Being Awesome, Innovation, Innovation Mindsets, Like a Startup, Motivation, Team

How In-N-Out Burger Became My Innovation Anchor

What started as an impassioned plea to a team amidst a sea of chaos in a busy In-N-Out burger has become a rallying cry in the innovative process.
What started as an impassioned plea to a team amidst a sea of chaos in a busy In-N-Out burger, has become a rallying cry in the innovative process.

In the Spring of 2014, I traveled to San Francisco with some friends for a conference. I was raised on the West Coast, so any trip to California results in a required pilgrimage to In-N-Out Burger. It was a busy night at the closest In-N-Out and the dining area was packed with like-minded culinary aficionados.

We waited eagerly for our orders at the counter when you could feel the energy change. There were very loud “conversations” happening on the staff side of the counter. I couldn’t make out words but it was definitely heated from the chaos of the dinner rush. And that’s when our hero stepped in. He came from a spot in the back where he had been working the large, manual french fry cutter. He raised his eyes from the floor with the same erie calm that rolls over a seaside town before a hurricane strikes. Then we heard him proclaim, in all of our sight, a statement that’d change our mindset that night.

“We’re all… on the same… level.”

It is devious in its simplicity. This was not a time for hierarchical org charts or chains of command. Every employee there was tasked to get orders in, and then out. In and out. It was not about pulling rank or telling others how to do their job better. Get the orders in, and then get them out.

That simple statement has anchored the better part of a year and a half of innovation theory development. It has become a mantra, a safe harbor, and a compass. Here are the two best applications of “We’re all on the same level.”

1. Your team is all on the same level.

Hopefully you’ve had the opportunity to read my post on T-Shaped teammates and flat teams. If you haven’t it is located here.

Having a flat team has many benefits, specifically in the deployment of candor. Without a designated manager or leader, each person feels comfortable offering up bad ideas as well as critical feedback on other prototypes. Open dialogue helps the team move faster towards promising solutions.

A wise person once said “A good idea doesn’t know its parent.” An individual on flat team doesn’t seek credit and instead uses any success to reflect back on the team’s efforts. Another benefit is that when tasks or events arise, everyone is willing to pitch in. There may be tasks above or below the team’s station and if they are an honest-to-goodness flat team, then there will be shared coverage of those tasks.

The team functions for collective goals when they’re all on the same level.

2. The problems you try to solve are all on the same level.

There are two main schools of thought around innovation. You either start with a solution or you start with a problem. The majority of what I do starts with a problem. It requires me to research the problem and empathize with the customer, because sometimes the problem you see is not the real problem. There are problems that seem cut and dry. Slap on a salve of solution and you are good to go. Then there are problems that look dark and wrapped in a bramble of thorns. But here’s the rub. If you have an effective process for tackling problems, then all your problems are on the same level.

The simple problem does not get a watered-down, vanilla version of your process. If your process works, apply it to the small problems.

The tricky or large problem does not get additional steps or tools applied to your existing process. If your process works, apply it to the large problems.

It minimizes to this: If you are trying to solve a problem, apply your effective process in its best and truest form.

Keeping things all the same level reduces politics and favoritism, and helps promote candor and openness. And to borrow one of Walt Disney’s famous quotes… “It all started with a burger.”

Challenge

  • Are there things that you put at different levels?
  • Would rearranging them all on the same level affect your innovative process?
  • When faced with a new problem, ask yourself “How would In-N-Out solve this?”
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Being Awesome, Chupacabra, Innovation, Motivation, Theme Park of You

Be the Theme Park of YOU!

If I was to ever start a theme park, and let’s say my mascot is Chupey Chupacabra, I’d be 100% sure to offer a goofy looking Chupey Chupacabra hat. Every theme park has their own trademark-toting version of the Chupey Hat because tourists eat those kinds of things up! They will spend some hard earned cash on items they will only wear while at a theme park. Folks, this is a hat you will never wear again… yet you will wear it for the length of your vacation until a permanent indention forms on your forehead from the sweatband. You will shriek in panic if you leave it behind on a ride. You will run back to your hotel to grab it before you dinner reservation at our five-star restaurant.

But why?

You won’t wear it while shoveling snow in Pocatello, Idaho. You certainly wont wear it walking down the street in Dover, Ohio. There is a special aura that theme parks give off, especially in their merchandise. So what makes theme parks such a hot bed for impulse fashion decisions?

For only $19.99, you too can wear the Chupey Chupacabra Hat all around the theme park. You'd never wear this at home, but in this theme park it is enchanting!
For only $19.99, you too can wear the Chupey Chupacabra Hat all around the theme park. You’d never wear this at home, but in this theme park it is enchanting!
  • For starters, they are telling a story that tourists can get into. Tourists are allowed to have fun, believe, and pretend.
  • Also, there is great power in being surrounded by like-minded others.
  • Lastly, everything the tourists are experiencing enhances and pushes the story further. The theme park supports and enables the Chupey Hat culture.

We need to capture this for ourselves! We need to tell stories about us that others can get behind. We need to give people are reason to believe in our ideas, our innovations, our plans for the future. We need to foster the culture around us so that our supporters aren’t one or two individuals, but rather a massive crowd gathered to watch a parade and maybe some fireworks later. And because they’ve gathered, we need to show that we can drive the story, ideas, innovations further. We are going to reward and support those who carry our banner.

And yet, when tourists go home, they put their Chupey Hats and other souvenirs away. So how can we lengthen the effects of their Chupey Hat? How can we recreate the excitement of our rollercoasters of innovation?

There are two paths: We can give them a take-home version, or we can encourage and enable repeat visits.

  • Take-home versions are compact, often watered down, and don’t affect their worldview. At best, take-home versions are distractions to their daily life, if they have time. They will most likely be put in a box in the garage and then reminisced over when they are told to clean the garage because we can’t park a car in this mess.
    • This path is not effective, yet. I think it could be reinvented to be more optimal.
  • Repeat visits encourages them to take care of their Chupey Hat. It deepens the hold the story has within their heart and mind. Someone who visits repeatedly is more likely to have memorabilia all over their house. They are planning a return visit to the theme park of you before their current visit is over. They are probably stock holders; they are invested in your success.
    • This is the good path!

As I am writing this, I can identify who wears the Chupey Hats in the theme park of me. They are amazing people and I’m honored that they even visit much less be such adamant supporters. However I can not rest on my laurels. I have to add new rides, I have to give them better experiences. I’ve got to expand and develop the Chupey Chupacabra storyline because these tourists are the early adopters. And what they’ve early-adopted was a belief in me.

Challenge

  • What is the main story in the theme park of you?
  • What kind of merchandise can we get in the theme park of you?
  • How are you going to make tourists want to come back?
Going Forth, Innovation, Motivation

Any Given Second…

Time wages war against us innovators with an endless army that surges forward, claiming the hours, the minutes, and the seconds we could be using to change the world. They get consumed by Time’s horrific horde, never to be seen again. Insomnia sometimes feels like a blessing because you can get up and work on your project undivided. At least it beats laying your head on your pillow, ruminating that every minute spent sleeping is another minute your prototype sits undelivered, undeveloped, and untested. But if you’ll allow me to remaster Al Pacino’s speech from Any Given Sunday, “The seconds we need, are everywhere around us.”

Innovation, reinvention, lifehacking… what ever your angle is on it, needs time. And unless you are part of the lucky few who get to professionally power think tanks with battery-like brains, you need to find time in the nooks and crannies of your schedule. It may be small, but time is there for the taking. Take a look at the newest illustration by Zen Pencils.

Is that not worth exploring? by James Rhodes, Illustrated by Zen Pencils

What I like best about what James Rhodes said was that the time was still spent on the required activities; work, family, sleep. Even after all that there were still six hours in the week that could be devoted to something personal. In the context of this illustration, it was learning the piano. In our context, it will moving your innovation forward.

“Lost time is never found again” Benjamin Franklin

Seconds melt away and in the hourglass of life, it doesn't get flipped over. You have to make each. grain. count.
Seconds melt away and in the hourglass of life, it doesn’t get flipped over. You have to make each. grain. count.

If you are a weekend warrior innovator or you scratch your creative itch at work with side projects, this post is talking directly to you. I myself have a creative role, and yet in my spare time I find creative pursuits that I don’t get to chase at work, like boardgame design. Whatever your dream is, whatever your product is, the longer it sits in your brain is the longer your dream goes unrealized. Who would have thought that the biggest obstacle to your goal, would be you? I want to encourage you, to get your idea to go forth.

Think of your idea on a treadmill in your head. There it is, churning away. “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” Yes, yes that would be cool! So let’s get some traction going. Yet, your idea continues to churn on the treadmill. You see, if it keeps heading in the same direction it’s always gone, it will stay where it has always been… in your head. For your idea to move to new places, it has to step in a different direction. And you need time to move in those new directions. So grab the time when you can find it. Don’t miss an opportunity to be awesome.

We spend so much of our free time consuming the awesome that other’s have created. We binge on shows, we like our friend’s witty posts, we spend hours watching other people play video games on You Tube. And there is nothing wrong with that. They say to be a good writer, you must be a good reader so it would make sense that to be innovative, you must be involved in other people’s innovations. However, let’s look at what Stephen King said.

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two thins above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” Stephen King

It isn’t about just consuming, you have to create also. It is two parts: you must research and you must do. So take some of that free time and put it towards your innovation. Start paper prototyping your innovation. Plan out some testable hypotheses. Just talk to potential customers about their pain points. it is all about gaining traction, moving your idea ahead, going forth, and being awesome.

Challenge

  • Evaluate your daily activities
  • Identify some times where you can work on your innovation
  • Set a reminder on your phone/calendar/refrigerator
  • Stick to your appointment!
Being Awesome, Going Forth, Innovation, Motivation

Feed the Furnace

On a foggy night, he started his run 95 minutes behind schedule. He was determined to never arrive late vowing to “get there at the advertised time”. Illinois Central’s engineer had the tough task of making up over an hour and a half between Memphis and Canton. The engineer’s name was Jonathan Jones, but he went by Casey.

Casey Jones feeding his furnace.
Casey Jones feeding his furnace.

Casey Jones’s heroic tales were reimagined in the 1950 Walt Disney Studios animated short, The Brave Engineer. In the cartoon, Casey Jones at one point jumps onto the front of the train to save a woman from the tracks. This was based on a true story where real-life Casey rescued a child in the same manner. Perched precariously on the cow catcher, his outstretched arms would scoop up the child who was frozen in fear on the tracks. Another exploit of animated Casey shows him ripping every part of his train down, from the cab to the caboose, and throwing it into the furnace of the locomotive… all in an effort to arrive on time.

We all have our own furnace inside of us. It powers our drive and brings our motivation to a boil. We do not have the convenience of a coal car that carries our fuel with us and Casey Jones had to tear down his own baggage car to get more out of his furnace. What can we do?

At the center of the furnace is a fire and fires in their own right are pretty great. You can build a camp fire and it will bring you warmth and light. If your fire is strong enough, others can gather around your fire. Go check out FAKEGRIMLOCK’s post about being on fire at FeldThoughts. The article is old by internet standards, but so is fire.

It boils down to this. You take the successes that you have and you take the failures that you have, and you use them as fuel. They help your fire burn stronger and brighter. But a fire on its own can burn low or the spark can go out. That’s why you can’t just feed it successes. Your fire has to burn off of the failures too. Especially in innovation where you will fail many more times than you will succeed.

Use failures as learning and fuel.

I don’t want my fire to just be sending energy out into the dark night. I want to use those Joules (unit of measurement for energy.. thanks Physics!) to make myself, my prototype, my blog, my quilting club better.

A furnace puts your fire to work.

Envision a furnace door mounted on your stomach. When you pull the door open, your internal fire can be seen. This is where you are going to toss in the successes and failures of your work. As a side note, I’m not saying to ball up your failures deep inside so that no one can see them. Hardly. I’m saying let those failures burn in your internal fire so that you have more Joules and you burn brighter. Then every one can say “Wow! You sure are glowing today!” to which you can reply “THAT’S BECAUSE I AM EMPOWERED BY THE EMBERS OF MY OWN FAILURE AND SUCCESS!” Or, you know, something to that nature.

Feed your furnace

When you feed your furnace, as Casey Jones did, you pick up steam and momentum. When your furnace is heated, your purpose starts to percolate. Purpose is one of the key components to motivation and when its is vaporizing because of the heat of your furnace, everything you do becomes more powerful. Sure you may need to pivot and persevere, here and there, as you fail and succeed with your innovations. However, neither one will be able to slow you down. You are an iron horse pulling 85 tons of ideas down the track of tomorrow. You’ve got a full head of steam and nearby towns can hear your whistle coming.

Just keep feeding the furnace.

Challenge:

Identify some places that you may have failed or succeeded.

How can you leverage them as fuel and keep moving forward?

Being Awesome, Flow, Grit, Motivation

Motivation for the Goldilocks Zone

I have never met anyone that didn’t have at least one quote that spoke to them deeply. I was lucky enough to be raised in a community of football coaches, so you could say that I have been marinating in motivational mantras my entire life. One that has been with me for as long as I can remember is one I attribute to my dad, a football coach. He may have not been the first person to say it, but I can close my eyes and see it hanging, clear as day, on the wall near his office.

Try your best, you will be glad you did.

I’m going to wait just a second and let that sink in. Just roll your brain around in that quote for a little bit. On the surface, it speaks to something so simple and sincere. Why wouldn’t you be happy that you gave it your all? Yet, the true power is in what the quote doesn’t say.

It does not have any mention of success or failure. There is no outcome tied to the emotion and why should there be? This has to be one of the paramount philosophies you have to learn when prototyping. You will have failures. You will have successes. Yet how you feel about what you do can not be linked to end result of a tested hypothesis. Both results end in learning, and some would even say that failure teaches you more than success does.

What I am saying is that happiness should hinge on your effort, and effort is something you can control.

Yes, there will be some days that are plain nasty and out to get you. No matter how much mud and muck those days sling onto your path, you got to hike your pants up and give it your all. You can’t let a murky path detour you from giving your best effort. It’s all about grit and you’ve got a ton of it inside you. You may slip and you may fall face first into the muck, but wipe your eyes clear and keep going. At the end of the day, your conscience will tally how much effort you gave. Any left over effort that you didn’t use fades away. There is no roll-over extended effort; you use it or you lose it.

Try your best, you’ll be glad you did.

Notice that it doesn’t say it will be easy either. We have to assume challenge is going to be a part of our daily lives if we want to be really innovative. To innovate is to go against the grain, explore out past the edges… where we’re innovating, there are no roads. We’re ok with that because we’re going to try our best and we’ll be glad that we did.

Here you are, orbiting in your own magical region of awesomeness, with your own idea creatures! And all thanks to trying your best and being glad that you did.
Here you are, orbiting in your own magical region of awesomeness, with your own idea creatures! 

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi developed the concept of Flow State. The abridged version says that if the amount of challenge is too low compared to our skill, we’ll get bored. If the amount of challenge is too high compared to our skill, we’ll get frustrated. Yet there is a sweet spot that fluctuates, where our skill encounters just enough challenge. In this Flow State we become deeply engaged. When we try our best, we’re doing all we can to get ourselves in this Goldilocks zone where the challenge isn’t too low or too high. It is just right.

In fact, let’s talk quickly about the Goldilocks Zone. The Science Masters call it the Circumstellar Habitable Zone and it is this Magical Region of Awesome (MRA) amidst all the universal variables. If a planet exists inside that MRA, it is capable of sustaining life. As innovators we are our own little planets, spinning wildly on our axis. Our thoughts and prototypes are our lifeforms; little idea creatures migrating, learning, growing. Don’t be one of those planets where ideas go to die. Try your best to keep that orbital velocity up so that you stay in the MRA, where your idea creatures can prosper and thrive.

Try your best, you’ll be glad you did.

The last thing I want to point out is that the quote doesn’t say anything about any one else. Nope, this is all about you. If you are extrinsically motivated, you may prefer “Try your best, your boss will be glad you did”, but I don’t know your boss. I’m certainly willing to try to get them to add that clause to your contract? But boss approval only lasts so long anyways. Soon the boss will be replaced or another task hits your inbox and your boss will have a fresh set of expectations. Seems to me like you should really be trying to impress the one person who can’t be replaced, who has been with you every day until now, and will be with you every day forward.

You. I’m talking about you.

You know you better than anyone else. Take some time during the day and ask yourself “Am I trying my best? Will I be glad with how I did today?” and then adjust if needed. Even at this, we can’t be perfect. All I am asking you to do is to try your best at trying your best so that you can be glad. Win or lose, validated hypothesis or not, successful innovation or a heap of junk, we must link our happiness to effort. When we’re able to do that, we’re able to extract learning and growth from even the most catastrophic of failures.

Push yourself into that Goldilocks Zone of Innovation, face the challenges and muck with your own brand of grit so that your idea creatures can flourish, and be happy with yourself regardless of the outcome when you give it your all. Try your best, you’ll be glad you did.

Challenge

  • Think of a particularly difficult task ahead (maybe a prototype that needs testing).
  • What are the epic ways it can fail?
    • Put a square next to each of these.
  • What are the spectacular ways it can succeed?
    • Put a triangle next to each of these.
  • Most importantly, what are all the things you can do before the task? Where can you apply effort? 
    • Put a circle next to these.
  • Turn all circles into smiley faces because when you accomplish these, you will have done all you can and that’s going to make you glad.