Being Awesome, Brainstorming, Ideation, Innovation, Innovation Mindsets, Lenses

Use New Lenses to See Past the Hammers

I mean really, what else could Geppetto have done?

He wanted and son so he looked around at the resources he had. Lathes, chisels, hammers, and wood. Geppetto leaned on his strengths to carve Pinocchio who would magically transform from wooden marionette to a real boy. You know, after he was done goofing off and finding his way.

Abraham Maslow said “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” That’s exactly what Geppetto did. He literally had hammers and built his “son” out of wood, a material he had decades of experience with but would require magical intervention to achieve his goal.

We often fall into the same trap as innovators. We apply the same thoughts to distinct and unique problems and we murmur befuddlement when our solutions look like solutions we had in the past for a different problem.

Well murmur no more! You just need more in your toolbox than hammers.

One of the best suppliers of new “tools” is the concept of lenses for brainstorming. Lenses have the ability to be an endless and infinite supply of inspiration… and you already know how to use them! The problem is that you and I default to the same lenses. Our default lenses are the place that we work, the go to inspiration we surround ourselves with. To apply new lenses, we need to think outside our comfort zone… we need to venture into problem adjacent areas.

Let’s say we’re working on solving a certain problem. To apply and adjacent lens, we need to whittle the problem down into its barebones mechanics. “Customers do this, they need it to do this, they feel this way” and so on. This is a great time to apply the five why method to get to the root mechanics. We’ll talk about that later but for now just think of it as an over-inquisitve toddler that just wont stop.

“I need to go to the store.” “Why?”

“Because we need food.” “Why?”

“Because without food we’ll go hungry.” “Why?”

You get the point. But take a look at what those three why’s did. Instead of the problem being “I need to go to the store”, the problem is boiled down to “we need food or we’ll go hungry”. That boiled down problem is more at the root and offers way more solution possibilities.

From the base mechanics of the problem, we need to venture into other solutions that exist for the base mechanic outside our given industry. You are looking for bright spot solutions outside your realm of dominance. Work in food service? Maybe you solution lies in the way health care solved a similar problem. The world is ripe with adjacent lenses. All you have to do is ask yourself “How would X solve this?” or “How did Y eliminate this problem?” Start there and start extrapolating ideas and making connections to your own industry.

Had Geppetto thought of using lenses, he might of said to himself “You know, I’d really like a son of my own. I wonder how the farmers solve the problem of wanting children?” He might not have started with a carved marionette.

And let’s face, we cant afford to wait for our solutions to magically solve the problem. We are the magic so get out there and make your awesomeness real!


As an added bonus, here are a couple other lenses I like to use during brainstorming.

  • How would I never solve this problem?
  • What is the worst way I can solve this problem?

Despite it being fun to think of anti-solutions, you’ll be surprised at how effective these are at finding hidden solutions!

Being Awesome, Brainstorming, Diffusion of Innovation, Ideation, Innovation, Understanding the Customer

Innovating with the Uninterested

My kids send me strong signals all the time. For example, when we have broccoli or sweet potatoes, they respond with very strong signals. Unfortunately their signals are strong AND negative. One way we’ve tried limit these anti-veggie reactions is to get them involved in the meal planning.

Like in meal planning, we should be looking for strong signals with prototype tests. Strong signals validate that solutions are worthy of digging into deeper. Sometimes, you will get responses of “I don’t like this” or “I’m not sure this will work.” These are great strong signals, just not the ones you may have been looking for. Their value though can be immense.

diffusionOfInnovationLooking at the Diffusion of Innovation, these types of strong signals would be achieved from folks in the “Late majority” category. That accounts for 34% of the market, and yet we design by relying on “Early Adopters” or the “Early Majority”. How can we move their timeline of adoption up? How can we use their strong signals, and their personas, to help make our prototype better?

We can design with them!

Wrangle up some of those “This will never work” naysayers and get them in an ideation session. You can often get them to agree by just being honest. No need for trickery or bribes. Just tell them that you’re sorry your one idea didn’t fit for them but you’d like to understand their view better.

“Great! Now I have all the people who hated my prototype in one room. What do I do now?”

It is simple, just understand these three guidelines.
  1. Let the customer drive the conversation
    Strong signals, like kids rebelling over the inclusion of broccoli, can indicate the presence of the "Late Majority". Instead of taking a hit to your momentum, use their energy to design a new, better solution!
    Strong signals, like kids rebelling over the inclusion of broccoli, can indicate the presence of the “Late Majority”. Instead of taking a hit to your momentum, use their energy to design a new, better solution!
    • You must aim for a 80-20 ratio of listening to talking.
    • Listen to understand, not to react.
      • This is a personal pet peeve, but too often we listen with the intent of reacting to what someone says. Especially here where you’ve already show the customer a solution. They will say “Well I need it to do X.” and you’ll want to say “Well what I showed you will already do X, you may have missed it.” AVOID THIS! Internalize that thought but come back to them with something like “Interesting. When it does X, what does that look like to you?”
    • Reiterate what they say if you are unclear.
      • Remove any uncertainty.
    • You may need to set up the ideation session with some easy wins up front to grease the gears of innovation.
  2. Keep their options limited
    • Too many options and they will freeze up. It’s a cousin of the “blank page” syndrome.
    • Constraints can also help people be creative.
      • It’s like squeezing a tube of toothpaste. Applying pressure, with the constraints of the rest of the tube, pushes the paste onto the brush.
  3. Nothing needs to be pretty
    • An “ugly” prototype or a napkin sketch keeps the customer from thinking the idea is set in stone.
    • Thinking everything is “up for change” frees them up to make more suggestions.
    • Encourage them to take a crack at some wireframes.
      • You will hear “I’m not good at drawing” but we’re not looking for art here, just ideas. You can offer to draw for them if this is a sticking point.

I’m not saying you’ll end this process with a market-capturing design. But you will have a better understanding of the needs, the pain points, and the potential gains for your innovation with the Late Majority. Imagine if you can inspire the Late Majority to adopt sooner!

Being Awesome, Ideation, Innovation

Open Your Doors Before You’re Ready

You ever have one of those ideas that floats around, just kind of dancing in your brain, eager to be released? You can coax the idea to calm down for a little while by saying “Ok, I’ll let you out, but I have to have this one thing in order first. I want you to be a success!” And so your idea calmly sits while you prepare. It’s not long afterwards that your idea gets anxious again, and you have to encourage it to calm down once more. And this cycle repeats. Why?

I’ll tell you why. We have this fear that if everything is not just right, our idea is going to fall flat on its face. We lose too much while waiting for the “right time”. However, by waiting we’re only building more anxiety that our idea must be perfect when it is released. We need to spend less time with our ideas “on the ground” and get more of our ideas soaring “in the air”.

Early adopters don't care if you're 100% ready. Get those doors open and let you idea gain some traction in the real world.
Early adopters don’t care if you’re 100% ready. Get those doors open and let you idea gain some traction in the real world.

In 1966, a shoe store opened in Anaheim, California. They saw 16 people walk in the store that first day and 12 of them made a purchase, and yet the shoe store didn’t have a single shoe in the store. They had samples of the different styles, but nothing the customers could leave with right then. Instead, the customer placed an order, the store would get to work making the shoes, and the customer could pick them up later that day.

The store only operated like this for the first couple days, but the owners simply couldn’t wait to open. The doors were flung open as soon as the store could be open, there wasn’t time to wait on actually having shoes. In fact, the shoe samples didn’t even have names. They were just design numbers like #44 or #20.

And that is how Vans started.

You see, Paul Van Doren, James Van Doren, Gordon Lee, and Serge D’Elia didn’t want to wait until everything was perfect. They wanted to get their idea out there so it could breathe and run and live.

If we twist the story just a little, we begin to see the brilliance. We’ve already seen what happens if they open early and succeed, but there are three other parallel universes out there.

  • Parallel Universe #1: They open early and fail. No harm, no foul. They don’t have a surplus of shoes that they need to unload or wear for the rest of their lives. Not as bad an outcome as bad outcomes go.
  • Parallel Universe #2: They wait until they craft all their shoes and succeed. This is a boring story because there is nothing surprising about it. Nobody took a chance. This is like following the on-box directions for macaroni and cheese. No one is surprised when it comes out as macaroni and cheese. This is routine and nothing of note can be gained here. Move along.
  • Parallel Universe #3: They wait until they craft all their shoes and fail. This is the evil timeline. They lose a ton in this version of the story. Money, time, materials. Think of all the extra shoes that they can’t sell! In this universe, all their cousins and nieces and nephews are cautious around birthdays. “Uncle Paul is coming? He’s probably going to give me another pair of those shoes again.”

failvsreadygraphBy opening the doors early, they ran the best chances at success. And this will please all you managers out there, by opening early they mitigated the most risk. They had an opportunity to validate their ideas before spending resources to make the idea perfect.

That’s what we’ve got to do as innovators. We may have an idea that we’re sure will flip the market on its ear and make the world a better place to live in. But the longer it is just an idea, the more time the market has to catch up or diverge. There is nothing worse than spending years on an innovation to launch it and have the market say “This solution exists already” or “We don’t need this solution anymore because the problem has changed.”

If you need further convincing about opening your “idea doors” early, you don’t even have to leave Anaheim. Just travel back in time from Vans in 1966, to Disneyland in 1955.

As the gates opened for the first time on July 17th, Disneyland faced these problems and more:

  • some trees had just been planted
  • some of the paint was still wet
  • counterfeit tickets doubled the number of guests expected
  • water fountains didn’t work because a plumber strike meant only the bathrooms would be functional
  • the asphalt on Main Street had only been poured the night before

The myriad of challenges Walt and his team faced on Day One were used as a learning opportunity. A chance to figure out what wasn’t working. Shouldn’t we afford our ideas the same chance? The same opportunity to learn and grow from the challenges? We’re supposed to be embracing failure, so let your ideas out into the sun!

I’ll close with the words of the immortal bard, Shia LaBeouf. “Don’t let your dreams be dreams. Yesterday you said tomorrow so just do it. Make your dreams come true.”

Go forth! Be Awesome! Feed your furnace!


  • What idea has been living in your head for too long?
  • What can you do today to get it out into the world?
  • What can you learn from sharing it with someone right now?