Innovation is all the rage these days. Everyone want's to be a "disruptor" or "alter the paradigm." It can happen; Uber and Chili Cheese Frito taco shells come to mind.
There's no one way to get there of course. But here's a thought exercise that can expand your mind to new possibilities.
Take a headline from an innovation newsstory, like the following:
Then take a line from the story that sounds like an origin of the idea. In this case, I choose: "During her senior year of college, Rose was dared to eat a fried scorpion while studying abroad in China."
Rose must have taken several dramatic and innovative steps between eating the scorpion and saving the world. Ask youself, what are some possible actions she took that led to such a life-changing result?
Some possibilities include:
1. Rallies her fellow bio students and persuades the college to fund preliminary concepts.
2. Works Lay’s and other large snack companies to obtain popular flavor profiles.
3. Automates proposal submission process with help from Google volunteers.
4. Researches salmon farms and applies parallel concepts to “bug farms.”
5. Reaches out to governments of poverty-stricken companies to promote health and positive outcomes.
Rose probably had her own ideas, but these are the ones that come to my mind. Then you can apply the same principle to something closer to you, like creating new programming, or offering a different product. Decide where you want to end up and back fill it with transitionary ideas.
As Lisa Daily, host of nationally-syndicated morning TV show, Daytime, "“You’ll never get a new ending if you keep starting with the same tired beginning.”
I was leading a customer service exercise the other day and a woman asked for solutions on how to deter the same customer from asking for their password over and over. We crafted some solutions as a group (One of which was to make it more difficult for the person to reach her. We did NOT encourage that idea!)
In this case, sometimes people give themselves permission to forget things because the answer is so readily available somewhere else. How many phone number did you have memorized 10 years ago? How many now?
This situation reminded me there is often an emotional aspect to customer service that sometimes alludes us. It put me in mind of this story I heard from a 20-year veteran staff member from the Boston Public Library.
Every week for several months, a man would come in asking for information about radios. He seemed distant, unfocused, a little "off," Even though she repeatedly served him, he repeatedly asked for the same information. Of course, after multiple visits she became quite frustrated.
After being absent for several weeks, the man finally returned and approached her. He said, "I was on medication for the last few months. I don't remember much, but I do remember that when I was here, I was helped."
It's a touching story and a good reminder that what might seem a nuisance for us, might be priceless to someone else.
Building confidence in yourself can be a huge personal challenge. It's frustrating, demoralizing and lot of other counterproductive feelings. Sometimes I'll get a student who does amazing scene work, but then look sheepish and defeated, as if he just disappointed everyone. I then point out all of the good things and remind him to "put it in the win column!"
Similarly, sometimes I lead a meeting or give a presentation and feel like it didn't go as I expected, even though colleagues are thanking me for a job well done. I say, “I’m glad that’s over,” but what I should be doing is acknowledging all of the positive feedback and saying, “That was a success!” You can’t really build up your confidence – to go from less sure of yourself to more sure of yourself – unless you recognize your successes when you have them.
In public speaking, you can think “Gulp, everyone is looking at me!”
Or, you can think of your center seat at a table, the podium or where ever, as a place of power, of knowledge and respect. After all, they want something from you.
To help reinforce this idea of "owning your space," in my workshops I use a picture of the Chinese dragon, Lung. Lung traditionally symbolizes power and fearlessness. I place it on the floor at the head of the room and ask people to “Step up to the dragon’s perch.” If you think of it as a place of courage and poise, you will become more confident over time.
You’ll have a great meeting or presentation and put it in the win column!
Not the best motivational poster, right?
How many times have you told yourself, “I can’t do that”? If you want to make yourself a more valuable employee (and a “can-do” human!), it’s worth looking at what “can’t” might actually mean.
I Don’t Want To…
You say: “I can’t go to the meeting on Wankel Rotary Engines, I have work to do.”
But, you really mean: "I don't want to..."
Be honest with yourself. More often than not you really can go to the meeting if you budget your time differently. You just really, really, really don’t want to. But, as no one ever said about monkey bread and cinnamon rolls, it’s not the same thing.
Why make this distinction? Because finding a way to make you want to go to the meeting can make everything better! Imagine signing up a different speaker every week instead of listening to Mr. Monotone all the time. (Contact DLM Consulting to fix that. I know a guy.) You could infuse a little optimism into the agenda by everyone sharing a “good thing that happened this week.” Keep people engaged by making sure everyone contributes to the agenda. Keep the meetings short. Have them in the park. Serve drinks.
Saying “I can’t” implies the presence of an immovable barrier. Saying “I don’t want to” is an opportunity for improvement.
I Don’t Know How…
You say: “I can’t make a Wankel Rotary Engine!”
But, you really mean: "I don't know how..."
The solution is simple: learn! But, if you’ve ever worked in a wankel rotatory engine factory, or had any job anywhere ever, you’re already thinking about the tradeoff. On the one hand, if not having that knowledge is negatively effecting your job, it’s probably in your best interest to learn it. The more you know, the more you can do and the more valuable you are to your boss. And you’ve added a new skill to your resume. "Wankeling!”
But on the other hand, you lose the right to say you “can’t,” and you’ll probably end up doing more work. On the other other hand, think of it this way. Would you rather learn a new skill that helps you, or knowingly miss an opportunity to make yourself more valuable as an employee?
I don’t believe I can…
You say: "I can’t change the color of the Wankel Rotary Engine!”
But, you really mean: "I don't believe I can..."
You want to change the color because Wankel Gray is boring, but no one said you could. This is not a case of “do it first and ask forgiveness later.” Save that for eating someone else’s monkey bread. This is when you empower yourself to ask the right questions and clarify your range of influence. Maybe you can’t, or maybe you can. Maybe you can create a system whereby suggestions are made to the color-making people and you get your voice heard anyway, even if you don't have a final say in the matter.
Do you want to improve the company and make yourself a more valuable employee? Look at why you think things can’t happen and restate the situation. I can’t think of a better way!
Ever fall off a bike?
Often the best way to alter unhelpful behavior is to first recognize the change you want to make, commit to improvement, and then practice the solution until it becomes second nature. Going from ignorance of a problem to unconscious perfection is often referred to as the “Four Stages of Learning.”
This model appeals to my avidity for the step by step process, even in the creative realms. I tell all of my theater students the same thing – you can’t accidentally become a better performer. Improv requires being open to crazy and unexpected ideas. Messing around and being playful during rehearsals is part of that. But eventually, you need to flex a specific muscle and intentionally decide to move from a lower level of ability to a higher one. It’s not just practice, it’s practice with purpose.
Unconscious Incompetence ("I didn't even know I was doing that!")
Many habits are so ingrained we don’t even realize we are doing them. I’ve noticed in my work that men often pace when they are feeling anxious. Young women in particular sometimes stand with their ankles crossed for the same reason.
When I was 9 years old my older brother broke me of a lingering childish habit. He said, “Every time you put your thumb in your mouth, take it out again.” I had literally been doing it my entire life and he had to point it out for me to stop. Fortunately, he had found the quick fix. (Years later I used the same technique on a student who constantly put his hands in his pockets.) One of the challenges of improving behavior is knowing where to start.
Conscious Incompetence ("Ugh, why am I doing that!")
I recently worked with an accomplished but quiet woman who was fighting against a lifetime of reinforced introversion. Growing up in Russia, she dutifully adhered to the principle of a common proverb, “’I’ is the last letter of the alphabet.” (Indeed, the letter ‘я’ or “ya” does come last in the Russian alphabet.)
She was raised believing it was culturally inappropriate to draw attention to herself. At this stage of her improvement she recognizes her stumbling block and actively tries to buck that trend by speaking up, looking people in the eye and offering a firm handshake.
It helps to be self aware during social interactions. Things like texting or checking your watch during a face to face conversation, or talking over someone in a meeting and other seemingly innocuous actions can have an eroding effect over time. Understanding these marginalizing behaviors as they happen will help you “live edit” your interactions.
Conscious Competence ("This is the way we wash our hands!")
This is where all of your thoughtful observations start to pay off. Where you begin to think, “Ok, I’m doing this thing now!” When I teach presentation skills to students they practice walking into the room, planting their feet firmly shoulder’s width apart, introducing themselves and smiling before they begin.
It’s a step by step process but delightfully simple and the perfect plan to overcome the pacing, fast talking and anxiety often associated with public speaking. You know you are doing it – you are fully aware of your motions. Like the first time you rode a bicycle.
Unconscious Competence ("I am awesome? Thank you, I hadn't noticed.")
And like learning to ride a bicycle, you eventually stop stressing about how to push the pedals. No one wants to think to themselves, “I need to smile now.” But the repetition and positive feedback – like not crashing, literally and figuratively – encourages progress. That once awkward action becomes second nature. You have become the master of your own behavior!
Humans are creatures of habit but are also very adaptable when circumstances require. So when you embark on your decision to be more assertive in your professional life, or become a more powerful presenter, or practice a more empathic style of management, remember to practice. And not just practice, practice with purpose!