What Hollywood’s Best Directors Can Teach Us About Innovation

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One of my favorite movie series of all time is Back to the Future. Back to the Future gets everything right. On a macro level, the story is about an ordinary kid that gets thrown into an extraordinary situation stuck 30 years in the past. He spends the rest of the movie trying to get home and along the way learns that “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.” But it’s not just the overall plot that makes Back to the Future great; it’s the thousand small details. During the opening scene as the camera pans across Doc Brown’s empty lab, you can hear the faint sound of a TV commercial in the background proclaiming that “October is inventory time at Statler Toyota.” Two movies later, as our hero finds himself in the Old West, he rides past a sign for “Honest” Joe Statler’s horse and buggy business, suggesting that the Statler family has been in the transportation industry for generations. These blink-and-you’ll-miss them moments demonstrate the filmmaker’s attention to detail and inspire the loyalty of countless fans like myself who watch these movies year after year.

Our Education System Is Preparing Us for Disappearing Jobs

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With headlines like “Yes, the robots will steal our jobs” gracing the news almost every day, it’s time we face the facts: Our education system is preparing us for jobs that won’t exist in 10 years. Teachers, traders, and truck drivers are all in serious danger of seeing their jobs replaced with software from companies like Khan Academy, Robinhood, and Tesla. The world’s economy is undergoing its most radical shift since the Industrial Revolution. Our education system needs to keep up. Luckily, there is some hope. In the past, radical technological and economic changes were what drove changes in education. In fact, it was the Industrial Revolution that produced the system of education that we have today. But we have to keep changing; otherwise we’ll be stuck with a system perfect for the 1800s but woefully unequipped to prepare us for the 21st century.

Stop Staring at a Blank Canvas. Instead, Start Innovating like You’re SpaceX.

For most people, the beginning of a design problem is thrilling. It’s full of excitement and anticipation. You get to start with a completely blank canvas, imagining all of the wonderful things to come. The sky’s the limit. There’s just one problem — a world of infinite possibilities is actually pretty bad for creativity. We know, we know; this might sound like sacrilege to some of you. How can you possibly be creative if your wings are clipped? Shouldn’t we try to ‘think outside the box’, not shove ourselves into one? In short, the answer is no.

In my last article, I wrote about why ‘thinking outside the box’ is bad, because it implies you should forget about the constraints of your design problem. These boundaries shouldn’t be ignored; they should be embraced. They act as guardrails, preventing your designs from crashing and burning and instead keeping you on track throughout the creative process.

The best example of an innovative company embracing constraints is SpaceX. After looking over how they were able to do this, I realized that there are actually 3 superpowers that come with embracing constraints: 1) getting off to the races right away, 2) making better decisions, and 3) optimizing your time. If you’re interested in more information on these three superpowers, feel free to head back to my previous article. But if like me, you’re convinced that embracing constraints can help us be more innovative then you’re most likely asking yourself: how do I do that??

4 Ways to Find The Next Big Idea

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Uber, the iPhone, Google Docs. All of these are brilliant ideas that have changed the world and become an integral part of so many people’s everyday lives. But how did the people behind those innovations come up with them? How did they see a need that no one else saw?

Jeff Bezos says he can solve healthcare with a beginner’s mind – what the heck is that?!?

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When news broke that Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JP Morgan Chase were teaming up to tackle the problems facing America’s healthcare system, reactions ranged from excited to skeptical to scared. Healthcare incumbents from Anthem to Express Scripts saw their stock prices drop 3-5%.

But how could three companies with absolutely no experience in healthcare succeed where so many others failed? In announcing the partnership, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos proclaimed that the key to success is to approach the problem with “a beginner’s mind.” So what is a beginner’s mind? And can it really unlock the kind of innovation the healthcare industry to badly needs?

Why ‘Think Outside the Box’ Is Bad Advice

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been in a brainstorming meeting, and you’ve heard someone (usually the boss) say that everyone needs to ‘think outside the box!’ This advice is normally met with nods, yeses, and other signs of approval. And that’s because it seems to make so much sense. If you’re trying to come up with something truly innovative, then of course you shouldn’t be thinking about the problem the same way as everyone else. If you do, you’ll just end up with the same product or service as the competition. And no one wants to be a copycat when they’re trying to be innovative.

Recently this exact brainstorming scenario happened to me – even the part where I found myself nodding in approval. But the more I thought about it, the more confused I got. What exactly does this phrase ‘think outside the box’ mean? And is it actually good advice? In order to figure out this out, let’s first talk about what this phrase even means.

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Harnessing Hunches — How to Turn Intuition into Innovation

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“As great designers and inventors often do, [Henry] Ford relied on his instincts to tell him that there was a need for something that didn’t exist. At Apple, Steve Jobs and his ace designer, Jonathan Ive, have done likewise in a number of instances. But for business in general, relying entirely on the instincts of a lone genius can be too limiting. Mindful of this, many designers have come to believe that successful design in the business world (and elsewhere, too) is achieved through a marriage of designer’s intuition and a deep investigation into people’s lives and needs – with emphasis on deep.”

– Warren Berger, CAD Monkeys, Dinosaur Babies and T-Shaped People

TV, cinema, and literature are rife with detective stories. All of these stories have one thing in common. At some point during the story, the detective gets a feeling in their gut — a hunch. And despite some hand-wringing from the other characters, the detective invariably ends up following their hunch. And lo and behold, their hunch leads them straight to what they were looking for. As members of the audience, we don’t fault our detectives for doing this. We don’t think they’re crazy for listening to the voices in their head. But we also don’t think they have some kind of magical superpower to discover the truth. Far from it. Detectives are portrayed as wickedly smart, serious people. We realize that their hunch is a product of their unconscious mind acting on years of experience, picking up a thread no one else has seen yet.

Q Theory: What Broadway Musicals Teach Us About Creative Collaboration

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Anyone that’s been fortunate enough to see an authentic Broadway musical can tell you first hand how beautiful they are. It’s the reason why people post pictures of themselves on Instagram at the show, save the playbills afterward, and why, three years after it first debuted, Hamilton still continues to sell out shows minutes after going on sale. It’s truly a magical experience. These shows are somehow able to combine so many different creative components – acting, dancing, singing, music, lighting, costumes, set design, and playwriting – across a whole range of creative individuals into one cohesive story. This magical ability to combine all of these things led Brian Uzzi, professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management, to become obsessed over one question: what’s the makeup of the teams that produce the most successful Broadway shows?

Disruption Is the Wrong Way to Think about Innovation

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Scale Ain’t What It Used To Be

Prior to these three forces of Abundance, Access, and Automation teaming up to inflict massive change on the world, the primary method an organization had to stave off competition and achieve sustainable success was to reach scale. Once you were big enough and had enough existing customers, it was damn hard for a competitor to come in and knock you out. Because you produced such large quantities, you were able to offer your product at extremely cheap prices. No new startup could offer something at that price and hope to turn a profit. And it’s not just that your production process was big; it was the perfect balance of lean and complex. You effectively managed throngs of international suppliers so that each part of your operation was conducted at as low a cost as possible. It would take years for a new upstart to develop the international relationships and physical infrastructure necessary to compete!