Innovate Better: The F.A.S.T. Method

Innovate Better: The F.A.S.T. Method

Innovation is the way that companies grow. It's about creating jobs. It's about creating bottom line results. Stephen Shapiro’s F.A.S.T. model lays out how to innovate efficiently and effectively.

F is for Focus

Focus on innovating where you differentiate.

You can't be the best at everything, because if you try to be the best at everything you'll be the best at nothing. When it comes to innovation, it’s essential to focus on what's going to create the greatest results.

Focus on innovating where you differentiate. We don't innovate everywhere, not every opportunity is equal. We need to focus on opportunities that help us stand out in the market.

Your differentiator is the reason why people choose you and not the competition. Why do people do business with you and not someone else? Once you have clarity on that, use that as a tool to help you prioritize your innovation investments.

So if you're not going to innovate on everything, what other strategies do you have? You can partner with other companies, you can use best practices, you can outsource. When you start using these other techniques, this frees you up to put all of your energy into those areas that help you stand out. You will double your return on investment in innovation, without having to spend any extra money, because by reprioritizing your investments, you get much greater results.

Takeaway: Instead of looking at every single opportunity as being a good opportunity, have laser focus around what's going to have the biggest impact on the organization. The key here is to understand your differentiator and use it as a tool for prioritizing.

A is for Asking Better Questions

Ensure the questions you are asking generate high value solutions

Mark Victor Hansen once said, “You can't get right answers if you're asking the wrong questions.” If you're solving the wrong problem, no matter how hard you try, no matter how many people you throw at the problem, you will never get the right answer.

But unfortunately, most of the time, we do not spend enough time to ask better questions. We get very focused on the solution. Having the answers is not the end. It is about the question.

When it comes to asking questions the Goldilocks principle comes into play. The default method that we often use for asking questions is too soft. That means our questions are too broad. They're too abstract, they're too fluffy. “How do I improve the business?”, “How do I increase revenues?”, “How do I improve productivity?”, “What technology should we invest in?” These big, broad, abstract questions lead to a lot of big, broad abstract and irrelevant solutions.

On the flip side, we sometimes ask questions that are too hard. In other words, they are too specific to detail, and this can either be a question that is really just a solution masquerading as a question, or it could be a question that is so narrowly defined that the odds of us finding a solution are very small.

Our goal is to make sure that we are asking questions that are just right. If a question is too broad, abstract, we need to break it down. We need to deconstruct it into smaller pieces so we have a better chance of solving it. And if it's too specific, we need to make it less so.

Why is this important? Because most of time we are asking big, broad, abstract questions as that is our natural default method. This is what happens in suggestion boxes. With the typical suggestion box, you get a lot of interesting ideas but we implement very few. In fact, on average, it takes 3,000 ideas to be conceived and submitted before we get one that is implemented.

That has an impact on the organization. Not only does this mean that we're taking a lot of time to think about problems and solutions and submitting those solutions, we're also evaluating those solutions. So collectively we're creating a lot of wasted energy when our goal with innovation is actually to become more efficient or effective.

If we can ask questions that are very well defined, instead of getting lots of solutions, we get a small number of high value solutions. And that really is our goal. Albert Einstein reputedly said, if I had an hour to save the world. I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem. Most people, most teams, most organizations are spending 60 minutes solving problems that aren't necessarily the right ones to address.

Takeaway: Any time you’re working on a project, with any investment you are making, ask yourself, what is the problem we are solving? And then ask yourself, can I change the question in a way that will allow me to get better solutions.

S is for Shift

Shift your mindset by assuming someone has solved your problem elsewhere.

Shift is about shifting your mindset, and for this I want to start with an example. In the UK, there was a company that was developing toothpaste. And if you've ever looked when in a drugstore or a supermarket, you'll notice that pretty much all toothpaste claims to whiten teeth.

The team of people in the UK decided they wanted to find a way of creating whitening toothpaste that doesn't use abrasives and doesn't use bleach. And so they had the team start working on it, had the experts think about the problem, and all efforts were focused on the problem. How can we, the dental experts, create a whitening toothpaste, that doesn't use bleach? They spend a ton of money and time coming up with complex chemical compounds and weren't successful at all.

And then someone asked the question: “Who else has solved a similar problem?” The question became not “How do we make teeth whiter?” but “Who else makes white whiter without using bleach?” So what else makes white whiter? Laundry detergent. It turned out that this company, in addition to having a dental care division, has a laundry detergent division, and in the history of the company the departments had never talked to each other. The people in dental care, took a walk over to the people in laundry care and they asked them, "When you're not using bleach how do you make whites whiter?"

The laundry department said we don't make whites whiter. The blue dye in our detergent creates an optical illusion that prevents the reflection of yellow. Your clothes are still dingy yellow, you just can't see it.

The dental team thought this was a great idea. They went back and created a whitening toothpaste that didn't have abrasives, didn't have bleach, but it had a dye. The result was a toothpaste that instantly whitens your teeth, and the effect lasts for two or three hours.

The reason why I love this example is not because it's the greatest toothpaste in the world, but it's the greatest innovation thought process. Always assume someone else has solved your problem. It means we need to maybe look in a different industry, or a different function. In reality, expertise is the enemy of innovation. The more you know about a topic, the harder it is for you to think differently about it, because our past experiences influence our future decisions. For breakthrough solutions, we need to think very differently.

There are many different places we can go to find great solutions if we can reframe the problem as to who else has solved this. Crowdsourcing is one option. Ask a bunch of different people to provide a solution to a problem. It could be on a website, you could do it in a number of different ways. And if we ask people how can we solve this problem, we will now find solutions in different areas. And this to me is a fascinating way to develop breakthrough solutions.

Some incredible solutions have come from other areas, such as a potato chip manufacturer who found a breakthrough solution to shaking the fat off potato chips, not from somebody in the food industry, not from an engineer, but from a bass player, a bass player who could feel the bones in his head vibrate. He went home, cooked up some potato chips, put them on a drying rack, put a loudspeaker over them with the same frequency and volume, and he got the chips to dance without them breaking. Armed with this information, the potato chip manufacturer now uses sound to blast fat off their chips.

There are solutions, everywhere. It doesn't matter what you're working on. If you're working in a hospital, and people in is a slow process, don't talk to other hospitals, maybe find a hotel. The key is to make connections. Steve Jobs once said, “Creativity is just having enough dots to connect”, dots being ideas or experiences. And the reason creative people are creative is that they've either had more experiences or thought more about the experiences. That is the goal. When you shift your mindset you're collecting dots so that you can make connections that may not have been before.

Takeaway: Don’t let expertise be the enemy of innovation. Whatever problem you are working, ask “Who else has solved a similar problem?” This is the fastest way to develop solutions.

T is for Testing

When you have a great idea, partner with others less invested in it to test it out.

In the world of innovation we lately have glorified failure. There are those that believe that if we're not failing, there's something wrong. However, failure is an inevitable outcome of innovation, but it is not the goal. You do not want to encourage people to fail. You just don't want to penalize them when they do.

So you don't want to fail. You want to experiment. The key is to make sure that we are testing our hypotheses, testing our solutions, and making sure they really are valid. We often joke in the world of innovation that “Yeah, but…” is the enemy of innovation. The bigger enemy of innovation is “Wow, this is a great idea!”

Once you believe you have a great idea, confirmation bias kicks in. Confirmation bias is basically a very simple psychological phenomenon where the brain filters out anything that's inconsistent with what you believe to be true. As a result we sometimes make faulty decisions.

Confirmation bias isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There's a reason why the brain does what it does, because we need to filter out the noise and get some action, we want to move forward. But at the same time we need to make sure that we're not making bad decisions based on that.

When we have what we believe is a great idea, we need to make sure we're partnering with people who aren’t as invested in the idea when we run tests. One of the other problems we run into in innovation is something called positive test strategy. Positive test strategy is where you only run experiments that are designed to prove your idea is a good one. We should also be running experiments that are designed to disprove our ideas.

This is fundamental, because if we don't, we end up with what Scott Cook from Intuit once described. Scott Cook said that for each and every one of their failures they had spreadsheets that were awesome. We can justify anything, we can make a business case for anything, but that doesn't mean we should.

Takeaway: Confirmation bias and positive test strategy can lead to bad decisions. Allow devil's advocates to weigh in on your great innovative ideas.

The Bottom Line

We all need to innovate but the brain is not wired for innovation. The brain’s primary function is survival. The brain thinks that everything that we've done in the past didn't kill us, therefore we should do it again. We often hear the expression that past success does not necessarily predict future success. In fact, past success is actually often a great predictor of future failures, because the more you know about a topic, the harder it is for you to think differently about it.

Just because we believe we know our industry, we know our customers, doesn't guarantee that we actually do. We need to be comfortable with discomfort and we need to be comfortable with changing the way we see the world. If you're saying to yourself, “This is the way we've always done it” or , “We never do it this way” that is a sign you are not innovating. We need to make sure that we're checking our egos at the door, that we're allowing ourselves to be wrong from time to time, and we want to be able to get some of our best insights not from our past experience but from people inside our organizations, and even people outside our organizations, to understand the trends that are taking place.

By applying Stephen Shapiro’s F.A.S.T. innovation model, you will have an incredibly efficient innovation engine that allows you to make innovation a reality within your organization with the fewest amount of resources, and the least amount of time lost.