SXSW 2015: Tips for being innovative

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Staying creative in a creative industry can be tough to do. And yet, the demand for creativity is higher than ever before. At a recent SXSW 2015 talk, Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center, gave some examples of innovative thinkers and broke down how you can learn to be more innovative from what others have done.

Think Differently

Citing the inspirational story of Lindsey Sterling, which you can see in the video above, Gregersen pointed out the steps she took to become innovative. As a child she learned how to play the violin until she's very good. Then she learned how to dance. "Then she gets this idea," Gregersen said. "'What if I dance while I play the violin?' Anybody a violin player? How hard would that be to do?" Even though she was devastated after being voted off of the popular TV show America's Got Talent, her 2010 video (seen above) shot her into the popular mainstream. "This is called associational thinking," Gregersen explains. "You put two things together, in her case dancing and music and now she's one of the many disrupting the music industry."

Act Differently

Thoughts can only get you so far, so another key aspect of being an innovative person is to actually act differently. It's not just a cognitive behavior, but actually getting up and doing stuff." "Question everything," Gregersen challenged. "Think about what you approach the world with when you wake up in the morning. [Someone] told us once that every morning he'd wake up wondering how many things they are dead wrong about. That's an interesting way of looking at the world." Instead, Gregersen cited a different approach. "What am I going to be curious about today?" Gregersen said, citing the question A.G. Lafley, CEO of Procter & Gamble asks himself each morning. "They're searching for the stuff we don't know," Gregersen said. Gregersen then continued to play a short video clip from David Neeleman, the founder of JetBlue Airlines, who also has a different way of approaching the world. "In every single instance when people are saying it can't be done, I'm saying 'Why can't it be done? Explain to me why it can't be done.'", Neeleman said in the clip. "Is there a reason for it? And then let's try to change it and make it different. So that's something I've tried to do throughout my business career; changing the status quo." Giving a practical example of how Neeleman challenged the status quo, Gregersen explained how when Neeleman left JetBlue Airlines he founded another airline company, Azul, in Brazil. "They got landing rights at the Campinas airport because they couldn't get landing rights at the Sao Paulo airport," Gregersen explained. "It was about an hour outside of Sao Paulo." "They lease airplanes, they get schedules set up and build the organization," Gregersen continued. "A few months before they're ready to launch they discover the taxi ride from downtown Sao Paulo to the [Campinas] airport on average costs more than the airplane fare that they're flying." As you might imagine, this was a problem. 

David Neeleman left JetBlue Airlines in 2013 and went on to start Azul Airlines in Brazil[/caption] Gregersen continued the story, "When they were trying to figure out what to do David said, 'Well why don't we build a massive bus feeder system to bring tens of thousands of people from downtown Sao Paulo to the airport.' What did the CFO and his team tell them? Airlines don't do that, David." "David's response?" Gregersen went on. "Why not? You prove to me you can't do this. And so they pushed and pushed and finally ended up building the bus system. A good solution to the situation, but that's because David poked and provoked with 'Why not?'" As renowned businessman Peter Drucker said in his 1954 book, The Practice of Management, "The important and difficult job is never to find the right answers, it is to find the right question."

Catalytic Questioning

An active method to help with being innovative, as Gregersen pointed out, is in catalytic questioning. That is, the act of picking a challenge and brainstorming questions only about that challenge. "Here's our problem," Gregersen gave an example of a challenge his team is facing. "In the US, on average, a student sitting in a classroom, whether they're six years old or 18 years old, the average student asks one question per month in an hour-long class." "That's a problem," Gregersen said. "Because they've stopped asking questions." Gregersen continued, "The average teacher asks 50 to 100 questions per hour. Students quickly learn to answer questions fast because a teacher gives me one second to answer them and if I don't answer fast, I get asked a second question and I get a half of a second, on average, for that second question." "From all that I can tell," Gregersen went on. "All of that US data is pretty much the world data. That's a problem." To help begin innovative thinking, Gregersen ran through an interactive brainstorming session to tackle any given challenge. Once you've picked the challenge you want to tackle, the basic workflow for this is:

  • Brainstorm questions only
  • Just ask the questions. Don't answer them. Don't preface them. Just ask them.

"I promise you, if you do this exercise 80% of you will begin to see your problems differently," Gregersen said. If you have difficulty asking the right questions, Gregersen suggested three things to help. Either you can observe other people, products and processes. For example, the stories of Lindsey Sterling or David Neeleman. Another great way to be able to ask the right questions is by networking with people who are not like you. This often helps you see beyond your own experiences and help see a bigger picture. The suggestion Gregersen gave was to try stuff real quickly. Experiment small, fast and cheap. Collect data about your problem to help you know the right questions to ask.   Ultimately, Gregersen's overall point in the talk was in order to be an innovative thinker in the world you don't need to try to tackle every challenge on your own. The key is being able to see what everyone else is doing and use that to think differently. Use the world around you to help you ask the right questions and see how you can make a difference in it.  

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