How to turn cliches into innovative thinking

I think of a cliché as a truth that’s reached its jump the shark moment.  It doesn’t mean that the cliché it isn’t true, but that it’s been so overused, we can’t discern the original truth from equally true incarnations of the idea.

Identifying clichés is one of the foundational paths to disruptive innovation.

In his new book Disrupt: Think the Unthinkable To Spark Transformation in Your Business, Luke Williams, shows how you can develop the habit of disruptive thinking by working through a five-stage process beginning with crafting a disruptive hypothesis.

Williams, a fellow at Frog Design, is a leading consultant and speaker specializing in disruptive thinking and innovation strategy.

‘A disruptive hypothesis is an intentionally unreasonable statement that gets your thinking flowing in a different direction,” says Williams. “ It’s kind of like the evolutionary biology theory of “punctuated equilibrium,” which states that evolution proceeds slowly and every once in a while is interrupted by sudden change.

Williams adds, “In our fast-changing world, when business certainties are no longer certain, the ability to imagine things as they never were and ask, “What if?,” is an essential part of every executive’s skill set.”

The goal is to start generating hypotheses that will enable you to radically reinterpret topics that everyone else in your industry has probably taken for granted.

One classic example is the Pompidou Center in Paris. “What would happen if we put the plumbing, electrical services, and air vents on the outside of a building instead of the inside?”  (Unconventionally attractive).

The same cliché busting method is what the advertising agency Chiat Day used to create what they call disruption day.   They catalogued virtually everything a company did to see what worked and what could be disrupted to the benefit of the company.

“The point is to get those tired truisms on the table so you can confront them later. Often, the more established and obvious the cliché, the greater the impact when it’s challenged.”

The multi-billion video gaming industry is a good example. Two giants dominated video consoles: Sony with its PlayStation and Microsoft with its Xbox.  Both were driven by several clichés.

“First, that the world is split into “gamers” and “nongamers.” Second, that gamers mostly care about faster chips and more realistic graphics. Third, game consoles are expensive. And fourth, that people play video games sitting down, barely moving anything but their fingers.

Then, Nintendo, a distant third player, turned the gaming industry’s clichés on their head. Nintendo’s Wii is relatively cheap, has no hard drive, no DVD, has weak connectivity, and comparatively low processor speed. But, within weeks of its launch, Wii became a hit with consumers, thanks to its innovative motion controller, which integrates players’ movements directly into the game.

“Wii killed the idea that a video game was something you played without breaking a sweat.”

Here are some of the disruptive thinking ideas, Williams recommends:

Make a list of your competitors and make a list of the clichés that keep everyone doing the same thing, competing the same way, or operating with the same set of assumptions.

Look at product clichés: What are the cliché features and benefits? What are the cliché product attributes that are advertised (convenience and reliability, for example)? Where are the cliché areas where the product competes (typical customers, typical geographies, and typical market size)?

Interaction clichés: What are the cliché steps a customer experiences when buying and consuming their products and services? Is the interaction face-to-face? How frequently do customers purchase or use? In the rental car business, for instance, the prevailing interaction clichés include the following: face-to-face interaction with a service agent, completing a lot of paperwork, and renting vehicles by the day.

Look at pricing clichés: What are the typical ways companies price their products and services and charge customers? Are they packaging products and services together or pricing them individually? Are they charging the customer directly or through a retail partner?

Are they offering discounts or other incentives? In the magazine industry, the dominant pricing paradigm is a subscription-sale model, whereby the magazines offer a hefty discount (often more than 50 percent off the cover price) for annual subscriptions.

For example, buying a subscription is 50 percent less than buying from a newsstand. Then, along comes a startup lifestyle magazine called Monocle, and instead of the traditional subscription-sale model, it created a subscription-premium model. The disruption? “Buying an annual subscription is 50 percent more than the cost of buying from a newsstand.” That high-priced subscription also gets you exclusive access to premium website content, signature products, social events, books, and audio programs. That high-priced subscription also gets you exclusive access to premium website content, signature products, social events, books, and audio programs. In its first year, the magazine’s circulation was already 150,000, and it’s currently sold in more than 50 countries.

You can call it cliché or current business practices, but the key is finding how you can think what no one else is thinking and deliver an unmet customer need. (Often, a need that even customers didn’t know they had.)

Thought Experiment:

This experiment only takes 5 minutes. Set your timer and write down as many clichés as you can about a competitor.  The product. The service.  The price. And the marketing. 

Then, simply pick one cliché you can trump. What can you do that they don’t?  This is the start of a disruptive hypothesis. Don’t worry about cost or viability – the goal is simply to begin a habit of disruptive thinking.

My thanks to Luke Williams for sharing.

Check out his book on Amazon: 




The Decline of Eloquence 

This post is dedicated to Mark Brady, who passed away recently.  Mark was a friend and a remarkable writer who commented often on this post -- which I originally I wrote for BakerMuse Wordpress.

One of my favorite lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet is understandably overlooked. Like a tiny ship, these five words are swamped by such iconic leviathans as:

“To be, or not to be: that is the question”

“This above all: to thine own self be true.”

Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend.

And, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.”

The line comes from Polonius -- an obsequious, windbag of a man who has been sent to spy on Hamlet by the King.  According to scholars, in the first quarto Polonius was called “Corambis’ -- which is derived from Latin and can be roughly translated as “reheated cabbage.”

Polonius speaks a numbing eleven lines including “brevity is the soul of wit.” The wonderful irony is that there isn’t even the hint of brevity coming from him. He doesn’t talk, he spouts.  Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, finally interrupts him with the words, “More matter, with less art.”

Ay, there’s the rub.

Most of my writing career has been an attempt to find that delicate balance of matter and art.

No, eloquence is not dead. You can find it in the works of people like David Quammen -- who writes elegantly and perceptively on nature.  Or in the ruminations of Nicholson Baker -- who writes extraordinary things about the ordinary. Or in virtually everything Joan Didion puts on paper.

But in its apparent rareness, I see the slow and precipitous decline.  Can you imagine the Declaration of Independence being crafted by today’s congress?  Would the brevity and brilliance of the Gettysburg Address seem unfit for such an august and solemn occasion today?

Over time, eloquence has been elevated out of the expected.

It almost feels baroque and suspect when it finds its way into print, into a speech, or worse, into ordinary conversation.

Eloquence feels like we are continually gilding the lily.

I don’t believe eloquence is about verbal virtuosity.  To me, true eloquence is about hitting the right chord of context, insight and artistry.

Eloquence can be found in sublime brevity.  Hemingway, who raised simplicity to an art, demonstrates eloquence in the last six words of his novel, The Sun Also Rises.

Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”

Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.

“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

You can only appreciate this line in the context of the novel’s long journey. This cynical and slighter bitter line also surprisingly poignant because it reveals the truth of a relationship that is more dream than reality.  It is the recognition of the impossible.

Norman Maclean’s opening line of his story, A River Runs Through It, may be one of the most eloquent beginnings of a story I have ever read.  “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”

In Neuromancer, William Gibson opens his novel with “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

And in the screenplay of Doctor Zhivago, Robert Bolt puts a surprisingly eloquent line into the mouth of the antagonist Komarovsky.  Outside an upscale restaurant, a crowd of demonstrators and revolutionaries sing The International.

Inside the restaurant,  there awkward silence falls over the diners.  Then Komarovsky comments, “No doubt they’ll sing in tune after the revolution.”  The crowd laughs and for the briefest of moments, the revolution doesn’t seem so inevitable.

E.B. White once wrote eloquently about spring.

"One never knows what images one is going to hold in memory, returning to the city after a brief orgy in the country.  I find this morning that what I  most vividly and longingly recall is the sight of my grandson and his little sunburnt sister returning to their kitchen door from an excursion, with trophies of the meadow clutched in their hands -- she with a couple of of violets, and smiling, he serious and holding dandelions, strangling them in a responsible grip.

Children hold spring so tightly in their brown fists -- just as grownups, who are less sure of it, hold it in their hearts."

There is eloquence in the spare prose of Cormac McCarthy.  In Joyce Carol Oates’ insightful book on boxing.   And in the sports writing of the late and irreplaceable Jim Murray.

This is not a plea for more eloquence or even a desire for it to permeate our daily communications.  But it is a small wish.  Please don’t let eloquence become so extraordinary that it becomes the pejorative.  Find the art in the matter.

When in doubt, err on the side of eloquence.



BIF10: Why the heart of innovation is personal.

Innovation is personal. 

It is, by nature and nurture, an inevitable human enterprise that begins with a terrible itch to scratch.  That itch may begin as simply as a mere annoyance or as profound as confronting cancer.

All of this was the heart of the BIF10 (Business Innovation Factory) annual summit.

After 10 years and three hundred and twenty innovator/storytellers, BIF continues to amaze, enthrall, and inspire the audience of 300 who make the pilgrimage to Providence, Rhode Island each year.

Let’s begin with the amaze and enthrall. 

One of the innovators is Camille Beatty.  She is 14-years-old and just started her first week in high school. 

The amazing part?  

She just started her own Robotics Company with her 12-year-old sister Genevieve.  This summer, Camille and her sister were invited to the White House by President Obama to demonstrate their robots at the White House.

Her quest began with an itch -- an unquenchable desire to understand how things work and how to turn ideas into machines.

Another innovator is Dr. Rupal Patel – a speech scientist at Northeastern University.  Her itch was to help give a voice to people without one.  Patel is working on creating individualized synthetic voices that match a person’s gender, age, and even emotions, rather than the one-size-fits-all computer generated voices that seem to dehumanize the articulated sounds of the person.

Then there’s David Moinina Sengeh, a Ph.D., candidate at the MIT Media Lab, President and co-founder, Global Minimum Inc. Sengeh, a native of Sierra Leone grew up during that country’s brutal, 11-year civil ware that has left 50,000 dead and 4,000 who had limbs crudely amputated as a form of political terror.

His itch was to understand how to mitigate the suffering and pain of prosthetic devices by combining medical imaging, 3-D printing, and individualized insights to create the next generation of prosthetics.

And there’s Arlene Samen.  Her itch was to help at-risk mothers and children.

She is the Founder, President and Executive Director of One Heart World-Wide.  She was among the first nurse practitioners in the field of high-risk obstetrics.  She was profoundly moved in 1997 by a chance encounter with the Dalai Lama who told her “she must go to Tibet and help women safely give birth there.”

Samen moved from Utah to Nepal and started an organization that has helped save hundreds of lives and will continue to have an impact on the lives of thousands in Nepal and beyond.

Ultimately, these singular itches, desires, and challenges are elevated to innovative ideas that move from the personal to the collective. The collective can be a small as single supporter or a network of hundreds that rally to the potential.

Let’s end with the inspire part. 

All the innovators at BIF tell their unique story.  But that story fills our minds and hearts with a renewed sense of purpose and drive.  Some resonate more than others. 

But ultimately, the singular becomes plural and we all share in the truly remarkable results.

Thank you BIF.





BIF10. Have you heard the one about the Rabbi and disruptive innovation?

It is rare to find the terms “rabbi” and “disruptive innovation” used in the same sentence. Rarer still, is to find those words inexplicably embedded into the vision of one individual.

When Rabbi Irwin Kula spoke from the BIF10 stage (Business Innovation Factory Summit) in Providence, he asked a provocative question: How do we innovate more developed and evolved human beings?

Kula, the President of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and the author of Yearnings: The Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life, believes that like any system, religion has to adapt to an evolving world.

Along with Craig Hatkoff, Kula founded the Disruptor Foundation, whose mission is to apply disruptive innovation theory to religion, spirituality, ethics, and moral development.

“Religion is a technology of human flourishing.  There is no tradition on the face of the earth that wasn’t at one time an innovation designed to help us flourish. A tradition is simply an innovation that makes it.”

The tragedy of 9/11 and the loss of several close friends was a watershed moment for Kula – who turned loss into hope by collecting the last words of people who perished but left transcendent messages of love, compassion, and hope.

He took those words and adapted them into a chant for his synagogue. The tune and meter of the chant he chose was traditionally about the destruction of the Jewish temple. What he learned was not only that these words words fit the traditional chant perfectly, but that the final conversations he had in his collections were ultimately love.

But Kula’s hope is leavened with a dynamic practicality. “The fastest growing religious identification in America is none. There are increasing numbers of “non-consumers: of existing religious products and services.”

“We need,” says Kula, “Some of our best and brightest to be early moral adopters – disruptive spiritual innovators who are interested in working to develop new wisdom and practices that can compress the time and space necessary to create “good, ethical people.”

“If the only early adopters we have are only concerned with the most cutting-edge technology, we’re going to be in big trouble.”

He told the BIF audience that he is currently working on a study with 5,000 people to see if the traditions and practices of Jewish people from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur actually help individual flourish and grow. 

“This is the first study in the history of religion in American in which people are being asked, “what is the actual impact on the person?”

Will gratitude increase? Will hope and optimism increase?  Will a sense of belonging increase?”

To apply statistical rigor to religious traditions may seem like heresy, but Kula’s thesis is that even sacred traditions, which were at one time innovations, should work. They should fill the human need or they should to evolve to fill that need.

It is nearly impossible to convey the warmth and compassion of Rabbi Kula’s talk in words.  He is a Rabbi but could easily be called a secular humanist.  

Because ultimately, his mission is less about saving religion but about saving our humanity and finding innovative ways to regain an ethical and compassionate Eden.





Bullets, Innovation, and the dreaded "M" Word

In the intellectual equivalent of placing my hand over a candle flame, I am taking a course on complex models.  And an answer your obvious question, less Cindy Crawford or Angela Lindvall and more probabilities and algebra. 

I have a deep affinity and some aptitude for the English language, but I have never been an aficionado of the “M” word – mathematics.  

So why dive into the deep end of the pool of models and mathematics?

Frankly, I thought the class promise of “no calculus or advanced math needed” meant I could bumble my way through the course without having to dabble in square roots, probabilities, or defining the range of Six Sigma.

But I was wrong.

But I was intrigued by the other promise – the skillset of making smarter decisions by creating, understanding and evaluating models.  It has been an invaluable resource for turning nearly invisible data into visible knowledge.

Along the way, I discovered a story by Jordan Ellenberg in his wonderful (and English-major friendly) book How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking.

It is the story of Abraham Wald, the grandson of a rabbi and son of a kosher baker and a genius at pure mathematics – set theory and metric spaces. 

Wald spent much of World War II in Manhattan working for the Statistic Research Group -- the mathematical equivalent of The Manhattan Project – where the weapons were equations, not bombs.

According to Ellenberg, “The mathematical talent at hand was equal to the gravity of the task. In Wallis’s words, the SRG was “the most extraordinary group of statisticians ever organized, taking into account both number and quality.” Frederick Mosteller, who would later found Harvard’s statistics department, was there. So was Leonard Jimmie Savage, the pioneer of decision theory and great advocate of the field that came to be called Bayesian statistics. Norbert Wiener, the MIT mathematician and the creator of cybernetics, dropped by from time to time. This was a group where Milton Friedman, the future Nobelist in economics, was often the fourth-smartest person in the room. The smartest person in the room was usually Abraham Wald.

So I will cut to the chase. You want to add armor to your planes to protect them, but armor makes the plane heavier, and heavier planes are less maneuverable and use more fuel.  So the generals came to SRG with mounds of data -- especially on where bullets were lodged in U.S. fighters.

 “When American planes came back from engagements over Europe, they were covered in bullet holes. But the damage wasn’t uniformly distributed across the aircraft. There were more bullet holes in the fuselage, not so many in the engines.”

The assumption was that you concentrate the armor on the places with the greatest need, where the planes are getting hit the most. But exactly how much more armor belonged on those parts of the plane? That was the answer they came to Wald for.

Ellenberg continues, “It wasn’t the answer they got.”

“The armor, said Wald, "doesn’t go where the bullet holes are. It goes where the bullet holes aren’t: on the engines. Wald’s insight was simply to ask: where are the missing holes? The ones that would have been all over the engine-casing, if the damage had been spread equally all over the plane? Wald was pretty sure he knew. The missing bullet holes were on the missing planes. The reason planes were coming back with fewer hits to the engine is that planes that got hit in the engine weren’t coming back.”

In a great analogy, Ellenberg writes, “If you go the recovery room at the hospital, you’ll see a lot more people with bullet holes in their legs than people with bullet holes in their chests. But that’s not because people don’t get shot in the chest; it’s because the people who get shot in the chest don’t recover. “

Wald saw what the officers, who had more experience and understanding of the particulars of aerial combat, couldn’t.  It comes back to his math-trained habits of thought. A mathematician is always asking, “What assumptions are you making? And are they justified?”

This can be annoying. But it can also be very productive. In this case, the officers were making an assumption unwittingly: that the planes that came back were a random sample of all the planes.

In creativity and innovation, we continually ask, “What assumptions are you making?”  And it continues to be annoying to people who “know” their subjects better than you do.

In general, people don’t like their assumptions questioned or their biases confirmed. 

And if you question them successfully, they still will carry some animus.  It goes with the territory.

All of which is to say, I have not become a lover of math.  I have, however, reinforced my desire to find answers and a rigorous way to find them.








Forvo: The Holy Grail for Speakers Everywhere

I may have found the holiest of grails for speakers everywhere. 

Imagine you're giving a speech and you want to reference the author of the Little Prince -- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. If you’re not a native French speaker or haven’t mingled with literature majors, then you are tempting the fates by winging the pronunciation.

To mispronounce a word in a public speech isn’t fatal but it does tend to tarnish any credibility you probably earned before the gaffe.  I have learned to compensate by pointing the screen and saying “that wonderful French aviator and writer.”

But now there’s

It is a website that allows you to access and pronounce millions of words in a variety of languages. Forvo was envisioned in 2007 by co-founder Israel Rondón has been listed in the 50 best websites of 2013 by Time Magazine.

So next time you want to discuss Antoine, the element molybdenum, Crudités or ideally all three in the same speech, you will have the speech-saving Forvo at your service.


Hacking Innovation Part 4: Reframing or the Peter Sellers Problem.

If you’re on a mission and don’t need context, scroll right to bottom and look for subhead Innovation Hack #3.   But you will miss the story of Dr. Tina Seelig and her approach to creativity and innovation at Stanford.

When I tell people how closely related humor is to innovation, I will usually get a slightly bemused but unbelieving reaction.

The art of the joke is generally about disrupting expectations or the making an illegal U-turn at the familiar. 

But let me bring in a heavy hitter.  Dr. Tina Seelig is Professor of the Practice in the Dept. of Management Science and Engineering (MS&E) at Stanford University.  I will add a few more bone fides: Selig is also the Executive Director for the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP), the entrepreneurship center at Stanford University's School of Engineering. She teaches courses on creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship in the dept. of MS&E and Stanford’s (

In a TEDx talk called a “Crash Course in Creativity,” she talks about the importance of framing questions. “The question you ask is the frame into which the answers will fall.”

As she does so simply in her book, Ingenious, she asks, “What is 5 +5?”  10, right?  It is the one right answer we have been taught.  But what if the question were framed differently?  What two numbers add up to 10?  The way we framed the second question opens the mental door to infinite answers including negative numbers and fractions.

In her talk, she makes the connection between reframing and jokes.  “Consider this,” she says, “The Pink Panther – (Peter Sellers) walks into a hotel and there is a little dog on the carpet.  He asks the hotel manager, ‘does your dog bite?’ and the manager says, ‘no my dog doesn’t bite.’  He reaches down and the dog practically attacks him and he says, ‘what happened?’ He says, ‘well, that is not my dog.’”

The frame has been switched and that switch is what makes us laugh.  And, this particular joke is a staple of vaudeville.

 So, what does this have to do with innovation? 

 Simply, that if you start with a mediocre question, problem or challenge, you are probably going to get mediocre answers.  In other words, “garbage in, garbage out.” (GIGO).

Recently I have been reviewing Thinking Models and Complexity through Professor Scott Page at the University of Michigan and he gave a great example of how two brokers had different frameworks in considering Amazon as a worthwhile investment.

One framework was that Amazon was simply a “delivery” company like Fed X or UPS whose model could be copies.  The other framework was that Amazon was an “information” company – one that provided information to consumers and one that collected “information” from consumers.

Look at how Amazon’s mission statement has evolved: “We seek to be Earth’s most customer-centric company for four primary customer sets: consumers, sellers, enterprises, and content creators.”

Nothing about books or shoes or groceries, but very big on “consumer-centric.”  The insight:  And Consumer centric is not possible without information.

Hack #3

One of the smartest ways to reframe a problem or challenge is to create a lot of reframed problems and challenges. 

In many cases you might not have control – it may be a question or problem that has come down from top management prepackaged and ready to address.

But consider relating the challenge or problem to strategy – the wrong strategy with a great execution is not as effective than the right strategy with a mediocre execution.

So, consider a reframing session and see if you can’t improve on the problem or challenge.  At the very least, you can make it more specific and measureable.

A good formula is to begin with “how might" or "in what ways might we?"

So, if the request is “increase revenue by X.”  It is a good idea to begin with the problem as given and add the phrase “how might?”  “How might we increase revenue by X?

Following that question with a “Why” can act as a powerful catalyst for exploring deeper ideas.

Why do we want to increase revenue by X?  The question could be “how might we reduce costs?” 

The question might be “why are we selling an product that is already obsolete? The question might be, “why are millennials more attracted to our competitor’s product?”  Which could transform into “How might we make our product more attractive to millennials?” 

Here is a link to Dr. Seelig’s TEDx talk: