Category Archives: Innovation

The Power of Repetition

We’re each born without skills.

We don’t know how to play the piano, hit a tennis ball, type a letter, program a computer, balance a checkbook, climb a mountain, drive a car, wake surf, back up a semi-trailer, finish concrete, ride a bike, race a motorcycle, fix an engine, pilot an airplane, or just about anything else.

Fortunately, humans are learning machines.  Watch a toddler for even a few minutes and you’ll see an aggressive and insatiable quest to imitate, experiment, test limits, check for patterns, see what works, see what parents allow, and see what happens when they push certain buttons (real and metaphorical).  Amazingly, they’re doing these things before they can walk or talk.

Toddlers also have an almost unending desire to “do it again.”  If throwing the ball once is fun, it’s even more fun to go pick it up and throw it again, and again, and again.

I took a typing class in my freshman year of high school.  There were about fifty students in the class.  Half of the typewriters were electric (the new IBM Selectrics) and the other half was manual typewriters.  Yes, I’m that old.

I started my year on a manual typewriter (we swapped to the Selectrics mid-year).  This meant that at the end of each line, after hearing the ding, I had to reach up and manually return the carriage…and place my fingers back on the correct keys to continue typing.  It also meant that my keystrokes had to be smooth, consistent and well-timed.  Otherwise, the keys would jam on top of each other.

We started with the Home row.  I must have typed ASDFJKL; a thousand times!  Then, we added the G and the H to the home row drill.  ASDFGHJKL;  Again.  Again.  Again.  Ding.  Manual carriage return.

Did I mention that all the keys on the typewriters were blank?  We were learning how to be “touch” typists.  Looking at the keys was not an option.  We had diagrams and workbooks that showed us what each key was, but nothing on the typewriter.

After mastering the Home row, we moved up to the QWERTY row.  The row that gives the standard keyboard its name.  QWERTYUIOP  Again.  Again.  Again.  Again.

Next, the drills included the Home row and the QWERTY row at the same time.  We were typing letters in random order from both rows.  QPJHFDRT Again.  Again.  Again.  Ding.  Manual carriage return.

Finally, we moved to the dreaded bottom row.  ZXCVBNM,.  I hated the Z.  The Z is in an awkward spot.  It requires pinky strength and dexterity in the left hand.  A tall order for a right-hander.  A right-hander who had broken his left pinky a few years earlier (another long story).

Now our drills included all three rows, and all in random order.

Oh yeah, every drill was being timed.  We started and stopped each drill as a class and typed the drills until we heard the ringing of the clock.

The drills got harder, included more randomness, and both upper-, and lower-case letters.  Again.  Again.  Again.

I don’t remember how many weeks we spent on all these drills, but one day our teacher told us we’d be typing actual sentences.  One more thing:  our typing speed would be measured in words-per-minute.

Any mistakes would subtract one word from our score, so accuracy mattered.

How could this be?  We’d never typed sentences before.  We weren’t ready to be tested…on real sentences.  We were just getting good at the drills.  We had practiced proper hand position, proper finger curl, proper posture.  But, this was uncharted territory.

“Ready?  Begin.”

“Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party.”

“The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.”

Why do I remember these two sentences?  They’re classic typing drill sentences.  They each use almost all the letters in the alphabet and require the typist to jump between all the rows.  I typed these two sentences continuously during the day of our first typing test.

I realized I was actually typing!  Not just a drill, but two real sentences.  I was typing them quickly…even on a manual typewriter.

After that first day of testing, we typed many more sentences.  We learned about the structure of various business letter formats.  We typed information into practice forms.  We keyed numbers into columns.  We centered text.  All before spreadsheets or word processors made these simple tasks.

Our teacher provided the drills, the structure, and the discipline.  We drilled, practiced, and drilled again.  And, again.

We were touch typists, using the skills we learned through repetition.  I was having my own “Wax on…wax off,” moment before Karate Kid was a movie.

Fast forward 35 years.  I’m still learning new skills.  Practicing.  Making mistakes.  Sometimes pushing too hard.  Sometimes jamming my keys in the process.  Always looking to improve.

Only with repetition can I learn, improve, and become.

Again.  And, again.

 

Photo by Jason Yu on Unsplash

 

 

Looking for Permission

We’re taught at an early age to seek permission.  At the most basic level, permission is a great defense against chaos.  Imagine if every kid did whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted.  For that matter, imagine if every adult did whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted.  Chaos would result.

We seek direct, indirect, and implied permission.  We operate within the bounds of what our cultural traditions permit.  We stay within what the law permits, at least most of the time.

The permission of others surrounds us.  It shelters us from responsibility.

The big challenge comes when we start asking ourselves for permission.  We look for a direction that fits within our comfort zone.  We seek our own okay to try something new.  We can imagine doing the impossible, but the easiest path is to deny ourselves permission to try.

When we can’t get permission from ourselves, we look for it elsewhere.  We ask our friends and family.  We read articles, blog posts, and books.  We listen to podcasts and speeches (TED talks come to mind).  All is an effort to find someone who approves.

We wonder if anyone else is thinking the same things.  What would they do?  How would they handle this?

Permission’s power is immense.  Without permission, our next indicated step is a mystery.  The un-permitted transforms into the impossible before our eyes.  “Hey, nobody else is doing this thing, so it must be a bad idea.  Let’s bail.”

I’ve read many times that each of us is the product of the five or ten people we interact with the most.  If this is true, we’re really the product of what those five or ten closest people permit from us.  We grant each of them the power of their permission, often without realizing it.

What if those five or ten people, out of concern for our safety, or possibly their own comfort, don’t grant us the permission we seek?  What if their collective box of permission is too small for our life’s goals to fit?  Should we find another five or ten people?  Maybe.  But, that’s not the real answer.

The answer lies in realizing that the permission we seek comes from within.

Our ability to visualize the future, and see ourselves within that new reality is the change that’s needed.  Once we find the courage to consider and see that future, permission for growth and new challenges comes naturally.

Will this be easy?  No way!  This requires a commitment to personal responsibility.  You won’t have anyone else to blame, or forgive, when things go wrong.

You’ll be living a life without the foundation of outside permission.  Your internal permission will become that foundation.

The permission we seek from others must build upon our own internal permission, not the other way around.

“It is often easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.” —Grace Hopper

 

Photo Credit:  Unsplash.com, Aziz Acharki

Strategic Rebellion

I’ve had a few chances recently to watch my grandkids coloring.

It was a bit torturous for me, watching as they scribbled around the patterns, with no regard for the lines.  Was that a horse, or maybe a flower?  It didn’t matter to them.  Color selection was random.  A green horse?  Perfect.  Blue?  Even better.

Faced with this onslaught of coloring chaos, what’s the first piece of grandfatherly advice I wanted to give?  You guessed it:  Try staying inside the lines, which would inevitably be followed by advice on color choice and coloring patterns.

Most of us were taught from an early age to color inside the lines, follow the rules, avoid poking the bear, err on the side of caution, measure twice and cut once.

These are all good guidelines…most of the time.

However, I’ve found that a sprinkling of “strategic rebellion” from time to time can be quite useful.  Poke that bear, make a few waves, dare to color outside the lines.  In fact, who needs lines?  Just bring some color and see what happens.

Thankfully, I caught my advice before giving it.  It remained safely in my head.  They have plenty of time to learn about staying inside the lines.  Here’s hoping they also get a nice dose of strategic rebellion along the way.

In the meantime, purple is a perfect color for grass.

 

Anyone But Me

  • unsplash-benjamin-child“Who wants to start?”
  • “Any volunteers?”
  • “We need to think outside the box.  Do you have any ideas we can pursue?”
  • “Who’s gonna drive innovation for our company?”
  • “Did you see what they just did?  Who’s heading up our response?”
  • “I’m sure glad he’s running with that project.  I wouldn’t get anywhere near that thing!”
  • “Who’s next?”
  • “You’re kidding me!  She’s leading our brainstorming session?”
  • “I sure hope they figure this thing out.  We need answers and we need them fast!”
  • “I can’t believe we’re doing this.  Who came up with this idea?”
  • “They’re idiots to think this will matter.”

It’s easy to hide.  Easy to complain.  Easy to snipe from a distance.

It’s easiest to let someone else.

The hard thing is stepping up.

Volunteering.

Risking failure.

Taking charge.

Risking embarrassment.

Choosing to lead.

Risking success.

Turning “anyone but me” into “why not me” is the first step…and the hardest one of all.

 

 

Photo Credit:  Unsplash–Benjamin Child

Beware of the Edge

sitting-at-the-edge-of-a-cliff

I recently heard about a sign at the top of Mount Vesuvius.  It reads, “Beware of the edge.”

That’s the only safety precaution in the area.  No guardrails.  Just a sign.

I can hear it now:

“Your honor, I submit that my client had no idea he could plummet to his death by stepping over the edge of that volcano.  If only there’d been a guardrail to prevent his untimely death.”

Or,

“Your honor, we acknowledge that there was a sign that said, “Beware of the edge,” but my client must have thought he was safe as long as he stayed inside the guardrails.  Since there were no guardrails on the mountain, he was clearly misled into a false sense of safety and security…just before his fall.”

How many of us really need a sign, or a guardrail, to tell us to stay away from the edge?  Can’t we see the danger on our own, without the sign?

The truth is, probably not.

Why not?

Simple.  The edge is where the action is.  We know it’s dangerous.  We know our mind will play an imaginary leap that only our subconscious sees when we look over the edge.  We secretly like the butterflies we get in our stomach.

The edge brings sharp focus.  It’s where our imagination is most alive!

Sometimes, the edge represents the end of a long journey.  A challenging climb.  Our view over the edge reminds us of the distance we’ve traveled.  The work we’ve put in to get there.

The edge is like the proverbial flame that draws the moth.  The edge reminds us of how fragile our life is.  One step away from real danger.

How do we approach the edge, and take in its energy, while avoiding the danger that lurks just one step beyond?

It’s a question we each have to answer for ourselves.

But, here’s hoping we don’t discover the answer as we tumble over the edge.

Keeping the Wonder

In the beginning, before we’re experts, the following are easy questions to ask:

  • I wonder if this will work.
  • I wonder how this works.
  • I wonder who can help me if this doesn’t work.
  • I wonder what’ll happen when this works.

Once we become the expert, our expertise means:

  • This will work.
  • I know how it works.
  • I’m the one that people come to when it doesn’t work.
  • I’ve seen this work a million times, so I know exactly what’ll happen when it does work.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few. –Shunryu Suzuki

Expertise means knowing.  Knowing usually repels wonder.

But, powerful things can happen when expertise is mixed with wonder, instead of being separated from it:

  • I wonder if there’s a better way to make this work.
  • I wonder if I can eliminate this entire step and get the same result another way.
  • I wonder who I can help learn more about how this works.
  • I wonder how my customer views the way this works.

The expert who keeps their wonder is willing to search for new ways, new answers, and even new questions, in a quest for continuous improvement.

That same expert might even wonder (pun intended) if their expertise can solve an entirely new set of problems.

True innovation is almost always impossible without its main ingredient:  wonder.

The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.  –Aristotle

 

 

Years of Experience

knowledge-vs-experience

“I’ve been with this company for 35 years.”

“I’ve been in this industry since it started.”

“I remember when we used typewriters to fill out those forms.”

“I’ve forgotten more about this, than that new guy will ever know.”

“I’m not sure how things are supposed to work.  I just started a couple of years ago.”

“I hope they give me a raise soon.  I’m the only person who knows how to process all the claim types.”

“There’s no way someone will ever figure out how to replace me.  I wouldn’t even remember all the steps if I had to tell someone.  It’s automatic for me.”

Experience counts.  There’s no replacement for the lessons learned by doing, succeeding, failing, recovering, making it up as you go, reinventing, punting, switching directions, and trying again.

There’s no shortcut to learning how a business or industry ebbs and flows throughout a year, or through the ups and downs of the economic cycle.  A business that’s a no-brainer during the up-cycle can, and will, turn into a nightmare in a down-cycle.  A person who can lead a business through an entire up and down cycle can’t help but learn all the ins and outs of that business (and its industry).

But, what’s the true value of all that experience?  Nope, that’s not it…

The real value comes when you teach and mentor others.  It’s relatively easy to master something for yourself.  The real challenge, and deepest learning, is in teaching others.  Not just the raw facts and steps to something, but connecting and passing on the passion that you have and watching your “student” define their own passion about the topic.

Consider your years of experience doing something.  Maybe you’ve been in a particular job for twenty years.  Can you honestly say that you’ve had twenty real years of experience, or twenty one-year experiences?

What’s the difference?

The difference is whether you’ve merely stacked the same one-year experiences on top of one another, or built and connected a compounding level of expertise in your twenty years.  It means looking back at the (hopefully) countless people you’ve helped along the way to become the best versions of themselves.  It means that you’ve found ways to multiply yourself and your impact by working with, and teaching, others.

The school of hard knocks never issues a diploma, but it does yield a lifetime of experience.  That experience only counts if you take the time to pass it on to someone else.

 

 

Image Credit

The Next Version

intro_originalipod

Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly.  ~English Proverb

There’s always a next version.  The latest update.  The new and improved model.  That is, if you sell a product (or service) and hope to remain relevant.

The first version may dramatically change, or create new markets.  But, it can’t stop there.

When Microsoft came out with its first version of MS-DOS (Microsoft disc operating system for those of you born after 1983 or so), they didn’t stop developing what they had.  There was always a new version just around the corner, and then all the versions of Windows after that.

Consider how quickly Apple’s iPod improved, shrank, morphed, and spawned new products and categories (like the iPhone).  The first iPhone was awesome and changed everything.  But, Apple didn’t stop there.  They couldn’t.

Dr. Athey (one of my favorite professors) used to talk about the “ratchet effect” in technology.  With each successive improvement in speed, features, or capability, the expectation level is ratcheted-up, at least one notch.  Each improvement creates a new floor.  A platform for the next leap.

Stop improving, stop inventing, stop pushing, stop creating, stop leaping, and guess what.  Your product begins to wither and die.  What was once amazing becomes the norm.  The markets you created start to shrink.

The same ratchet effect applies to each of us.

I will never forget a conversation I had with Grandpa Clyde.  He was about 90 years old at the time.  He had just started using email, and asked me how he could send an email to more than one recipient.  I gave him some email pointers, but I got a whole lot more in return.  His questions demonstrated a key secret to a happy life:  Continuous exploration…seeking the next version.

What are you curious about?  What scares you?  What seems impossible?  These are the first things to explore.  Choose to take your first step.  Once you take the first step, the next one is easier.

What features will be in your next version?

 

 

Photo Credit:  ARS Technica

 

 

Old Docks, New Horizons

Hillsdale_Dock
Old docks capture my imagination. There’s a quiet intensity about them. A history we can feel more than see. They offer a lasting invitation to explore. To cast-off, set sail, and see what’s over the horizon.

Will you accept that invitation? How far will your explorations take you? Which way will you go? What if you can’t see the other side? Should you cast-off anyway?

We answer (or avoid) these questions every day.

Is it best to merely stand on the dock and look out at the horizon, wondering what’s just out of sight? Or, better yet, wait for someone to return and describe what’s out there? No way!

Every explorer (and innovator) in history chose to leave the safety of the dock. They couldn’t see the other side. In fact, they chose to leave the dock precisely because they needed to see over the next horizon, and the one after that.

They knew what we each know, whether we choose to admit it or not.

The answers to life’s biggest questions come to those who seek.

You don’t have to be Galileo, Christopher Columbus or Marco Polo to be an explorer. We are each explorers. All we have to do is accept the invitation.

 

 

If I knew then what I know now…

How often have you heard this phrase, or uttered it yourself?

Imagine if you could attain all of your life’s accumulated knowledge, wisdom, and experience in one day. All of life’s hard lessons in the blink of an eye. You wouldn’t know the future. But, you’d have the wisdom from that future, today.

Imagine knowing the mistakes to avoid, the real questions to ask, how to recognize the best path, the secret about how green the grass really is “over there.”    

Hindsight is 20/20, but the clarity of the past doesn’t always point to the future. Many of history’s greatest triumphs came from someone taking the “wrong path,” or exploring the idea that conventional wisdom says can’t work.

Failures will happen along the way. Having all of life’s wisdom won’t prevent them. Some of our greatest lessons come from failure…ours or someone else’s. Life’s wisdom is valuable, but having it all at once takes away the drive to chase the crazy idea, or make the big hairy mistakes that lead to new discoveries.    

The truth about life is that its truths reveal themselves one at a time. The best path to take is the one that continually seeks these truths, and welcomes their arrival.