Performance Paradox

IdeaConnection Interview with Stephen Shapiro, Author of Personality Poker®, Goal Free Living, The Little Book of Big Innovation Ideas, and 24/7 Innovation
By Vern Burkhardt
"We can conclude that creativity is about being present, just as pit crews changing the tires on a Formula 1 car need to be present." Stephen Shapiro

Vern Burkhardt (VB): While living in England for four years you worked with a Formula One race team. Would your Personality Poker playing card tool be useful in selecting the pit crew and drivers? (Vern's note: see last week's article for a detailed discussion about Personality Poker)

photo of Stephen ShapiroStephen Shapiro: I'm not sure it would be useful in picking the pit crew members or the drivers, but I did learn a lot about how teams collaborate while watching Formula 1 pit crews.

There are some simple principles that pit crews use. One is each person is playing to their strong suit. Everybody understands completely what they must do. The person changing the lug nut on the front right tire does it better than anyone else. If I'm one of the two removing the rear left tire, we will do that better than anyone else.

The second principle is to make sure all positions are covered. If the person who is supposed to be fueling a car – back when they fueled a car in Formula 1 races – decided not to show up, you've got a serious problem that will cause the race to be lost.

The same thing applies to all organizations. They will have problems if they're not "playing with a full deck" – that is, they don't have all of the different positions or thinking styles addressed.

Another analogy to the card game we didn't talk about last week is dealing out the work. It means we want to use a divide and conquer strategy. Everybody doesn't do everything. They know how and when to pitch in.

Finally, from time to time we want to shuffle the deck to create some tension without having to have groupthink all the time.

The pit crew was a good model for creating high-performing innovation teams.

VB: The people who are the pit crew have to be present; they have to be focused on exactly what they are doing. Their brains can't be wandering or thinking about anything else. Would that be fair to say?

Stephen Shapiro: That's fair to say.

You bring to mind an interesting phenomenon that I call 'the performance paradox.' A study done by one of the pit crews found that when people did not focus on the stop-watch – on how fast they were working – but instead focused on being present, they actually completed the tasks faster even though the pit crew members thought they were going slower. They were encouraged to think about being 'smooth' if they were changing the tires or doing the other tasks.

We see the same thing happening inside organizations and, in particular, in the creativity space. When we tell people to be creative, and measure them on their creativity, the result often is less creativity. The process of focusing on the extrinsic measure of creativity paradoxically has the impact of worsening or lessening the level of creativity inside the organization. We can conclude that creativity is about being present, just as pit crews changing the tires on a Formula 1 car need to be present.

VB: Was it a difficult decision in 2001 to leave your job at Accenture, where you led that company's Global Process Excellence Practice, to become a writer, speaker and consultant?

Stephen Shapiro: It was somewhat of an easy decision.

The launch of my first book, 24/7 Innovation, was on October 10, 2001 and my last day with Accenture was October 11, 2001. I had been speaking to audiences on behalf of Accenture for 8 years, and I felt it was time to try something different by promoting the book while still doing speaking engagements.

I quickly learned an important point about innovation when I launched my own business. There's a difference between being a great speaker and having a great speaking business. I believe I was and still am a great speaker, but in the beginning I had no work. Just because I had a book published didn't mean people were going to bang down my door so I had to be creative about how to find work.

For a lot of organizations you need to be creative about the way you market and sell because those are as important to the growth of the business as having a good product. Peter Drucker once said, "since the purpose of business is to generate customers, only two functions do this: marketing and innovation. All other business functions are expenses."

I learned very quickly that he was right and marketing is king. The best product that no one knows about is not going to sell. Having said that, the ability to develop new products, services, and business models is also important and I don't want to downplay their part in the success of a business.

VB: What do you do to psyche yourself up before you speak to a large audience?

Stephen Shapiro: I usually calm myself down rather than psyche myself up. I once read an interview with Bruce Springsteen. He said he was extremely nervous before every concert, but it was the nervousness that gave him the energy when he went on the stage to be explosive.

I get a little worked up before almost every speech. I still do after having done hundreds and hundreds of them. To calm myself I do a bit of biofeedback. I feel my pulse and breathe, and this calms me down a little bit so that I'm not a wreck when I get on stage.

VB: When you said you get worked up do you mean nervous, perhaps even apprehensive?

Stephen Shapiro: Yes I do get nervous. If I'm giving a speech to NASA engineers, for example, I start thinking 'these are some of the smartest people on the planet! What am I going to say to the smartest people on the planet that will interest them?' This type of thought goes through my head no matter what audience I'm speaking to because I'm always in awe of the quality of the people in most organizations.

I've recognized over time that what I know I know probably better than anyone else, and they know what they know better than anyone else. Hopefully my message will be of value to them because they haven't heard it, and I will never try to be an expert in what they do. But yes, I do get nervous.

VB: Your second book, Goal-Free Living, was a cover story in O, The Oprah magazine and was selected as the "Best of O." Would you talk about what you have called "meandering with purpose?"

Stephen Shapiro: Goal-Free Living® is the antidote to our goal-driven society where we obsess on where we're going. The book was originally going to be about creativity and creative thinking, but I found that all the really creative people I met and interviewed didn't have the same relationship to goals as most other people. They had aspirations - things that got them excited in the moment and were less about where they were going.

The first tip in the book is to "use a compass, not a map." This means you want a sense of direction, not a specific destination, and you want to meander with purpose. You want to gather new insights and data. Learn each and every day, and from those new experiences determine what your next steps will be.

If you think about the innovation process, this is important especially when talking about introducing new innovations that have high levels of market uncertainty. You can't predict what the market will be interested in. If you set a goal of introducing a new product or service into the marketplace and do it as a huge project, it's a dangerous and likely expensive undertaking because you're not gathering insights as you go though the process.

The 'build it, try it, fix it' model is much more effective in many cases. With this approach you are able to create small experiments, learn from those experiments, and then scale those experiments based on real-time feedback. Meandering with purpose is gathering new information as you move forward and, based on that information, either confirming that the direction you are going is the right one or changing direction as necessary.

VB: You reduce your risk?

Stephen Shapiro: Exactly. You are always dealing with the best information rather than potentially obsolete information that was gathered through various methods and, in many cases, subjected to flawed analyses.

Most of the techniques used by organizations to gather market research and intelligence are flawed because they look at either current customer patterns and ignore people who've left them or people who were never customers. Also, they don't take into consideration new competing products.

More importantly, almost everything that's done with focus groups and surveys analyze people at the conscious level and that's not the best indicator of what people will do when it comes time to buy. New Coke is a well-worn example. Everybody said, "Yes if you put it on the market we'll buy it." But guess what? I bet if you tested them differently at a more subconscious level, you would have found out they wouldn't buy it; they were just saying they would.

The concept of meandering with purpose gives you new insights and experiences. These allow you to make decisions that are much more real world driven than laboratory driven.

VB: Was being the cover story on O a major contributor to it being a "business motivation" best seller?

Stephen Shapiro: Yes, Goal-Free Living was the cover story for O Magazine and, I hate saying this, in some respects it was one of the worst things that could have happened.

Don't misunderstand; I was thrilled. It was one of my proudest moments because not many people can say that they have had two pages dedicated to their story in that magazine.

But the business people I worked with at the time – mainly men – did not view Oprah as a person to be taken seriously. I remember prior to one of my speeches, the person who hired me said, "If you mention Oprah at all during your speech we will not pay you." It was such a violent, negative reaction against Oprah, and I don't know why.

I don't think being in O Magazine wasn't the major contributor to the book being successful. It was all of the other things we did to promote the book and the concepts in it. It's unfortunate because I was really proud of being featured in that magazine.

VB: When Donny Deutsch interviewed you on CNBC's "The Big Idea" you said that "60% and even up to 75% of people's time is doing work that doesn't create value for the organization." Should this shock employers into taking action?

Stephen Shapiro: I'm not sure it will shock people into action, but hopefully it will get them to think about whether or not they are spending their time on the things that matter.

When I look at how much time sales people are spending selling, by most of my estimates it is close to 25-30%. Most of the time they're strategizing, traveling, and doing administrative work such as handing in their receipts and expenses and completing time reports.

If you could get somebody to go from 25% to 50% of his or her time devoted to actually selling, you would have doubled your sales force without hiring a single person. To achieve this additional 25%, "busy work" needs to either be eliminated or off-loaded. But a lot of times people don't take the time to think through and eliminate non-value added activities.

Should it shock people into action? I would like it to. Does it? Quite often it doesn't.

VB: Would you tell us about your next book?

Stephen Shapiro: The next book is scheduled to come out October 13, 2011. We don't have the title for it yet, but it is a book that contains 40 tips and tricks for creating a culture of innovation.

A lot of these things are counter-intuitive. For example, one of them is stop telling people to think outside the box and give them a better box. We've found and shown that creativity is maximized not when you give people a blank sheet of paper, but when you give them constraints. Those constraints can be challenges. When you start looking at everything through the lens of a challenge, the process becomes more effective.

Another tip in the book is to hire people you don't like. This gets at how to choose the people that you're going to bring into your innovation teams. The people who think the same way as you do are likely the ones you shouldn't be with.

There are over 40 tips like these two examples, which are designed to help companies quickly and easily create a culture of innovation. Each of the tips can stand on its own so you can implement only one and get the value from it, or you can implement all of them and get even more value.

VB: Are there any other things we should talk about?

Stephen Shapiro: IdeaConnection has a lot to do with open innovation, and we haven't talked about this topic. Open innovation gives companies access to divergent points of view. This is very useful as we discussed when we talked about Personality Poker.

Diversity of discipline is difficult to achieve inside an organization because it's difficult to have people who don't speak the same way from a purely intellectual level. This is why open innovation becomes useful. I described this as a joke when I gave a speech at NASA. I said, "If you have one hundred aerospace engineers working on an aerospace engineering problem, adding the 101st aerospace engineer is not going to make much of a difference. But if you add a nano-technologist, a biologist, or somebody from Hollywood, then you get some new solutions." They've actually done this, and come up with new ways of landing aircraft by looking at airbags that are used by Hollywood stuntmen.

Open innovation is a powerful way of creating collaboration amongst people who might not otherwise collaborate with each other, or obtaining sourcing solutions from disciplines and industries that you might not have previously considered. It also gives a company access to personality styles that may be scarce or missing among the people on their payroll.

VB: Do you think companies will increasingly see the value of open innovation?

Stephen Shapiro: I believe that they will. There are still a lot of misconceptions about open innovation.

One of the tips in my new book is called, "Asking for ideas is a bad idea." When a lot of people engage in open innovation they tend to ask everybody for their opinions, such as 'What do you think we should do?' When people hear the term 'open innovation' they sometimes equate it to a form of crowdsourcing, which is often about obtaining lots of random and fluffy thoughts. There are so many examples of open innovation and crowdsourcing done poorly.

I'm hoping things like the "X Prize" and "Netflix Prize," which have well-defined criteria related to a challenge, will show the value that open innovation can have. Hopefully then we'll start to see it take off. Unfortunately there are so many bad implementations of open innovation that it's hard to cut through the clutter and make sure people understand how it does and doesn't work.

VB: A bad approach would be to use it to generate many ideas rather than addressing challenges?

Stephen Shapiro: That's my perspective.

The example I like to use, because it's in the public domain, is the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. BP solicited ideas on how to stop the oil leak in the well in the Gulf of Mexico. They got 123,000 ideas of which a dozen or so were deemed to have any value. Sorting through that many ideas is a lot of work, and it's debatable whether or not there was even one valuable or workable solution that came out of it.

This is what many companies are doing – seeking thousands of ideas. The problem is if they get thousands of ideas they have to evaluate thousands of ideas.

When you create well-defined challenges and solve them either internally or externally, you create a high signal-to-noise ratio. This is very important. The signal-to-noise ratio is the ratio between what you want and what you don't want. It could be the ratio between solutions that are useful and those that aren't, or ideas that are useful and those that aren't.

Most implementations of open innovation tend to have a very low signal-to-noise ratio in that there's just a lot of noise. I describe it as trying to find a needle in a stack of other needles. It's worse than finding a needle in a haystack.

When you do it right, though, you get a high signal-to-noise ratio, because it becomes a self-vetting process where people only submit solutions when they have something they think is worthwhile. All you need is one submission to a challenge that works. It's more valuable than ten thousand submissions of which one of them is buried in those ten thousand.

VB: You may never find the valuable one buried in the ten thousand.

Stephen Shapiro: Probably not.

If you get ten thousand you have to use other techniques for evaluation. I did the math. Returning to BP's 123,000 submissions let's assume it would take 30 seconds to review each submission. Trust me, it will take on average much more than 30 seconds but let's be generous and say it would only take that much time. BP would need a person dedicated 40 hours a week for 6 months to review them. Of course, this person would end up in an insane asylum before completing the task.

Since the traditional evaluation techniques won't work other evaluation techniques have to be used. In the process you might end up with some false negatives where you eliminate something that was good for a whole variety of reasons. Yes, the larger the number of submissions the higher the likelihood that you are unable to find the good ones in those submissions.

VB: Thank you for your time and great insights. And congratulations on the great work you are doing.

Stephen Shapiro: I've been a reader of the IdeaConnection newsletter since it started coming out. I've always enjoyed it, and always enjoyed your interviews. You clearly put a lot of energy into this and I appreciate the fact that you do.

Be present. Have a sense of direction, not a specific destination, and meander with purpose.

Stephen Shapiro's Bio:
Author Stephen (Steve) Shapiro earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the School of Operations Research and Information Engineering at Cornell University.

During his 15-year tenure as Associate Partner with the international consulting firm Accenture he established and led their Global Process Excellence Practice, delivering innovation training about process excellence principles to 20,000 consultants. In 2001 he left the management consulting world to promote his first book, 24/7 Innovation, and to be an advisor, speaker, and author on innovation. He is President of 24/7 Innovation.

During the past twenty years, Steve Shapiro's message to hundreds of thousands of people in forty countries around the world has remained the same: Innovation only occurs when organizations bring together divergent points of view in an efficient manner. He has become the modern-day Pied Piper for those interested in a revolutionary approach for personal and business success.

Steve Shapiro is the author of Personality Poker®: The Playing Card Tool for Driving High-Performance Teamwork and Innovation (2010), The Little Book of Big Innovation Ideas: 75 Tips for Turning Creativity into Profitability (2007 – to be re-published by Penguin Portfolio in October 2011), Goal-Free Living: How to Have the Life You Want Now (2006), and 24/7 Innovation: A Blueprint for Surviving and Thriving in an Age of Change (2001).

24/7 Innovation, which outlines his step-by-step program for instilling a mind-set of ongoing innovation within an organization to achieve and sustain a leadership position in any market, was featured in Newsweek, Investors Business Daily, and the New York Times.

Goal Free Living quickly became the #1 "Business Motivation" best seller, and was the subject of a cover story in O, The Oprah Magazine and a full-page article in the Wall Street Journal. It was also heralded in Entrepreneur Magazine and on Tom, among many others.

Personality Poker® was on Inc Magazine's bestseller list for November 2010, and selected as one of the best business books for 2010 by 800CEOREAD.

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