Entries in martybaker (3)


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 (d.school).

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:







The Creativity of Argument

Just for the sake of argument, let’s say that on both the public stage and in private rooms, we haven’t raised the level of oral argument and rhetoric in general.

While often used in the pejorative, rhetoric is rightfully defined as the “art of influence, friendship, and eloquence – and “it harnesses the most powerful of social forces, argument.”

In 2007, Jay Heinrichs wrote a funny and provocative book, “Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion.

The book deftly introduces rhetoric concepts and ideas that provide a clear, logical and eloquent tool kit for creating more effective arguments.

He writes, “the ancients considered rhetoric the essential skill of leadership – knowledge so important that they placed it as the center of higher education. It taught  them how to speak and write persuasively producing something to say on every occasion, and make people like them when they spoke.”

In his book and in his talks, Heinrichs often tells the story of his son George and the toothpaste tube.

One morning, as he stepped out of the shower and into the luxurious warmth of a towel, Heinrichs reached for a tube of toothpaste and discovered that it was empty.

The nearest new tube was in the depths of his freezing basement.  He opened the door – steam escaping into the void and called for his teenage George. 

 “George!” he yelled through the door, “Who used all the toothpaste?”

 “A sarcastic voice answers from the other side of the door.  “That’s not the point, is it, Dad “The point is how we’re going to keep this from happening again!”

“You’re right,” Heinrichs said. “You win. Now can you please get me some toothpaste?”

To score some points against Dad was a small victory but a victory that had been years in the making.  Heinrichs had been teaching his son for years how the most productive arguments use the future tense, the language of choice and decisions.


Yes, there is a kind of grammar for argument.  Heinrichs has fondness for Aristotle, who devised a form of rhetoric for each of the tenses – and Aristotle had his own fondness for the future tense.

One of the tools of argument espoused by Heinrichs is controlling the tense. “If you find an argument spinning out of control, try switching the tense,” says Heinrich. 

 “Try this in a meeting.  Hold your tongue well into the discussion.If an argument bogs down in the past or present tense, switch it to the future -- you’re all making good points, but how are we going to….” 

Heinrichs offers up a variety of tools – from using emotion effectively to Stalin’s Timing Secret – to help create a master class in argument and ultimately the art of persuasion.

Like my friend Dan Pink (In his book, To Sell Is Human), Heinrichs delves into murky areas – the thin line between persuasion and manipulation.  In many ways, the stick can look deceptively like a carrot. (And the reverse is equally valid).

If you want to be a more creative and compelling persuader, I suggest you get or download a copy of Heinrichs' book, Thank You For Arguing. 


And if you have a spare hour and fifty minutes or so and want to see two weapons of mass argument (William F. Buckley and Ronald Reagan go head to toe on the Panama Canal (With Sam Ervin, a young George Will and Pat Buchanan) this old C-Span video has gems strewn about.







The tyranny of IKB: A management insight.

In the early 1990s, Chic Thompson and Lael Lyons wrote a wonderful book called Yes, But…The Top 40 Killer Phrases and How You Can Fight Them

While the book was playful and filled with cartoon illustrations, the idea was serious.  It was about those killer phrases that fill corporate meeting rooms everyday:

Yes, but…

We’ve done that before.

It's not in the budget.

Great idea, but not for us.

Get a committee to look into that.

I'll get back to you.

Don't rock the boat.

Let me play devil's advocate.

The last person who said that isn't here anymore.

Recently, I’ve noticed a curious mutation on the infamous, “yes but.”

It’s IKB or (I know, but…)

The difference is slight but it’s definitely a new species.

“I know but tosses” in what James Pennybaker, the chair of psychology at the University of Texas Austin would call pronoun revealing.

“I” is a pronoun rife with self focus.  In fact, Pennybaker’s research showed that depressed people use the pronoun “I” more often than emotionally stable people.  And people who consider themselves lower in status use “I” much more frequently.

But what’s equally revealing is that “I know, but” is a signal. It’s a signal that the person has either wrestled with this idea before or wants you to understand what they know or believe.

A few years ago, I consulted with a CEO who was having problems with one his executives.  In exit interviews, employees consistently mentioned this manager as one of their reasons for leaving. This executive was a world-class micro-manager.

When I asked the CEO about this executive and the results of the exit interviews, he said, “I know, but…”

So I said, let’s look at what you’ve just said. “I know but…”  Tell me what you know.

One of the knows was the lynchpin.  The CEO and the executive were friends and the relationship was important to him.

If you find yourself using the phrase “I know, but” with increasing frequency, write down the “I knows…”

As Mark Twain eloquently wrote: 

“It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.”

Good insight for any age.