Using a Systems Thinking Approach to Innovation

How a conversation with Flik reminded me that innovation and systems thinking aren’t mutually exclusive.

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If you’ve never seen A Bug’s Life, it was the 2nd Pixar film released following the amazing debut of Toy Story. If you haven’t seen it at all, or recently, I recommend you watch it for pure enjoyment and the lessons it contains.

Flik is a entrepreneurial ant (that paradox is a leadership book in itself!) whose latest invention is a machine that allows ants to do more faster, thus satisfying the demands of their grasshopper overlords. It works for a while, but then disaster strikes and Flik has to scramble to come up with new solutions to save the colony.

That’s all the storyline I’m going to give you; I hope it whets your appetite to view the movie.

A recent encounter with a life-sized Flik at Disney’s Animal Kingdom brought to mind this fact:

When you’re working on a project, things always go smoother when you have the right tools at hand.

If your mind is working on something innovative, the same is true. The mind is full of ideas from past experiences and from observations gained through conversations, movies, television, etc. While you may chose to rely on your subconscious mind to access these ideas, why not take a more structured approach, using specific tools and techniques?

In her book “The Seeds of Innovation”, Elaine Dundon has created a systems thinking approach to innovation. At first those two thoughts seem contradictory, but in reality it can become a very powerful synergy. For example, here’s a “toolkit” you can dive into when you are faced with a challenge in your ministry.

Rummaging in the Attic – elements of previous solutions or ideas can prove to be very valuable fuel for jump-starting your idea engine. Find old ideas, dust them off, and reconnect them in new ways to your current problem or opportunity.

Cultivating Obsession – a great way to find new ideas it to become obsessed with the challenge that confronts you. It means you have to immerse yourself in the challenge, to seek out all the information you possibly can. Obsession will lead to better insights.

Analyzing Frustrations – one of the most fertile areas for identifying new ideas is discovering what frustrates others about the current problem. Focusing on what is not working will sometimes be the origin of a new breakthrough idea.

Identifying the Gold Standard – no matter what the challenge you are facing, someone else has already been down that road. Seek out these people or organizations that have solved a similar challenge in an outstanding way. Make a list of the elements of the process or program that made it work for them, and relate this list to your situation.

Adopting and Adapting – great ideas already exist all around you. Find them out and adopt them as your own. Look within the category of your opportunity, but also look outside the box. Innovators look beyond the borders of their own situation to find new ideas to adopt and adapt.

Combining Ideas – innovative thinking is a little like a cake you bake: take a little of this, a little of that, put them together and you have a delicious dessert. Creative thinkers are aware of the objects and ideas around them and look for new connections by combining diverse ideas and objects.

Finding Similarities – think of other challenges that might be similar. Draw analogies to similar situations, let your mind wander, and you will most likely discover a new connection from an unlikely source.

Breaking Down the DNA – what if your problem is overwhelming? Break it down into its component parts and focus on it bit by bit. Analyzing every step in the process will allow you to discover new answers.

Listing and Twisting – this is actually a follow-on step from the previous one. Once you have listed the steps in the process, you can “twist” them around to find new ideas.

Become a Visual Thinker – something happens when we move away from a linear process of thinking and start to doodle or draw. I’m a big fan of this method; I have a 4’ x 8’ whiteboard on my office wall that I’m constantly stepping up to and sketching out an idea. It seems that your subconscious mind takes over and new connections begin to appear.

Whether you use a process like the ones above, or just pull up a chair with a cup of coffee in hand to think, the point is that innovation is a process. You know where you are; hopefully you know where you want to be. Let your imagination run wild in the space between, and before long you and your team will have a plan to move forward.

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Isn’t About Time You You Made the Ordinary Extraordinary?

Anyone can dream…

But Disney’s Imagineers dream and do.

Since 1952, the Walt Disney Imagineers have been turning impossible dreams and schemes into magical rides, shows, and attractions for Disney theme parks around the world.

What is their magic?

It’s all about making the ordinary extraordinary.

Take this building in Hollywood Studios, for instance…

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It’s a beautiful building, right?

Not really…

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It’s really just a facade – an excellent example of how the Imagineers use a combination of imagination and engineering to make magic come to life at Disney.

Disney’s Imagineers are a highly creative group – one that isn’t slowed down by the impossible.

There are hundreds of stories about Imagineers who didn’t realize what they were capable of until they started doing it. They don’t want your fear of taking the first step get the best of you – they want to let your project get the best of you.

Imagineers try and fail and keep trying until they make magic.

Isn’t it time you got started?

Go ahead. Tackle that creative challenge head-on. Allow the spark of an idea to ignite your creativity and passion. Make the ordinary, extraordinary.

Don’t just sit there – dream and do!

 

Inspired and adapted from The Imagineering Workout

TheImagineeringWorkout

The Disney Imagineers

Imagineering logo

Thomas Edison on Reading

As one of America’s foremost inventors, Thomas Edison was certainly adept at questioning the world around him.  In order to better understand the natural world, Edison was constantly developing new context by asking different questions. And the framework for formulating these challenging questions?

Edison read – broadly.

I didn’t read books – I read the library.

 Thomas Edison

Among Edison’s first steps when undertaking a new collaborative effort was zeroing in on reading material with themes aligned to the subject matter he was evaluating. This often meant plowing through textbooks and papers spanning diverse scientific topics. But he also read fiction and fantastical works that were completely unrelated to the subject of his endeavors.

Edison believed feeding his mind diverse perspectives through the written word was critical to prevent specifically shaping or tainting his perceptions in any one direction as he began his questioning process.

Thomas Edison LibraryAn ardent lover of books and newspapers, by 1887, when Edison was 40, his personal collection at his laboratory exceeded 10,000 volumes. Though seemingly small by today’s standards, it was one of the top five libraries in the world during the late nineteenth century.

Drawn from the reaches of acoustics, botany, electricity, mathematics, photography, chemistry, materials sciences, and physics, Edison shared the resources of his library with his employees, encouraging them to continually stimulate their own thinking and questioning skills.

Reflecting on his love for storytelling and the deft use of language, Edison’s library also embraced extensive works of classical Greek literature plus a vast collection of Shakespeare. He particularly valued science fiction novels by pioneering French writer Jules Verne for the flights of fantasy and freedom from logic they spurred.

We can link Edison’s reading to many of the provocative questions he asked. Diligently recording his queries and insights in the notebooks that were ever-present at his side, Edison returned to these deep, probing questions again and again. His intentional gathering of questions became a pivotal spur for experiments and hypotheses that he later introduced when working jointly with his team.

Just as Edison’s hours of reading in his library sparked questions to be pursued via new hypotheses and experiments, your own reading endeavors can yield serendipitous yet brilliant questions from angles you least expect.

For Your Consideration

  • When was the last time you reached for a new hardcover book or bought an e-book?
  • How frequently do you change the types of materials you read?
  • Do you follow the same reading routine over and over again?
  • Why not experiment and select three new bloggers to track over the next month?
  • Why not take a reading retreat?
  • If you were to shift your reading list so that it looks something Edison might devise, what would be on it?

Material from this post adapted from Innovate Like Edison by Michael Gelb and Sarah Miller Caldicott and Midnight Lunch, by Sarah Miller Caldicott

 

 

Don’t Let a Steep Learning Curve Become a Cliff

A learning curve is a graphical representation of the increase of learning (vertical axis) with experience (horizontal axis).

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When we encounter a “steep learning curve” we face an uphill struggle to learn new ideas, practices, systems, etc. The goal is survival and ultimately, to be at a better place at some point in the future.

You know – the best in the world.

Anyone who is going to hire you, buy from you, recommend you, vote for you, or do what you want them to do is going to wonder if you’re the best choice. –Seth Godin

If you’re not going to put in the best effort, why bother?

Your learning curve should always be up and to the right – if it’s not, you’ve come to the edge of a cliff…

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…now what?

The Most Important List You Can Make Today

Jim Collins, teacher to companies around the world and best-selling author (Good to Great, Built to Last, How the Mighty Fall, and Great by Choice) speaks and writes about it frequently.

Tom Peters, consummate speaker and game-changing author (The Search for Excellence, Re-imagine, The Pursuit of WOW!, and The Little Big Things) doesn’t just speak on the subject – he rants about it.

Steven Covey, business consultant, professor, and author (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, First Things First, and Principle-Centered Leadership) made it the foundation of his time management principles.

Richard Swenson, physician-futurist, award-winning educator, and best-selling author (Margin, The Overload Syndrome, and In Search of Balance) thinks it is one of the keys to restoring balance in our lives.

Maybe you’re getting the idea it’s a big deal. It is…

…especially for such an innocuous thing.

Here it is:

“To-Don’ts” are more important than “To-Dos”

 

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A little elaboration:

  • What you decide not to do is probably more important than what you decide to do
  • You probably can’t work on “to-don’t” alone – you need a sounding board/mentor/advisor/nag that you trust to act as a drill sergeant who will march you to the wood-shed when you stray and start doing those time-draining “to-don’ts.”

With only a little tongue-in-cheek:

The top of your “to-do” list for today is to immediately begin working on your “to-don’t” list!

Bring the Heat

The ability to control the temperature of food involves a set of kitchen skills and food knowledge that, more than anything else, defines the excellence of the cook. An expertise in temperature control won’t turn poor ingredients into good ones, but it will determine much of what follows once the ingredients are in your house.

The Elements of Cooking, by Michael Ruhlman

 In other words, it’s all about heat.

courtesy aventarte.wordpress.com

courtesy aventarte.wordpress.com

 Bill Hybels, writing in axiom, has exactly this process in mind when he writes:

Anytime you see God-honoring values being lived out genuinely and consistently, it’s fair to assume that a leader decided to identify a handful of values and turn up the burner under them.

When you heat up a value, you help people change states.

  • Want to jolt people out of business as usual? Heat up innovation.
  • Want to untangle confusion? Heat up clarity.
  • Want to eradicate miserliness? Heat up generosity.

New “states” elicit new attitudes, new aptitudes, and new actions. It’s not rocket science – it’s just plain chemistry. Which is a lot about heat.

Leaders must determine what values they believe should be manifested in their organizations. And then put them over the flame of a burner by teaching on those values, underscoring them with Scripture, enforcing them, and making heroes out of the people who are living them out.

Over time, sufficiently hot values will utterly define your culture.

It’s time to bring the heat.

A Successful End (to whatever you’re doing) Starts by Beginning with Everything in Its Place

Yesterday, we saw Poetry in Motion by looking at efficiency – today, it’s all about a successful end to whatever you’re doingby starting with everything in its place.

In the culinary world, it’s called “mis en place.”

French for “put in place”, this is what allows all the actions described yesterday to take place. It is the hours of work that start before the first meal is fired: washing, cutting, peeling, pre-cooking, weighing, portioning, and positioning of all the ingredients that go into the wonderful final product.

courtesy Rooster's Kitchen

courtesy Rooster’s Kitchen

Taken broadly, it is the slow simmering of the soups for the night; the baking and preparation of individual items that comprise the wonderful complexity of desserts. It even goes to the preparation of the wood fires that will later cook the wonderful meats that anchor the meal.

Mise en place doesn’t get any attention in the final review, but you wouldn’t have anything without it. It’s all those things that aren’t noticed till they’re not there. It’s the sauté’ chef reaching in the cooler knowing that he has all the right ingredients to prepare the dish just called out. It’s the pastry chef preparing 3 different kinds of ice cream for the desserts on the menu. It’s the fry chef making sure the oil is fresh and hot, ready for use. It’s the salad chef having everything ready to assemble a variety of salads from the same few ingredients, differing in presentation and dressing.

courtesy Rooster's Kitchen

courtesy Rooster’s Kitchen

It’s the dishwasher, knowing if he doesn’t get the dirty pans out and clean ones back, the whole kitchen grinds to a halt.

Mise en place is all about the knowing everything that is required to produce the finished meal, and making sure all the ingredients are ready to use when needed. It’s about thinking through things before they happen, so that when they happen, you’re one step ahead.

It’s all about being prepared.

Our evening at Rooster’s Wood-Fired Kitchen was delightful on so many levels. The front of house staff were gracious in working with me to make sure we could have a front row seat to all the action; the wait staff were friendly, knowledgeable, and attentive; the chefs prepared wonderful food while displaying their skills to an audience.

But it was more than just a meal – it was a demonstration of excellence from top to bottom, one that any organization could learn from.

Whatever your end product is – a worship experience, sermon, leadership class, playtime with kids, etc.

…it all starts with making sure you have everything in its place before beginning.