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Posts Tagged ‘ideas’

my-funny-valentine

The monkeys learned the song My Funny Valentine at preschool for Valentine’s day. (I love the monkey’s preschool!) They’ve been singing it for a few weeks now, and I’m finally learning the words. But between the three of us, we all mess up the song almost all of the time. Tonight at dinner, the wrong word led to screams and shouts.

I don’t know about you but screams and shouts are two of my least favorite things to have for dinner. So I decided to put a stop to the arguing by listening to the song on You Tube. We listened to this version by Chet Baker, this one by Etta James, and this really great oneby AJ, who I’ve never heard of.

Listening to different variations, we heard different singers use a few different words and treat the vocals very differently. I tried to tell the monkeys that these variations are what makes music interesting. I talked about how different singers interpret the song differently, and that’s what makes it interesting. How you can learn from each version, or listen to them all and decide which one you like best. I promoted this approach to listening to and making music over their current approach, which involves screaming and fighting over whether the words are “is your finger less than Greek” or “is your figure less than Greek.” 

But I have to admit I was  talking for the sake of pleasing myself, instead of actually teaching them anything.

As music novices, they’re still sticklers for rules. They learned the song one way and that’s how it goes. As they get better at singing, and learn more songs, they’ll become more comfortable trying varying approaches. But not until then.

It’s kind of like how it’s often harder to work with a client who is new to an organization than it is to work with someone who has learned the rules and knows which ones can and should be bent. Or like how a seasoned researcher can divert from textbook research methodologies and still get insights that are interesting and valid, because she knows the rules that underlie the methodologies, and therefore can alter the way the research looks without altering how it works. But someone who is new to the field will tell you that things  MUST BE DONE A CERTAIN WAY.

With experience, comes appreciation of variation and diversity. When you’re still learning something, that variation is confusing and consistency reigns. It was fun watching all the videos, and the monkeys did enjoy them. But I’m still going to have to weigh in and resolve the argument: it’s figure, not finger. Go figure.

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According to The Eureka Hunt, an article by Jonah Lehrer in last week’s New Yorker magazine, scientists have finally found neural proof of what creative thinkers and those who study them already know: Insight doesn’t come from focusing on a problem.

Instead, insight comes from focusing on a problem and then taking your mind off that problem, leaving your mind with an opportunity to make subconscious connections that your conscious mind can’t quite get to through reasoning and smart thinking alone. This kind of thinking generates new insight, new solutions to problems, and new ideas.

According to Lehrer, that’s why good ideas often come while you’re in the shower, and it explains why Newton discovered the laws of gravity while sitting under a tree.

It also explains why I haven’t been blogging lately. I’ve had a lot going on, in every domain of life. And I’m finding that instead of everything informing each other in a way that pushes me to think about new ideas and make interesting connections, I’m just focusing too hard, on too many different things to have any ideas that are interesting enough to write about.

Which is why I’m looking forward to the next week. We’re taking the monkeys to hang out with their cousins, aunt, uncle and grandparents on Kiawah Island. I’ve been on enough beach vacations with a bunch of kids to know that they’re not exactly relaxing. But it is a good opportunity to get my mind focused on only one thing. So I’m flying away from my computer for a while and hoping it will be the break I need to get my ideas flowing again.

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My company just celebrated it’s 10th Anniversary. To celebrate, we invited some amazing thinkers and doers to talk about whatever they’re thinking about and doing these days. My brain is full of interesting ideas, which I’m sure will spill into the blog over time.

But today I’m thinking about one speaker in particular, Andy Hargadon. His blog is here. He’s a prof at the UC Davis School of Management with a very impressive bio.  One of the things that I appreciate the most about his work is the way he explodes the myths around ideas and innovation. Andy has discovered that innovation isn’t about building a better mousetrap. It’s about building networks of relationships between buyers, sellers, advocates, financiers, etc around the mousetrap. Without the networks, even the best mousetrap just sits on some stores shelf or, worse, in your warehouse. According to Andy, the idea is only the beginning of the innovation process. The hard part is what comes next, building the right network around the idea.

Anyone who has ever created a great product that didn’t succeed knows how true Andy’s findings are. Most new products that are introduced fail. And sure, some fail because they’re not actually better. But many excellent ideas still don’t succeed, and a lack of a supporting infrastructure, or network, is one common reason.

Parents who don’t want to constantly be tearing their hair out also leverage the power of the network. We have a network of teachers, babysitters, grandparents and great-grandparents that help us care for the monkeys while we work and play. They’re not just there for child-care, though. They’re critical parts of our child raising network because they can teach them things that we can’t. Mom mom, the monkey’s great grandmother, is good for introducing new songs and stories. Pop Pop, their grandfather, knows how to dig giant holes in the sand. Nana knows the entire tune of Peter and the Wolf. I know how to make pizza dough. We all play our part.

The network isn’t just critical to working moms, either. My sister-in-law just told me about her friend who decided to host a summer camp in her home. Her three kids each invited a couple of friends over, she hired a teacher or two, and voilla, instant summer fun. The kids got to participate in some new activities, the moms got a bit of a break, and the hosts didn’t even have to change out of their PJs until 10 AM.

The myth of the nuclear family is almost as strong as the myth of the lone inventor. Believe in either at your own expense – not only are you less likely to succeed, you’re less likely to have fun while you’re doing it.

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It’s been a tough couple of weeks with the monkeys. We’re in one of those phases where hanging out with them is sort of fun, but sort of a pain in the a** because we keep finding ourselves having to work really hard to get them to follow directions.

The other day I had to put them both in time out just to get them to stand still for long enough to get dressed for school. Lots of fun, really.

I know that this too shall pass, but of course both Mr. Daddy and I are trying to figure out what we can be doing differently. The other night, as we were discussing it, I suggested that we explicitly spend a little bit more of our time with them really playing with them on their level, so that at least the ‘management’ is interspersed with actual fun.

Mr. Daddy has been pushing the idea of encouraging them to spend 20 minutes or so a day hanging out on their own, without us around. This would give them a chance to assert their independent spirits and us a chance to get stuff done around the house.

I told him my idea, and he agreed. He told me his idea, and I brought up all the reasons I thought it wouldn’t work. Finally he interrupted me – can’t we just try it? Sure.

On the train back from New York the other day I was reading Group Genius, by Keith Sawyer, an excellent read on how to get groups to innovate well. While reading a chapter on how to get smart outcomes from groups instead of dumb ones, he reminded me of the rules of improvisation, the first of which is to build on ideas by saying ‘yes, and’ instead of ‘yes, but’.

As a consultant whose job it is to help teams develop new insights and translate them into new ideas for their businesses, I facilitate brainstorming sessions all the time. I know how important ‘yes and’ is not just to brainstorming but to any great collaborative work. Yet in a mini-brainstorm with Mr. Daddy, I forgot to judge his ideas forward and started to, well, judge. It’s not a great way to problem solve or an endearing way to talk to your husband.

We’re going to try out some of our new ideas this weekend to see if they work. If not, we’ll be back to brainstorming early next week. This time, I’ll try to remember the rules.

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A colleague of mine had a former life in community organizing and development. In that role, he spent much of his time running meetings and getting organizations with various agendas to cooperate for the greater good of the community. He is an expert facilitator and one of the best people I know at working an idea through an organization.

One of the things I’ve learned from him is to pre-wire my meetings. He’s taught me when I need to get buy-in for an idea from a management team, I should make sure that all the players are on board with the message before we meet about it. 

Typically, if you have an idea you gather the group that needs to hear it to discuss it. But I’m sure you’ve all been in meetings where new ideas are met with resistance, fear, territoriality, and suspicion. All of which can be great responses to strengthen the idea and push it forward. But if all those issues come up in a public setting, the idea is more likely to get killed than adopted.

Pre-wiring the meeting involves meeting with stakeholders as individuals before you meet with them as a group, to hear and respond to objections in private. With those conversations out of the way, the idea has a chance of succeeding in the meeting. Instead of a heated debate, the meeting can provide an opportunity for consensus, collaboration, and moving forward.

It’s true that the presentation of insights loses some of it’s ‘wow’ factor if many people in the room have heard the findings before. But in exchange for drama, you’re more likely to walk out of the room with action and implementation. A worthwhile trade-off, I assure you.

I also use my colleague’s advice to manage the monkey’s expectations. Toddlers respond well to routine, so we use consistency of routine to do a lot of our expectation setting. They know what’s going to happen next, because it always happens next, and I don’t have to say anything. But there are, of course, times when we can’t or don’t follow the routine. Special activities or holidays come up or I get completely bored and we do something out of the ordinary.

When I know we’re going to break the monkeys’ routine, I ‘pre-wire’ them, setting expectations about what’s going to happen long before it happens.

A few weeks ago, my parent’s came in town for Passover. I was thrilled about hosting a Seder, but a little anxious about how the under 3 crowd would handle the long ceremonial meal. I started talking it up about two weeks before the night. ‘Nana and Far Far are coming and we’re going to have a special meal. We’ll sit around the table together and read and sing songs and tell stories’. Getting them excited about some of their favorite activities really worked. In addition to talking about it, we started singing some traditional Seder songs together. And they were into it. Between setting their expectations and incorporating some toddler friendly activities into the Seder, we got the monkeys and a friend to sit through about 1/2 an hour of ceremony at 6 PM. A major triumph.

I also pre-wire them to get them excited about things I’m excited about, so that an activity is actually likely to be fun for all of us. Tonight we made pizzas for dinner. The monkeys love to help me cook, so I knew that they would be into the activity. But I wanted to make sure we had a whine-free evening, with lots of participation. So I started talking it up early this morning, singing Louis Prima songs and telling the monkeys we would turn the house into a Pizzariea for dinner. Their excitement helped get them motivated to come with me to buy a new rolling pin and helped me get them to leave the park to come home to make dinner. And not only did they help me cook, they ate their pizza and salad.

I’m always a little bit surprised when I see such similarities between my toddlers and adults in the business world. But it shouldn’t be that surprising. At our core, we’re all creatures of habit. Breaks from the routine can be scary and intimidating to two-year-olds. And trying a new idea, or agreeing to a new way of doing things, can be scary and intimidating to adults. Giving everyone a chance to respond to an idea in private, and time to get used to it, can go a long ways towards reassuring this anxiety. And that can turn Seder, pizza night, or an imporant meeting from a whine-fest into a successful event.

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I’ve written before about the power of emotion, and about the importance of leaders not hiding their emotions but using them to motivate and inspire others. The Heaths say that good ideas and good messages, too require emotion. 9 out of 10 dentist agree that a healthy dose of emotion helps get your message across – and helps people remember it.

In the workplace, one way to get that emotion across is by showing folks the actual people that their businesses impact. We do a lot of social research, and we video tape the research so that we can go back and analyze the data that we collect. We also use video of our research participants in our presentations, because they tell stories so much better than we do when we paraphrase people. Just last week we presented findings that were controversial and surprising to our client. Normally, we put 3-4 clips in an hour long presentation. This time we put 8. The more controversial the ideas, the more important it is to use multiple tools to bring emotional resonance to your words.

We don’t use a lot of PowerPoint presentations at home, but emotion does show up in a couple of places. First, I let the monkeys know when they’ve hurt me. I’ll yell ouch, or sometimes even tear up if they’ve really bonked me. I think that showing them that they can hurt other people by showing emotion is a really powerful way to teach them not to hit and to roughhouse with caution.

I think it also has to be OK for them to show emotion – and to let them experience emotions, even if they’re not comfortable ones, to make a point. They cry when I get angry, and so I try not to get angry over little things. But sometimes, I’m angry and I do let it show. In a store, for example, when they’re not listening to me and playing hide and seek. I get angry. That kind of behavior goes beyond just being annoying, it can also be dangerous. I let them experience the emotion that my anger causes, so that they’ll remember the lesson I’m trying to teach.

This works both ways, of course. When they’re behaving well, being nice, getting along, engaged and curious, I make sure to hug them and kiss them and tell them how much I love them and how much I love being with them. Hopefully, the positive emotion will reinforce those behaviors, too.

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This is one of my favorite of the Heath’s suggestions because it is so true. I tend to be an abstract thinker, and often, no one has a clue what I’m talking about. Until I take the time to get specific and concrete. And then, of course, everyone sees how brilliant I really am.

I’ve actually become a lot more concrete since the monkeys were born. My company uses the thinking style assessment based on the work by Anthony Gregorc. It assesses your thinking styles based on two metrics: whether you tend to order or organize information sequentially or randomly and whether you are better at processing or perceiving information that’s abstract or concrete.

I’m off the charts random, which I’m pretty sure is never going to change. And I have always been more abstract than concrete. But soon after the monkeys were born, I retook the test and found that I’d become more concrete than abstract. Which makes sense when you think that very young children don’t yet have the capacity to think abstract thoughts. So if you want to communicate with little kids at all, you have to start being more concrete. Which has served me well, since I’ve also found that the more senior my client, the more likely it is that he or she responds better to information that’s concrete than information that’s abstract.

So how do you get more concrete? Well, for starters, think of all of the times that we talk in abstractions of time to our children whose concept of time is not yet well developed. “Oh, wait just a minute, honey,” I’ll say to a monkey who is trying to get my attention. Or, “No, we don’t have tumbling class today, it’s another few days until tumbling class.” Even if I get to a level that I think is concrete – naming the days of the week, my monkeys will nod, and agree with me, but not really know what I’m talking about.

Sometimes it’s OK for a notion to remain vague and abstract, but other times it’s really important to convey an actual sense of duration and time. When we’ve got hot food on a plate, and the monkeys need to wait before biting into it, for example, I found that “wait 2 minutes” didn’t work so well. No surprise, since 2 minutes is an abstract notion to a two-year-old. Finally, I caught on. Now I tell them how long they need to wait by telling them how many times they need to sing the ABC. “This is really hot, honey, you need two ABC’s before taking a bite.” And they launch into song. We now use ABC’s whenever we need to ask them to wait a minute or two. It helps them mark time and they really know those ABC’s.

And how does this translate into sharing ideas in the workplace? Even I’m not crazy enough to suggest asking your clients or your colleagues to start singing ABC’s. But I do think it’s worthwhile to take the time to ensure that your ideas are concrete. Especially those really fun, ambiguous, big ideas. 

Sometimes, it’s relatively easy to get concrete just by forcing yourself to get specific. But when you’ve got an idea with lots of nuance and complexity, a great way to make it concrete is through a metaphor. Two of my all time favorite metaphors come from the parenting world, but you get the idea.

  • From a parent of twins, on having a singleton: taking care of one baby is like taking care of a goldfish.
  • From a pediatrician in Manhattan: three kids is the new Hummer.

I know, these are both kind of obnoxious sentiments. But they’re sticky. I love that each metaphor is immediately evocative, conveys a ton of information, and is memorable. Finding equally specific metaphors to capture your big ideas will help them stick.

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