by Ivan Lim, design thinking practitioner, entrepreneur
Here is a common horror story from trainers/facilitators: the workshop has just been completed, and the teams are going back inspired, highly motivated, armed with a draft prototype and a clear idea of what they need to do next. Everything seems rosy and you are confident that the team is going to make a difference. And then when you check back with them a few weeks later, nothing has changed. Nothing. The draft prototype is neatly tucked away in someone’s drawer and the folks have ‘shared it with management and they really liked it’. The burning flame that they had several weeks ago has disappeared. What happened?
One could find a thousand and one reasons to explain why it didn’t work, but I believe that the solution to this problem lies not with innovation “incentives” and programs to foster a “Culture of Innovation”, but rather with the Individual – the most basic building block of an organization.
In other words, would it be possible to train a single person to make a difference and produce valuable results? Of course, a lot of the literature out there encourages innovation in teams. There are many benefits to collaboration, but I believe that if an individual cannot produce results alone, grouping more of the same people together will not change anything.
So, how would you train someone to actively make a difference on his or her own?
Start with the fundamentals
It is very easy to get enamoured with the wonderful tools and methodologies out there. They can be so elegant and powerful. However, I would like to highlight that
just like martial arts – techniques, theories, and definitions are merely force-multipliers: if you are first able to deliver value without relying on techniques and tools, then adding on these frameworks and methodologies will amplify your effectiveness. But if you are helpless without using techniques as a crutch, then you actually have some fundamental gaps that need to be addressed first.
The following is a simple checklist that I’ve developed from facilitating and working with different teams and individuals within and outside the corporate environment over the years. It helps you to quickly check if you have some basic gaps you need to fix. A lot of it is just common sense, but sometimes, common sense might not be as common as we would like to think.
Fundamental skill #1: The ability to identify what’s valuable around you
Before you can make any change that brings value, you must first be able to identify what is valuable (or rather, valued by the people around you). If you can identify areas where change would be the most valuable, you can focus on things that will make the most impact.
Here’s an abstraction of a scenario that has been observed in different organizations:
Person A works in an IT support organization in Company X. The team members are overloaded and are regularly working overtime. Recently, there has been a push for Innovation from upper management. Managers have been given compulsory training and have been strongly encouraged to build a “Culture of Innovation” within their organizations. Innovation is rewarded and there are incentives for submitting inventions for patent filing. Those who produce patentable submissions get a monetary reward and recognition during the monthly staff meetings, this indirectly boosts the employees’ performance reviews.
In this scenario, if you want to make a difference, which area would you focus on to make the most impact?
The answer is quite clear: even though there are financial rewards for patent filing, you can deliver the most impact by finding ways to greatly reduce the team’s workload and optimize their performance.
Fundamental skill #2: The ability to decide on a direction
There’s a well known quote from Sun Tzu’s Art of War that goes “If you know your enemy and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without fear of danger“. Knowing what you are trying to do is the first step towards getting results.
These 3 scenarios have different directions, and require very different paths to achieve results:
- 1- You’re exploring possibilities and experimenting, with the intention to learn and gain as much exposure as possible.
- 2- You want to find ways to improve the efficiency of a system currently maintained by your team at work.
- 3- You wanted to design a product for a very specific market.
Because these 3 examples are moving in very different directions, it would be very difficult to switch between them. So if someone is taking the “wander around aimlessly until I achieve enlightenment” approach, he might be wandering for a long time.
Even the popular methodologies out there require that you know where you want to go. For example: Design Thinking is more suited for wicked problems (or problems where the user experience is paramount), Lean Six Sigma works very well in manufacturing/optimization space, TRIZ is very powerful in the thermal/mechanical space, and so on. So if a person doesn’t know what he’s trying to achieve, then equipping him with more tools and techniques isn’t going to help him one bit.
Fundamental skill #3: The ability to assess one’s level of commitment to an idea
Is this idea something that you’ve been wanting to do for a very long time? Or is it something cool you just thought of in the past 24 hours and are extremely excited about?
If the idea is less than 24 hours old, it’s still too early to tell how passionate you really are about it. But if you find yourself doing research, prototyping, getting feedback and constantly obsessing over the idea even after a month or two, it’s a good sign that the idea means a lot to you, and that you’ll be willing to stick with it through thick and thin.
Why is this important?
True motivation and drive comes from within, and you will need that motivation and drive when things get difficult. You will get criticism no matter what you do (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_miller,_his_son_and_the_donkey). If you are unable to convince yourself that your idea is worth fighting for, how will you be able to defend your idea and convince others to help you?
Another important reason to ensure you are really committed to your idea is that your commitment is crucial when you are working in teams. When you are working with a team, you will need to have a “Holder of the vision” (some call it “the gatekeeper”). The owner of the idea MUST be able to hold and defend his vision. If he does not, here’s an example of what I have seen happen to teams:
- 1- Person A proposes a wonderful idea. It’s very raw and needs fleshing out. But it is brilliant, and everyone likes it.
- 2- The team members are now inspired and are contributing ideas.
- 3- Person B suggests a great idea to improve it. It is awesome.
- 4- Person C suggests an equally amazing idea, but it doesn’t quite fit with B’s idea. Still, it makes a lot of sense so it’s ok.
- 5- As the team works through the new ideas, new problems and challenges arise.
- 6- As a result, priorities get rearranged and the direction changes.
- 7- Over time, Person A notices that the discussion is no longer the same as idea he was so motivated to work on.
From steps 1-6 it seemed like everything was going well, didn’t it? There were great ideas. There was give and take. Yet somehow the groups that fell into this pattern ended up not producing the wonderful results everyone expected at the beginning (the fire that they had during the workshop would die out after a few weeks).
The above is an example of designing by consensus and losing the original vision. What you end up with is a wonderful discussion for a different challenge (usually something perceived as more important that was discovered during the discussion) that NOBODY is motivated to work on. No one has had the chance to spend weeks or months studying and researching the problem and falling in love with the challenge. Who will champion it when things get rough? Who will spend late nights working on it when resources are tight? (Remember, we are talking about people who have day jobs, not folks who are working full time on designing and delivering new products)
Personal motivation and drive aren’t usually given their due attention, but can make a very big difference to the successful implementation of an idea.
Fundamental skill #4: The ability to ask for advice and feedback
If you plan to work on something that will be used by anyone other than yourself, it is important to share and bounce ideas off others. There are several benefits to doing this:
- 1- Testing to see how seriously others take your project allows you to validate your idea and to make sure that you’re not running along happily oblivious to your own confirmation bias (i.e. seeing only what you want to see).
- 2- You also get to build up connections and gather a following around your idea. The person you share with today might introduce you to someone very knowledgeable on your topic in the future. You might even find new team members this way, or perhaps a source of funding for your project.
The common arguments against this are usually the “what if people steal my idea” concern, and the tale of the lone visionary (usually followed by the “…they would have asked for a faster horse” quote). There are many discussions and videos about these online (mostly against these arguments), but I encourage you to look them up on Google/YouTube to make your own conclusions.
Fundamental skill #5: The ability to know what you have, and find what you need
In workshops, you’d occasionally observe participants producing ideas that are far beyond what they can build. Having a good grasp of one’s limits is really important because it anchors one’s ideas with realism, and it helps to make sure that you can actually achieve what you’ve designed.
It would be helpful to build a mental list of resources that you have access to (in the context of the project):
- 1- Development skills (“I can prototype this part easily “)
- 2- Network and contacts (“I know someone from the Finance department who can set up a meeting with this person”)
- 3- Time (“I can spend 2 days a week on this idea”)
- 4- Knowledge (“I’m familiar with most of this subject. I just need to brush up on some info on YouTube.”)
- 5- Influence (“I can get John and his team to collaborate with us on this”)
- 6- Facilities (“I have a 3D printer with me”)
- 7- Financial (“I have enough to buy the parts I need for my prototype”)
One might argue that individuals should be encouraged to think “outside the box” to allow them to make interesting leaps and connections to produce novel ideas. I believe this to be true, but I also believe that realism is the foundation upon which more advanced ideation techniques are built.
Without the ability to converge back to realistic ideas, divergent thinking isn’t going to be of much help.
Fundamental skill #6: The ability to assess what’s realistically possible
When facilitating workshops within the corporate environment, disheartened complaints such as “The manager in the other organization was unable to cooperate because now they are busy with program ABC.”, or “This change would increase our efficiency, but the organization that is currently using our software does not want it” were common.
It’s easy to blame it on the other person, but I believe that complaints like the ones above are not the real issue. They are symptoms of a more fundamental problem. These folks do not know the extent at which they can realistically make a difference. In cases like the ones above, they have most likely over-extended.
One way to think about it is to imagine that everyone has a ‘Zone of Impact’ within which they can realistically make a difference with a given idea. You can easily test your boundaries by simulating scenarios where you try to implement changes of increasing scope. (e.g. can I apply this idea to my own work processes? what about those of my project team? Will I be able to make changes to our entire organization? How about multiple organizations?).
The size of this zone varies from person to person, and from idea to idea. There are many secondary factors that might affect it such as internal politics, how aligned your idea is with your organizational goals, how much support that you currently have from the team, the resources you have access to in Question #4 etc. But ultimately, it’s about common sense – only you would know what you can and cannot achieve within your own working environment.
In his book the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey talks about something called the Circle of Influence. He is pretty much talking about the same thing (but perhaps in a more generalized way so that it can be applied to life in general). Knowing your boundaries helps you control the impact of your changes, and produce more achievable solutions.
So this is all I have to share for now. I hope that you find this article useful. I believe that these are the 6 fundamental, common-sense skills that a person should develop before amplifying their impact with all the powerful techniques and methodologies out there. When training swordsmen, let’s focus on the swordsmen, not the swords.
“If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;”
(an excerpt from the poem “If -” by Rudyard Kipling)
Who is Ivan Lim?
While conducting workshops on innovation and design thinking within the Intel University employee training programme, Ivan developed a strong interest in how tools and techniques could be applied to teams to increase their creative output and productivity. He read up on the known techniques and through experimentation, developed some of his own. When he left Intel to join the startup scene several years later, he had trained and facilitated workshops for approximately 370 employees from Malaysia, Singapore, Shanghai, India, and the US, and some of the tools he developed has been included in some training materials for Intel employees. Ivan is now working on his own startup and continues to observe teams and individuals going through their natural thinking and ideation processes whenever possible.