Town Crier Out Shares Facebook
On Thursday, August 11, as thousands of tourists arrived in Provincetown eager to begin celebrating the Cape Cod town’s largest summer festival, the sewer system failed. Although only 356 of the town’s 1500 properties were affected, most of those affected were the restaurants, hotels, and businesses at the heart of the town’s tourist industry.
Naturally, officials took to social media to alert businesses and residents of the impact. In a Facebook post, restaurants were told to close, and residents were told they “must reduce water use, including dishwashing, laundry, showering, and only flush when absolutely necessary,”
Naturally, such restrictions created problems for businesses and residents alike. But what about the thousands of tourists just arriving who were not subscribers to Provincetown’s Facebook account?
The Town Crier
In 1864, Provincetown created the position of Town Crier as a way to spread news throughout the community quickly. Over time, as technology made spreading information easier and faster, the Town Crier became more of a tourist attraction, responsible for greeting visitors and promoting members of the Chamber of Commerce.
Until August 11, when the 22nd Town Crier was called back to duty.
“All is not well in Provincetown,” the Town Crier proclaimed as he stood in front of Town Hall dressed, as usual, in historical garb and swinging his heavy bell. As Thursday turned into Friday, the Town Crier issued updates, listing the re-opened restaurants and the areas where toilet flushing and showers were now allowed.
“Let us pray to the supreme architect of the universe that the system will have been rectified,” he pleaded. I’m sure town officials gave thanks to the supreme architect of the universe that their small investment in maintaining an old solution was, again, creating quite a lot of value for the town.
Size doesn’t matter
Innovation is something new that creates value, and, as innovators, we naturally want to create BIG value. Heck, we want to change the world!
It’s easy to forget that Small can have a big impact, whether physically small like lollipops, a small distance away like waffle and ice cream vendors, or only able to reach a small audience like the Town Crier.
So when you find yourself obsessing about size, just paraphrase Dr. Seuss, “An innovation’s an innovation, no matter how small!”
You have, no doubt, seen the design squiggle. The ubiquitous scribble is all loopy and knotty in the beginning until it finally sorts itself into a straight line by the end.
It illustrates the design process – “the journey of researching, uncovering insights, generating creative concepts, iteration of prototypes and eventually concluding in one single designed solution” – and its elegant simplicity has led it to be adopted by all sorts of other disciplines, including innovation.
But when I showed it to a client, her immediate response was, “It’s Jeremy Bearimy!”*
And that is how I discovered The Good Place, a sitcom about four humans who die, go to The Good Place, and struggle to learn what it means to be good.
The show, created by Michael Schur of The Office and Parks and Recreation fame, is a brilliant treatise on ethics and moral philosophy. It also contains valuable wisdom about what innovators need to succeed.
With all due respect, “It’s the way it’s always been done” is an excuse that’s been used for hundreds of years to justify racism, misogyny…
This quote was a gut punch from the show’s fourth and final season. As innovators, we often hear people ask why change is needed. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” they proclaim.
But sometimes it is broke, and we don’t know it. At the very least, it can always be better.
So, while “it’s the way it’s always been done” at your company probably (hopefully) doesn’t include racism, misogyny, sexism, and other genuinely horrible things, framing the status quo as an enabler of those horrors is a harsh wake-up call to the dangers of an unquestioning commitment to continuing to do things the way they’ve always been done.
Decisions (not just Ideas)
If you’re always frozen in fear and taking too long to figure out what to do, you’ll miss your opportunity, and maybe get sucked into the propeller of a swamp boat.
Even though Jason Mendoza is the resident idiot of The Good Place, he occasionally (and very accidentally) has moments of profound insight. This one to a situation that innovators are all too familiar with – analysis paralysis.
How often do requests for more data, more (or more relevant) benchmarks, or input from more people slow down decisions and progress? These requests are rarely rooted in doubt about the data, benchmarks, or information you presented. They are rooted in fear – the fear of making the wrong decision, being blamed or shamed, and losing a reputation or even a job.
But worse than being wrong, blamed, shamed, or unemployed is missing an opportunity to radically improve your business, team, or even the world. It’s the business equivalent of getting sucked into the propeller of a swamp boat.
Actions (not just decisions)
In football, trying to run out the clock and hoping for the best never works. It’s called “prevent defense.” You don’t take any chances and just try and hold on to your lead. But prevent defense just PREVENTS you from winning! It’s always better to try something.
Jason does it again, this time invoking a lesson learned from his beloved Jacksonville Jaguars.
Few companies publicly admit to adopting a prevent defense, even though most companies engage in it. They play prevent defense when they don’t invest in innovation, focus exclusively on maintaining or incrementally improving what they currently do, or confine their innovation efforts to events like hackathons and shark tanks.
Incremental improvements and innovation theater keep you competitive. But they won’t get you ahead of the competition or make you a leader in your industry. In fact, they prevent it by making you feel good and safe when you’re really just running out the clock.
Come on, you know how this works. You fail and then you try something else. And you fail again and again, and you fail a thousand times, and you keep trying because maybe the 1,001st idea might work. Now, I’m gonna and try to find our 1,001st idea.
It’s hard to explain this quote without sharing massive spoilers, so let’s just say that The Good Place is an experiment that fails. A lot.
But it’s also an experiment that generates profound learning and universe-altering changes, things that would not have been possible without the failures.
Yes, smart innovators know when to kill a project. They also know when to try one more time. Wise innovators know the difference.
One final bit of wisdom
Innovation is hard. You will run into more resistance than expected, and things will rarely work out as planned. As long as you keep trying and learning, you won’t fail.
To paraphrase Jason Mendoza (again), you’re not a failed innovator, you’re pre-successful.
*For those of you who are, like I was, unfamiliar with Jeremy Bearimy, here’s a clip explaining it (WARNING: SPOILERS)
Most of my advice to leaders who want to use innovation to grow their businesses boils down to two things*:
Talk (and listen) to customers
But what if you don’t want to talk to customers?
After all, talking to customers can be scary because you don’t know what they’ll say. It can be triggering if they say something mean about your product, your business, or even you as a person. It can be draining, especially if you’re an introvert.
Plus, there are so many ways to avoid talking to customers – Send a survey, hire a research firm to write a report, invoke the famous Steve Jobs quote about never doing customer research.
Isn’t it just better to stay tucked away in the office, read reports, state opinions as if they are facts (those opinions are based on experience, after all), and make decisions?
It is not better. It is also not safer, easier, or more efficient.
To make the best decisions, you need the best data, which comes from your customers.
But that doesn’t mean you need to talk to them to get it.
The best data
The best data helps you understand why your customers do what they do. This is why Jobs to be Done is such a powerful tool – it uncovers the emotional and social Jobs to be Done that drive our behavior and choices (functional Jobs to be Done are usually used to justify our choices).
But discovering Jobs to be Done typically requires you to talk to people, build rapport and trust in a one-on-one conversation, and ask Why? dozens of times so surface emotional and social JTBD.
Luckily, there are other ways to find Jobs to be Done that don’t require you to become an unlicensed therapist.
Observe your customers
Go where your customers are (or could be) experiencing the problem you hope to solve and try to blend in. Watch what people are doing and what they’re not doing. Notice whether people are alone or with others (and who those others are – kids, partners, colleagues, etc.). Listen to the environment (is it loud or quiet? If there’s noise, what kind of noise?) and to what people are saying to each other.
Be curious. Write down everything you’re observing. Wonder why and write down your hypotheses. Share your observations with your colleagues. Ask them to go out, observe, wonder, and share. Together you may discover answers or work up the courage to have a conversation.
Quick note – Don’t be creepy about this. Don’t lurk behind clothing racks, follow people through stores, peep through windows, linger too long, or wear sunglasses, a trench coat, and a fedora on a 90-degree day, so you look inconspicuous. If people start giving you weird looks, find a new place to people-watch.
Humans are fascinating, and because you are a human, you are fascinating. So, observe yourself when you’re experiencing the problem you’re hoping to solve. Notice where you are, who is with you, the environment, and how you feel. Watch what you do and don’t do. Wonder why you chose one solution over another (or none).
Be curious. Write down everything you did, saw, and felt and why. Ask your colleagues to do the same. Share your observations with your colleagues and find points of commonality and divergence, then get curious all over again.
Quick note – This only works if you have approximately the same demographic and psychographic profiles and important and unsatisfied Jobs to be Done of your target customers.
Be your customer
What if your business solves a problem that can’t be easily observed? What if you don’t have the problem that your business is trying to solve?
Become your customer (and observe yourself).
Several years ago, I worked with a client that made adult incontinence products. I couldn’t observe people using their products, and I do not have important (or unsatisfied) Jobs to be Done that the products can solve.
So, for one day, I became a customer. I went to Target and purchased their product. I went home, wore, and used the product. I developed a deep empathy for the customer and wrote down roughly 1 million ways to innovate the product and experience.
Quick note – Depending on what’s required to “be your customer,” you may need to give people a heads up. My husband was incredibly patient and understanding but also a little concerned on the day of the experiment.
It’s about what you learn, not how you learn it
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking there is one best way to get insights. I’m 100% guilty (one-on-one conversations are a hill I have died on multiple times).
Ultimately, when it comes to innovation and decision-making, the more important thing is having, believing, and using insights into why customers do what they do and want what they want. How you get those insights is an important but secondary consideration.
* Each of those two things contains A TON of essential stuff that must be done the right way at the right time otherwise, they won’t work, but we’ll get into those things in another article
Between theory and practice is a nearly infinite chasm of superficial understanding and unearned confidence. This is no more true than in the case of Jobs to be Done (JTBD), and I can say that with confidence because I spent years in the chasm.
But I clawed my way up and out and experienced why JTBD is the single most powerful and transformative tool you can use to drive growth.
Want to skip the dive into the canyon and the long slow climb out?
What is Jobs to be Done (JTBD)?
A Job to be Done is a problem that a person is experiencing and/or progress a person wants to make in a given circumstance.
Although the origins of the phrase and theory are up for debate, many people point to Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, as the originator of the phrase. (if you enjoy a good nerd-fight, and who doesn’t, you can read more from each person claiming to be The creator here, here, here, and here)
“The Milkshake Story” is an excellent example of JTBD. You can watch Clay tell it here. Or, remember the first, and still beautifully correct, articulation of JTBD, from a 1923 ad for a plumbing company in Reno, Nevada:
“When you buy a razor, you buy a smooth chin—but you could wear a beard.
When you buy a new suit, you buy an improved appearance—but you could make the old one do.
When you buy an automobile, you buy speedy transportation—but you could walk.
But when you buy plumbing, you buy cleanliness—for which there is no substitute!”
Why is JTBD so amazing?
Jobs to be Done surfaces the Why behind the What.
When you ask, “What do you want?” you’re asking people to define the solution. Whatever they say will be wrong because it is rooted in what exists. That’s why everyone from Henry Ford (supposedly) to Steve Jobs dismissed the usefulness of customer research.
If you ask the wrong question (What do you want?), you’ll get the wrong answer.
When you ask, “Why?” you’re asking people to define the problem. Whatever they say will be right (true) because it is rooted in their experience – the pain, frustration, and annoyance of today’s inadequate solutions.
Once you pair your understanding of why something works or doesn’t work with your knowledge of what is possible (not just what currently exists), then YOU are defining a solution that does its job better than anything else on the market.
When should you use Jobs to be Done?
Always. There is no “wrong” time to use it, and it’s valuable at every step of the innovation process:
Discovery: Identify un- or under-served markets by finding important and unsatisfied JTBD
Ideation, solution development, prototyping, market testing: Assess how well ideas solve important and unsatisfied JTBD and whether people are willing to pay for satisfaction
Post-launch: Understand how JTBD are shifting in importance and satisfaction as new solutions enter the market and change the basis of competition
How to identify Jobs to be Done
Full disclosure, everything that follows sounds simple but is extremely challenging. I’ve trained hundreds of people in this process. 1% immediately do it well. At least 50% never figure it out. The other 49% of us practice every chance we get – from formal qualitative research to casual conversations with friends – and eventually, we get it.
Always start with one-on-one conversations because you don’t know what you don’t know (even if you think you know, trust me, you don’t). You’re going to ask questions that invite people to bare their souls and all of their quirks, and they will. But not if there’s a crowd.
Identify no more than three questions that must be answered by the end of the conversation. Any more than that, you run the risk of the conversation becoming an interrogation, and no one will reveal their quirks and insecurities if they feel interrogated.
Be human. Introduce yourself as a person (where you live, why you’re interested in speaking with them, what interests you about the topic), not as a professional (name, title, serial number). Humans want to connect with humans, not business cards.
Be genuinely interested in the person you’re talking to. Ask them to introduce themselves and chime in when you find a shared interest. People will share more with you if you share with them.
Ask only open-ended questions. People want to share their story. Let them. Don’t rush them. If they start to go off track, gently guide them back. This is about them, not you.
Ask at least two follow-up questions. The first answer is never the real answer. It’s the answer they think you want to hear or the answer that puts them in the best light. Ask, “Why?” Say, “Tell me more.” Encourage with “And what else?” You’ll get the real answer only if you are patient and curious.
Let the silence work for you. Ask the question and then stop talking. Don’t offer potential answers. Don’t explain the question. Just ask and shut up. In more Western cultures, silence is deeply uncomfortable, so people will do almost anything to fill it, including sharing their quirks and baring their souls. Sit and silently count to 8. Most people will start talking by five.
Once you identify Jobs to be Done, usually through approximately 10 JTBD conversations, you know what you don’t know. From here, you can use focus groups to refine your insights, surveys to quantify the market, or ideation sessions to develop solutions.
If you want to cross (or avoid) the chasm between reading about Jobs to be Done and using it as a tool to create value and growth, you’ve got to go beyond theory and DO the work.
As with all new skills, you’ll need to be bad at it before you can be good at it. But with practice, you WILL get good.
You may even use your deep understanding and well-earned confidence to help others make the crossing.
You have the data. You heard everyone’s opinions. Now it’s time to decide.
Which projects get funding?
How will headcount change?
What projects are “deprioritized?”
You know that making tough decisions is the essence of leadership, but you’re starting to wonder if maybe life wouldn’t be a whole lot easier if you just stood up, walked out, and moved to a hut on a remote island and ate mangos and fish the rest of your life.
You make 35,000 decisions each day, and some of those decisions are really tough.
They’re tough because you don’t have enough data to be 100% certain of the answer. Or because everyone has a different opinion on what the correct answer is. Or because the consequences, even if you’re right, are breathtakingly high.
But these aren’t the reasons people struggle, even resist, making decisions. After all, you worked hard to get to a position where you could make these decisions.
Decisions are tough because when you say “Yes” to one thing, you’re saying “No” to something else.
Say No to Loss Aversion
When you say “No,” your brain doesn’t focus on what you gained (clarity, resolution). It focuses on what you lost.
This is called Loss aversion, and it’s a common cognitive bias that leads people to do anything they possibly can to avoid losses. Because when your brain focuses on loss, the pain you feel is twice as intense as the pleasure you feel from what you gained.
That’s why when you choose between two equally strategic projects (because you don’t have the resources to launch both), each projected to generate $100M in revenue, you feel like you lost $200M instead of gaining $100M.
Say Yes to Easier Decisions
You can’t make tough decisions, like stopping projects, easy. But you can make them easier.
1. Communicate how you will decide BEFORE starting any work
“I’ll know it when I see it,” is lazy and selfish. It’s lazy because it shows that you haven’t thought through the issue or understand the implications. It’s selfish because you’re forcing your team into a guessing game in which they must do all the work, hoping that they collect the data you need.
If you know how you’ll make the decision, tell the team, saving them time and energy collecting the inputs you need.
If you think you know how you’ll decide but want to preserve the option to consider other inputs, tell your team, “I expect to make a decision based on x, y, and z, but I’m also open to other factors.”
If you don’t know how you’ll make the decision, maybe the decision doesn’t need to be made.
2. Understand if and how the decision can change
Some decisions are forever, and some can be changed. Getting a tattoo is a Forever Decision (yes, you can have it removed later, but it’s painful, expensive, and time-consuming). Getting a body piercing is a For Now Decision (pull out the stud, and you’re set).
What type of decision are you making? A Forever Decision or a For Now Decision? What would cause you to change your mind if it’s a For Now Decision?
Answering these questions helps everyone understand the stakes and avoid surprise and confusion if something changes. And it takes a bit of pressure off your shoulders, too.
3. Reflect and respect the deadline
If you rush into a decision, you’re more likely to make a superficial or short-sighted decision. If you take too long, you may miss an opportunity.
If you don’t have a deadline to make a decision, give yourself one and stick to it. Yes, the deadline may move back, giving you more time. But it may also move up, giving you less. Hope for the best (more time), plan for the worst (less time), and act with what you’ve got.
Then schedule at least a few days between receiving the needed information and making a decision. Doing so gives you time to reflect, ask questions, and follow up with people. It also gives your brain time to work its magic and produce A-Ha! moments.