On a previous 710 WOR “Mind Your Business” broadcast, Yitzchok Saftlas (YS) spoke with guest Stephen Shapiro (SS), NSA Hall of Famer, keynote speaker, and author, on the topic of innovation.

YS: what would be your parameters for setting up a great brainstorming conversation.

SS: One is to make sure you have the right people in the room. When we’re working on a marketing or sales problem, we tend to only bring people from marketing and sales into the room, but that’s a mistake because they have a limited perspective. What we want to do is to bring diverse points of view into the room. The second thing is coming back to making sure we’re solving the right problem. If I had a group of people in front of me, and I said, “What are some of the ways we can attract new customers?” The immediate response is probably going to be something like doing outbound marketing, social media, some kind of cold calling, or we might generate lots of different ideas around getting new customers. But what if I change the question from getting new customers to generating more revenue? Let’s face it, we could get more customers, but we could also generate more revenue by selling more to our existing customers, by creating more value for our existing customers. So, that one very simple reframe is going to change the direction of the conversation, because instead of more customers, we’re now talking about a deeper relationship with our existing customers. And we can go a lot of different ways with this. That is so important. If you start off with the wrong question, no matter what answers you develop, they’re not going to be the right ones.

YS: When entering a brainstorming meeting, how important is it to come in asking questions to drive the conversation?

SS: It’s probably one of the most important parts of the innovation process, because what ends up happening is, when we’re brainstorming and asking people to give us their ideas, we tend to ask questions that are very broad. If I gave you a blank sheet of paper and said, “Give me some of your best ideas,” you’re going to come up with a lot of ideas. The odds are, though, they’re not going to really solve any important problems. So, what we want to do is actually move the conversation in a particular direction. And the way we do that is by framing the question in a different way than we had in the past. Because we’re so focused on solving a particular problem one way, we might miss other opportunities that are in our peripheral vision.

YS: What are some questions a salesperson should have in mind when they’re trying to close a deal?

SS: The first question when trying to close a deal is trying to figure out what is it that they would use to define success? I see some salespeople that are so focused on closing the deal, but they don’t look at the long-term impact on the organization. So, we talked about the reframe of going from more customers to more revenues, but maybe it’s about profitability. And one of the things we really need to start looking at as well is, are we selling to customers who are high maintenance and take a lot of our energy, which is then bad for the organization? Maybe instead of more customers, we want fewer customers.  But we want fewer, more profitable customers where we can go deeper. And that to me is really one of the big questions that I want organizations to think about. Instead of asking, “How can we create transactions?” ask, “How do we create relationships with customers where we can better understand their needs, so that we can create more value for them?” Because if we’re creating more value for our customers, they’re going to open up their wallets and do more business with us.

YS: In your book, Invisible Solutions, you talked about 25 Lenses for Reframing Problems. Could you explain those to us?

SS: We make decisions and ask questions based on our past experiences. And it gets very difficult for us to be able to see the world in a different way, because we’re so heavily influenced by our past.  So, what happens is, we make assumptions that, if not questioned, are going to lead us down the path solving a problem that is past-based, rather than future-based. The purpose of the 25 Lenses is to challenge a number of different assumptions that we might have. I’ll give you a very simple one that I like to use a lot, which is the Resequenced Lens. We typically make assumptions in the problems we’re solving around when things need to occur. During the pandemic, everybody assumed that because we couldn’t meet in person, we always had to meet on Zoom or Teams. So, everybody was going online and doing lots and lots of meetings. The assumption was, in terms of timing, that we all needed to be there at the same time. But one of the big breakthroughs and opportunities with the pandemic was to realize we don’t always need to be together at the same time. What can we do asynchronously, so that when we are together synchronously on a Zoom call, we’re actually spending time doing real conversation? If you’re doing a status meeting, why have somebody get up in front of the room and talk for 15 minutes about what they’re up to, while everybody is sitting there listening? Record a 15-minute video, put it on your portal, and have people watch that before the meeting, so they can come to the meeting with questions.

YS: Could we focus on Lenses 3 and 4- Reduce and Eliminate?

SS: We always seem to assume that adding more makes something better. But I believe that simplification is the best innovation. There’s a great quote the author of The Little Prince said that I’m going to paraphrase: “Perfection is not achieved when there’s no longer anything left to add, but when there’s no longer anything left to remove.” So, sometimes the only way to get work done is to know what to kill, what to stop, what to eliminate, and how to simplify. Sometimes the best solutions are the ones that don’t have everything thrown in there. Rather, they’re elegant and simple. So, if you’re designing a product, what can we eliminate? Do we need to add more features? Or how can we eliminate features like Apple does? Think about the remote control for the Apple TV. It’s got like one button. How much simpler can you get? That’s the beauty of their products. It’s not like a typical TV remote control, which has 100 buttons, and you don’t know how to use any of them.

YS: Lens 14 is Emotion. Could you discuss how that might play into the brainstorming process?

SS: I know we love to talk about thinking outside the box. But the reality is, the bigger the box, the more noise we create, and the more wiggle room we have for moving in the wrong direction. My belief is that we don’t want to think outside the box, we want to find a better box. The Emotion Lens is a different box. And the reason why it’s a different box is because most of the time when we solve problems, we look at it from a very analytical lens. We might say, “How do we keep our customers?” There’s no emotion in that. It’s all logical. But what if we reframed it to something like, “How do we have our customers feel like they’re at home when they’re in our store?” Some of the most profound solutions have been found when we moved away from “how do we get a five out of five on our customer evaluation satisfaction scores?” to “how do we make sure that every person in our organization feels valued, wanted, needed, and appreciated?” That might be a means to that five out of five, but it has a lot deeper meaning to it.

YS: Could you elaborate on Lens 19, Pain vs. Gain?

SS: Most of the time, we’re going to adopt a new technology if it solves a problem, rather than if it’s nice to have. In 1978, Citibank spent a ton of money on ATMs. But people didn’t want an ATM. They wanted to talk to a teller and go into the store. They didn’t feel comfortable with the technology. Then, in February of 1978, there was a blizzard. New York had two feet of snow, and the city was completely shut down. People couldn’t go to the bank because there were no people working in the bank. They tried going to the supermarkets but couldn’t get cash there either. So, they turned to the ATMs. And for Citibank, this was a pivotal time, because the number of people who started using ATMs due to that pain increased significantly. It really was one of the catalysts for them being so successful in New York City.

We saw the same thing with the pandemic. Zoom and other technologies have been around for decades. But people didn’t use them as much until the pain was there and we needed to use it. So, we know that people are going to adopt an innovation when it solves a problem. And the bigger the problem, the more likely they are to want to adopt it. That’s not necessarily always true. Like right now, ChatGPT solves a problem, but it wasn’t like we needed to have this disruption like a blizzard or pandemic. So, it doesn’t always have to be that way, but it’s very common in many cases.

YS: What are some techniques that you would recommend to develop an innovative mindset?

SS: The first thing is to recognize that we all contribute to innovation, but we sometimes do it in a different way. We’re all wired a little differently. Some of us are very analytical and data oriented. So, when it comes to innovation, we might not be the person that is going to come up with a really cool, wacky idea. But we’re going to have the data and the information to know that this is a real problem that if we solve is going to have great value. That’s still innovation. It’d just a different part of the innovation process. What we want to do is figure out what is our own personal innovation style? What’s our innovation personality? Once we do that, we need

to also recognize that some of the things we’ve been taught about innovation actually lead us in the wrong direction. One of the big jokes is, never say, “Yeah, but…” You always want to say, “Yes, and…” But here’s the problem. “Yeah, but…” is not the enemy of innovation. It’s the “wow, this is a great idea.” Now, it might seem counterintuitive, but the problem is, once you start loving your ideas, something called “confirmation bias” kicks in. And now, all of a sudden, even if we get information about our innovation that tells us it’s actually bad, the brain is going to filter that out and only focus on the good aspects. And so, what ends up happen we invest in innovation and fail because we didn’t really validate our hypotheses.

There’s a great quote from Scott Cook, “For every one of our failures, we had spreadsheets that looked awesome.” I love that quote because we can validate and justify however we want. But until we actually go into the real world and test it, we’re never going to know if these are great ideas.

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