Tag Archives: creative problem solving

The Art of Empathetic Observation


revealI just returned from delivering a talk at the Project Management Institute Spring Symposium in Michigan.  The main message I had for this group was while many organizations have ample skill in solving problems and managing projects effectively, the untapped opportunity comes from doing a better job in selecting the right problem to solve.   Most problems are fuzzy, having many facets to them.  In today’s world where we value speed, efficiency, and cost minimization we can too often rush to solving problems without taking time to amply understand them, and their various root causes.

Sometimes slowing down, being more exploratory, and striving for deeper understanding before launching into problem solving can pay big dividends.

In the Creative Problem Solving Process (See Slowing Down to Move Fast), the first important aspect of understanding the problem better, called “problem formulation” is to collect facts and information, driving us to ask more questions and consider more aspects of the problem.

Some of this comes from doing research on Google, or collecting readily available historical data.  However data alone can often present a fairly limited view of the situation.  So, we always like to challenge organizations to add to their empirical data, intuitive information that comes from consumer observations and interviews.  David Kelly (founder of design firm IDEO) likes to call this process one of “empathetic observation”.

Many technical people immediately presume that we can’t learn from ordinary people who are not experts in the technologies related to our business.  One of the participants in my session this week quoted Henry Ford who once said:  “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”  Yes, it’s true that most people can’t imagine something they have never before seen or experienced.  (If you asked people 15 years ago how they wanted to communicate, it is doubtful they would have described an iPhone 5.)


So if we can’t ask consumers what they want from us, how do we gain the understanding we need to create breakthrough innovations?     The art of empathetic observation is a means to observe and listen to customers as they

–          Make their own purchase decisions

–          Use our products or services

It’s not so much about interrogation, more like looking over their shoulder while trying to imagine what they are thinking and feeling as they do.

I like to think about it as asking open-ended questions that cause them to talk about their lives in as personal a manner as they feel comfortable and then we have to do the “heavy lifting”.  We need to listen for the current and future possible intersection points between their lives and our products/services.   We are “tuning in” to the things that cause our interviewee joy, frustration, fear, or anger – looking for unmet needs that we imagine our organization might be able to do something about.


Imagine the coffee retailer Starbucks, trying to solve the problem: “How Might We Better Grow Our Same-Store Sales?”  As you can imagine growing only by adding more brick and mortar is expensive, so if we could somehow increase traffic in our EXISTING stores, wouldn’t that be far less capital consuming?   We can increase store sales by growing traffic, or by getting people to spend more each time they come by.

So to explore this question we create 2-person interview teams (one to ask questions, and one to write and help observe) and we begin to interview current Starbucks customers asking them questions like:

–          Tell me about a typical week in your life.

–          What are some of the biggest challenges you are experiencing in your life right now?

–          What are the things that you feel you need help with that would make the biggest difference for you?

–          What are the things that currently cause you to visit a Starbucks outlet?

–          When you do stop in, tell us what the experience is like for you.

–          Etc.

Notice that nowhere are we asking the consumer directly what they want Starbucks to create for them.  We are just getting them talking about their lives as we try to understand them better.

Empathy Map_StanfordWhen the interview is completed, our interview teams try to summarize the highlights of their conversation on a simple one-page template called an empathy map (see graphic at the left).    The map is divided into four sections: Quotes and Defining Words (3-5 bullet points of significant things the interviewee said); Actions and Behaviors (what they described that they did or how they behaved in their life), Thoughts and Beliefs (what we sensed they might have been thinking but never articulated to us during the interview); and Feelings and Emotions (what we imagine they might have been feeling when they were describing their life that they did not explicitly share).

Now the first two sections are relatively easy to create as they come from direct quotes we took from the interview.   But it is the last two quadrants that are most interesting since we are asking the interviewers to be amateur psychologists to go beneath the specific words and deeds to the underlying motivations.  This requires our empathy, plus a little instinct and intuition.

To give you a better idea of this concept in practice, here is an empathy map (see below) for one of our Starbucks Case interviewees, we will call “Alice”.   As you read the summary points on this map, you can begin to imagine how the actual interview went.   The interviewers in their summary seem to be “tuning in” to a host of issues related to Alice’s unmet need to meet new and different people in her life who might be a better influence on her.  You can sense that she may be looking for new people who can become personal friends, as well as professional contacts that might help her in her career.

Empaty Map_AliceWhen the interviewers presented their Empathy Map summary, they talked about how the sensed Alice was somewhat shy, and that “breaking the ice” with strangers was one of her challenges.

Now I imagine that two different sets of observers who witnessed the session with Alice might have summarized the interview differently.   That’s because we all observe and listen with different lenses based on our own personal biases and experiences.

But when we collect interview summaries from multiple groups and interviewees, a diverse array of observations start to emerge that can create a rich fodder for subsequent problem definition and idea creation steps in the Creative Problem Solving Process.

In a sense, each of the separate bullet points captured on the empathy map is a new problem to be solved for Alice.   To me this is an interesting example because this leads Starbucks to think not about another variety of beverage product, but to how they might engineer their store environments in new ways to help Alice and the other customers like her.

Effective brands make emotional connections with consumers who use them.  One way we can do this is by being relevant in the world of the people we serve, making a difference that really matters.   The empathy mapping example described here will help you and your colleagues go deeper in your understanding of the problems in front of them as you search for breakthrough innovation possibilities.

Other Resources

Converting Empathetic Observations Into Solutions, by Len Brzozowski, lenbrzozowski.wordpress.com

IDEO and The Art of Innovation: The Role of Listening in Consumer Product Development, from businesslistening.com

Spark Innovation Through Empathic Design, by Dorothy Leonard and Jeffrey F. Rayport, Harvard Business Review

How to Use an Empathy Map, from Stanford’s d-School

Empathy Map, from Gamestorming: a playbook for innovators, rule-breakers and change makers


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Innovation Management vs. Project Management

innovation PicProject management skills are in great demand today.  We all know the consequences of being weak at this important skill.  I can think of a number of projects where my teams came in over budget AND failed to meet expected performance requirements.   I can recall projects we completed where the end-user was largely unimpressed by the outcomes which did not meet user expectations.  I can also speak to a natural tendency in my R&D and engineering functions to over-design products, making them better in subtle ways important to our engineers – but not necessarily to any of our customers.  All these things need to be managed with some reasonable level of discipline.

OK. So we need to be more efficient, and more disciplined.  We get it.  But more and more people are recognizing the need to be more innovative as well.  As we get good at the art of project management, we also create barriers to innovation.  While it is an extreme case – just watch this NASA project management training video to see what I mean.

The idea of innovation and project management, to some seems an oxymoron.    This may be especially so if your idea of innovation is something that should be disruptive, game changing, or breakthrough in nature.  We do live in a world where we need cost cutting, efficiency, speed and focus as much as at any previous time.   We hear the rallying cries at the office: “Define the requirements precisely!”; “We need to guard against ‘scope-creep!’”; “Don’t over design this!”; “We must hit our milestone dates!”; “The user defines how much quality they are willing to pay for.”; “Time is money!” and so forth.

So how on earth are we supposed to innovate in that environment?  Innovation requires exploration, insight, divergent thinking, occasional blind alleys, and sometimes trial-and-error.  These seem incompatible with conventional Project Management thinking and training.

If one of the first steps in the project management process is to “define the requirements”, one key problem is that customers do not always know how to describe what they want.  I discussed this briefly in my article on Apple’s amazing market success with the iPOD.  The Apple device’s predecessor was the MP3 player.  At the time, these were expensive and lacked memory.   But Apple’s focus was much broader than designing a better, cheaper MP3 player.  They recognized that loading music content into MP3’s was awkward.  They saw that without an applications store (iTunes had not yet been invented – but was about to be), the MP3 movement would never win over mainstream users.   If you asked users what they wanted in their playback device, they may not have described iTunes as a need.  Why would they, they had no prior experience with such a marketplace.   We are all limited by our own life experiences and knowledge to what is possible when we set out trying to imagine anything new.   Defining requirements with an Innovation mind-set requires a different perspective.

In his intriguing article (see below), Jeff Belding argues that managing innovation projects does require a whole different approach – which is pretty similar to the Creative Problem Solving and Design Thinking methodologies taught by the Sarasota Center for Innovation.   In the table below, here are differences between what Belding calls INNOVATION MANAGEMENT as compared to traditional PROJECT MANAGEMENT:

Five Key Factors of Successful Project Execution

Key PM Factors

This innovation management approach is a fundamentally different way of thinking.  The main difference is in the SEARCHING and EXPLORING phases (essentially the problem definition – and requirements definition work) is considerably longer and more expansive that we traditionally consider.  Innovation management requires looking for new perspectives, divergent thinking, and multiple levels of problem defining.

While this may seem more energy-consuming (more costly), I think I would argue that a quick mediocre solution is less advantageous to a slower one that delivers much better outcomes.

I suppose it is possible to conclude that not all projects require innovative solutions, and perhaps more traditional project management methods may work just fine.  But if your project “problems” have to do with developing products, services, improving customer experiences or creating new business models – then the Innovation Management approach may be very useful.

Two other project management thinkers, from Delft University in The Netherlands also suggest that “radical innovation” is fundamentally different and must be managed differently.   In the table below, Sergey Filippov and Herman Mooi argue that a percentage of your projects call for breakthrough R&D, even if they involve more uncertainty and broad/vague project goals. 

Innovation Strategy

The implications of their paper (to me at least) suggests that if we have a wide array of projects on our to-do list, some portion of these call for an Innovation Management approach.  This is sort of the same conclusion reached by Professor Vijay Govindarajan, from Dartmouth’s Tuck School (read more in:  Three-Box System: Balancing Break-through Innovation with the Short-term).  He argues that organizations need three distinctly different sets of projects – hence the three boxes.   Projects in box 1 are about improving what we already do today.  The 2nd box, perhaps the most difficult, is about pruning away (killing) the projects products or even business segments that are chronic under performers.  (At Apple, one of Steve Jobs favorite sayings was “you have to be willing to ‘knife the baby’”.  And Apple repeatedly demonstrates a willingness to drop or cannibalize its own products that don’t live up to expectations, choosing instead to try introducing something else they hope will be better.)   The 3rd box is about creating the future and calls for bold innovation.

The Leadership factor

In addition to using an Innovation Management process, one more thing has to be in place.   We need a suitable leadership culture.

In my article Looking for Breakthrough Innovation I tell the story of one project, led by an inexperienced summer intern.  His internal customer was our operations department which was looking for a new process for achieving rapid die changes (as was being introduced with awesome results by the Japanese).   The intern, however, saw that by changing our manufacturing process design approach he could completely eliminate the need for die changes at all!  This was an innovative idea that ultimately produced substantial increases in productivity.   The problem was, his client didn’t want any part of it (at first).  They felt engineering wouldn’t support it, customers would not approve, and so on.   But the intern persisted and wrote his own set of requirements over the objections of his sponsor.

When to controversy was brewing – and our operations leader was expressing doubts about burning precious time and resources exploring a solution that would not be viable.  I weighed in and encouraged the innovation experiment.   Now, as CEO, my vote counted more than everyone else’s but without providing my support for the experimentation of this intern, we would never have achieved the innovation results.  True, it might have failed, and in that case my vote of support for this approach absolved everyone else of the responsibility for a failure or budget overrun.  Without this, I do not believe the innovation would have occurred.

Sometimes we as leaders need to set an expectation that we need to occasionally be bold, try the untested, and see what happens.   We as leaders need to create the cultural environment where innovation can thrive.

Other Resources

Change Must Be Pulled from the Top, Pushed from Below, by Len Brzozowski

Looking for Breakthrough Innovation, by Len Brzozowski

The Project Manager’s Approach to Innovation, by Paul R. Williams

Innovation Project Management: A Research Agenda, By Sergey Filippov and Herman Mooi, Delft University of Technology, Department Of Innovation Systems (The Netherlands)

Project Management and Innovation, by Jeff Belding 

Barriers to Innovation in Project Management, from PM Student.com


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Converting Empathetic Observations Into Solutions

IPODSIn my last article, Driving Innovative Strategy through Empathetic Observation, I introduced the Empathy Map as a technique to aid your team in conducting insight generating field immersion research.  It is intended to supplement the hard research you collect as a part of any planning process, and should promote a deeper understanding of your industry, business product, service or customer.

The goal of conducting Empathetic Observations is to enable you to go deeper into the motivations that drive customer behavior.  This helps you to ask better questions to identify the more important problems to solve.  This is the path to achieving breakthrough ideas.

Imagine Apple, a strictly computer company in 2000.  How did they transition from making Mac and Apple computers to the revolutionary iPOD?    At that time we mostly listened to our music on CD’s.   A number of companies–including Creative Labs, and Sony-had been selling MP3 players for a few years but none of them had been big hits.   So, in this case, Apple didn’t invent the concept, but it was about to revolutionize it, by understanding consumer attitudes and desires better than all the competitors at that time.

The Apple Team was somehow able to sense the possibility of the congruence of computers, the internet, and a lightweight (MP3-like) portable and personal device that could really change the game.  They did their own assessment of the market and consumer needs.   They recognized that the slow adoption of MP3 devices was partly due to price, partly due to its features, and partly due to the lack of an enabling infrastructure.

The 1999 Creative Labs Nomad had 32 MB of memory.  That’s enough for about 1 or 2 CDs and cost US$429.   In 2000, the digital music market was still pretty young and people were being pursued in court over the violation of copyright laws when they downloaded or copied “illegal” music.   There was no organized “store” from which you could download music.  Using MP3’s was cumbersome and risky. Yet Jobs and his team saw the possibility of delivering mass customized music on demand – listeners could hear what they wanted, anywhere, and at any time.

Apple spoke with consumers and thought about the problem holistically.   Their solution:

1)      Increased memory – the first iPOD could store about 1,000 songs

2)      Simpler operator interface  –  not buttons or hard to read dials, but a circular touch-sensitive element you could direct with the light touch of a finger

3)      Lower cost  –  the first iPOD cost $250 – about half of the Creative Labs version

4)      A convenient and legal platform for easily transferring music content to the device –  Apple’s APP store was created to offer this and it ultimately morphed into iTunes

5)      Easy integration to your PC  –  by downloading iTunes on your PC, you had now one simple way to organize, categorize and manage  your music collection, create customized playlists and to easily plug-in and download to your iPod

So now a holistic solution was present, and the iPOD took off, selling a quarter billion units in 7 or 8 years, leaving the competition in the dust.  It totally transformed how we all think about media.  WE are in control.  It led to the creation of “podcasting”, and is behind the trend of streaming video, TV programs, and books.

My hypothesis is that Apple’s competitors chose to see themselves as device makers – good at mass production.  They expected the retail sector to suck their products out the end of their supply chain as they had in the past.  The Apple team (under Steve Job’s direction) came to understand it needed to integrate all the above elements to satisfy consumers.

Using Your Empathy Map

The Empathy Maps your teams create are what lead to these insights – to more problems to solve that can bring about revolutionary change.  The “problem” for the tech industry was NOT how to make a better MP3 player.   Above I listed five major problems that ALL needed to be solved, and integrated together (price, memory, user interface, access to content, and integration.)   All five needed solutions for the revolution to take place.   While I’m not sure, it is plausible that the engineers at Creative Labs looked at the problem one dimensionally, like we need to lower cost, or we need bigger memory.  (Check out the link below suggesting that by as late as 2007, Creative’s designers still didn’t get the whole picture.)

So how do you go from the empathy maps to these innovative solutions?  Here are the steps.

1)      Have your teams share with the whole group their empathy maps and their main conclusions – 3-4 bullet points from each section of the Empathy Map

2)      Invite the assembled group to begin defining as many “problems” as possible by reading each of the bullet points and allowing your mind to run free.  Remember the Linus Pauling quote when he was asked how do you come up with a good idea?   “It helps”, he replied, “to begin with a lot of them!”    Write down these problems in the form of a “how might we” statement, such as “How Might We: make it easier for customers to transfer music to their device? Write each of these How Might We statements down on individual post it notes, and transfer them to a large board or wall.  Get as many ideas down as possible.

3)      Then group the ideas according to which ones seem to be related and put a heading on each grouping.   I am imagining in the iPOD case at least five main categories as outlined above:  price, memory, user interface, access to content, and integration.    Can you picture it?   5 labels with multiple post it notes grouped nearby.

4)      Assign teams to work within each problem area to generate ideas to solve these problems.

Some of you might argue that a process such as I am advocating may be too time consuming and requires too many resources pulled away from their day jobs.   If that is your impression, I would ask only “what is the cost of failing to do the kind of thorough analysis that leads to the holistic solution?”   Apple’s market share in the iPOD business was over 75% by 2007.   It enjoyed a zero share in 2000.  Those share points came from someone.

Other Resources:

How Apple Transformed Music and Our Lives, by Sam Costello, About.com

Creative Labs NOMAD MuVo² 4 GB MP3 Player–A Failed Attempt to Rival the IPod Mini, from Yahoo Tech

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Building Innovation Momentum: Little Steps Can Yield Big Results

We just completed four days of Creative Problem Solving(CPS) workshops for about 80 people from across all of Xavier University. They represent 8 different cross-functional teams being asked to develop solutions to some vital problems we face at Xavier that can ONLY be effectively solved with a cross-silo effort.  This is a kind of revolutionary idea for us.


Here are some of the ideas our teams are focused on solving:

  • Developing new sources of non-traditional revenue
  • Increasing student retention
  • Improving scholarship efforts among faculty across campus
  • Developing strategic partnerships with external organizations
  • Increasing student engagement
  • Improving learning and teaching across campus

These are important problems that require considerable thought, and they flow from the University’s strategic plan.

In the past, we would have approached these kinds of questions in one of two ways –

1)      Someone at the executive level would launch an initiative (a top-down approach)

2)      We would form a committee to study the problem and make recommendations

I would say that the latter approach has been perhaps more common.   But these kinds of efforts are not always effective to the  point where people dread being asked to serve on a committee – as it is likely to consume precious time, and yield no or few positive outcomes.  Sound familiar?   You know the drill. The committee meets for an hour every other week – assigns “homework” to the committee members and keeps the discussion alive.   The meetings go on for months on end, and in the end the committee makes modest recommendations and it is somewhat unclear who is ultimately responsible for approving and enacting anything.   (At Xavier, we sometimes “trip” over our own organizational design that is highly compartmentalized.  We also sometimes trip over our own culture which is collaborative in nature – which means we value a process where everyone’s voice is heard, but we are perhaps better at listening and talking about it, than we are at deciding and “pulling the trigger” to actually launch it.)

I am sure Xavier is not alone in this pattern of behavior, and I have seen it in quite a number of both public and private sector organizations.

What’s different (and exciting) about our new approach.

What’s happening at Xavier today is pretty remarkable (at least I think so) and borders on revolutionary for us.   Here’s what’s different.

1)      Senior Executive involvement (and interest).  This process began for us with a conversation I had with our Provost (the University equivalent of a COO).  I was telling him about the program offerings XLC was planning in the innovation arena.  He thought it sounded interesting.  We then did a 2.5 day CPS workshop for him and his top 25 executives from across campus.  At the end of that workshop. He and a number of his colleagues saw this as potentially a game changing approach for Xavier, and this led to the creation of our 8 cross functional teams I mentioned earlier.  Since them, either the Provost or the Associate Provost sat through and actively participated in the following workshops we led for the 8 teams.  Participants instantly recognized this as an IMPORTANT activity.

2)      Intense, focused work – rather than protracted committee sessions.  Rather than engage in committee work that spans many months, we decided instead to ask our teams to come together with focused energy for 2 days to try and create some worthy new ideas.   The power of allowing people to disengage from their “day jobs” for two days to wrap their heads around our various focus areas was huge.  Some participants were amazed by the amount of real progress that was made in that short time.  (This helps us make a cultural shift that now suggests that solving wicked problems that are of strategic importance to our institution IS PART OF OUR DAY JOB.)

3)      Who Wants to Own this? An interesting thing happened at the end of the very first CPS workshop.   Over the 2.5 days, we had developed about 200 ideas which we whittled down to about 16 and then we converged around about 8 ideas (project initiatives) that most people felt were solid, and would make a huge difference at Xavier.   Then the Provost stood up to offer his concluding remarks wherein he thanked people for their participation, reminded them as to the importance of the task, and then congratulated them for coming up with some powerful ideas.   Next. He stated that it was not his intent to drive these ideas down from above, but rather asked us “Who wants to own” any of these ideas – to take them forward and be project champions?   We were invited to vote with our feet and walk up to the posters on the side of the room that we would like to work on. Everyone knew then and there – that he was looking to empower anyone who was ready to lead.   In the end, five of these ideas had groups of owners with passion for the ideas that would show in the coming weeks.   I was one of the implementation team members for one initiative, and we worked together to create a clear statement of purpose, a business case, a pro-forma budget, and detailed description of how we imagined it could all work.   The Provost is currently pursuing our funding request.

4)      Be Bold!  Why Wait?  There is always some trepidation at Xavier (and indeed many other organizations that do not have a bias-for-action culture) to launch an initiative before it is fully developed and perfected (and until all possible risks have been mitigated).  This approach may be safer, but also takes more time – something that is precious when the world around you is changing rapidly.  Another way of thinking about it is this:  If you are clear about your goals and purpose, and believe that any idea moves us forward in the right direction, why not go ahead and begin?     You can always improve upon the idea in the future as you gain experience and learn from experimentation, or add other ideas alongside it.     Sometimes many little steps can yield big results.  They build innovation momentum.  At the end of one session, when the participants were asking for some guidance on where they should go next with their initiatives, the Provost announced to the room.   “If you have a good idea that doesn’t need special new funding, or violates established rules there is no reason to delay!  Let’s get started.”  This is another subtle call for culture shift at Xavier – a bias for action.

5)      Effective Process (and facilitation). All of the CPS session we facilitated produced some interesting new ideas. Our participants were fully engaged, willing to let go of some established paradigms, and willing to take the Provost at his word. . . “bold ideas are good”, he said.   Part of the successful results came from the use of a proven process led by globally experienced professionals who guided the activities at every step along the way.   These innovation guides (who teach this method through XLC), were continually changing the planned assignments during each workshop as they observed where each team was, and where people were getting “stuck”.   This expertise was invaluable.

It is not clear where all this will lead for us at Xavier, as only time will tell.   However I have noticed walking around campus that there are visible signs of progress.  The spirit of cross-departmental collaboration has never been stronger (since I came to Xavier).  I came into one conference room in the Williams College of Business to notice a full wall of post-it notes from a past meeting.   (Someone had borrowing one of the ideation techniques they learned during a past workshop.)   We are working together differently, and there are many exciting conversations focusing on what could be.

Other References:

How NYC Schools is Systematizing Innovation, by Len Brzozowski, Xavier Leadership Center

Most Innovative Schools, by Len Brzozowski, Xavier Leadership Center

Overcoming Barriers to Effective Problem Definition, by Dr. Wayne Fisher, XLC Innovation Guide

Creative Productivity & The Creative Theorists – Part 1, by Lisa Canning, Innovating through Artistry


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Innovating A Mature Product – The Sealy Case

We sleep on one every night.  But unless you suffer from chronic back problems, how many of us give this product (our mattress) a second thought?   Eighty percent are made from some coils, foam topper and some fabric.  Each manufacturer calls their version something different, and we can buy them with more or fewer coils, fluffier foam or softer fabric to suit our preferences.   Does it really matter which brand you buy?  Not to me.  I presume that Sealy, Simmons, Serta (not sure why they all begin with “S”) are all comparable, and I buy what’s on sale that feels comfortable for the 2 minutes I lie on it in the store. What’s the big deal?

Well, when you are in the mattress business, and the sales of your premium brand starts to plummet with new energetic competitors entering the luxury mattress segment around 2002  (made even worse after the economic melt-down of 2008) it is a very big deal.  That is what was happening to the Stearns and Foster brand of the Sealy Corporation.

Can you imagine a meeting at the corporate office where the Brand Manager stands up and says “Sales are in the toilet.  We think it is related to the economy.  Our plan is to RAISE prices by 40%!”   Can you imagine any sales leader in their right mind who would make that case?  Well, that is what they did.

To the credit of Sealy management, they decided to try a new approach, applying a creative problem-solving methodology called Design Thinking.   They partnered with the Boston office of design powerhouse IDEO (the people who became famous for inventing the first computer mouse for Apple).

Like many companies that have been around a while, their R&D/Product development department was a stand-alone group that operated in their own sort of ivory tower, bouncing bowling balls on mattresses, and such.  But the design thinking process approach they used with their Stearns and Foster problem called for a new way of working.

So, with IDEO’s help, their engineers from the Trinity, North Carolina headquarters were sent out with sales and marketing people to visit retailers in New York, Atlanta and Chicago.  They spoke to customers (yup, that’s a novel idea), interviewed retail sales clerks and they studied their competitors’ products not through the eyes of the technicians in the R&D facility, but through the eyes of the sales people who were talking to live buying customers on a daily basis.

When they watched customers on showrooms, they observed some who walked up running their hands along the mattress top, remarking about how smooth it was, or noticing the decorative patterns on the fabric.   (In some ways this seems counter intuitive when you consider that none of those attributes are ever appreciated by consumers when the product is in use.  After all, it is covered with blankets and sheets.) Yet, these things seemed to matter, no matter how irrational they may be.

The redesign team learned that unlike yours truly, many customers take their mattresses quite seriously and see them as reflections of themselves.   Mattresses needed to have a kind of personality, right down to the embossed fleur-de-lis pattern on the mattress cover that hearkened back to the early days when Stearns made seats for high-end carriages in the mid 1800s.

Armed with these new consumer insights, marketing and engineering managers from Sealy sequestered themselves in IDEO’s Boston offices for eight weeks to re-think their product design.

It was natural for Sealy – as they saw sales decline dramatically after the stock market crash and following economic downturn–to focus on cost cutting.  However, the process they followed kept the team away from the corporate bureaucracy and allowed team members to influence design not based so much on costs, but on what they were learning from customers and field sales people.   While other mattress manufacturers were cutting costs, Sealy’s creative problem solving team went the other way, adding material and labor cost, resulting in their raising prices a whopping 40 percent (from $1,000 to $1,400 per mattress)!

The results?  Since the newly designed products were launched at the end of last year, they broke all previous sales records for the product line.

Why did it work out so well? Here are some observations:

Immersion research is vital.   The final design version was pretty interesting when you consider how much effort went into improving the physical appearance of the product in the showroom. (These are insights not attainable any other way than by direct observations in the field.  You can buy your competitors products and reverse engineer them all day, and never understand how consumers FEEL when they are buying them.)  One of our biggest enemies is what we all think we already know.   We all believe we are good at our jobs (experts in fact).  We form opinions about lots of things over time, our customers, our own organization, competitor behaviors and so forth. Once we form our opinions though, we tend to hang on to them tenaciously – a dangerous thing in a constantly changing world.   So any creative process is aided by field immersion learning. Get out of your cube, your office, your building and even your industry to look at things through different lenses. I have never seen one such experience yet where observers didn’t learn important new things.

This cross-functional approach was crucial.  Getting sales, marketing, product development and R&D together to solve a problem seems so logical, but is yet too often avoided.  We never have time.  It will cost too much. It will slow us down. (Pick your favorite excuse.) Forming eclectic teams of diverse people is highly productive.  You want to surround yourself with people who don’t normally think like you do.  You then want to teach your teams to build on each other’s ideas rather than criticizing them.

As reported in the Fortune article referenced below, Allen Platek,  Sealy’s VP for new product development, reacted this way to the new way of working together to solve problems:  “[It] was one of the most fun times of my career.  Prior to this, what we did was in silos. Sales did their thing, marketing did their promotions and ads, R&D developed innovation, and then it was all thrown to operations. We had a disjointed effort.”

Get people away from the bureaucracy.   The truth is that when we are in our familiar work surroundings, we adopt many of the paradigms, biases and bureaucratic practices that normally accompany that environment.   This design work at Sealy was not done in North Carolina, but in Boston at IDEO.   There, they weren’t having people second guess them each day, posturing or trying to exert influence on the process for any reason.  They didn’t have to follow normal procedures, get approvals and so forth.  The result was speed and freer thinking. Outside facilitation can help here as well.

Senior leaders were willing to let go.  This whole process can be destroyed if senior leaders are too afraid, and decide to second guess or overrule their creative problem solving team.  Sealy executives were willing to let go and see this experiment all the way through.  They trusted their people to use their best judgment and to trust in the process as well.  An initial success encourages more experimentation and you can really build momentum.

I have been sharing in prior posts examples from public education, federal and municipal government, and now here in the for-profit sector.  We are in the throes of a similar bold experiment like this at Xavier as well, as we are guiding over 100 people in various cross-functional teams through this same creative problem solving process experience used by Sealy.  Xavier has assembled a team of globally experienced “innovation guides” and we are using Innovation as a transformative process for our entire organization.  For us it is too soon to demonstrate the success of our outcomes, but I can see that some exciting new ideas are already starting to emerge, and the we have not before seen such cross campus energy as we are working together across our own internal silos.

At Xavier we teach and guide external client teams through both Creative Problem Solving and Design Thinking projects.    So pick whichever case example I have written about as a starting point: NY Public Schools, the VA in Washington (and with the 100,000 Homes Campaign), St. Vincent’s Medical Center (Birmingham AL), Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center (Hanover NH), Google, or IDEO.   They all have some common threads.  Start with them, and see if you can add your own new improvements.

Finally, if you haven’t seen this before and want to see Design Thinking in practice, here is an 8-minute video showing how IDEO designed new shopping cart in five days.

Other Resources

Reinvigorating the Stearns and Foster Brand for Sealy, from IDEO

Next Generation Posturepedic for Sealy, from IDEO

Sealy goes to the Mattresses, by Daniel Roberts, Fortune/CNN

5 Innovation Secrets from Sealy, by John Kotter

IDEO helps Sealy revive its mattress sales via design, by Reena Jana, Smart Planet


Filed under Innovation, Leading

How NYC Schools are Systematizing Innovation

Some people think innovation is about research and development or designing new and better products.   If I hear one more reference to the iPhone as an example of what innovation is, I think I will be sick.

Innovation has to do with making anything better. . . products, services, business processes, organizational strategies, the ways we lead, and the ways we do work.  The need for innovation and the tools that promote it are universal and can be applied in for or nonprofit, public or private sector, mission based of customer driven organizations.

I came across an article recently by Tom Vander Ark in Education Week, called Innovation Hub and Change Management Model. It describes a pretty interesting approach to guiding innovation throughout the largest school district in the United States.  Here are some learning points – a manifesto for leading innovation and change.

Create a Resource Center to Enable Change

The point here is that there is a body of knowledge that makes innovation happen more easily.   Before you push your people to do so, put in place the resource center to help them.

One idea in New York was to create the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation which they call the iZone.  It was created in 2010 as a community change management initiative.    The iZone is a place, (a physical space), a group of people (whose sole job is innovation thinking, planning and execution) and a network of external partners (knowledge resources to be leveraged).   They are working with organizations like Google, Harvard EdLabs, The Center for Secondary School Redesign, the Discovery Channel and many others.

The iZone is a resource hub to provide expertise to help local schools design curriculum for the knowledge age by applying technology smartly, redefining teaching roles, leveraging external real-world environments to support practical experiences and personalizing learning.

Have a Unifying Point of View

While it may seem empowering to simply tell people to “go forth and innovate,”  in practice it is much more effective when you focus your innovation efforts.

iZone started with a bold philosophical paradigm-shifting idea–to change schools from a classroom focused learning system to an individualized student-centered approach.

This is a radical change from the industrial age concept of processing students through a learning process in production-line fashion,  in batches based on their chronological age (as if that were the most relevant way to batch-process them).  Putting students at the center of the process is a stark departure from decades of tradition leaving many teachers feeling unsettled.   How do you redesign schools and curriculum from the bottom up when your work day is already jam-packed with tasks?

Make Innovation Voluntary

It is great to have the C-suite be in favor of innovative change, and to see them trying to drive it.  However, most of us react to top-down directives negatively.  Find some initial willing “guinea pigs” to be the first living case examples.  Once they achieve some initial successes, momentum will build.   From then on, make participation in innovation initiatives voluntary. (The door to change can only be opened from the inside).

In the case of NYC, they start by inviting schools to join the iZone (giving them access to these support resources), but in order to do so the school MUST AGREE to subscribe to the philosophy of personalized, student-centered learning as a way of being!  Office of Innovation director Stacey Gillett describes it this way:  “the iZone [is] a community of schools committed to personalization innovation.”

This is huge.   To participate, the school and all its connected stakeholders must first go through a process of imagining what they want to make different and then make the emotional leap to accept the philosophical perspective of the iZone.  So by the time they join, they are ready to learn and to work.

Use a Process

It is not sufficient to simply ask people to change, and then cheer them on.   Most of us  need help.

As you know from our prior articles, we think Innovation initiatives are greatly aided by having a deliberate process to guide it.  We at Xavier Leadership Center teach Lean, Creative Problem Solving and Design thinking as three specific methodologies.

Here is the process invented by iZone (see this Vimeo detailing the process.) In this case they planned six focused conferences spread out between February and June.  These participants came to learn core concepts and to share ideas.   Then they went back to their home schools to apply what they learned.   With each succeeding conference, they were pushed along the design thinking process.

  • Forming a design team
  • Informing the team (collecting information, engaging stakeholders)
  • Defining their problem(s)
  • Developing an idea for a new learning model
  • Prototyping it
  • Refining it
  • Implementing it

Have A Deadline 

Yes, innovation is an organic process that never ends.   We create ideas, implement them, learn from our successes and mistakes, and make ongoing improvements.   However, that doesn’t mean we should launch innovation initiatives without a purpose or deadline.   People work better when they can see a concrete endpoint to our initial efforts.

The iZone school community created a 1-year deadline for them to invent a new learning model.   Feb–June were allocated to learning, defining, designing and prototyping.  The summer months were created for planning implementation at the start of the upcoming school year.   Having a deadline helps us stay on track.

Choose Some Specific Initiatives

Leading an innovative change program is a blend of empowering people at lowest levels to invent solutions that best meet their needs.  No one other than them knows their issues and problems better.  In addition, however, there should be an overarching “strategic” plan that aligns the lower level activities around the overall goals and direction of the entire organization.  Empowering teams builds engagement, and connecting them to organizational strategic intent makes it powerful.    In the case of NYC schools, while each schools programs might look different on the ground, they are ALL required to be connected to this framework:

  • Next Generation Curriculum and Assessment
  • Personalized Learning Plans and Progress Tracking
  • New Student and Staff Roles
  • Flexible and Real-world learning environments

Flexible, focused, and aligned.
Decide how to Measure Success

We are not fans of innovation for its own sake.  We need to define up front what success looks like to us in sufficient detail so that we would recognize it if we actually succeeded.

In the case of the iZone schools who engaged in the Feb-June sequence of planning, they all defined measurable outcomes they believed would be impacted though the implementation of their new learning model.  Start with the end in mind.   Pick your goals and define how to measure them. Be as  multi-dimensional as you can.   (Look, for example not only at student achievement, but how about measuring teacher, community and student engagement as well?)

Here is a statement of mission for iZone:

“The iZone aims to increase student achievement in K-12, college and career by supporting innovative educational models that will best meet the needs, motivations and strengths of each student.”

It helps to have a clear understanding of purpose when deciding what to measure.

So how innovative is your organization?   We can all take a lesson from iZone and the suggested steps listed above.  The only mistake is not to start.

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Filed under Innovation, Leading

Slowing Down to Move Fast

Tell me if this sounds like how your organization approaches problem solving.   Once a problem emerges, a responsible executive or manager calls a meeting.   At the table are key people who have relevant knowledge and experience.   The meeting organizer describes the problem.  The next step is for people to announce their suggested solutions to the problem – what they feel should be done.

The next step in the process is for individuals to advocate for their own idea.   They describe why they proposed what they did, and why they believe it is the best idea on the table.  Now, depending on the meeting facilitation skill of the organizer and the degree to which they feel their own idea is better than all others suggested, the subsequent rounds of advocacy can become increasingly intense.

Consensus does not seem to be emerging, and people advocate for their own ideas with increasing ferocity.   In this situation, extraverted persons (or those with higher organizational rank) have a decided advantage.  Ultimately, the introverts begin to shut down, and stop contributing to the discussion.   You DO make a decision because you must . . . but the one we selected is not one the entire group REALLY believes in.   The one person whose idea was selected leaves the meeting content, but many of the others present do not feel the process was honest and objective.

After the meeting, the unbelieving members of your team don’t enthusiastically support the effort, and in some cases even demonstrate passive-aggressive behavior that actually undermines the chance of success.

Sound too familiar?  If so, you can take at least some solace in the fact that you are probably not alone. In today’s fast-paced world, it seems that we tend to value people who can face problems and solve them quickly and effectively.  Time is money (so they say) so we instinctively feel the need to dive in and take action whether it is right or wrong.

Creative Problem Solving – PROBLEM FORMULATION

What we need instead, is a PROCESS that guides teams through a series of facilitated steps to help them better understand what is behind the problem to be solved, so they can generate more effective solutions.  Here is a graphical representation of one such process used by Procter and Gamble at their innovation center.It is designed to specifically slow down problem solving by inserting a whole new set of steps not evident in the case example that led off this article.  It is the region of the pie chart depicted in orange called “Problem Formulation.”  While it represents a full third of this physical pie, it should represent about 50 percent of the total amount of effort and time!

Why so many steps?

Some of you are thinking that this seems wasteful and unnecessary.   Let me try to make the counterargument.

In the problem-solving description I included at the top of this article, we see that different people launched their own suggested solution based on how THEY individually see the problem.   In most organizations, this is greatly influenced by what functional role one plays in the organization.    If the problem is to grow sales revenue, the engineers may feel that the key point is about sales force effectiveness and training:  “If our sales people could just explain our product features better, we would sell more.”  From the sales perspective the problem may have more to do with having the WRONG product features or perhaps too high a cost.   Operations people may feel the product specifications are too complex and exacting, thus driving up costs.   All perspectives are perhaps “truthy” but all are heavily colored by the different perspectives of each group, each of which is relying on different facts –- anecdotal or empirical — that inform their view.

What we need is a process that carefully considers a new set of facts, ones that inform all the participants similarly–so that we are all developing solutions from the same final perspective.   In some cases we need to broaden our view (beyond our own parochial viewpoint) and in other cases we need to make our view more granular to better appreciate the subtleties behind each layer of the problem.

Another problem is that we form opinions based on our individual world views.  We believe certain things to be “true” based on our cumulative life experiences, but sometimes what we hold onto as “truth” may in fact not be.

We may believe, for example, that customers would prefer lower prices.   We may have had many clients even say these words to us.   This seems like an incontrovertible fact that needs no further debate.   However, if we showed customer a product or service offering that had several important new features or attributes, they might actually be willing to pay a much higher price if they believe greater value was provided.

Developing deeper understanding of the problems in all its facets and layers is perhaps the most important step.

Here are some guidelines that may help:

  • Rely on diverse teams.   Eclectic groups are likely to bring new and fresher insights and perspectives to bear.  So mix them up by age, gender, race, rank and function.  Always include some people who are “outsiders” and are not as likely to be blinded by conventional organizational wisdom.
  • Get outside of your organization.  Most of the time, answers and ideas don’t lie inside the walls of our company.  Don’t assume you KNOW what your customers want. Go out and talk with them.  Observe them if you can. Listen with empathy. Speak less and listen more.   Look for deeper insights into what is behind their actions and words. Visit competitors, suppliers or even companies outside your market or industry.  Every organization I have ever visited does something better than the way I would do it.   Learn from others and copy ideas that bring you internal value.
  • Engage in divergent thinking.  Linus Pauling was asked once how he comes up with a good idea.  His answer was “Simple.  Start with a lot.”   We just completed a wonderful creative problem-solving workshop for senior executives at Xavier University around the question of how we drive future growth.   After spending one day in problem definition, we generated over 200 ideas, which, over two days we filtered down to about 12 key ones.   And finally, these were condensed to about 6 ideas, which we are now developing plans to move forward.  This process helped make everyone feel we considered their ideas, not to mention a seeming universe of possibilities, and in the end  everyone felt we had a few killer ideas with great value and promise.

Other Related Resources:

7 Step Problem Solving  (watch video)

Why Meetings Fail and What to Do About it?

Why Meetings Fail

How to Make Your Meetings Fail


Filed under Innovation