Monday, 30 July 2012

The Opposite of Speaking

Like most parents of young teenage kids, I work for money during the week and I am an unpaid taxi driver at the weekend.  I’m getting really good at listening to obscure radio stations while doing the midnight pick up.  Last weekend, tiring of listening to the news in Danish on Long Wave (try it – a non Danish speaker can get about 25%), I tuned into some very smart people discussing the latest play in London’s West End.  They were praising a play because the actors appeared to be listening to each other – not just waiting for their turn to speak.  Honestly, I didn’t know that you could act ‘listening’ but it’s an intriguing concept and it got me thinking about how so much innovation in large companies gets snuffed out. 

Most ideas are born ugly – a half-bred, half-cooked idea leaves your lips but dammit, you curse your inability to speak the idea in a clear thought through way.  Those around you break for a moment to listen but get back on their conversational strand as you trail off.  Yes, that was a daft thing to say, I won’t do that again.  Rewind and play it another way: those around you break for a moment and give you the slightest encouragement to say more – what’s behind that idea, mmmm – there’s something in it – let’s explore it a bit more…Now that wasn't such a daft thing to say after all.

Speaking is an art, transmitting is an art – our words, tone, gesticulations, even our clothes – they are all transmitting something we want to say, and we put a lot of effort into it.  But the opposite of speaking isn’t waiting to speak some more, it’s listening and it’s an art that most of us pay a lot less attention to.  Which is odd – our brains can process concepts 5 times faster than we can speak them. There’s a lot that can go right and wrong with listening. 

I don't think the rules of listening are complex:

1.   If you’re not in the mood then say so, fix a time to ‘listen’ to someone when you are.

2.   Resist the temptation to problem-solve or dive in and ‘save’ someone.  Listening is very hard for energetic well-meaning problem solvers. 

3.   Beware over-use of ‘reflective listening’ – parroting the last thing the speaker said isn’t helpful.

4.   ‘Why?’ is the listener’s best tool.  ‘Why’ is this person feeling this?  Treat it as a challenge – get to the bottom of it.  Thinking or asking ‘why’ automatically displaces the confirmation bias most of us have – the need to hear in others what we want to be true.

5.   ‘Why?’ is also a subtle tool and dangerous if mishandled.  ‘Why?’ should be an encouragement to share more, to dig deeper beneath the surface, to ‘cook’ the idea more.  ‘Why?’ shouldn’t be a demand for justification; ‘ok, so why is that such a great idea?’  Nothing kills innovation faster than this.

The opposite of speaking is listening, really listening, not waiting to speak.  Who cares if you ‘act it’ to begin with, maybe with practice listening will become as authentic and valued as speaking.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

I’ve been in prison…

I’ve been in Brixton Prison finding out if the skills of an innovator are useful ‘inside’.  Let me explain: Channel 4 call me and ask if I can advise on developing a food product made by prisoners tutored by celeb chef Gordon Ramsay.  One thing lead to another, and the next minute I’m being frisked, X-rayed and marched across the exercise yard to meet a dozen of the inmates.

Myself, the ‘Bad Boys’ and Gordon spend a day together.  Figuring that any product needs to tell a genuine story, my job is to get under the skin of why cooking in prison may have redemptive qualities.

Up front let me tell you that Ramsay is superb at TV.  While I mumbled and self-deprecated, Gordon got angry, slapped his hands, said ”fuck” a lot and enunciated ev-ery-litt-le-syl-a-ble.  Very watchable.

The Bad Boys are bad but they’re sad boys as well.  Repeat offenders, many hooked on heroin.  If it wasn't the craving for a hit that landed them in trouble in the first place, then they often get the taste for it once inside.

But here’s the thing – cooking does have a magical effect on these tough, lost characters.  It took me a few hours to figure out why, but for them, cooking is unique.  It’s delicate.  It requires absolute attention to detail.  It’s a team thing.  And it delivers an immediate reward - you see the pleasure on someone’s face as they consume your delicacy.  These are the four factors that make such a difference - and you don't get them welding or sowing mailbags. (Does that still happen?).

Really it is ‘life changing’ stuff and as always when you have a great insight, the development of the idea (‘Bad Boys’ Bakery – Life Changing Taste’) and elements of the product, packaging and communications all flow.

Good luck to the scheme in Brixton and the Bad Boys.

Bad Boys' Bakery Lemon Slice is available in selected Caffè Nero’s in London and The Ministry of Justice is having very positive discussions with a social enterprise company about the Bad Boys’ Bakery continuing. The packaging was designed by Lu Burnell at ?What If!

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Tolerating failure – yeah right!

If there’s one thing that drives me nuts it's hearing senior executives exhorting their people to ‘tolerate failure’ and ‘take more risks’.  Sure we all know that innovation needs us to throw caution to the wind every now and then but ‘tolerating failure’ is such a blunt concept - it’s pretty useless.

There’s the obvious chestnut about how rewards at work are rarely lined up with risk taking.  ‘Sorry boss, I missed my targets but I did take a lot of risks’.  Hmmm!  Most people have mortgages and mouths to feed – we need a much more subtle concept of risk.

In my experience it’s far more effective to substitute the words ‘lets take more risks’ with a more positive line; ‘let's make it real now’.  Asking your people (or asking yourself) to accelerate an inkling of an idea into something that others can react to is a cornerstone of innovation.  ‘Can you draw it…make a mock up…act it out?’

The trick to effective ‘realness’ is stealth.  The cheaper and quicker you can make each mock up or simulation then the more iterative the process will be.  Over several quick fire rounds you’ll learn more about your great idea and make better development decisions.

Quick and dirty experimentation can escape under the radar - no need to waste time making a case and seeking approval.  Most innovation starts like this - a few people muttering in the corner and staying late to make something real – not writing a proposal. 

So let's replace the phrase ‘tolerate failure’ with an altogether more wholesome and useful concept of ‘making it real’.  Forcing an idea through multiple experiments is scary as hell because not all experiments work out, in fact you need failures as much as successes to learn from.  In the context of ‘making it real’ then failure becomes really valuable.

There are a couple of great stories that underscore my point about making things real.  Sir James Dyson’s account of developing the dual cyclone vacuum cleaner in ‘Against the Odds: An Autobiography" (1997, Orion Publishing) is brilliant.  He developed over 5000 prototypes and made loads of mistakes along the way. An experimental approach to solving problems has also been proven to be more effective than a single burst of work. Researchers at Stanford University asked 28 participants to work on a design to protect a raw egg in a fall.  Half the participants designed, tested and iterated their egg protection ideas after 5, 10, 15 and 25 minutes. The other participants spent all their time on one design and were not allowed to test it until the end of the session.  All had similar resources (paper, string and other materials).  The results showed that the iterators significantly outperformed their non-iterating counterparts, achieving roughly double the non-breaking drop height – in some cases at 15 feet.  Definitely one to try at home with the kids!  For more read ‘Efficacy of Prototyping Under Time Constraints’ – a paper by Steven P. Dow, Kate Heddleston, Scott R. Klemmer.  Stanford University HCI Group.  Department of Computer Science, October 26–30, 2009.