Author Archives: Dennis Stauffer

About Dennis Stauffer

Dennis Stauffer is an author, independent researcher, and expert on personal innovativeness. He is the founder of Innovator Mindset LLC which helps individuals, teams, and organizations enhance and accelerate innovation success. by shifting mindset. Follow @DennisStauffer

Iterate Your Thinking

Iterate Your Thinking

GUEST POST from Dennis Stauffer

One of the things that all sound innovation processes have in common is some way to iterate. To repeatedly work through a process that allows you to refine whatever you’re trying to create.

That might be building a prototype, testing it and building another version based on what you’ve learned. It might be gathering customer feedback and making adjustments that are more appealing or solve a problem more effectively. It might be exploring more than one business model or marketing strategy until you find one that works.

We tend to think of those iterations as making refinements to a product or strategy, but more than anything, it’s refining your own thinking. It’s being willing to change how you understand the world, by challenging your assumptions and beliefs—your mindset.

We’ve grown accustomed to thinking of learning as mastering a set of already well-defined concepts, like how to solve a math problem or memorizing facts from history. But innovation—and life in general—requires a different kind of learning. More like gradually mastering how to play a sport or musical instrument, or drive a car. This kind of learning is a more incremental process. One that prompts questions like:

  • How might I be wrong, and need to correct myself?
  • What do I not understand as well as I could?
  • What are some alternative beliefs and opinions, to the ones I have?
  • How might someone else see things differently and what could I learn from them?

The ability to iterate your own thinking, by being open to new interpretations of what you experience, is crucial to innovation. It’s also a good strategy for ordering your life, so you don’t lock onto a mindset that may not be the most effective for you.

Mental iteration is a powerful life skill—and healthy innovation habit—that also helps you innovate yourself.

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Innovation is Effectal

Innovation is Effectal

GUEST POST from Dennis Stauffer

We all learned quite early in life that the world around us works according to cause and effect. That things move in predictable ways. There are reasons why things happen and our actions have consequences.

Scientists call this determinism, and most would argue that it governs the universe. That everything has a cause and an effect. When you can identify those causes, you can predict the effects.

However, innovation works a bit differently. Rather than causal, Innovation is effectal. (Yes, that’s a made-up word.) Cause and effect still holds. But that’s not what matters most. Success is determined not by prior causes, but by outcomes.

For example, when a scientist forms some new theory, and conducts experiments to test that theory, who came up with it, and who did the experiment doesn’t matter much (other than to give credit where it may be due). What matters is whether the experiment turns out as predicted—it’s effect. That’s what determines whether the theory is correct and what enables further progress.

In nature—which is arguably the ultimate innovator—random mutations cause organisms to change. Those changes are frequently harmful, but occasionally one enhances survival and gets passed along to future generations. It doesn’t matter which organism had the mutation (unless you’re that organism). It just needs to occur somewhere in a population. What determines the success or failure of that mutation is how it turns out—its effect.

When a new product is developed, it can be the most amazing technology, created by brilliant engineers. But what determines success or failure is how customers respond. Do they buy it? That effect is what matters. Remember the Segue Transporter? Fascinating self-balancing technology that was supposed to revolutionize transportation—except that very few people wanted to pay for one.

The central question in all these cases is not whether some new possibility has been invented. It’s, does anyone care? What’s its practical effect? Does it work? It’s a reality worth keeping in mind whenever you face any challenge in life. What you care most about is how things turn out.

Innovation isn’t just about imagining great new ideas, or even about acting on those ideas. It’s about determining whether those ideas work. Do they create value? The most successful innovators are brutally pragmatic, always checking to make sure their ideas fit the environment, align with the larger realities around them, and serve some useful purpose. Because if they don’t, nothing lasting will happen.

Whenever you seek to find solutions, make improvements, or invent new possibilities, the imperative is to find out whether it works. “What’s the effect?” is the crucial question you need to answer—because innovation is effectal.

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The Remarkable Power of Negative Feedback

The Remarkable Power of Negative Feedback

GUEST POST from Dennis Stauffer

The most effective innovators—entrepreneurs, scientists, new product developers, and advocates of social change—are adept at seeking feedback. But not just any feedback. They look for a particular type of feedback that may surprise you. They actively seek negative feedback, feedback that tells them when they’re wrong.

That probably sounds counterintuitive. Who goes around wanting to fail? The whole field of positive psychology has convinced many of us that to be successful, we need confidence and plenty of positive reinforcement. There’s some truth to that. Entrepreneurs understandably want their businesses to be successful. Scientists don’t win many awards for failed theories.

But deficits matter. One crucial flaw can torpedo the best of ideas. In the real world there are always many things that can go wrong. Figuring out what those shortcomings are can save you a lot of time and wasted effort. Negative feedback tells you when the strategy you’ve chosen isn’t working, so you can adjust, either by overcoming some obstacle, or adopting a different strategy.

Seeking only positive feedback predisposes you to confirmation bias, when you tend to see what you expect, or hope will happen. It feels good, but it may not be telling you what you most need to know, to be at your best. Savvy investors—and my own research—have found that those innovators and entrepreneurs who most actively seek negative feedback, create by far the greatest value.

Almost any feedback is better than none. You need feedback to get a clear take on the realities you face, so you can respond effectively. But only seeking positive feedback ultimately fosters false-confidence and insecurities. It’s always looking for validation and simply wanting to be right.

Negative feedback can be humbling, but you can build confidence in your ability to respond to setbacks and failures, rather than pretending they aren’t there. Accomplished innovators can handle the bad news because they’ve done it many times before. When you’re trying to bring change, it comes with the territory—and it’s always an opportunity to practice being creative and resourceful.

The next time you face some challenge, hoping for success is understandable, but the best way to make sure that success is real is to look for indications that what you’re doing isn’t working. 

That’s the fastest way to make sure it is working.

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Resistance to Innovation – What if electric cars came first?

Resistance to Innovation - What if electric cars came first?

GUEST POST from Dennis Stauffer

In his acclaimed book the The Diffusion of Innovations—the most-cited work in all the social sciences—Everett Rogers explained how innovations frequently meet resistance. Resistance that isn’t always rational. How all-too-often we’re willing to accept the status quo despite its flaws and reject new options despite their benefits.

We’re seeing exactly this phenomenon with electric vehicles. Demand from what Rogers identified as the early adopters—wealthy buyers who can pay a premium for the newest technology—has largely been met. The challenge now is to reach a broader market of buyers with more practical concerns about cost, range, reliability, and safety. News articles and commentary are popping up noting those concerns and expressing doubts about just how useful electric cars really are. The lack of charging stations, the environmental impact of mining lithium, the danger of battery fires, and potential strains to the electrical grid. There are some legitimate concerns, but how much of that skepticism is grounded in the reality of electrification and how much is good old-fashioned resistance to change?

To answer that question, let’s turn the tables. What if electric cars came first, and we’re trying to introduce internal combustion engines? Here are some predictable—and quite similar—objections.

  • How can we possibly build all the gas stations we’re going to need, and should we? (If electrification is the entrenched technology, we’d have plenty of charging stations everywhere.)
  • Do you really want trucks carrying 10,000 gallons of highly explosive gasoline driving down the highway next to you? Accidents happen! Do you want 20 gallons of it parked in your garage, waiting for just one spark to set it off—taking your house with it?
  • You can charge your electric car at home while you sleep, or at a charging station while at work. You can’t do that with a gasoline engine. You must go somewhere to buy gas, take time to get there, and then stand next to a hose pumping one of the most flammable liquids we know of.
  • We’re going to need a lot of that gasoline. Where will we find it, and at what environmental cost? Are we going to start drilling everywhere? Even in the ocean, the arctic, and in fragile ecosystems?  Are we going to have massive tankers crisscrossing the oceans? What if there’s a leak or a spill?
  • How are we going to build all the refining capacity we’ll need to process and transport all that gas? That’s a massive investment. Who’s going to pay for it?
  • What if we need to get that gas from countries that don’t like us? Will they refuse to sell to us or charge exorbitant prices? Will we make our enemies rich?
  • Gasoline is more expensive per mile driven than electricity, and because it’s a commodity, its price fluctuates—sometimes a lot. You never know what you may have to pay.
  • Gasoline engines are a lot more expensive than electric motors. They’re much more complex and since we’re building them in smaller numbers at first, carmakers don’t have the same economies of scale.
  • Internal combustion engines are more complex to repair. How often will your car need to be fixed? Will your mechanic know how?
  • What about air pollution? Just one internal combustion car emits 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year. Multiply that by all the cars on the road!
  • Would you like a car that’s slower? The most powerful—and most expensive—internal combustion cars on the road have less torque than a typical electric vehicle. That means less acceleration when you need to pass someone.

Some of these concerns are a bit overblown — just like some of the concerns about electric cars. But others are entirely valid. Yet too often we shrug them off because we’ve already accepted those costs, inconveniences, and dangers.

What we’re seeing with electric cars is the same progression we saw with early automobiles, airplanes, hybrid crops, personal computers, and many other now widely popular innovations. We’ll get there, but not without some pushback.

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Are You Testing Your Intuitions?

Are You Testing Your Intuitions?

GUEST POST from Dennis Stauffer

Do you trust your intuitions? When you have a hunch, do you go with it or hold back? There’s been a long-running debate about which is the better strategy.

Some have claimed that top executives are at their best when they “go with their gut” or “follow their instincts.” They can give examples of when that’s turned out well for them. But what we don’t know is how often other intuitions may have turned out badly.

Trusting your intuitions can sometimes keep you safe. Some research has found that firefighters are well-served by their intuitions, because it helps them avoid danger. Women who are uneasy walking alone at night are advised to follow their intuitions.

That makes sense when you’re crossing a dark parking lot or at the scene of a fire. Being cautious when there might be no threat is better than being careless when there might be one. But that doesn’t mean those intuitions are accurate.

Innovators also have intuitions—and need to. Hunches about the value of an idea, or a sense of how customers will react. For an innovator, asking whether you should trust your intuitions is the wrong question. What needs to be asked instead is: How can I test my intuitions? What can I do to find out whether those feelings are reliable?

That’s one reasons innovators have a bias for action. Because acting on their ideas—in ways that will test them—is how they find out whether those ideas will work. That’s not only a more prudent approach than just following hunches; it’s excellent practice at evaluating the merits of your ideas. So over time, you become better at forming those hunches. Because you know how well it worked in the past, and maybe where you might have biases.

If you want to enhance your intuitions—and your innovativeness—don’t trust them or distrust them.

Test them.

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The Emotions of an Innovator

The Emotions of an Innovator

GUEST POST from Dennis Stauffer

Your emotional state has a lot to do with how innovative you are, especially when those emotions are negative. How willing are you to act in the face of uncertainty and take those risks? How comfortable are you with new ideas and interpretations that may conflict with those you have? Can you overcome your biases to gain a clear-eyed understanding of the challenges you face? The fears and prejudices we all have can undermine our ability to find solutions.

Take a few moments to recall some of the negative emotions you’ve experienced in your life.

Things like:

  • Frustration
  • Disappointment
  • Jealously
  • Resentment
  • Annoyance
  • Anger     …and that’s just the short list.

One thing they all have in common is that they make you feel bad. They undermine your happiness. They can also hamper your ability to innovate.

Now ask yourself: What prompted those emotions? I suspect you think of something that happened or that someone did that upset you, but there are deeper reasons for these emotions. They form when something isn’t what you expect or hope for. Someone isn’t doing what you want, or that you think they should. You think something needs to be corrected. You already have some outcome you’d prefer, an expectation that isn’t being met.

That’s your mindset—your beliefs about how things should be—beliefs that generate those expectations. You may think someone is doing something wrong. Perhaps they’re being mean or rude. But that means you have an idea in your head of what’s right—how you think they should behave. Or, something may not have turned out the way you hoped. Maybe you didn’t get the promotion you wanted. But that means you think you should have been given something you didn’t receive.

Change those expectations and your emotional response changes. What’s happening in your head has just as much or more impact on the emotions you feel, as whatever is happening around you—and that’s empowering. When you blame your emotions on what others do, you hand them control over your emotional state. They determine how you feel.

When you realize that your beliefs and expectations—your mindset—primes you to feel those emotions, you gain control over how you feel. Instead of anger, you can substitute curiosity about why someone would behave that way. Instead of annoyance at someone’s missteps, you can choose to be amused. Instead of disappointment, you can shift to resolve to learn from your setbacks. Instead of embarrassment, you can choose to feel humility. Instead of feeling the urge to punish someone, you can choose to feel compassion and understanding.

External events may not have changed. Those are things you don’t control. What changes is your mindset—something you can control. When you realize that you create your own emotions and take steps to create fewer negative ones, you increase your own happiness—regardless of what life throws at you. Skilled innovators have a mindset that minimizes their negative emotions. Because instead of focusing on what needs to be corrected—to restore the status quo—they focus on what can be improved. That enhances their capacity to enhance. Enhance a product or service, enhance their community and the larger world, and enhance their own lives.

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Reinventing Wheels

Reinventing Wheels

GUEST POST from Dennis Stauffer

You’ve no doubt heard—and perhaps used—the expression: Don’t reinvent the wheel.

Or another overused cliché: If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.

Both get injected into conversations and ideation sessions to reject ideas perceived to be redundant or weak, and both are profoundly bad advice.

We had automobiles before Henry Ford and computers before Steve Jobs. Mobile phones before the iPhone, cabs before Uber, hotels before AirBnB, and electric cars before Tesla. Reinventing wheels can be very lucrative! Fixing things that aren’t broken is a pretty good summary of what innovation does.

This is so true that when startup founders seek investors, a common strategy is to describe their venture as the Uber of “X” or the AirBnB of “Y”. That’s shorthand for: We’re taking a proven business concept and applying it in a different context. Skilled ideation facilitators and idea management platforms encourage folks to build on each other’s ideas.

So don’t let anyone tell you, you have a bad idea just because they’ve heard it before. That may be one of its strengths! Especially when those ideas have proven successful. There’s nothing wrong with finding inspiration in current technologies and practices. Perhaps by applying it in some new way. The best innovators make a habit of it.

So, go reinvent some wheels!

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Neuroplasticity – the Innovator’s Edge

Neuroplasticity - the Innovator's Edge

GUEST POST from Dennis Stauffer

Your mindset has a huge impact on how well you’re able to adapt and innovate. But mindset is one of those concepts that’s been used and abused in a variety of ways. It gets talked about as your attitude, feelings or personality.

Mindset is not personality as it’s traditionally defined. Rather than innate personally traits that are largely stable and unchanging, mindset is the mental framework you’ve created, although mostly subconsciously. That makes mindset almost the opposite of personality. You can actively shape your mindset, and whether you realize it or not, you already are. That’s because of something called neuroplasticity.

Elearnor McGuire of the University College London led a couple of famous studies of London cab drivers, that demonstrate just how malleable your brain is.

London is such an old city it’s not laid out on a grid. That’s makes it an exceptionally challenging place to find your way around. Yet, that’s what London cabbies need to do, learning the layout of 25-thousand streets and thousands of places of interest. It takes years of study and memorization to learn the city well enough to get an operator’s license as a London cab driver.

Using brain scans, McGuire and her colleagues found that those cab drivers who had mastered “the knowledge” as it’s known, had an enlarged posterior hippocampus. That’s the part of the brain you use for spatial navigation and memory—for figuring out where you are and where you want to go.

The longer they worked as cab drivers, the bigger those areas became. Bus drivers were used as a control group because they have a similar job, but they follow predetermined routes that don’t require the same constant figuring out. They didn’t show the same changes.

What Mcguire’s research reveals is that the way you use your brain changes your brain, in a way that’s similar to growing your muscles by exercising them. That means you can get better at things like finding your way around, by spending time doing those things, just like an athlete or musician practices their skills. It means you can get better at innovating by developing the needed mental habits.

Pretty cool, huh?

But the news isn’t all good. This and other research suggests that this kind of mental strength training is also how you form habits—both good and bad—by creating and reinforcing specific neural pathways.

As Aristotle said, “You are what you repeatedly do.”

If you want to improve your mindset—and your ability to innovate—you need to practice the kinds of habits of thinking that you want to have. That includes being creative, taking risks, and being open to new ways of understanding. These are habits it makes sense to practice even when you’re not attempting to innovate. So, your brain is shaped in ways that will be helpful when you are.

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Two Kinds of Persistence – What’s Your Habit?

GUEST POST from Dennis Stauffer

I suspect you’ve heard all your life that it’s important to be persistent, whether that’s studying hard, practicing a sport, launching a new business, or attempting some innovation. You’re told that you need to stick with it until you find success. You need to have GRIT.

But what’s so often lost in that advice is that there’s more than one way to be persistent, and which one you have can make a HUGE difference.

Type 1

The first kind of persistence is sticking with something despite setbacks. That’s the marathoner who pushes through exhaustion and pain. It’s the student who studies until they really “get” the subject matter. It’s the entrepreneur putting in long hours to pursue a dream. That kind of persistence sees a target, pushes toward it, and blocks out any distractions that keep them from pursuing it.

Type 2

The other kind of persistence is about being creative and resourceful. It’s trying more than one way to reach your goals, and sometimes adjusting those goals to fit the realities you confront. It’s the entrepreneur that pivots to a new business model because the first one isn’t working. It’s the student who changes their career plans because it better fits their personal strengths and preferences. It’s the athlete who changes their technique to improve rather than just practicing the same approach.

Type 1 versus Type 2

These are radically different—opposing—strategies, and you can be quite good at one of them and lousy at the other.

That first kind of persistence is helpful when things are predictable and the rules are clear, when you know what will work. You just need to go do it. That’s useful at times, but much of life rarely works that way.

The challenges you face are often not so clear, and one of the biggest mistakes you can make is thinking they are when they’re not. That’s the entrepreneur that falls in love with an idea and keeps pursuing it long after getting signals that it’s not really working. Thinking: if I just push a little longer. When they need to change course.

It’s called being stubborn.

Skilled innovators—and those who are most effective generally—favor that second kind of persistence. They don’t just keep plugging along. They’re willing to rethink their strategy, seek feedback and gain new insights. Instead of assuming they know what works, they strive to figure out what works.

That’s not mindless pushing, and it’s not just trying random alternatives. It’s a disciplined process you can learn. A process of innovation that reflects a mindset that values flexibility, adaptability and resourcefulness, more than raw determination.

Which kind of persistence do you believe in? Which do you use?

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The Amazing Efficiency of Systematic Guessing

The Amazing Efficiency of Systematic Guessing

GUEST POST from Dennis Stauffer

Are you as personally efficient as you could be? Most of us aren’t, and that may be because we’re not as innovative as we could be. Being efficient—for people and for organizations—isn’t just about doing things more quickly and automatically. It’s about rapidly adapting to change and discovering new strategies.

Most organizations—and most innovators—are convinced that innovation takes extra time and resources. That’s certainly true at times, but also misleading. Because being innovative can also make you dramatically more efficient. Finding solutions, making improvements and inventing new ways of doing things can save countless hours and resources—and there’s a more immediate gain than those future benefits.

Let me explain it this way.

Imagine that your challenge is to figure out how to spell a simple ten letter word: INNOVATION. (And let’s pretend you don’t already know.) You can of course start guessing, but that will take a while—a long while. There are 26 letters in the English alphabet and ten in this word. So that’s 26 to the 10th power, or more than 141-trillion, possibilities! If you guess once per second—without repeating any—it will take you more than four-and-a-half million years to cover them all.

Suppose instead that you’re at a computer, one that won’t tell you how to spell innovation, but will tell you when you’ve guessed the right letter. In other words, you can do what skilled innovators do. You can continually check whether your ideas—your guesses—are working. Now, each letter will require at most 26 guesses, one for each letter in the alphabet. You can cover all possibilities in 26 times 10 or 260 attempts. At one attempt per second, that will take you less than four-and-a-half minutes. And you don’t need to know anything about how to spell the word when you start.

Of course, the challenges you face are probably more complex than spelling a ten-letter word, and it will probably take longer than a second to explore possible solutions. But as complexity grows, so does the relative efficiency of this kind of systematic guessing.

Suppose the word you want to spell has eleven letters—INNOVATIONS. Just trying to guess it will now take you 26 times longer. That’s more than a hundred million years! When you check each of your guesses, it only adds another 26 seconds. You’re still done in less than five minutes. A hundred-million years, vs. five minutes. That’s the astronomical gain in efficiency you achieve when you know how to systematically investigate what works.

It’s as though you’re facing a genie with a puzzle. You need to solve that puzzle to make your wishes come true, and the genie won’t tell you the answer. But the genie is willing to give you clues—in the form of consequences. So to solve the puzzle, you must attempt possible solutions that will generate consequences—feedback—that will tell you whether you’re on the right track. That’s what skilled innovators do—and anyone else who hopes to successfully handle uncertainty—which is all of us.

So, if someone tells you, you don’t have time to be innovative, tell them you don’t have time not to.

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