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Ask, think, do, repeat

Jeff Havens

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As one of the youngest members of the professional speaking circuit, Havens knows about unique perspectives. He says that whether you’re inventing iTunes or wheeled luggage, change is simply a matter of asking questions, answering them and taking focused action. With small adjustments, you can see big results. Presented at the 2017 Annual Meeting.

We are going to talk about how to be more innovative and how to come up with creative solutions to problems; optimize systems; or occasionally create entirely new products, programs, and processes. It’s thanks to innovation that we have things like light bulbs and fiber optics and beer hats, which some of you have maybe never seen, but they are great and really free your hands for holding more beer. And we are going to talk about how you can come up with the most amazing innovation since sliced bread—that’s an American phrase, and a dumb one. I mean, bread is amazing, but it didn’t take a genius to figure out that you needed to cut it in order to shove it in your face.

Now, why should you care about innovation? Because it is the best way to keep yourself from getting bored. If you never try anything new, then you’re just doing the same thing every single day. Go to work, type some stuff, eat lunch, type some more stuff, go home, watch TV, cry yourself to sleep, repeat. This is not the kind of life any of us wants. So innovation isn’t just a business strategy; it’s at the heart of what makes our lives worth living. This is one of the most effective ways that we can help ourselves be engaged and enthusiastic in our own lives.

And it’s not hard. If you take nothing else away from today, please remember this—being innovative isn’t difficult. We just make it sound difficult sometimes. Because if you’ve ever heard anyone else talk about this stuff, then you’ve probably heard something like this: “Everything you’re doing right now is about to become obsolete. The world is changing faster than ever before. And if you don’t come up with some massive, game-changing industry shakeup in the next 18 seconds, your company is going to spiral into oblivion. Thanks for listening. Buy my book.”

I’ve heard a bunch of people talk about innovation like this, and it’s not useful. It’s scary, but fear only motivates us to do one of two things: fight or flight. We either resist and say, “I’m not going to do it,” or we hide and wait for it to go away. And neither of those approaches are good ones. They are reactions, and we need to be proactive. So by the time we’re done, you’re going to realize that innovation is easy, that you already have all the skills you need for it, and that you can do it any time you want with anything you want, however much or little you care to. This is not the province of a privileged minority of geniuses; it is built into our DNA, and it is a part of who each and every one of us is. There are only three steps you have to follow, and each of them is ridiculously easy.

Step one in our three-step process of coming up with your next big thing: Ask a question. Every innovation begins with a question. That question can have one of two goals: It can attempt to find a solution for a problem, or it can attempt to exploit a potential opportunity. But you don’t even have to know which approach you’re taking. You just have to have a question. Without a question, innovation cannot happen.

And let me give you an example that every one of you is familiar with, because every one of you used it on your way here to MDRT—wheeled luggage. You used this revolutionary product on your way to this conference, and all of us have this man to thank—Robert Plath, a former Northwest Airline pilot who built the first Rollaboard in his garage in 1987. [visual] And before we really get into this, can I just say that it is amazing that we didn’t get this stuff until the late 1980s. I mean, let’s look at the history of inventions. We have the radio (1890s), television (1920s), people in space (1960s) . . . and wheels on luggage (1980s). It should have been the other way around. We put wheels on the moon before we put it on luggage. Before this stuff, you would go to the airport with your stupid hard-case luggage and then put it on a cart with wheels—the wheels were right there! It was just nobody thought to “blob” them together.

Except that’s not actually true. The first patent for wheeled luggage goes all the way back to 1887, but it didn’t catch on, because, back then, the most popular form of travel was by ship, and wheels on a ship rocking over the ocean waves was not a great idea. The second patent for wheeled luggage came in 1945, and here’s a picture of the patent. [visual] It’s got two wheels instead of four, a regular handle just like ours does, and this other handle that goes with the wheels and would be great if your arms were six feet long. The third patent came around 1970, and that’s the dog leash strap thingy. This is the one where it doesn’t stop when you do and then hits you in the back of the legs. This one made it into stores, but it was never ubiquitous. We didn’t all own the dog leash strap luggage.

So what’s the difference between the Rollaboard, which was wildly successful, and these other three, which weren’t? Why did it catch on, and the others didn’t? It’s not the wheels—they all have wheels, and we’ve been putting wheels on things that we carry stuff in since the Stone Age. So the wheels weren’t especially innovative. It’s the handle. It’s this retractable handle that gives you the ability to walk around comfortably with your luggage. And that’s the question Robert Plath asked himself: Is there a way to design wheeled luggage that would actually be comfortable to wheel around? That’s not a genius question. I don’t mean to take anything away from him or the Rollaboard, but there’s not a single one of you who couldn’t have thought that question up. It’s not hypertechnical.

And that is true of every innovation: iTunes—Is it possible to create a legal avenue for downloading music? Coffee cup holders—Is there a way to keep from burning the crap out of myself when I drink coffee out of a paper cup? The Marshall Plan—How can we avoid the mistakes of the Treaty of Versailles and prevent the possibility of World War III? Reality television—Do you think people might enjoy making fun of idiots in hot tubs? Trust me, if this thing could work, your next idea can too.

Ask a question. That’s all you need to do to get started. And if for any reason you honestly can’t think of a single question that needs answering, I’ve got 11 of them for you right now. They might not all apply to you, but I guarantee most of them will.

Questions to get you started:

  1. What are some interesting things our competitors are doing that we can copy?
  2. If our core business suddenly stopped making money, how else might we generate revenue?
  3. What frustrates our customers, and what can we do to fix it?
  4. Are there any ideas we tried in the past that we should maybe consider looking at again?
  5. How can we improve employee retention?
  6. What can we do to make our company more attractive to highly skilled applicants who have a lot of options to choose from?
  7. What’s one process that slows me down every day, and is there any way to improve it?
  8. What do I wish our company did that we don’t currently do?
  9. If I had an unlimited budget at my disposal, how would I spend it?
  10. What’s one skill I don’t currently have that would help me move forward in my career?

And this last one, which applies to all of us all the time:

  1. Why do we do things the way we do them, and might there be a better way?

Again, none of these questions are complicated. Any one of you could have thought of them, and I’m certain you’ve thought of some that I haven’t, which means that you’re innovating right now, and you will continue to do so as long as questions keep occurring to you.

So that’s step one—ask a question. Step two is to think about possible answers to that question, which should be totally obvious. If you have a question, you need an answer, so this should be the easiest thing in the world. But this is the point where we most commonly get stuck; this is the point where innovation and creativity most commonly falter, not because we can’t think, because all of us can obviously. It’s that we often choose not to.

And I’ll show you why. I want you to take out your phones or your laptop or your tablet—I don’t really care, just take out some device, because I want you to use it. Do some work, check email, scroll through Facebook, watch a video, play a game, I don’t care—just use it. I’m going to keep talking, but I truly, honestly, legitimately want you to do something on your phone while I do it. I know nobody ever asks you to do this in the middle of a presentation, but I am, because we’re about to find out how good you are at it. This is going to take about 90 seconds, so pick something you can do in 90 seconds. OK, here we go—start.

The Magna Carta was signed in 1215 and is considered to be the first legal document to establish personal liberties, even though a closer reading reveals that to not be entirely true. This is a picture of a panda. [visual] Pacifiers have been around for centuries and have occasionally been made out of ivory, bone, coral, silver—which is where the phrase “born with a silver spoon” comes from—and white rubber, which contained lead—not a good thing for a baby to be putting in its mouth. [visual] When I was 15 years old, I broke my right leg and my left wrist in a motorcycle accident. I’d like to lie to you and say I was jumping over a canyon or evading the police, but I really just fell into a ditch. Got me out of going to Homecoming, though, which did not make my girlfriend happy, and, by the way, can you believe this guy had a girlfriend? [visual] That’s me at 15. Seriously, anybody can get a date. Don’t ever give up. Anyway, Abraham Lincoln was a nearly undefeated wrestler during his lifetime—that’s completely true. [visual] Sony’s original name was Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo KK—that’s completely true and not easy to say. [visual] Pickle juice is an amazing chaser for tequila. If you don’t believe me, try it. It sounds gross, I know, but it really, really works. [visual] And if the thought of it leaves a bad taste in your mouth, here’s a sloth. [visual] The most adorable creature ever; I want to be one.

OK, I think that’s enough. Please put your stuff away. And let me ask you a couple of questions. Did you feel you were focused clearly on what I was saying? Did you feel that you were focused clearly on whatever you were doing on your phone? Did you feel like you were successful at both?

And this is why most of us think innovation is hard. It’s not because we aren’t smart enough to think of good ideas. We are. It’s because we’ve lied to ourselves. All of us believe that we are masters of multitasking, that we can do two or three or five things at once, and all of us are lying to ourselves. When you’re working on something and get interrupted, you stop working on the first thing, address the second thing, then return to the first thing—you don’t do them both at once. The only exception to that—the only time when we are able to do two things at once—is when one of those things requires so little thought that our brains are able to go on autopilot, such as certain types of exercise, driving, going for a long walk, and bathing ourselves. In these moments, we engage a part of our brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, which basically takes over the process of paying attention to the world for us so that we don’t get surprised by a predator while we’re otherwise occupied. This is the part of your brain that allows you to stay on the road when you’re daydreaming, and—I know you’ve been here—when you snap out of it and realize that you’ve just driven six miles and don’t remember any of it. It’s the part of your brain that lets your mind wander while you’re showering, and then, when you snap out of it, you sometimes have to ask yourself, Did I actually use shampoo? This part of our brain disengages whenever a new stimuli is introduced, anything from a strange shape at the corner of your eye to glancing down at your phone to send a text. This is, incidentally, the biological reason that texting and driving is so dangerous, because it turns that autopilot off.

Which means that if you want to speed up, you have to slow down. I know that sounds like a contradiction, but it’s true. Your best ideas will come to you in idle moments, or in messy meandering conversations with others that allow you to flesh out your thoughts, the kind you’ll have here, which is why the Annual Meeting exists in the first place.

So, step one: Find the question. Step two: Think about an answer. And step three: Do whatever you thought of. That’s it. It’s so simple, it’s almost embarrassing to say, but that’s all there is. And this is the part we’re all amazing at. All of us can work toward a goal, once we know what the goal is. In this respect, there’s really no difference between “business as usual,” which requires you to do work, and “pursuing an innovative solution,” which requires you to do work. They’re the exact same. The work you do might be different, but the process of doing work—it’s exactly the same. And you do this all the time.

You are endlessly innovative in your home, in your family life, in your marriage. Problems arise, or opportunities: “How are we going to save enough to retire?” “Should we move so that I can take that new job?” You have those questions, you think of solutions, and you execute those solutions. That’s innovation. You do it every day. And it’s no different at work. In fact, the only thing stopping you from your next great idea—because I know you have questions, and I know you know how to work—the only thing between you and a breakthrough is whether or not you take the time to think about what needs to be done. Ask. Think. Do. Repeat. That’s all this is. And every single one of you can do it.

Ask. Think. Do. Repeat. That’s all this is. And who knows? Maybe your next innovation will be more personal than professional. I went to college to be a high school English teacher, which I had planned to do forever. And for me, forever lasted for two years. At 24 years old, I left teaching and was faced with a question some of you may have faced before: What am I going to do now? For two years, I didn’t have a good answer, but I needed money, so I worked where I could find it. I wrote freelance articles, tutored kids in English, math, and Latin, and also spent about 14 months of my life on the weekends playing the drums on the streets of Nashville while dressed like a chicken. That’s me—I’m not making this up. [visual] Somewhere in there I decided to try stand-up comedy, and eventually I started getting paid for it. And, for a while, that’s how things were—freelance writing, tutoring, stand-up comedy, chicken drumming. That’s my mid-20s.

Then, just over a decade ago, I went to a corporate showcase to try to get work as a corporate entertainer. And it gave me my first opportunity to see business speakers in action. And, afterward, I asked myself this question: Could I combine the entertainment of a comedy show with the education of a corporate keynote? And, as a result of that question, and my various answers to it, I’ve come up with several different topics. I am now able to stand here and talk about how to be more creative and innovative. In case you’ve already forgotten, I used to play the drums dressed like a chicken. Not the typical resume item for a business speaker, nor is it the image of a person who looks like he’s going anywhere with his life.

You might not know where your thoughts are going to take you. I certainly didn’t. I wouldn’t have predicted in a million years that I’d be here in front of you doing what I am. But because I couldn’t have predicted it, this is what I do know: As long as you keep thinking, as long as you keep asking questions and motivating yourself to take action by allowing yourself the time to find the answers to those questions, your future’s going to be full of some really interesting surprises, things you can’t even dream of right now, things that are going to change your life, your business—and, in some cases, the world.

Jeff Havens has an unprecedented ability to deliver high-quality education in an undeniably entertaining way. This has earned him dozens of repeat clients, all of whom appreciate his insistence that education is the only way that we improve at anything and that we’ll all improve better and faster if we enjoy the learning process.


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