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Innovators Start Your Engines

(Or, Design Thinking’s Fatal Flaw)

If I asked you to choose between two machines that could determine how your organization might compete, create value, grow market share, increase revenues, and deliver impact in the future how would you know which one to pick?

Chief Innovation Officers have been kicking the tires on design thinking’s engine for more than a few years now. But Think Wrong is not just this year’s model.

What’s the difference?

Design thinking and thinking wrong are both problem solving systems. Like a machine, each requires certain inputs, performs specific functions, and generates outputs that produce value.

Design thinking is defined by IDEO (the driving force behind popularizing design thinking) as: “A human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

At Solve Next, we define thinking wrong as: “The ability to conquer biology and culture to change things from how they are to how they might be.”

Picture design thinking as a machine that puts the the person for whom you are solving at its center.

Picture thinking wrong as a machine that puts the impact your organization wants to have and the people to whom that impact matters at its center.

Design thinking produces simpler, more intuitive solutions than what existed before—solutions that reflect the users’ environments, ways of operating, and their cultures.

Thinking wrong produces unexpected, disruptive solutions that break the biases, orthodoxies, and assumptions that form that status quo and have the ability to drive the positive change their champions aspire to create in the world.

IDEO and design thinking found their way into the popular vernacular in 1999, when ABC’s Nightline ran a story on them. That segment included IDEO’s redesign of the shopping cart. It featured their user-centered observations in supermarkets and what they revealed about shoppers’ behaviors. It showcased IDEO’s futuristic cart with a detachable basket—IDEO had noted that shoppers repeatedly parked their carts and walked down aisles for specific items. They designed a cart that had the potential to improve things for shoppers. Disappointingly, 17 years later, shopping carts remain largely unchanged and unimproved.

Think Wrong problem solving machine would not have started with observations of shoppers. Instead, it would begin by exploring what the client (grocers in this case) most aspired to accomplish. Thinking wrong would challenge the grocers to be bold and to imagine the greatest impact they might have. It would ask: “What value are they seeking to produce for the communities they serve, their stakeholders, society at large, the environment, and future generations?” It would invite shoppers into the process, to ensure their wants, needs, and ideas were central solutions that might create that positive change. It would enable grocer and shopper to imagine, prototype, and implement new ways of shopping that might lead to that impact together.

Like design thinking clients, think wrong clients need help putting their customers, beneficiaries, constituents, members, partners, and people at the center of their design efforts. But they also want to have impact that is not just marginally better than others. They want to change the game. They want what John and I have for years had called “Big D” design. Not the decorative stuff that gets applied after the strategic thinking has been done, but the kind that has the power to change the course of markets, nations, society, and future generations.

So, choose design thinking when you want to make a significant improvement to the way things are. But if you’re aim is to change the way things are to how you think they should be, choose thinking wrong.

“REBBL has $1 billion opportunity ahead of it. That’s quite a market for a company that currently has annual sales of less than $10 million, and just six employees.” Mark Rampolla, co-founder of PowerPlant Ventures, in a recent Fortune Magazine article.

REBBL is a wonderful example of what the Think Wrong engine can produce. It was born at Not For Sale’s Montara Circle, where Solve Next helped more than 50 leaders from across the private and public sectors take on the challenge of ending the exploitation of villagers and their environment in the Peruvian Amazon. The result, a refreshing tonic made, in part, from ingredients purchased from those villagers, economically inoculating them from exploitation. “We love launching products that have the power to change culture, start conversations, and challenge the status quo” says Palo Hawken, co-founder of REBBL in this recent BEVNET release.



Culture of Innovation Fail


(Or, Why People Build New Homes with Fake Gas Lanterns by the Front Door)

If, as the leader of a multi-billion dollar corporation, the director of modest non-profit, the president of a university—or whatever your position—you are responsible for building a culture of innovation you’re probably frustrated with the results.

My home state gives you a pretty good hint why.

Maine is a place nostalgic in nature, evoking lighthouses, Andrew Wyeth paintings, sailboats, colonial architecture, and lobster dinners on the beach at sunset. It all fits comfortably and appealingly into our collective consciousness.

“Maine, the way life should be” is our official state slogan.

Most homes in Maine (with the exception of double-wide trailers, worthy of a later blog post) are old or built to look old. I live in a large, old house built in 1863. So, “What’s wrong with that?” you might ask. Nothing. Except that it costs a fortune to heat with oil, the rooms are relatively small, and maintenance is high. In 1863, they were building houses using 1863 technology and aesthetics. Building has come a long way in 153 years.

Or has it?

I was recently in Carrabassett Valley, Maine, home to the Sugarloaf ski area, and noticed a relatively new “ski” house. It wasn’t built in the traditional ski house vernacular. Instead, it was built to resemble a colonial home from the 1800’s. Complete with fake gas lanterns, non-moveable shutters, and ornamental columns by the front door.

So, what’s going on here—and in innovation resistant organizations? Why do people keep putting fake gas lanterns on your front doors?

Well, it’s biological and cultural. A specific idea of “home” gets hard-wired into our brains at an early age. Images of cozy cottages with white picket fences universally represent comfort, safety and stability. Over time, we connect those images to those feelings through synaptic connections that forge enduring neural pathways. A superhighway is built connecting what we experience and feel to what we believe. The result? We build 2016 houses on a 1863 blueprint. Anything that varies from the norm is actively discouraged or outright rejected.

What’s true for our homes is true for our organizations. We think that we’re making rational, well-reasoned decisions when we are following pre-determined pathways in our brains. We're building on old plans. We do this even when making big decisions with big financial ramifications, such as building a new office or plant, inventing and funding a new business, or adopting potentially life altering policies (think how hard it is for us to move at scale from our oil dependency to renewable energy—even when confronted with overwhelming evidence of the impact climate change on our planet).

The gravity of the status quo seems inescapable. Culture change is tough. It means overcoming the way our brains and cultures conspire against innovations that threaten the way things are.

But breaking the grips of our orthodoxies is not impossible. When our friends and collaborators Linda Yates and Paul Holland decided to build a new home in Portola Valley, they didn’t hesitate to let go of conventions about what a house is or is not. They were boldly set out to build the greenest home in America.

“We've always been passionate about environmental causes,” says Holland. “We wanted to take our family out of the oil-based economy, so there are no oil-based products associated with the house: there is no natural gas, no plastic, no PVC. Everything is powered by renewable energy sources, either solar or ground-source heat exchange.”

Take a peek at this    recent Style magazine article    featuring the Yates-Holland home. No fake gas lanterns there.

Take a peek at this recent Style magazine article featuring the Yates-Holland home. No fake gas lanterns there.

If you really want to lead a culture of innovation, give your people the permission, language, frameworks, tools, and training they’ll need to conquer the current orthodoxies, beliefs, and assumptions responsible for the status quo—and to do work that matters.

In the spirit of Think Wrong’s Move Fast Practice, Yates and Holland are not proprietary about their home. They’ve created this website to share what they have learned and the resources required to build greener more sustainable homes.


The Creative Economy is a Sham.


The Creative Economy is a Sham.

Back in April I was invited to testify at the Joint Committee Hearing on California’s Creative Economy chaired by Senator Ben Allen. Senator Allen has been working hard to increase funding by the State of California for the Arts and Art Education. I’m embarrassed to say, we California currently ranks 50th among all states.

The centerpiece of the hearing was the 2014 Otis Report on the Creative Economy. It contains some pretty impressive numbers:

The total Gross State Product for California is $2.2 trillion.The total Creative Industry contribution to that number is $249 billion—or 8.1%.And that number is even more impressive when you consider Farming, Fishing, and Timber contribute just 2% to California’s GSP.The Creative Industry accounted for 9.6% of all jobs in California in 2014.

What struck me when reading the Otis Report was how profoundly the government categorization of what is and is not a creative job affects the calculus of how much the Creative Industry contributes to our economy. And just how false the government’s creativity distinctions are.

Forget the job numbers on the chart below and check out the legend. That’s where the Big Creative Job Lie appears.

Sure, those jobs require creativity, special skills, expertise, and talent.

But what job doesn’t?

What challenge confronting an individual, organization, community, society, or species does not demand creativity, special skills, expertise, and talent?

And where are the many creative roles that drive innovation across Technology, Health Care, Energy, Finance, Government, Defense, or many other industries not represented in that legend?

Because, when you get right down to it the Creative Industry is a false ghetto and the Creative Economy is sham.

A ghetto because the definition of the Creative Industry draws an artificial boundary around a subset of jobs, labeling them creative, and by inference, all other jobs not.

A sham because the narrow definition of what constitutes a creative occupation results in a massive understatement of the true size of the Creative Economy.

Both contribute to how little we invest in both. The “Creatives” become the others. And the true scope of the contribution of creativity to the rest of our industries is made invisible.

Which brings us back to my hearing testimony.

I was one of the “Creatives” invited to share our stories. Mine pivots on the realization that we are all born ingenious—and that Think Wrong Practices are the secret to unlocking the creativity of those who do not see themselves as, or who have been told they are not, capable of it.

It is my belief, proven again and again through experience, that the solutions we imagine with those “Non-creatives” are always better than what we “Creatives” might dream up on our own.

Which seem like a pretty good case for investing more in that. 


It’s All Google’s Fault.

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It’s All Google’s Fault.

There are tectonic changes happening that will eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs, close factories and have a major effect on the global allocation of capital.

And you can guess from the title of this blog who I’m going to blame.

Google and those crazy autonomous vehicles

For those of us living in the San Francisco Bay area we’re used to sharing our gridlocked roads with fleets of self-driving cars while wishing we had one too. But it raises a question “What might happen when cars don’t crash?”

I’ll start my thoughts from the perspective of the P&C Insurance industry—in which I spent over a decade. In 2011 Bob Joop Goos, chairman of the International Organization for Road Accident Prevention stated, “More than 90 percent of road accidents are caused by human error.” So, what might happen to premiums if that risk were largely removed? Well. They’d fall. A lot.

For us consumers that’s great. There’s nothing like spending less on a product you hope to never use. But. It’s not so good for insurance carriers who generate revenue by investing the float created when you and I pay our bill every month. You see, insurance carriers pump a ton of capital through the markets. In 2013 auto insurance premiums in the US totaled over $207 billion. When a large chunk of that capital moves elsewhere people will notice.

Then there are the insurance brokers (in 2012 there were 443,300 of them) who make a commission from selling policies. You can do the math on that one: lower premiums=fewer brokers.

On the claims side there’s a big, direct supply chain that might substantively collapse. There are about 200,000 US auto claims adjusters and examiners—we won’t need many of those anymore. But that’s just the start.

There are the body shops, the parts and paint manufacturers, the tow companies, the wrecker yards, the car rental companies, the auto industry (3-4 million cars are declared total losses in the US each year—to put that in perspective Ford sold 2,480,942 vehicles in 2014). And all the auto industry suppliers down to the mining conglomerates who dig out the ores to make the metal, and the shippers who move it and the finished product to the dealers.

Then there’s the indirect, or unintended, supply chain that comes along with accidents and injury—the ambulance drivers, roadside safety providers, health care providers, physical and mental therapists, and so on who help those in the aftermath of collisions.

And, perhaps more obscurely, but not inconsequently, the software, technology and consulting companies who serve the insurance carriers and their supply chain will not escape unscathed by The Crashless Age.

You get the idea.

There are a lot of livelihoods involved here. When it comes to people and their cars human error is a huge industry.

The collateral damage from the rise of the self-driving car will be a shrunken insurance market and lower volume throughout its direct and unintended supply chain. Not all insurance carriers will survive, and there will be hurt elsewhere too.

This is not a matter of if, but when. The Crashless Age is nigh. Its inevitable disruption will offer amazing opportunities for those who are prepared to invest in new ventures, initiatives, and options that anticipate the future.

Our point of view: Nobody has better resources to take advantage of those opportunities, nobody can match their talent, their experience, their data, their insight, their channels, or their assets than those already active in the those industries. But it’s going to take a lot of wrong thinking to use those resources in clever, practical, and original ways.

And that’s where we can help.

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Precedents don’t offer the potential for thinking wrong

Think Wrong McWrongsey

Here’s an industry secret worth billions. Consultants like to use the term “best practice” to describe what the rest of us would call a precedent—just a method that has worked, before, somewhere else.

This isn't to say best practices are useless. Precedence is great when you understand the challenge you’re facing and want to repeat a solution—say, when you want to select brakes for a train (or brakes for anything, really) or when choosing an open heart surgeon. But if you’re trying to outpace competition, solve a long-term problem that doesn't seem to go away, or tackle a challenge you’ve never seen before...applying precedent is not so helpful. Precedence is not disruption, and is not meant to be.

But too often, consultants dress up plain precedence and offer it as an ingenious driver of organizational change—a glaringly obvious contradiction. Most of the time, there’s nothing better about a “best” practice, and you could say that consultants have found a clever way of selling old rope for new prices.

The truth is, these precedents don’t offer the potential for ingenious ideas. They only replicate the past.  So, if you want to unlock new ideas—stop thinking right, and start thinking wrong.


The Toxic MBA

Think wrong about toxic MBAs

The problem-solving orthodoxies they teach you in business school kill ingenuity. Greg Galle explains why at TEDxGrandRapids.