Optimizing Ideation Performance

IdeaConnection Interview with Shawn Coyne Co-author of Brainsteering: A Better Approach to Breakthrough Ideas
By Vern Burkhardt
"…the problem with traditional brainstorming is that its methodology violates many of the psychological and sociological principles regarding how human beings work best together in a group setting." Brainsteering, page 134

Vern Burkhardt (VB:) In Brainsteering you say, "Stealing their [direct competitors'] product features is pedestrian; you really want to steal their intellectual models – as in, what are the Right Questions they ask?" How does this work?

photo of Shawn CoyneShawn Coyne: One of the things we talk about in the book is there are lots of ways to come up with great ideas, including 'stealing other people's ideas. In fact, we include some humorous examples of this phenomenon, like Hollywood movie making. The message is you should not be shy about taking other people's great ideas and adapting them for your own purpose.

The key point here is, if you want to be really successful, don't merely steal their idea. Steal the Right Question that led them to think of the idea, the driver behind their innovation or business strategy. If you work with their question, you will probably not just think of the same idea that they did, which you could have stolen if you wanted to, but by asking yourself their question, you may think of 5 other ideas they didn't think of. And those ideas may well be even better than theirs.

We always say, 'Stealing somebody's ideas is the first grader's way to do it; if you want the graduate student's way, you should steal the questions behind their ideas. Steal their intellectual models, not the output of those models.'

VB: What are some of the benefits of having a portfolio of questions?

Shawn Coyne: A portfolio of Right Questions is helpful for a couple of reasons. First, different people think differently so a question may only be semi-productive for one person, but another person may use it to great effect. So having an entire arsenal of questions available in advance of a brainsteering session increases the chances that you'll have questions at hand that will work for various individuals.

The other advantage of having a portfolio of questions is that you don't have to reuse the same few questions over and over. The bigger your portfolio, the more questions you have to bring to bear against the problem, and the less chance of raising the same questions over and over and wearing out their effectiveness.

VB: Would you talk about 'unrecognized headroom'?

Shawn Coyne: Unrecognized headroom is a short hand term for saying a lot of times there's more good stuff than you have allowed yourself to think about. There's a couple of examples of questions we give in the book which help address this idea of unrecognized headroom.

One example of such a question is, 'Where do the (literal or figurative) rules of the game allow us more flexibility than we or our competitors are currently taking advantage of? Another example is, 'Where are there customers or occasions in which our product is being used in much larger quantities than we ever expected, or in ways we never expected or even intended?' This is where we say, 'There's unrecognized headroom where we could be selling more of our stuff, but we're not because we only think about selling it to certain people for use in a certain way. If we do some digging around, we may find there is lots of ways people are using our product that we didn't expect. Or there are people who have found a particular use for our product that generates higher volume sales than we would ever have guessed, and these unanticipated ways point us to some new ideas'.

An example is a baby food manufacturer that discovered many years ago that, for some reason, babies in Florida seemed to be eating a lot more baby food than babies anywhere else in the U.S. It turned out this was not the case at all. In Florida, some wise salespeople had figured out that baby food also appealed to many senior citizens who were looking for small, single servings of easily digestible and nutritious food. Those salespeople had, in effect, sold this baby food product to an entirely new market. This led the baby food company to start supplemental sales campaigns targeting other potential customers.

This same phenomenon has been repeated elsewhere. In 2001, baby food sales in Japan had fallen to $235 million, a drop of $17 million compared to 2 years earlier. While the number of newborns was steadily dropping, the number of Japanese becoming senior citizens was steadily increasing. So a couple of baby food manufacturers marketed their product to seniors as a new product with different packaging and advertising, calling it things like 'Fun Meals' and 'Food for Ages 0 to 100'.

VB: Would you talk a bit about questions which you describe as related to imagining perfection?

Shawn Coyne: People oftentimes look at the world as it is, or the portion of the world they know, and think that whoever is doing something the best must be doing it the best way possible. If you expand your horizons and don't just ask, 'Who do I see doing this the best?' but rather ask, 'Who (or what) is the best in all the world at doing the general thing I'm thinking of?' it opens up all kinds of new possibilities.

One example we share in the book is competitive swimmer David Berkoff. He was a freshman in 1985 at Harvard and, although a good swimmer, he was not world-class. He hadn't even considered applying to go to one of the big-name swimming schools (although, thankfully, he was smart enough to go to Harvard!) He asked himself a great question while preparing for the first swim meet of the year, where the freshmen race against the upper classmen. When we interviewed him, he told us the "main purpose of this meet each year was to teach the freshmen to stay in their place."

David Berkoff asked himself, 'Who, or what, swims better than anyone, or anything, else on the planet?' The answer wasn't whoever was the current record holder in the backstroke. The answer was, fish swim better than anything on the planet, and more specifically, dolphins swim very fast – and have a swimming motion he could imitate. This led him to practice new kicking motions modeled after dolphins.

Berkoff eventually went on to win the NCAA 100-meter backstroke in 1987, and in 1988 he broke the world record for the backstroke at the Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. He also won a silver medal in the 100-meter backstroke and a team gold in the 4 x 100 medley relay in the same Olympic Games. At the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, he won two additional medals using his 'Berkoff Blastoff' technique at the start of each race and at the turn of each lap.

This was all because David Berkoff sat back and said, "There's got to be some unrecognized headroom out there. I'm thinking about swimming in a certain way, but what if I think about swimming in a broader way by asking who or what does it the best way it can possibly be done? This question opened up a whole new idea for him, which has been adopted not only by competitors in the backstroke but also by freestyle and butterfly winners. An example is Michael Phelps, who has broken 37 world records in swimming and won 8 gold medals at the Olympics in Beijing in 2008.

VB: Is the 'logic tree' the best method for identifying all the possible questions one could ask about a challenge?

Shawn Coyne: It could very well be. Logic trees are a great example of how analysis can be a complement to creativity, not an opponent of creativity.

You can often ask just a few Right Questions and come up with a lot of great ideas to solve many problems. However, there are some problems which are particularly difficult. It may be that nobody has ever faced these problems before, or they have previously been faced so many times that all the usual solutions have already been identified, or you've already tried using all your regular questions and have run out of new ideas for questions related to these problems.

The logic tree is a great way to investigate all the hidden nooks and crannies, to find ideas which would not occur to you at first and help you find the previously undiscovered corners of a subject area. By creating a logic tree, you can come up with the widest possible range of questions. Once you've got all of those questions, you can then choose which ones you think are the best ones to use in the particular situation you're dealing with.

So yes, we are big fans of logic trees. They are a core tool whenever you want to search systematically for new ideas.

[Vern's note: According to the authors, a logic tree starts with a single question, and this question is broken down into a small number of sub questions that are "mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive." Those sub questions are further broken down into more sub questions, and this process continues – but not to the point of having questions which are unimportant. More useful information about logic trees is provided in Brainsteering.]

VB: Would you talk about the 'Coyne Brothers' Principle of Preexisting Databases', and how understanding this principle can make us more innovative?

Shawn Coyne: Ha ha! Yes, our principle is, 'The more innovative an idea is, the less likely it is to have been derived from conventional analysis of historical data and events." We're a big believer in this principle. Here's why.

All people who work in big companies have access to published and other readily available historical data and events. But the same databases are also accessible to other companies, including your competitors. What's more, using traditional approaches and tools learned in MBA programs means, since your competitor probably has plenty of MBAs on staff as well, the odds are low you will come up with a truly innovative idea even if you are great at analysis. When you look at the same old data the same old way, what you'll get is the same old ideas.

The greatest likelihood of coming up with a truly innovative idea is to either go to an unusual data source, or go to one of the commonly used data sources and look at this data in an unusual way. This goes back to our principle of Right Questions, where a good Right Question is one that causes you to look at the data, problem, or situation from a different angle than you typically looked at it before.

VB: "You'll never implement a truly new idea if you demand absolute proof of its success before you start." Is this one of the greatest inhibitors preventing most companies from excelling at innovation?

Shawn Coyne: We would say yes. In business, any situation you go into is a trade-off between the potential benefits versus the risks. If you can get the same benefits with zero risk, you'd rather do that than getting the same benefits with lots of risk. And of course, companies always have a tendency to try to minimize their risk. A truly innovative idea means that, by definition, no one else has ever come up with that idea before and, therefore, it also means no one else has ever implemented this idea and proven it works. You can't have it both ways!

If you want truly innovative ideas with relatively low risk, there are certainly lots of analyses you can apply to the new ideas you've generated to assess whether there is a good chance of success. But if you insist that there be examples of this specific idea having already been implemented successfully, you've doomed yourself to a future which will not be innovative. You will always be a follower rather than a leader.

VB: How do you convince business leaders to implement the 4 stages of analysis included in the Brainsteering approach?

Shawn Coyne: The main way is to help them see that doing the 4 stages will be more likely to produce a successful outcome in less time and/or at lower cost. This occurs principally by being faster at winnowing away the bad ideas or problems with a good idea. The phrase we use to describe this principle is, "cheapest destruction first." What that means is that although it's obviously great when an idea succeeds, most ideas fail. If it's going to fail, it is preferable to figure this out sooner rather than later, and more cheaply rather than more expensively. So the reason we recommend the 4-stage approach is to help people do their 'cheapest destruction first'.

A lot of companies' traditional analysis jumps straight to the 4th of our 4 stages, which is 'full-blown planning'. There are plenty of great books that advise you how to do full-blown planning. There are published market research studies which can help you assess the market potential. Logistical studies can tell you how many widgets you can produce at what cost, how fast, and with what raw materials.

But here's the thing. So many things can go wrong with any idea that most ideas aren't going to be successful. So why waste a bunch of time overdoing the analysis at the front end only to discover much later that your idea isn't going to be successful? If your idea has a fatal flaw, find it in the earliest possible stage of your analysis.

Save full-blown planning for last. It's your fourth stage of analysis, not your first. Our three preceding stages will help you find fatal flaws more quickly and cheaply. We call them 'first-blush analysis', followed by 'quick discovery', and then 'design on paper', and you should always do those three before you go into full-blown planning.

In the book we give a number of specific steps to follow in each of these first three stages. The key to all of them is always ask yourself a few big-picture and easy-to-answer questions first, and only if your idea passes those tests should you go on to more difficult, detailed, and complicated questions.

VB: Does this message apply to entrepreneurs thinking of a start-up, or only to large companies?

Shawn Coyne: It's particularly relevant to start-ups because, as much as big companies can't afford to waste a lot of money checking out ideas, most entrepreneurs really can't afford to. They don't have the luxury of a $100 million R&D budget, or 65 employees in the market research department. Oftentimes, entrepreneurs have to rely only on themselves, or at best a small cadre of other people, and a limited budget. For these reasons, it's especially important to follow our 4-stage approach if you're an entrepreneur.

VB: "Most inventors of new ideas inherently believe their idea is more powerful than it actually is." Would you talk a bit about this?

Shawn Coyne: It's a flaw of human nature. Professor John Gourville of the Harvard Business School has done a lot of research to quantify the extent to which people overvalue benefits. If you are the inventor of an idea there will be a natural tendency to reduce cognitive dissonance by reading data which explicitly or implicitly says your idea is good, and by ignoring data that would suggest it must be a bad idea. Often this will be done subconsciously.

Even if you like someone else's idea, you will tend to overestimate its value. If it's your own idea, your ability to be objective will be even lower.

One of the reasons it's useful to go through the 4 stages of analysis is to overcome this natural tendency of most inventors to believe their idea is more powerful than it actually is. Once you get past some initial thinking about an idea's merits, you need to look outside yourself to get external verification for why this idea might be good and why it might fail.

In some instances, you will have thought about your idea more deeply than others have, and you will be able to answer all of their objections and prove that it will succeed. But a lot of times, they will come up with something that will make you realize, 'Wow, I never thought of that'. You need to approach every new idea with the attitude that you don't know whether or not your idea is going to work, so it needs progressively more detailed analysis before you get too attached to it.

VB: This seems to suggest that in addition to the attribute of having a lot of self-confidence, a good inventor must be humble.

Shawn Coyne: Exactly. This balance of self-confidence and humility is important to maintain.

There are a lot of people who don't have a lot of self-confidence, don't trust their instincts enough, and think they can't be good at ideation when, in fact, with the right tools and techniques almost anybody can be innovative, creative, and think up good ideas. Once you've thought of good ideas, you need to apply your own analytical skills and use the techniques we describe in the book to put those ideas to the test. After you've evaluated the ideas yourself, you need to be humble enough to reach outside yourself and ask people you respect and trust to vet your ideas – it's hard to be objective about your own ideas.

VB: Would you describe how you felt when you have been 'in the zone' when generating ideas?

cover of BrainsteeringShawn Coyne: It's fun. It doesn't happen all the time, but when you get in the zone it's a great feeling. Ideas come so fast you can barely keep up with writing them down. Our goal in providing the tools and techniques for brainsteering is to increase the percentage of the time people can find a way to get to that zone.

VB: When it occurs is it the whole group that gets in the zone?

Shawn Coyne: People can individually get in the zone. All the techniques we describe in the book work wonderfully if you're working by yourself.

A group can also get in the zone but it's hard. In some ways, these tools are even more important in a group setting than when working individually because, the more people you have in a group, the more opportunities there are for things to get in the way and for you to be prevented from getting into the zone.

VB: What do you mean by 'get in the way'?

Shawn Coyne: There are many things that can creep in. Examples include distractions, multiple discussions, and participants' different agendas. This is partly why we believe it's important to have a rigorous approach, and to carefully follow this approach to stay on track and to prevent people from wandering off into the desert.

VB: For a group to be creative is it desirable that all persons be in the same 'activating mood state'?

Shawn Coyne: It is probably not required but it certainly would be desirable.

There are different types of activating mood states which basically relate to your energy level. Low levels of arousal lead to inactivity, neglect of information and low cognitive performance. Moderate levels of arousal motivate people to integrate information and consider multiple alternatives. As we would expect, extremely high levels of arousal – distractions in your life causing 'emotional overhead' – reduce people's capacity to perceive, process, and evaluate information.

Positive and negative mood states do enable creativity, but they work differently. Positive mood states are good for thinking broadly about things – exploring a broad cross section of possible solutions but not in-depth. It's called 'enhanced cognitive flexibility'. Negative mood states, which can be brought on by stress or anxiety, are good if your goal is to dig deeper and find all the possibilities in a narrow subset of solutions – it's called 'enhanced persistence and perseverance'.

Depending on whether the objective of your session is to think broadly about a number of possibilities, or to think deeply about a particular topic, you can imagine that groups with different mood states will have different levels of creative ability. It would be optimal if everybody in a group happens to be in the same mood state but that's hard to control. You can't just tell people, "Let's all be in a positive mood state," or "Let's all be in a negative mood state," and expect it will happen automatically. This being said, there are some things you can do, which we describe in the book, which can possibly help influence the mood state of people in a group.

If you emphasize to people in a group the intrinsic benefits they will get from participating and generating creative ideas, it tends to be more likely they will get into the positive state. If you emphasize to the group some of the constraints they will be dealing with, whether it's time, pressure to deliver results, or whatever, this tends to help them get into the negative mood state. As we have discussed, depending on your objective, there are times when you want the group in a positive mood state, and other times when you want the group in a negative mood state.

VB: Is this somewhat like DeBono's 'Thinking Hats' ?

Shawn Coyne: Probably, yes. I'm familiar with DeBono's work, but I wouldn't consider myself expert enough to comment definitively on his behalf. However, I do have that general impression, just as you do.

VB: You include 101 Right Questions in an appendix to Brainsteering. Have any other useful Right Questions occurred to you since your book was published?

Shawn Coyne: Oh yes, the list of Right Questions is almost infinite. We had several hundred before writing the book, and we selected those 101 from that list. And we've thought up many more since then.

I would say to IdeaConnection's readers, you could take these 101 questions and use them as a seed bed from which to generate lots of other questions. As you work with these questions, you will find that any one of the 101 questions can be applied in many different settings by tweaking their wording depending on whether it's related to developing ideas about a new product or service, cost-savings, or for a specific industry. If you use the 101 as a starter list, you will be able to generate 1000 questions from our list.

The other thing you will find is the more experience you get generating Right Questions, whether or not they're stimulated by our list of 101, the more it helps you to think up whole new categories of Right Questions of your own. Practice generating Right Questions, as it's a skill that can be improved.

VB: Do you still use brainsteering to come up with the 'perfect' gifts for your family and closest friends?

Shawn Coyne: We continue to use it ourselves. I recently used it for my wife's 25th anniversary gift, and it helped me come up with an idea for a gift that she loved.

Many people who have contacted us have said generous things about the book. Some of the most fun responses we've received have been from people who have said, although they found the book helped them generate great ideas at work, they have also used it personally. We have been told things like, "I got my wife a killer birthday gift last year based on the exercise at the end of Chapter 3 of Brainsteering."

VB: The book would be a perfect gift for someone who has difficulty picking out 'that perfect gift for someone special'.

Shawn Coyne: Yes. Not long ago we were discussing how the Today Show and many others have segments in late November or early December where they're trying to help people come up with Christmas gift ideas. Most of what these programs entail is product placement opportunities where a representative of some store says, "Here's 5 things you could buy."

We would love to volunteer to go on the Today Show and say, "Forget about those who are selling products. If your goal, dear viewer, is to come up with a gift that will blow away your wife, husband, kids, or special friend this Christmas, ask yourself these 5 Right Questions for finding the perfect gift. Do this and see what ideas you'll come up with." The Right Questions would be the ones we give in one of the appendices in the book. We'd love to do that some day!

VB: Does reading your book increase the likelihood we will develop our own billion-dollar idea?

Shawn Coyne: We hope so!

I don't know how many people will read the book with the aspiration of literally trying to come up with a billion-dollar idea, but the reason we put that chapter at the end is we wanted readers to be aware, if they really aspire to be the next Richard Branson, that the standard for a billion-dollar idea is far, far higher than people intuitively realize.

Our message is, it's great if you want to go for a billion-dollar idea, but you need to know that the mental model most people have about inventing something in your garage and then a week later finding that it's a billion-dollar idea, is a fantasy. This just does not happen. Billion-dollar ideas don't come about by accident, so you need to know the 4 principles that we describe in the chapter.

You might get to a million dollar idea with a stroke of luck – but you won't get to the billion-dollar idea without lots of time, lots of people, lots of money, lots of patience, and of course a little luck.

VB: Who should read Brainsteering?

Shawn Coyne: Anybody who feels the need to come up with a great idea, however they define their need for a great idea. This might be a mid-level project manager who needs to come up with the next great product line extension for his or her Fortune 500 company, a CEO who needs to figure out new directions to take a company, or simply a mom or dad who is volunteering to organize the high school band's fundraiser next year and needs a great theme for the event.

The book will benefit anybody in any situation where they need an idea that must be better and different than the ones that came before.

VB: Would brainsteering work for government and world leaders who are trying to solve some of the major problems such as global warming, poverty, food shortages, or other problems?

Shawn Coyne: It has yet to be applied to solving global warming, so we can't claim this with certainty, but yes, we believe brainsteering would be of great benefit in coming up with highly innovative ideas for all those kinds of problems. The same principles of asking the Right Questions and Using The Right Process to have effective brainsteering sessions should apply even against those problems. After all, no problem is so big that it wouldn't benefit from having somebody take a fresh look at it from a different angle and with a disciplined thought process.

Of course, making the new ideas be politically acceptable to all the factions in a society or globally might be the subject of a whole separate brainsteering workshop! But we also believe it would be possible to brainsteer and identify innovative ideas for selling the message to a splintered electorate.

VB: Would you tell us about the services provided by The Coyne Partnership, Inc.?

Shawn Coyne: The Coyne Partnership is a boutique (which is a fancy word for 'very small'!) consulting firm. It's my brother and myself working full time, and my father helping us part time. He's now 80 years old so he doesn't work full time any more.

Our partnership helps organizations with whatever happens to be the 2 or 3 toughest problems on the to-do list of the person in charge, whether it's a corporate CEO, a non-profit managing director, or the mayor of a city. We've helped all kinds of different entities and organizations over the last few years.

There may be 15 reasons why these organizations have not been able to solve their problems themselves. When they decide they are ready to reach outside and get somebody else to bring a new and different perspective to help them solve their problems, they call us.

VB: Is your father, Edward J. Coyne, a good example of the saying 'with age one gains more wisdom'?

Shawn Coyne: Absolutely. That's partly how he adds value in our consulting practice. Most of the time, he's our CFO, but if there are consulting projects we're working on where it's not only important to analytically think of a great answer but to also experientially ask whether it will work in a large organization, it's nice to be able to have a seasoned person to bounce ideas off. Kevin and I have worked in, led, and served as consultants for, a number of large organizations over the years, but our father was among the top few executives at a Fortune 100 company, so he brings tremendous wisdom and experience. He can tell us, based on his 50 year business career, which things will or won't play, or need to be modified if we want the reality to live up to the theory." So yes, he's definitely got wisdom!

VB: Was it a large leap to move from working for a large consulting firm to owning your own consulting company?

Shawn Coyne: It has been a lot of fun.

The benefit of working in a larger organization, as Kevin and I have in the past, is that the caliber of people you are surrounded with and the resources you have to draw on are amazing. The opportunities you get exposed to are also amazing.

But having done that for a considerable number of years – 25 years in my case, almost 30 years in Kevin's case – we are now at a point in our careers where it's really fun to focus exclusively on the problems we're trying to help our clients solve, and not have to worry about a larger firm's internal concerns. The partnership is coming up on 4 years now, and it's been a really fun 4 years of getting to work on the most interesting stuff for great clients. And we only have to support two people, versus supporting hundreds of people with our efforts.

VB: What are you passionate about?

Shawn Coyne: Figuring out problems that other people haven't been able to figure out. What turns us on is when we help a client do something that's much different and better than anything they've done before. The slang term we use to describe ourselves is, "impact-aholics" – we're addicted to that feeling of having a real impact for a client. If there's a chance to have an impact by causing our clients to think of something they've never thought of before, we get excited.

Most of our clients are Fortune 500 companies, but some of our clients are actually pretty small. And some of them are non-profits that we've agreed to help, not because of the money, but just because they had a fascinating problem to figure out.

VB: Do you have any final comments about a better approach to breakthrough ideas?

Shawn Coyne: Nothing that I can think of. We've been frequently interviewed about the book over the last year, and I can tell you that you've touched on subjects that other interviews didn't begin to explore!

Co-authors Shawn Coyne and Kevin Coyne describe an ideation session, using their brainsteering methodology, as being "…an event in which you or a small group of three to five people focus all your attention on one single Right Question for a concentrated period of thirty to forty-five minutes." (Brainsteering, page 59)

Asking the Right Question is one of the two secrets to generating good ideas. The other is following an established process consistently within an organization. The Brainsteering process involves generating original questions, often through use of logic trees, and moving back and forth between ideation and analysis – specifically, analysis that looks for anomalies.

The authors provide a great piece of advice through what they call the "Coyne Brothers' Principle of Preexisting Databases: The more innovative an idea is, the less likely it is to have been derived from conventional analysis of historical data and events." In Brainsteering they say if this principle becomes popular they'll print it on coffee mugs. Hopefully they are picking out the color of the coffee mugs and planning the printing!

Success in generating great new ideas is based on steering, not storming, the mind.

Shawn Coyne's Bio:
Shawn T. Coyne has 25 years of experience in strategic management consulting, brand management, and business leadership. He has served as Senior Managing Principal & CAO of Zyman Group, an international marketing consulting firm; as co-founder and CEO of Connexxia LLC, a communications services company; as an Associate Principal at McKinsey & Company, where he served major clients in the fields of telecommunications, consumer electronics, banking, information services, sports management and mass communications; and as a brand manager at Procter & Gamble, where he helped grow such iconic brands as Tide®, Ivory®, and Safeguard®.

He holds a BA from Vanderbilt University and an MBA from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.

Shawn T. Coyne has written articles for the Harvard Business Review and other leading publications, and has been featured in such media outlets as The Wall Street Journal and Fox Business News. He is co-author with Kevin P. Coyne of Brainsteering: A Better Approach to Breakthrough Ideas (2011).

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