The following is a conversation between Jeremy Utley, Co-Author of Ideaflow: The Only Business Metric That Matters, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: Innovation doesn’t come from a sprint or a hackathon, but rather is a result of maximizing ideaflow. My next guest offers a proven strategy for coming up with great ideas by yourself or with your team, and then quickly determining which are worthy.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Jeremy.
Jeremy: Thanks for having me.
Denver: So let’s start with the beginning. What are ideas?
Jeremy: Well, you really just dove right to the heart of the matter there, didn’t you? So the short of it is: ideas for a lot of people are intimidating and if I say, “Quick! Come up with an idea”; a lot of people freeze like, “Oh, no, you’re asking me to have a tiger, right?” And as long as you think an idea is this thing like a tiger that’s intimidating… and it’s ambiguous or nebulous, then you’re not going to be able to generate them.
What I know is: Ideas, very simply, are connections. I am a simple-minded person, and I have young daughters. I actually have four young daughters; and I hear that the person who asks more questions than any person in the human race is a five-year-old girl. And I can definitely attest to that being true.
Denver: I could attest to that.
Jeremy: Yeah. And my five-year-old daughter says the same question you did: “What is an idea, Dad?” I can’t give her some like high-minded Stanford answer. I’ve got to be really, really simple. And I was delighted when I came across the neuroscience research of a gentleman in Denmark named Morten Friis-Olivarius, who basically said: The brain doesn’t create new material from scratch.
What the brain does is, it works from existing material, and it makes connections. So an idea… when we think of the reality… is that’s not coming from nothing, it’s coming from the connection between two things you already know. So I’ll give you an example, just so we can kind of play with it here. I got a friend who works at an electric vehicle company, which will remain nameless.
She’s an engineer who’s been working on this problem of range anxiety. So it’s a widely known phenomenon. People don’t know how far they’re going to get on a charge, right? And she said she’s been working on this problem. The company knows it’s a problem, and they’ve been trying to solve it.
Well, she said the other day she’s sitting in Starbucks, and she overheard a couple of folks… they came in… they’re in military fatigues, and she said, “Jeremy, I couldn’t help myself. I just started eavesdropping” And I said, “That’s a great tactic. Don’t apologize.” And she said, “I started listening to their conversation, I realized they’re talking about jet fighters.”
And for jet fighters that are in combat, they can’t scramble them back to the base. So they do what’s called a mid-air refueling, where like a tanker actually kind of meets them in the air, and it fuels the jet fighter. And she said, “Of course, I immediately thought of range anxiety.”
Jeremy: And to any listener to this show right now, you just go: Ahh! Like we have a collective hallucination called an idea, right? We all just “Whoa, have you thought… exactly, exactly.” This is the nature of ideas. And when you realize that an idea is simply a connection between things, existentially, everybody on this call knew about a mid-air refueling. We’ve all seen Top Gun, right?
And existentially, most people, I would say, know about range anxiety. Those are both kind of known things. But when I put them in close enough proximity, almost like two LEGO pieces, the brain just loves kind of snapping things together.
Denver: Oh, yeah.
Jeremy: Just trying connections on.
Denver: Yeah. No, that’s a great description. Yeah.
Jeremy: That’s all…
Denver: Yeah. It’s a little bit like the… I know this outfit was doing an operating room at a hospital. So what they spent the weekend doing is going down to a NASCAR pit stop and seeing how they do it, because it’s exactly the same thing.
The only piece of advice I can give you to the five-year-old daughter that you had, because I had one myself, is: ask one question at a time. And that’s because what happens is you get a series of nine, and you say, “You have to ask a question, and then you need to stop and wait for an answer, and ask another question”… for whatever that may be worth.
Jeremy: That’s great. That’s brilliant.
Denver: Let me ask you about the myths that surround the creative process. What are some of them?
Jeremy: Well, I think one of the big myths is that you need to be creative.
Denver: Ah, yeah.
Jeremy: So if you think about… not to be cheeky, right, but if anybody says: “Oh, hey, we’re going to brainstorm.” Immediately, people are either delighted because they love to let their creativity shine, or they’re, “Oh no, I don’t… I’m not that person.”
And the amazing thing I’ve learned leading thousands of teams, thousands of individuals, at Stanford over the last 13 years, and I actually learned this from my friend, Dan Klein, who leads the Stanford Improvisors. And what he always says, and it’s so helpful, is he says, “Don’t be creative, be obvious.”
And the amazing thing about a multidisciplinary team, a cross-functional team, a diverse team, again, if you think again about like these cognitive building blocks, these LEGOs that form ideas, each of us, if we show up to a meeting, we bring our own bag of LEGOs. And the thing that’s amazing is the LEGOs in my head are different from the LEGOs in your head.
So what is obvious to your connections that you could make? Well, what’s not obvious to you are connections that you can’t make. There’s a Nobel Prize winner, Thomas Schelling, who said, “No man or woman… no matter how heroic her imagination… can think of that which would never occur to her.”
And it’s a lovely thought. I actually disagree, but we can get into that later. But the point is, if you and I come together and we get… my wife, Michelle, joins our team and my daughter, who’s in the house right now, she joins our team. And I put something out there, I say, “Hey, you know what I’d like? I’d love it for there to be a way to keep my coffee cup hot.”
And I can think of all the ways I could do that. But if you say, “Oh, you know what that makes me think of?” And you say what’s obvious to you, there’s a high likelihood that’s going to be creative to me. And if Michelle listens to you and says what’s obvious to her based on what was obvious to you, it’s highly likely to be creative to you, because we’ve lowered the bar.
Instead of saying, “Oh, I got to say this thing”… because what am I thinking when I think I’ve got to be creative? I’ve got to think of that which would never occur to me.
Denver: Yes, absolutely right.
Jeremy: Right? That’s like… that’s the bar…
Denver: I want to say the obvious, but I’m going to say everybody knows that. They’re going to say, “Oh, come on. We all know that!”
Denver: We’re trying to come up with some creative ideas here.
Jeremy: But the thing that’s amazing is, like if we’re giving each other these LEGO pieces, I’ve never thought of your piece. Now all I have to do is say, “Well, now that all of a sudden that LEGO piece is in my hand, what does that make me think of?”
And that actually comes from Edward de Bono, the great Six Thinking Hats, lateral thinking. He said the value of an idea lies not in its own merits, but in what it does to one’s thinking. And the way I’ve kind of thought about that at the d.school is I’ve said: You want to be sparkable.
Denver: Oh, that’s great. Yeah.
Jeremy: You want… when somebody else says something…
Denver: Jeremy, I can think of all the conversations…
Jeremy: …you want to be willing to go, Oh! And just go into your delightedly obvious direction.
“…having made a life study of breakthrough thinkers, I can say this: The thing that makes breakthrough thinkers different is how they think. And we can all learn to think differently. Therefore, we can all be breakthrough thinkers. It’s just a matter of practice. It’s a matter of honing those skills, but they’re imminently learnable.”
Denver: Yeah. And we all have a lot of conversations with people, and they say something, and it really doesn’t help us directly, but it stimulates something in our own mind, and we come up with a third answer and a third way.
Well, let me ask you about another myth, I guess you would call it that, and that is: Zero to One. What is it? Why is it gospel? And why is it wrong?
Jeremy: So Zero to One is kind of a very pervasive mindset in Silicon Valley, popularized by Peter Thiel, his book by the same name. And the attitude there is entrepreneurs in particular are people who make something from nothing. And to go from zero to one is the story of an entrepreneur and there’s like people….And the dangerous thing is: there’s zero to one people, as the saying goes, and then there’s one to a hundred people. There’s a hundred to a thousand people. And that may speak to your experience or to your disposition, but I dislike the thought. And I take issue with the thought that if anyone says, “I’m not a zero to one person…” because what I say based on actually the definition we already described of ideas is: nobody is a zero to one person.
Denver: None of us are. Yeah.
Jeremy: No. Yeah, nobody is starting from nothing. Everybody is starting from their own cognitive building blocks, which are their experiences, their worldview, the things they know, et cetera. So no one, not even breakthrough entrepreneurs are starting from zero. So that’s the first thing.
And then two, when you realize that if everybody is starting from what they’ve got, well, what can I start from what I’ve got? And so to me, I don’t like zero to one because it mythologizes there’s some special class of person who’s capable of some special class of thing or thinking that the rest of us aren’t.
And having made a life study of breakthrough thinkers, I can say this: The thing that makes breakthrough thinkers different is how they think. And we can all learn to think differently. Therefore, we can all be breakthrough thinkers. It’s just a matter of practice. It’s a matter of honing those skills, but they’re imminently learnable.
And I think there’s probably a group of people that would love for the masses to think there’s nothing they can do, but that’s not true. We all can be creative.
“So the concept of ideaflow is that every problem fundamentally only yields to solutions, and every solution starts as an idea. And what the research shows is that the most important factor that determines the quality or a fit of a solution is in fact the number of solutions you generate.
So the more solutions you generate, the more likely you are to generate a breakthrough solution… or particularly well-fitting solution– delightful, surprising, novel, et cetera. Ideaflow is effectively a measure of volume. Rather than quality, it’s measuring the quantity, your ability to generate a volume of potential solutions in the face of a new problem.”
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. No, you’re either born with it or you’re not, is what they want us to believe. But as you say, it’s a learned skill. Well, this is a great setup, so let me ask you this. Talk to us about the concept of ideaflow.
Jeremy: So the concept of ideaflow is that every problem fundamentally only yields to solutions, and every solution starts as an idea. And what the research shows is that the most important factor that determines the quality or a fit of a solution is in fact the number of solutions you generate.
So the more solutions you generate, the more likely you are to generate a breakthrough solution… or particularly well-fitting solution– delightful, surprising, novel, et cetera. Ideaflow is effectively a measure of volume. Rather than quality, it’s measuring the quantity, your ability to generate a volume of potential solutions in the face of a new problem.
Denver: Mm-hmm. So when you’re talking about quantity of solutions, what do we mean by quantity? Do we mean six? Do we mean 12? Do we mean 50? Do we mean a hundred? Do we mean a million?
Jeremy: The simplest way I would say it is: more than you think.
Denver: Yeah. That’s great.
Jeremy: And that, again, it’s not to be cheeky, but it’s to say what few people realize is they think there’s one right answer. And yet, very few of the problems we’re facing today, whether it’s HR, whether it’s performance issues, whether it’s vendor management, whether it’s new products, whether it’s customer satisfaction, very few of the problems we’re facing actually have only one right answer.
Many of them have many possible answers, and yet our tendency, or our cognitive bias is… it’s called the Einstellung effect, where we tend to fixate on the first seemingly plausible solution. And that’s fine if we would then treat it like a scientist and let hypothesis test it, but we don’t. What we do is we just blindly move forward, and I say blindly, specifically because what researchers at Oxford have demonstrated with the Einstellung effect is that once we identify a plausible-seeming solution, we’re actually blinded to better solutions.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah.
Jeremy: And so going back to practice or the notion of stimulating creativity, shifting your goal from looking for the right answer to looking for lots of possible answers, or pushing yourself more, whether it’s three, whether it’s five, whether it’s 10. I think on a daily basis we should take… at least once a day… go for quantity rather than quality. At least once a day, simple.
Jeremy: But what the research suggests is if you ultimately want to get to a commercial breakthrough, if you want one really successful product to come out of the end of your process, you need to start with like 2,000 ideas.
Denver: Okay. That’s a great perspective.
Jeremy: And that is a lot more than most people realize. Most people are thinking, ah, if I have like five ideas, I’ve got a really good one in there. And what they don’t realize is: no, no, no, you need way more ideas than that. But as we said earlier, if ideas aren’t inscrutable and intimidating, then that’s not actually a… that’s not a bad thing that you need lots of ideas because, yeah, ideas are… we can generate lots… no big deal.
Denver: Does it make any difference the way you frame the question? We’re a nonprofit audience here, so let’s take a question around hunger. So the question is: What can we do in the city to solve the hunger crisis that is plaguing so many of our citizens?
Or as another better question: What can we do to be sure that we have food distribution on the West Side on Saturday afternoons? Does it make any difference whatsoever in terms of how you frame the question in terms of generating the kind of number of ideas you want?
Jeremy: I think that you frame the question matters, not how you frame it. And I would even say the more frames, the better. So it’s not that you’re looking for the right frame so much as that every frame provokes different ways. If I say, Think of all the things white that you can think of. Then you start, “I’m looking at my wall, I’m looking at the remote.” If I say, think of all the things white…
Denver: You’re looking at the mountaintops today.
Jeremy: Well, in California, that’s right. And if you think about like in your refrigerator, oh, well– eggs and milk and yogurt, and we just put a different frame on it, and all of a sudden it starts yielding different… I didn’t think of eggs or milk or yogurt before when I just said white, right? Why not?
And so it’s not that one frame is better than the other, but that they will evoke different things. And so, I think it was Einstein who said, you know, somebody asked him once, “Hey, there are other scientists who have higher IQs than you. How do you keep breaking through?”
And he said, “Well, I take longer than others, too.” And so what do you mean by that? He said, “Well, I never try to answer a problem until I’ve looked at it from seven or eight or nine different perspectives first.” And I think actually trying on different frames, and there’s a lot of… we offer a lot of ways to do that in the book, but trying on a lot of different frames is a really valuable way to try on a lot of different solutions.
And for sure, the problem framing matters, but I wouldn’t be concerned so much with getting the problem framing right, so much as being willing to focus on finding a great frame, a generative frame, a frame that sparks my imagination in unexpected ways. It’s more about that.
Denver: Got you. Well, also more frames, more ideas. Just…
Jeremy: That’s right.
Denver: It works.
Jeremy: Simple. Simple.
Denver: Okay. So I’m doing this. I can generally get six or seven ideas just like that, okay?
“And so what we do in the face of a problem is we are willing to implement a suboptimal solution because we’d just rather call it done than keep entertaining the possibility that we haven’t found the right answer yet.”
Denver: But I’m going to do a little Einstein here, and I’m going to take a little bit longer and I maybe get three, four more. Let’s say 9, 10, 11 or something like that. And I’m stuck, Jeremy. Okay? There’s nothing left in the tank. What can I do?
Jeremy: Get up, walk around, take a nap. Leave them on your desk. Phone a friend. Start leveraging analogies. One of the simplest thing you can do is provoke yourself with a series of analogies. I actually built a chatbot. We can share a link in the… show notes if you want.
Jeremy: I had a problem the other day. I’ll just give a personal example. My wife and I are at home, and we hear this loud crash. And that can never be good with small daughters.
Jeremy: And screaming. So we go in the room and our… we live in a house, by the way, built in 1908, so it’s 115 years old, and there’s this window shattered, glass everywhere. Irreplaceable, by the way. There’s nothing we can do about the glass. And the question comes: well, what’s the consequence? Because we’ve told them approximately, I mean, give or take 47,000 times, please don’t slam the door.
Jeremy: In the 47,001st time, the window breaks. Well, the question is: what do we do? And the tendency is you immediately go: well, we could ground her; we could take away her iPad. Did we talk about grounding her? It’s like really slowly starting to converge, right? It’s that cognitive fixation. It’s Einstellung in motion right there, in action.
Well, I actually said to my wife: We should do an idea quota, right now. We should generate options. And so we really quickly, we pulled out the chatbot that I made, and we did an idea quota, which just basically bombards you with different analogies.
Who’s your favorite restaurant? How would they solve the problem? Who’s your favorite tech company? How would they solve the problem? Who’s your favorite celebrity? How would they solve the problem? And what’s illegal that you could do? Which that one’s…
Denver: Oh, yeah, yeah. I love that.
Jeremy: But it’s funny, and it never ceases to amaze me, Denver. The 10th idea was mind-blowingly better than the first. Now the third and the fourth and the fifth ideas were worse. And if I had just said, “Okay, I’m just stopping at five. Forget it, let’s go back to grounding her. That’s it.”
But there was something in the exercise of pushing myself to go just a little bit farther, to just defer judgment, to defer decisions. Just… I mean, by the way, this is in a period of three minutes.
And so to me, when you’re stuck, allowing yourself to persist and to be willing to admit you don’t know because the… Arie Kruglanski is a Russian psychologist who dubbed this term cognitive closure. And what Kruglanski discovered was: one of the most distressing phenomena for a human being is the unknown.
And so what we’re always trying to do is we’re trying to resolve things. That’s why storytelling is so powerful, because we just want to know how it ends. We want to know how the tension gets resolved. And stories are kind of magnificent at keeping our attention because we’re begging for closure, right?
Jeremy: And so what we do in the face of a problem is we are willing to implement a suboptimal solution because we’d just rather call it done than keep entertaining the possibility that we haven’t found the right answer yet.
And one of the best things you can do is something that Donald MacKinnon discovered. He’s a World War II spymaster. He discovered that the most creative problem solvers delayed their decisions. And it flies in the face of productivity and efficiency to think about: let’s just delay.
But even here, Denver, I’m talking about delaying for a couple minutes. And by the way, we’re just going to stand in the kitchen hemming and hawing over the broken window anyway, right?
Denver: Yeah, there you go.
Jeremy: And so, to me, when you ask, what do I do? Give it a little time.
Denver: Yeah, yeah. No, there’s no better advice in the world than wait a little bit longer.
Denver: I am an executive coach, and I talk to people… and we always have this tendency, we want to jump in with the answer; just wait a little longer.
Also, I think in terms of the decisions, I make decisions sometimes at nine o’clock in the morning, and then I look at them the next day at five in the afternoon, I’m a different person, you know?
Well, I would be remiss, Jeremy, if I didn’t ask you: What happened to your daughter? What was the consequence?
Jeremy: Oh, so interestingly enough, we decided that her consequence should be, she would be responsible for teaching a lesson to her little sisters about the reason that our household rules aren’t arbitrary. So her job was to take ownership of the fact that the rules are for a reason, and I have to teach my sisters that even the rules we don’t really understand actually do matter.
Denver: Uh-huh. Hey, well, you’re going to get a round of applause for that, you know what I mean?
Jeremy: I hope, I hope.
Denver: I thought you were going to say that you can’t eat anything white in the refrigerator or something like that.
Jeremy: Ah, no, no, no, no. That’s funny. That’s funny.
Jeremy: One thing I wanted to mention, by the way, just on this question… I mean, this is like my favorite question of: what do I do when I can’t think of anything more?
One great thing is: Try something, and I want to emphasize the word “try” instead of “implement,” instead of “solve.” Just try like a lot of… very few of the problems that we are solving is there the sense that we have to have it right immediately.
We put that on ourselves, but having an attitude of trying and then closing the loop, it’s like, Hey, maybe I’ll send an email, and then I’ll schedule a note to myself to follow up on that email later and see if anything happened, right?
There’s really simple things we can do in the spirit of trying that there’s something… frame things as experiment. So it’s one of my favorite things we can do. I’ve got a buddy who texted me the other day… oh, this is a while ago, but I’ve never forgotten it. He texted me, it’s two lines. Quick experiment: Want to hop on this clubhouse thing with me for a second?
And I was thinking, I mean, I just finished a workout. I’m like sweaty, I’m making a protein shake, and I get this text. I was like, Yeah, whatever. And like I hit it and I’m on it. If he had emailed me and said, Proposal for your consideration. There’s a new platform called Clubhouse I would like to host.I would’ve been like, I would’ve scheduled it months out.
Denver: All the information below.
Jeremy: Right. And instead, just like, “quick experiment, want to try this?” And it, to me, there’s something about reducing the friction to taking action.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah, bursty communications work really well. And I also know the way we are in this world today. When I write people, I will only put one thing in an email, or if I put more than one thing in the email, I’ll always put the only thing I care about as the first item, knowing that is where the email is going to stop being read in about 90% of the cases.
So if you really want, don’t bury it. You better make it the lead, or you’re doomed.
Jeremy: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right.
Denver: Well, let’s talk a little bit about testing. We got lots and lots of ideas. I really had six or seven ideas, but I read your book, and now I got 50. Thanks.
Jeremy: You’re welcome.
Denver: How do I go about testing these ideas or finding which ones are worthy in a reasonably time-efficient way?
Jeremy: The key is to understand what you’re trying to learn. Very few people have the discipline to define an outcome variable. I was with a big nonprofit actually this week in Georgia, and I just said, I have to… the president was saying, thank you so much, I love this. We’re going to start implementing all of this stuff. And I said, “Hey, Mike, two words, outcome variable.”
Jeremy: He said, “What do you mean?” And I told him the story about, I’ve got a… in the for-profit space, I have a restaurant client. He said,” We’re thinking about doing a merch. We’re thinking about doing…you know, because Friday nights, like the lobby gets crowded. We’re trying to figure out like: What do people want? Do they want appetizers? Do they want merch? What do they want?”
And I said, “What’s the outcome variable, Greg?” And he said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, what are you measuring to answer that question?” And we talked about it for a minute; we realized what we need to measure is basically the number of people who, when they hear there’s a 30-minute wait, leave, as a percentage of the number of people who hear that there’s a 30-minute wait.
And you go, “Okay, now we can compare merch with appetizer discounts because otherwise those are like, I mean the margins are different, like the impact on the square footage is different, how they use the space, like staffing, all that stuff’s different, except if you say, “the needle we’re trying to move here is how many people stick around when they hear there’s a 30-minute wait.”
Great. Now we can compare merchandise with appetizer discounts with free drinks or happy, whatever. And to me, like when you say experiments, how do I do it? I think people overbake a lot of experiments because they want it to do everything. And there’s like juvenile delinquency, or like they take some enormous, or like you said, like hunger in the city.
Jeremy: And then we say, “Well, we can’t do anything unless we can solve it.” And it’s like, well, what do you mean by solve it? Do you mean people are redeeming more of their food stamps? Do you mean there’s less pe— like what is the outcome variable? And I think whenever you start defining that, then you go, oh, well, we could try this and see if it does that, and then we could try…
And what’s amazing is we need to define an outcome variable because a lot of times there’s a solution; we have like an implied solution. When you define an outcome variable, then you can ask a different question which is: What are all the ways we can affect that variable?
Denver: Got you. Mm-hmm.
Jeremy: And usually it’s like, oh, my solution is only one. I could try this and that and that. And then, whoa, you mean I can compare all those things? Yeah. Against the outcome variable, right?
Denver: Yeah. You got to define success. And sometimes it’s crazy, you do it the wrong way. You take a look at homelessness. I’ve been working in that community at times, and they’ll say, Oh, it’s great. Our homeless shelters are filled. Eh? Ninety-nine percent capacity. I’m like, “Is that what we’re really looking to do in terms of defining homelessness?”
Denver: But that’s the way they define it, because there’s some system up there that says: Let’s get these homeless shelters filled. Wow.
You say, Jeremy, “Little data trumps big data.” What do you mean by that?
Jeremy: There’s an obsession right now with the proliferation of data and measurements, sensors, et cetera. It’s like we assume more data is better. I would say people can be enamored with large data sets rather than high- quality data sets. And large doesn’t mean high-quality.
I’ll give you an example. A friend of mine is trying to decide if they should put an attraction on the fourth floor of their mall. They survey 10,000 people on the first floor and 8,000 people say: That sounds like a great idea. So anytime you get 80% saying, If you build it, I’ll come…
Denver: Slam dunk.
Jeremy: Seems compelling, right?
Jeremy: Well, then because of our instruction to them, instead of doing that, they said something different. They said, let’s put signs all over the first floor saying the attraction is up there on the fourth floor. And lo and behold, something like 2% of people went up there.
Well, point being… and the little data there is, the small number of people who saw a sign that ended up going up. The big data is we surveyed 10,000 people. And so little data are data sets you create through clever experiments. Big data is, usually, it’s in a spreadsheet somewhere; it’s with a survey somewhere, and you think: Oh, the answer’s got to be there if we just dig into it.
But I would say that many times the quality of that data, it’s not high-quality. And when it comes to the desirability,–especially because desirability is such an important thing– when it comes to desirability of a new product or feature or whatever, we’re asking people for their opinion rather than offering decisions. And it turns out the decisions are much more predictive of desirability than opinions.
Denver: Yeah. No, I can’t agree with you more. I mean, it’s behavior, is the thing you need to witness and not opinions. And if the recent polling of presidential campaigns doesn’t tell us that, I don’t know what does.
Denver: I think if you want to know who’s going to win the next campaign, you should see what people are doing online and what sites they’re visiting– which would be behavior– not having somebody call you up during dinnertime and saying: Who you going to vote for? It hasn’t really evolved. They still do it very much the same way.
Do you have an idea quota?
Denver: What is it, and what’s your latest great idea?
Jeremy: My idea quota is I do 10 ideas.
Denver: Ten ideas a day. Wow. That’s great.
Jeremy: Yeah. And my latest idea, one came up this week, was to infuse a question about an ongoing challenge into my keynote addresses.
Jeremy: So I’ll give it to you right now. I mean, this isn’t a keynote, but it’s a podcast. But I’ll actually do it and therefore fulfill my idea.
Jeremy: I have a venture fund. We basically fund technologies that we take out of large enterprises, and we create new entities based on the technology, and then the old enterprise becomes the first customer.
They have equity in the new company. We have equity in the new company, but the new company is able to not only sell to the enterprise that’s been quote-unquote, buying it, they’re able to sell to lots of other people and create lots more enterprise value.
We have already done a deal, and it’s going really well, but we’re looking for… the big thing we are having trouble with is not capital… and it’s not entrepreneurs, it’s actually finding other technologies that we can pull out of enterprises and form new entities around.
And so my idea was: start mentioning that in my keynotes, and then ask people to reach out to me if they know of technologies that we call it freespin, that could be freespinable, or if they have ideas for how we could source those kinds of opportunities.
“And most times, most people, when they think about culture transformation, they’re thinking about leadership doing something different. And what I like to say is: No, unless you personally take the onus and responsibility to start behaving differently, nothing’s going to change.”
Denver: Wow. My God, you got the business model. You just don’t have the ideas that you can then go into this business model, and that is a great way to do it.
Too often we do these things intentionally and not as in organically as we should. Because when I take a look at how so many things have come my way, it really is overhearing that conversation type of thing. It happens that way, and people come out. But no, what we do is we get the top hundred companies, and we do this and we do that, and that is so damn limiting.
Let me ask you a question about culture. My life and this show is nonprofits, and nonprofit culture probably is a bit conservative. It’s not their money; it’s a donor’s money. They have a huge responsibility in using that and being good stewards of it and helping as many people as they can.
And often as a result of that, they don’t really go deeply into the ideas and know how to test things. They don’t have an R&D mentality the way the company should have, and probably no sector should have it more because no matter what a company is doing, they’re probably not dealing with as intractable, vexing problems as are many of our nonprofits.
Any suggestions as to how you can change a culture to adapt and adopt some of these things you’re talking about?
Jeremy: Yeah. The key is to change oneself. A culture is… I mean, my friend Mary Barra, who’s the head of GM, says: Culture is just the way we behave, very simply. And I love that. She said, I actually don’t like the word “culture” because it makes it some amorphous thing. It’s just the way we behave.
And if you take culture as behavior, then the question is, Well, how do I behave? And it’s easy to think about managing up, right? Like, I’ll give you an example. For years, Astro Teller, the head of Google X, has told teams: You got to bring me five ideas. Don’t just bring me one idea, bring me five.
And it’s a really valuable thing. It really pushes teams and creates a lot of possibility. And I won’t go into that, but if I talk about Astro, a lot of times people go: Man, I wish my boss did that! And I say that’s managing up; that’s trying to control somebody else’s behavior.
Managing down is saying, “I’m going to start asking my teams for five ideas.” And when you think about culture transformation, you can only control what you do and what the people who report to you do. And most times, most people, when they think about culture transformation, they’re thinking about leadership doing something different.
And what I like to say is: No, unless you personally take the onus and responsibility to start behaving differently, nothing’s going to change. And a much more effective strategy would be for you, if you’re in a middle management position, is to have everybody who reports to you bring five ideas, and to try to get your CEO to come to my talk, and cross your fingers, hope to die, that they hear that five idea thing, right?
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. Or have other people from other departments say, Hey, can I transfer to that department? They’re doing some really cool stuff over there.
Jeremy: Exactly. No, most organizations, they’re marketplaces, right? Good ideas, good practices spread.
Denver: Final question, Jeremy. Somebody is listening to this. They’re absolutely enchanted. They’re excited. They’re inspired. They’re going to go out and get the book, but they want to start to do something with their team on Monday. Where would you have them start? What example would you give them? What practice should they start, come Monday morning, to do what you just said, start in your department?
Jeremy: I think the… that’s a great question. I would do two things. One, I’d have everybody… or I guess three things. One, everybody say:What’s the biggest problem that they are presently experiencing or seeking to address in their work or in the organization? Every single person.
Two, I’d have every single person come up with 10 ideas to solve that problem, not one. Three, and then I’d have people rotate, and I would go through an activity where every single person takes the worst idea on the list and turns it into the best idea.
Denver: Oh, Wow. I love that last part. I loved actually the first two, but that third one is really genius, and it makes it really engaging and fun, and gets people thinking in a completely different way, which is really at the heart of so much of what you’re talking about.
Well, the book again is Ideaflow: The Only Business Metric That Matters. It would be a good idea indeed if listeners went out and picked up a copy. I want to thank you so much, Jeremy, for being here today. It was a real delight to have you on the show.
Jeremy: No, it’s my pleasure. And tell folks, please, we made one chapter available for free on the website, on my website, jeremyutley.design, on the book website, ideaflow.design.
You can go and get, it’s called How to Think Like Bezos and Jobs. And as I said, these are learnable characteristics, and so folks can go download it totally for free, but it’s a bunch of fun stories that showcase the way those two breakthrough thinkers thought in order to help others imitate that way of thinking.
Denver: Well, I think anybody listening to you for the last 30, 35 minutes, you sold them. You sold me. Thanks very much.
Jeremy: Sold you on the free chapter. I love it. That’s good.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Uncertain World, is available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.