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In this article, Robyn Bolton guides the pursuit of innovation through various storms.

Everyone knows about brainstorms but did you know there are three other types of storms that can blow you to your innovation destination?

Questionstorms

First introduced in The Innovator’s DNA, these storms happen at the start of an innovation effort and seek to surface all the assumptions, expectations, concerns, and actual questions currently locked in individuals’ brains. 

The value of this session is that it makes the implicit explicit, removes hidden agendas, eliminates guessing games, and establishes a culture of curiosity, exploration, and learning versus demands and fear.

You run Questionstorms just like brainstorms – give everyone 3-5 minutes to silently write a long list of thoughts.  Then, give everyone another 3-5 minutes to turn each thought into a question and write the question on a sticky note.  For example, “We need to realize $250M revenue in Year 3 to make this work” becomes “How might we design and run an innovation function that generates $250M in Year 3?”  Then, each person reads their sticky notes to the group before placing them on a wall.  The goal is to ask 50 questions before you start grouping and prioritizing.

Intuition-storms

I first learned about this storm from IDEO and am genuinely surprised by how effectively they re-energize teams and propel the work forward.  These storms happen after the first phase of a project, usually the research phase.

An Intuition-storm’s value comes from its ability to pull the team out of the minutiae of the previous weeks and months of work and back up to seeing the big picture.  In the process, they rapidly synthesize insights that may have gotten lost in the more traditional left-brained approach of gathering and summarizing details. 

Again, just like brainstorms, start by posing the big question that the project intends to answer, then give people 3-5 minutes to write down their answers.  Too much time and they may dig into documents and details, too little time and you’ll get recency bias in the responses.  Then go around the room and share.  Once everyone has shared, discuss the elements in common and the unique ones.  Be clear that this isn’t about getting to THE answer, but about tapping into the full of everyone’s experience, expertise, and wisdom.

Brainstorms

By now, we all know what it means to brainstorm, and we’ve all probably been part of one or two brainstorming sessions.  But do you know where it all started?

In the mid-nineteenth century, “brainstorm” was a colloquial term for “fit of acute delirious mania; sudden dethronement of reason and will under the stress of strong emotion, usually accompanied by manifestations of violence.”  Not exactly the type of thing most businesspeople aim for.

However, in 1939, advertising executive Alex F. Osborn got so frustrated with his employees’ ability to generate creative ideas for ad campaigns that he developed a new approach dubbed “organized ideation.”  This approach, later renamed to “brainstorm” by his employees, was governed by four rules:

  • Go for quantity
  • Withhold criticism
  • Welcome wild ideas
  • Combine and improve ideas

 

While the methods and tools for brainstorming have evolved over the past 80+ years, it’s a testament to Osborn’s approach that the rules have not.

Read the full article, 4 Storms that Accelerate Innovation, on MileZero.io.

Robyn Bolton shares a post on where innovation happens and why.

“Innovation happens in the gaps.”

It’s a statement so simple yet so profound that as soon as my client said it, I wrote it down.* 

It’s not sexy to innovate in the gaps. 

Most people and companies believe that innovation must be something entirely new for the world.  That innovation is all about filling a white space, thinking blue sky, or swimming in a blue ocean.  That innovation must be free of constraints, that it must be pure creation.

Most people will argue that CEOs rarely get on the front page of the Wall Street Journal because their company introduced something better than what exists today.  Innovators rarely win design awards for an improved version of an existing solution.  Scientists and engineers are rarely celebrated for receiving improvement patents.

Rarely.

Steve Jobs made the front page for the iPod, an MP3 player that offered better storage and user experience than the dozens of MP3 players that existed before it. 

Charles and Ray Eames were named “The Most Influential Designer of the 20th Century” by the Industrial Designers Society of America, and they’re best known for designing chairs.

Thomas Edison is hailed as the inventor of the electric lightbulb when, in truth, he significantly improved a decades-old product that was too expensive, too unreliable, and too short-lived to be commercially viable.

It’s necessary (and profitable) to innovate in the gaps.

Gaps exist because of real and perceived constraints.  Innovation thrives in constraints because it is the constraints that drive creativity.

In the gap between what is and what is good enough lies a problem that needs a solution.  That solution, something new that creates value, is innovation.

In the gap between what is and what is delightful lies an opportunity that wants a better solution.  Innovation can deliver that solution.”

 

Key points include:

  • Innovation through improvisation
  • Identifying the constraints
  • Customer engagement

 

Read the full article, Innovation Happens in the Gaps, on MileZero.io.

Robyn Bolton shares one simple rule that can help build a culture of innovation and a solid team. 

I do.  We do.  You do.

My Mom taught pre-school.  It wasn’t a job; it was her calling.  Kids gravitated to her like she was the Pied Piper, and she greeted them with unequaled patience, acceptance, and love.  Years later, her students would talk about how she changed their lives when they were only four years old.  And she did it by following one simple rule.

I do.  We do.  You do.

Whatever she was teaching, whether it was sitting still at a table and eating a snack or writing the alphabet, she always did it first so the kids would know that it’s possible and not be afraid to try.

Then, they would do the activity together.  Side-by-side, they would eat a snack or draw letters, the kids occasionally glancing to the side to mimic her and my Mom gently coaching and encouraging.

Finally, she would step back, never disappearing completely, always within sight, but no longer right there.  By doing this, she created the space for them to be independent and to build confidence.

It is easy to say that she was teaching.

It is more accurate to say that she was leading.

It is precisely what executives need to do if they want to build a culture and capability of innovation within their teams and businesses.

I do.

It is not enough to encourage your team to take risks.  YOU need to take risks.  Ask a question in a meeting.  Say, “I don’t know.”  Challenge the status quo.  Be the first to do something different or uncertain, so your people know that it’s possible and aren’t afraid to try.

Key points include:

  • Fostering confidence
  • Avoiding judgment
  • Stepping back

Read the full article, Follow This 1 Simple Rule to Build a Culture and Capability of Innovation, on Milezero.io.

 

Robyn Bolton shares a well-balanced post that explains why 95% of new products fail and how to do the right things in the right ways at the right times to ensure success. 

Most people know that 95% of new products fail within three years of launch.  It’s often cited as evidence of big companies’ inability to be innovative, keep up with changing consumer demands, and respond to the nimbleness of start-ups.

Naturally, companies don’t want to fail in the market, so they try to get better at listening and responding to customers, more comfortable investing in unproven but potentially market-defining technology, and more willing to question and change their business models.

Yet, the market failure rate stays essentially the same.

“Ah-ha!” the experts proclaim, “if companies are doing everything right and 95% of innovation projects are still failing, that means that projects are launching that shouldn’t be.  That means we must get better at killing projects before they launch!”

Suddenly, Fail Fast becomes the corporate mantra.  More projects start because it’s ok to fail.  More projects get killed, a mind-boggling 99.9%, according to one study.  Fewer projects get launched. 

Yet, the market failure rate stays essentially the same.

Why?  Why does the market failure rate stick stubbornly at 95% if companies are doing all the right things, including killing 99.9% of ideas and projects before they even get to market?

Because it’s not enough to do the right things.

You must do the right things in the right ways at the right times.

Here are the three most important ones:

 

Key points include:

  • Right Thing #1
  • Right Thing #2
  • Right Thing #3

 

Read the full article, 3 Things To Do in the Right Way at the Right Time for Innovation Success, MileZero.io.

 

Robyn Bolton challenges an article posted in Fast Company that claimed the most popular design thinking strategy is BS.

How might we ruin a perfectly good and useful tool?”

This might not be the question that innovators, design thinkers, and brainstorm facilitators wanted to answer.  But it seems that it’s the one they did.

“The most popular design thinking strategy is BS,” proclaimed the headline on a June 28 article in Fast Company.  “The ‘How might we’ design prompt is insidious, and it’s time to bury it.”

I’m a sucker for provocative headlines, especially ones that challenge that status quo, so I clicked and read the article.  And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

The reason “How might we” (HMW) is so insidious, the author asserts, is that the “we” in HMW refers to the people in the room, not to the users, customers, or populations for whom teams are designing their products and services. The prompt looks inward instead of outward, encouraging people to build solutions that suit their own needs and experiences. They end up with offerings that don’t serve customer needs and may even hurt the people they’re meant to help.

The problem (and solution) of “We”

  1. Fair.  As I recounted in last week’s episode of “What Matters in Innovation,” I saw this exact worry come to life when I was an Assistant Brand Manager on Swiffer WetJet.  While the brainstorming promotional ideas as a brand team, the most senior member suggested a Valentine’s Day promotion encouraging men to buy a WetJet, then priced at $50, for their wives “because she’s worth it.”  Everyone in the room nodded in silent awe and acceptance, except one person.  Me.  The only woman in the room.

 

Key points include:

  • The solution (and problem) of “How might”
  • The problem (and solution) at the end of “How might we”
  • HMW is not BS.  How we use it is.

Read the full post, “How Might We” is not BS. How We Use It Is, on MileZero.io.

 

Robyn M. Bolton shares an evergreen post on the benefits of thinking visually for business, and how to do it. 

Last week, I wrote about Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), a process of using art to teach visual literacy, thinking, and communication skills.

Typically, used in primary school classrooms, VTS has made its way into the corporate setting, helping individuals and teams to build and strengthen their problem solving and critical thinking skills, ability to communicate and collaborate, and effectiveness in delivering and receiving feedback.

While I did my best to capture the Why, What, and How of VTS in that post, there’s no substitute for learning from an expert. That’s why I asked Suzi Hamill, former Head of Design Thinking at Fidelity and the woman who introduced me to VTS, to share her experience using the tool.

Hi Suzi. Thanks for sharing your VTS wisdom and experience today. I understand you’ve been doing a fair bit of VTS-ing lately.

Suzi: Yes! Just a few months ago I was at Oxford University coaching 30 Chief Marketing Officers from large global corporations on how to apply Visual Thinking Strategies to their work and their teams. And just last week, I led a session with a group of women on the West Coast of the US.

 

Key points include:

  • VTS for business leaders
  • How it helps people quickly internalize new insights
  • Moving from knowing to doing

 

Read the full article, VTS with the Best: An Interview with Suzi Hamill, on LinkedIn. 

 

Robyn Bolton reflects on lessons learned as a child that she brings into her field to help problems solve and drive innovation. 

Innovation is all about embracing the AND.

Creativity AND Analysis

Imagination AND Practicality

Envisioned Future AND Lived Reality

Looking back, I realize that much of my childhood was also about embracing the AND.

Mom AND Dad

Nursery School Teacher AND Computer Engineer

Finger paint AND Calculus

A few years ago, I wrote about my mom, the OG (Original Gangster) of Innovation.  She was what most people imagine of an “innovator” – creative, curious, deeply empathetic, and more focused on what could be than what actually is.

With Father’s Day approaching, I’ve also been thinking about my dad, and how he is the essential other-side of innovation – analytical, practical, thoughtful, and more focused on what should be than what actually is.

In the spirit of Father’s Day, here are three of the biggest lessons I learned from Dad, the unexpected innovator

Managers would rather live with a problem they understand than a solution they don’t.

When Dad dropped this truth bomb one night during dinner a few years ago, my head nearly exploded.  Like him, I always believed that if you can fix a problem, you should.  And, if you can fix a problem and you don’t, then you’re either lazy, not very smart, or something far worse.  Not the most charitable view of things but perhaps the most logical.

But this changed things.

If you’ve lived with a problem long enough, you’re used to it.  You’ve developed workarounds, and you know what to expect.  In a world of uncertainty, it is something that is known.  It’s comfortable

Fixing a problem requires change and change is not comfortable.  Very few people are willing to sacrifice comfort and certainty for the promise of something better.

 

Key points include:

  • Keeping things in perspective
  • The importance of letting go
  • Standing up when others are sitting down

 

Read the full post, Dad: The Unexpected Innovator, on MileZero.com. 

 

 

Robyn Bolton recently had an article published in Forbes that is designed to help business leaders and managers get the best results from proactive employees. 

One of the first pieces of professional advice many people receive from their managers is, “Bring me solutions, not problems.”

From my perspective, this is good coaching because it teaches people to be problem-solvers, to think critically about the problems they see and to take ownership for solving them.

But if you have ever followed that advice and brought your manager a solution instead of a problem, you might have been left feeling your manager wanted neither the problem nor the solution. The reason? In my experience, most solutions are met with silence. The manager might nod, thank the person for bringing the problem to their attention and suggesting a solution, and carry on as if nothing happened.

This reaction is likely not because the solution isn’t appreciated but because no one ever gave the manager advice on what to do when someone does bring a solution instead of a problem. In these instances, I recommend asking the following five questions when someone brings you an idea:

 

Key points include:

  • Identifying the problem
  • Investigation of the solution
  • The passion driver

 

Read the full article, Five Questions To Ask When An Employee Brings You An Idea, on Forbes.

 

 

Robyn Bolton shares introspective insights and answers on working from home during the pandemic.

In middle school and high school my dad and I would have massive arguments about my math homework. And by “massive,” I mean arguments that make episodes of The Real Housewives look like polite differences of opinion over tea and crumpets.

The issue was not my struggles to understand the work (though I’m sure that played into things) but rather my insistence on knowing WHY I needed to learn the content in the first place.

My dad, a metallurgist before becoming a computer engineer, seemed to think the answers to “Why?” were (1) you will need to know this in the future and (2) because this is the assignment.

To which I would respond, (1) no I won’t because I’m going to be a lawyer or a writer and even if I’m not those two things I can say with 100% certainty I won’t be an engineer and (2) that is not an acceptable reason.

As you can imagine, things would escalate from there.

In the decades since, with the exception of some single-variable algebra and basic geometry, I have yet to use most of the math that I was forced to learn and I still insist that “because that’s the assignment/the rules/how things are done” is not an acceptable answer.

Usually I apply that same stubborn curiosity to help my clients find and capitalize on opportunities to do things differently and better, create value, and innovate.

But, in the last week as I, like most Americans, find myself largely confined to my home, my curiosity is extending to my own environment and habits and I’m not always prepared for the insights that emerge.

 

Key points include:

  • Why am I trying to maintain all my pre-pandemic habits?
  • Why am I watching non-stop news?
  • Why are there 6 dozen eggs in the refrigerator?

 

Read the full article, 5 Whys of Working from Home, on Milezero.io.

 

 

With Mother’s Day comes memories of small moments that had a big impact. Robyn Bolton shares a wholly amusing, moving, and inspirational story on innovation found in unlikely places.

My Mom was a nursery-school teacher. It was more than her profession, it was her gift. Long after my sister and I were grown and out of the house, my mom chose to spend her days with 4-year olds, teaching them everything from the ABCs to how to use the WC.

Like all moms, she was an innovator. She was constantly creating something different that had impact. Admittedly, sometimes “different” was just weird and “impact” wasn’t always ideal, but it’s only just recently that I’ve realized how much my mom (probably accidentally) role-modeled the traits of a world-class innovator.

The genius of stealth prototyping

In an effort to save a bit of money, I spent the summer before business school living with my parents. One day, while folding the laundry (it took less than 20 minutes!), I found one of my Dad’s white athletic tube socks. But it wasn’t like the other white athletic tube socks. This one had three circles drawn on the bottom of it in what appeared to be black Sharpie.

“Mom, what’s up with this sock?”

“Oh, I needed a ghost puppet for school so I just used one of your dad’s socks.”

When my dad got home from work, I showed him the sock and asked if he had noticed the black circles on the foot. He had not.

 

Key points include:

  • The infectious nature of optimism
  • The life-changing power of empathy

 

Read the full article, Mom: Innovation’s OG, on MileZero.io.

 

 

Robyn Bolton offers a post that illustrates a common issue in today’s workplaces.

Some conversations stick with you for a long time.

Some conversations take your breath away the moment they happen.

A few weeks ago, I had one that did both.

“Everyone is focused on ‘humanizing’ work,” my client said. “I wish people would de-humanize work. I would love nothing more than to be treated like a line of code or a piece of equipment. We treat our code and equipment better than we treat our people.

When a piece of equipment doesn’t work, we send in teams of people to fix it. We study what went wrong, we fix the error, and we take action to make sure it doesn’t happen again. We don’t expect a line of code to work in every operating system, to be able to do everything in every context. We know that we need to adapt it for iOS or Android.”

As I picked my jaw up off the floor and put my eyes back in my skull, she continued.

“But people…when a person is struggling, we don’t send anyone to help. We don’t ask why they’re struggling or study the situation or take action so that no one else experiences the same problem. We expect the person to either fix their own problem or to leave.

We expect everyone to be able to work in every situation and when there’s a mismatch, we expect the more junior person to ‘expand their toolkit’ and ‘learn to work with other styles’ or to leave.

“If we treated our people the way we treat our products, our people would be so much happier, and we’d be so much more successful as a company.

 

Key points include:

  • People vs. products
  • Malfunction and communication
  • Corporate culture

 

Read the full article, The Case for De-Humanizing Work, on Medium.

 

 

Robyn Bolton draws innovation inspiration from the Princess Bride to illustrate how the innovator embarks on a hero’s journey within a corporate setting.  

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post using quotes from “Moneyball” (the movie, not the book) to describe the experience of trying to innovate within a corporate setting.

It was great fun to write, I received tons of feedback, and had many fascinating conversations (plus a fact check on the year the Red Sox broke the Curse of the Bambino), so I started searching for other movies that inadvertently but accurately describe the journey of corporate innovators.

The Princess Bride

If you have not seen The Princess Bride, stop reading and immediately go watch it.  Seriously, there is nothing more important for you to do right now than to crawl out from the cultural rock you’ve been under since 1987 and watch this movie.

If you’re reading this, you’ve clearly watched the movie and know that it is packed with life lessons and quotable quotes.  It also captures the reality of innovation within the walls of large companies

The Beginning

“You keep using that word.  I don’t think it means what you think it means.” – Inigo Montoya

A company’s focus on Innovation usually begins the moment a senior executive, usually the CEO, declares it to be a key strategic priority and promises Wall Street analysts that significant investments will be made.

It then trickles down to business units and functions, with each subsequent layer told to “be more innovative” and “come up with more innovation.”

Then, one day, the responsibility for innovation lands in someone’s lap and stays there.  To be honest, it’s usually an exciting day for the person because they’ve been asking questions, suggesting ideas, and pushing for innovation for a long time, and now the powers that be have permitted them to do something about it.  They may even have been given a title and budget specific for innovation.”

But “innovation” was never defined.

The CEO may think it is an entirely new business, something flashy and new that rivals anything coming out of Silicon Valley.

 

Key points include:

  • Defining the expectations of innovation
  • Supporters and champions
  • Courageous innovators

Read the full article, What “The Princess Bride” Teaches About the Corporate Innovation Experience, on milezero.io.