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.
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: