Monthly Archives: January 2014

Jeff Dyer on “Discovery Skills” and what makes an innovator

As ASTD TechKnowledge 2014 kicks off, President and CEO Tony Bingham introduces Jeff Dyer to the stage. Jeff is author of the book “The Innovators DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovator“, PhD, teacher, researcher and prize-winner. His book has been cited over 10000 times. Today he will give us the keys to unlocking our own innovation DNA…

In classic presentation style, Dyer starts by quoting Dilbert, or rather, Dilbert’s manager: “Good managers hire people who are smarter than he or she is.” The paradox here is evident. If it’s true, this means the top managers must be the dumbest in the office. But if it’s false, then we are hiring dumb people! So what should we be doing? How can we unleash the talent of innovators?

Dyers first question is the perrenial “nature/nurture” issue: Are we born more intuitive and creative, ready to challenge the status-quo? Or is this something that is learnt?

According to research in psychology, about 80% of our raw intelligence is genetically based. BUT this raw-intelligence is the standard common-sense, knowledge-acquiring intelligence. But when it comes to the creative stuff, what really makes people able to change and do new things, only 1/3 of that “intelligence” is innate. Studies show that family culture, corporate culture, education no experience are what have the more impact on our ability to innovate. So we can learn it. Jeff Dyer has been trying to find out how…

Quoting studies on strong innovators and pulling together other research from diverse sources, Dyer tells us about the five things that count most to make an innovator.

The first of these is associative thinking, the ability to put things together that didn’t otherwise occupy the same space. Associative thinking starts with the ability to recognise opportunities that can bring some value to another situation, or another problem. Like the iPod dial that Dyer tells us was inspired by traditional dialling locks. Or how under-the-arm deodorant designers looked to ball-point pens for their ability to let liquid flow from a source. This ability to synthesise things is born out of experience (I’m already starting to worry about my kids standardised education programme) and so we need to build diverse experience to bring out innovation.

Testing our ability to think differerently, Dyer tests his theory that if we force associations we can come up with new ideas. He asks the audience: “How could a microwave design feature improve a dish-washer?” Several answers came from participants. What I found interesting was the reaction of the audience to my own suggestion to make the dishwasher shake food molecules of the plates. It made sense to me, but other participants laughed. Foolish boy! Is this indicative of how innovators are viewed in their organisation? (see Jef Staes‘ work on the percentage of people who say “NO” to new ideas…)

Dyer adds that there are four other things you need to get good at creating new ideas: Questioning, observing, networking and experimenting.

Really good innovators use a couple of specific question styles to find new ideas:

First of all, we need to force constraints in our questions to push us in a new direction. Tim Ferriss asks his readers these types of questions, for example: “What work would you do if you could only do one thing, or for 1 hour?”

Another type of question is the “blue sky” question: What if ALL constraints were removed? If anything could work?

Dyer suggests that these kind of questions will yield more creative answers. But more importantly, he says that effective brainstorming starts with question-storming; finding the right questions to brainstorm.

The next behaviour Dyer talks about is observing. Like the great Sherlock Holmes, we need to be able to see the details, the connections and the big-picture.

Innovative people see things other people don’t necessarily see. Like anthropologists, they have their eyes wide open. Dyer says that they are looking for surprises. They are looking for the details that others might miss and focused on the jobs to be done, rather than the tools that are used. Like all great product developers (and sales people) they are tuned into the desired end-result, rather than focused on the way it is currently being attacked. Looking from all angles, innovators observe what is going on and think differently about what is required to make improvements.

Dyer quotes a great example here with the “GE Adventure Series CT scanners“. Traditionally, MRI scans have been designed with one thing in mind: Scanning the body, looking at the details. But for the user, this can be extremely scary. For kids, it requires going into a new scary environment under stressful circumstances and being asked to be extremely still. Tough one! What have GE done? They have brought a little Disney to the experience. Check the link….

Observation in itself is an awesome tool in the organisation. But Dyer says it is not enough. If we want to have awesome observations, see new things and get new ideas, we need to literally step out of the box and into new environments. Enter the power of networking.

Effective innovating networkers seek out support and answers from diverse environments, cultures and functions. Dyer asks us to think about the 5 people in our network we go to when we have a problem. After 60 seconds he then asks:

  • Do you have people on your list that come from different companies?
  • Do you go to kids or old-age-pensioners?
  • Do you go to people who were born and raised in a different country to you?
  • Do you go to people from different functions or levels of the organisation?
  • Finally, Jeff Dyer tells us that if we want to innovative, we need to experiment. We need to try things out. We need to dare to try things out. In the terms of Jef Staes, we are talking about the pioneers who are willing to take the risk and see if and how things work. Innovators are not sure things will work, but they are willing to try. If organisations want to do things differently, they will need to be willing to run pilots and be open to failure.

    So, do want to innovate? Or help others develop their own innovation ability? Think about developing associative thinking, questioning skills, observing, networking and experimentation. Give people the time to innovate, to go out and think differently.

    And if you are wondering if you are a innovator? Go take the test….

    Good luck!


    What is the point of Jelly? My first experience…

    With the arrival of Biz Stone’s new app Jelly, people are starting to comment on the user experience and aim of the app. So what exactly IS the point of being able to answer a bunch of questions from other people? I remember asking myself the same question when this feature was on Facebook years ago… Here are my thoughts on the Jelly platform.


    There is a lot of potential to get addicted and lost answering questions for no real reason

    My first experience was like most other new platforms. I go on and browse and get lost in answering questions and making updates. To be honest, it was a little addictive, but I quickly started to wonder how long I would remain interested and if it was actually useful. First response: Its not. Why would I care to answer random questions from random people about random topics?

    When I posted a few questions myself, I wasn’t much more inspired. Like “Vine” and “Twitter” before *, I felt like I was forcing myself to come up with something clever to say. Like the people taking pictures of their cat and asking “What animal is this?” it seems anything is deemed jelly-worthy. I remain skeptical. But…


    * of course, I love these tools today and keep using them for very valuable things


    If I can afford to wait for answers, it might add value to the classical Google searches

    According to crowdsourcing theory, if enough people answer a question, the average of their answers is probably going to be right. This was first suggested by Francis Galton, who asked the crowd to judge the weight of an ox at a country fair in Plymouth, England. The average answer was remarkably close to the reality, even though people could only judge by sight. *

    In “The Wisdom of Crowds” by James Surowiecki, many other applications of the impact of the crowd are discussed. Perhaps Biz Stone was inspired by these in the creation of Jelly? Getting valuable input from a group of people is the whole core pitch of Jelly.

    Personally, I am going to continue my Jelly testing to see what it gives..


    * I am testing that theory on Jelly (and Facebook and Twitter) as we speak with a picture of a jar of stones. We’ll see….


    Unless I want information about a specific image (in front of me) I will have to be visually clever to ask good questions

    The trouble I see with Jelly is that unless I am actually in front of an interesting but confusing visual stimuli, to get the most out of Jelly will require a lot of visual creativity. In a museum, I could take a picture of a painting and ask questions. But if I really want some wisdom on other topics, why can’t I just ask? Why do I need a picture?


    I can’t choose who I ask questions to

    As far as I can see, the questions I post to Jelly are thrown out into the world in a very random way. (It isn’t clear to me yet if all Jelly users are seeing my questions, or only the people I know). From a learning point of view, this is not very interesting to me. Although Surowiecki’s book suggests that it probably isn’t necessarily wise to seek out answers from experts, I would like to able to address my questions to specific communities to illicit experts answers. Maybe I should stick with LinkedIn groups…


    It’s not very searchable (yet)

    At the moment, I can’t search with Jelly. If I want to find out what the crowd thinks about a specific topic, I am stuck. This seems a shame to me. Wouldn’t it be nice to search (or ask) questions (and answers) on specific topic or categories?


    The marketeers are going to love it

    General Electric has jumped on the Jelly app already to position their brand within the guise of a question. This will surely continue to be a trend and I suspect that in between random questions from good-willing users, there will be a lot of product placement. I hope it doesn’t go too far…

    My Twitter discussion with @zmccune has given me more insight on this. He suggests that the app could be used for focus groups and quick value mobile surveys.

    But what are the other applications? Can we use this in the learning world?


    Questions to Jelly

    As with many such platforms, I have a lot of questions as I start:

    • Who is deciding  which questions I am offered to answer and in which order?
    • Who is seeing my questions?
    • Are you keeping all my answers and opinions to be used against me or given to the sales guys?
    • What is coming next?


    If you’ve tried Jelly, I’d love to have your comments. If you haven’t – get on there and waste a bit of your life. You never know what you might find…

    Thanks for reading




    Time doesn’t only fly when you are having fun – focus on what brings you energy

    There is an idea that “time flies when you are having fun”. 

    * (see below post for disclaimer)

    But time flies for other reasons too: When you are stressed or under time-pressure, when you are doing addictive chores, when you are asleep…

    So don’t think that just because time flies, you are having fun.

    I have spent a lot of time flying through time not having enough fun, so my first New Year’s resolution for 2014 is to regularly re-do an exercise proposed by Marcus Buckingham in his book “Go Put Your Strengths To Work”. It’s simple and you can do it too…


    Step 1: Note what gives you energy

    As you go through your working day, any time you are having fun or feeling energetic, make a note of what you are doing. Use seperate post-it notes of bits of paper for each idea – this will help when you get to step 3 later.

    I have already noted the following in the last few days:

    • Chasing new ideas, researching things that get my attention
    • Blogging and writing ideas in order to try and communicate them well to other people
    • Hospitality and welcoming people

    ..and the last time I did this exercise, I had also noted:

    • Developing a presentation for a large audience
    • Speaking to a group of people about a topic on which I am an expert
    • Editing an article to ensure the minimum effective dose of content
    • Consulting with new potential clients, by phone or face-to-face, asking questions in order to understand their situation, values and needs


    Step 2: Note what drains your energy or makes you unhappy

    As with step 1, any time you feel drained or unhappy in what you are doing, note it down. Again, use separate notes.

    My own ideas:

    • Working with particular people … I noted their names, but won’t share here 🙂
    • Raising invoices
    • Writing administrative emails to tick-off silly little tasks in preparation for a training or conference
    • Booking hotels, flights and travel


    Step 3: Categorise wherever possible in order to see the thin-red-line

    If I remember well, Buckingham proposes to do the exercises (steps 1+2) for about a week. At the end of the week, see if you can find common points between the different notes. Spread them all out on a table and re-arrange them in order to see how they fit together.

    This should give you an idea of what really turns you on … and off.


    Step 4: The hardest part = Create strategies to maximise the energisers and minimise the drainers

    Although I won’t get into this here and now, if you have an idea of when turns you on and what turns you off AND if you are truly willing to invest in your own happiness (so that time flies) then you must work on this step.

    Bear in mind that there is always a way to improve your working experience, even if you don’t work for yourself. If you are not sure how to actually make it happen, consider the following ideas to get you started:


    I know very well that this last step may seem a bit dreamy and some people will read and think “It’s not that easy” but that doesn’t mean the exercise is worthless in itself. Think about what gives you strength, what drains your energy and then make the choice to have a Happy New Year!


    Thanks for reading,




    * The idea that “time flies when you having fun” is almost true, but in fact there is a mistake in this phrase which is both philosophically interesting and also, I believe, quite dangerous for the fast-moving, entrepreneurial, recognition-seeking type of folk (like me) that are rather desperately on the road to dissatisfaction and burn-out.

    In fact, time doesn’t fly when you are having fun. It stops. It disappears. This is important because our obsession with time as an entity or currency leads to lots of attempts to save it, redistribute it or make it move faster or slower than it actually does.

    But even my previous paragraph is faulty, because there is no such thing as time. At least not as it is intended in the phrase “time flies when you are having fun”. In that phrase, the time referred to is “clock time” and in reality, we just stop thinking about “clock time” when we are really having fun. We live in the moment, without regard for what will come later or what came earlier. That is indeed why it is fun. Because we are truly alive in the “now” instead of “thinking” and getting caught up in other ego-led desires. And when we do start thinking about it (“clock time”) again, we see that it has flown by. We are much “later” than we thought.

    If this little philosophical suffix interests you even in the slightest, read “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle.