Elizabeth Holmes hates needles. To her, the idea of being poked by a needle and withdrawing blood is more than just unpleasant. When she knows that she has to give blood, she becomes consumed and overcome with the thought until it’s finally over.
So it should be no surprise that at age 19 she founded Theranos, a ground-breaking blood diagnostics company that 11 years later is worth more than $9 billion. The company has patented its secret technology of performing 200 different blood tests (soon growing to over 1,000 different tests) without using a syringe. They use a few drops of blood drawn using a finger stick to minimize discomfort, and collected in a “nanotainer”; a container the size of an electric fuse. Her board is stocked with powerful blue chip members including former cabinet secretaries, former U.S. senators and former military brass. Theranos’ innovative technology is poised to transform health care technology at no more than half the cost of similar tests using current technology.
Holmes leveraged a process that irritated her to innovate a new method of getting it done.
Tony Fadell was building a vacation home for his family. One of the seemingly mundane decisions was selecting thermostats, but he wasn’t satisfied with his choices. So he developed the Nest Learning Thermostat, a digital and WiFi enabled device that conserves energy by learning its owners’ habits. He also designed the Nest Protect which uses new technology to detect smoke and carbon monoxide.
Fadell’s real goal is to use technology to redesign and control all technology in the home. He was successful in raising startup capital as a result of his Apple pedigree, and extensive connections in Silicon Valley. He previously led the team that created the iPod, thereby rejuvenating Apple and transforming the music industry (yes, I love iTunes), and assisted in the development of the iPhone. Fadell left Apple in 2008 (along with his wife who was an HR executive there) and his thermostat irritation became the epiphany to innovate his next career move. As evidence of his success, Nest was purchased by Google earlier this year for $3.2 billion.
Holmes and Fadell were irritated by processes and technology that others accepted as status quo. Obviously this wasn’t just a minor irritation either. Most of us would have dismissed it, avoided it, complained a bit while it was on our minds, then moved on to what we believed were more important things. We would think that change wasn’t needed, or that technology couldn’t effectively be applied to it and scaled for use. Instead, they saw it as a challenge and took the opportunity to do something about it. They had a mindset for innovation that they applied to their environment.
At the time, Holmes was a sophomore at Stanford, and according to her chemical engineering professor, viewed complex technical problems differently than other students. She dropped out shortly thereafter and persuaded her parents to invest her education fund into the business start-up.
Fadell’s tenure at Apple was distinguished by asking lots of questions, challenging Steve Jobs, and building his network in the “valley” outside the company; something normally reserved for Jobs himself. He didn’t conform to the typical concept of the Apple executive.
The Key to Innovation
So what is the key to your innovation? What is it that irritates you, but you find it difficult to simply walk away or ignore it. Instead, you keep trying to figure it out. This may be your opportunity to move from irritation to innovation; to find new approaches to address old ways of doing things. Though Holmes and Fadell applied innovation on a large scale, you can easily do this within a smaller sphere of influence; in your work team, organization, community group or family. Here are a few simple steps.
- Tap into what’s irritating you. What problem needs to be solved? Chances are it’s right in front of you.
- Find the benefit. Who will it add value to? Identifying your stakeholders will help you to target what action to take, and encourage you to stick with it for their benefit.
- Ignore the naysayers. What do you believe is possible? If you don’t have faith in yourself, no one else will either.
- Identify all the assumptions associated with the status quo. Why do people do it this way? Calling them out individually helps to break the innovation opportunity down into workable sizes for better analysis.
- Methodically challenge each assumption. Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? By the time you’ve asked “why” five times, you’ll uncover some suppositions that really don’t have a strong foundation.
- Think of a new approach. What if we did it this way instead? Then think of another different approach. This practice gets you into the mode of change.
If you’re really irritated, true innovation will typically involve transformation, not evolution. It will yield a totally unexpected outcome that represents a leap ahead, not just a step forward. So embrace that impatience and exasperation with the current situation, and press forward to a new mindset of innovation.
Photo courtesy of iStockphoto
Copyright 2014 Priscilla Archangel
In his book Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone To Take Action, Simon Sinek describes our why as “our driving purpose, cause or belief”. This why never changes, no matter what we do. A critical role of leaders is to define and communicate the why of their organization in a way that unites the leadership team and all employees around it. A shared why among the leadership team translates into alignment and consistency in decision making regarding the company’s products and services. It drives brand marketing; financial and legal matters; and treatment of employees, customers and shareholders. A shared why will also keep the organization focused on what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. This becomes a standard or benchmark against which all strategies are measured to ensure they deliver on the brand promise.
Start With Your Why
When Bill and Melinda Gates we seeking a new CEO to lead their $40 billion foundation, they led with their why when they enticed Susan Desmond-Hellmann to accept the position. At the time she was passionate about her role as chancellor of the University of California at San Francisco, thus wasn’t initially interested. But after two months of conversations, she decided to accept the role because their vision, mission and plans gave her an opportunity to be a part of a team that could change the world. The interview process between the Gates and Desmond-Hellmann cinched the deal because it brought out the shared why that motivated each of them to action. While it was possible for the Gates to find someone capable of performing the role as CEO of the world’s second largest foundation, it was even more important to find one who shared their why, who shared their passion for improving the lives of women and girls in developing countries, and eradicating disease. And sharing that why made all the difference.
Rapper and music producer Dr. Dre (Andre Young) champions the why for the Beats by Dre brand, and Beats Electronics, which was co-founded by he and music mogul Jimmy Iovine. They produce the high-priced Beats headphones and provide a streaming music service. Dr. Dre maintains a focus on what’s “cool” by ensuring they have the best quality sound, and overseeing marketing strategies in minute detail. He’s known as a perfectionist, a workaholic, and eschews market research in favor of his gut instinct, which has paid off handsomely for him in past music endeavors. This was reinforced when Apple recently purchased Beats Electronics for $3.2 billion.
Steve Jobs was similarly known for avoiding market research because in his opinion, the customer doesn’t know what they want until someone shows it to them (yes, I didn’t know how much I needed my iPad until I got one). Jobs was famous for his product launches where he educated customers on the capabilities of new products and how it would help them. He spoke from the passion of his why instead of using a hard sell mode.
Know Your Why
The leadership of the Gates, Dr. Dre and Steve Jobs to define and communicate their company’s why attracts others who share the same why, and want to help them bring it to life. The why attracts customers to products and employees to positions. We identify with companies and brands that share beliefs similar to ours, that support causes we believe are worthy, and that provide services we feel are valuable. It takes focus for leaders to be clear about their why and to continuously steer their organizations in that direction, avoiding distractions and seemingly logical arguments to veer off track. It requires a deep-rooted understanding of what you want to accomplish, and a personal belief in your ability to do so. It requires the ability to block out the glittering lights of other leaders’ why, that may look cool, but doesn’t match your passion and motivation.
The driving cause or belief of your organization should evoke emotion and passion. It should be motivational. Sinek says that making money is the result, not the cause, and companies should think, act and communicate starting with their why. It engages employees and customers. So though you may think is obvious to all your stakeholders, take a moment to query those around you. If you’re not hearing consistent responses there’s an opportunity to provide clarity to your team and begin to drive that through all their decisions.
So know your why. Show your why. Grow your why.
Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.
Copyright Priscilla Archangel 2014
Read about Dr. Dre and Apple here.
Read the interview with Melinda Gates and Susan Desmond-Hellmann in Fortune here.
“What do you want me to do?” Gregg Popovich, head coach of the San Antonio Spurs sometimes empowers his players by stepping back, and letting them figure out their next step in the game. They’ve risen to the occasion by giving “Coach Pop” 16 consecutive winning seasons, more than any other active NBA coach.
“How to you turn this company from aid provider to economic development?” Blake Mycoskie, CEO of TOMS Shoes faced this question during a two year break from running his company, during which he reflected on his future role. The answer? He’s started TOMS Roasting, which sells beans in grocery stores, and in his branded cafes. Mycoskie found that coffee farmers provide the best economic development in the countries to which they donate. So to continue his model of “buy one give one”, for each bag sold TOMS will provide one week of clean water to a person in need, and for each beverage sold they will provide one day of clean water. Water is the number one ingredient in premium beans, yet many people in these countries lack clean water for their personal use.
“When are you going to drop the ‘interim’ title?” Jay Stein, then Interim CEO of Stein Mart, an off-price retail store, was asked this question several years ago by a reporter. Jay is the grandson of founder Sam Stein who started the family store in the early 1900s, and now boasts $1.3 billion in sales from 266 stores, with another 25 in the works. Jay had retired after heart by-pass surgery thinking that someone else could do a better job running the company. But after three failed CEOs he stepped in again on an interim basis. This reporter’s question caused an epiphany as he recognized the negative impact of continuously shifting and ineffective leadership. His response? “Right now.” They made a public announcement and the organization has moved smoothly forward.
The Power of a Question
These are examples of the right questions; powerful questions that once answered, provide direction, clarity and purpose. They’re necessary for our continual development and well-being; indispensable and essential for our growth. The right questions may ask What, Why or How. They’re designed to coach, facilitate and motivate others to think deeply into their situation and determine their next steps. My friend Christian Simpson, an internationally acclaimed expert in professional coaching, describes this as effective questions that invite the person to a greater level of discovery, clarity and action. Properly posed and authentically answered, they create buy-in to the future.
Whether in a group meeting or one-on-one dialogue, the right questions can refocus the discussion, reenergize the conversation and restructure the approach. They can cut to the heart of the issue; cause you to stop and think about what you’re doing and why; and challenge you to make the right decision for the right reason.
The Right Perspective
So possibly you’re wondering how you can leverage the power of the right questions to have more productive business and personal discussions, ensure alignment of specific decisions with your vision or mission, generate increased business, or to coach others towards success.
Asking the right questions is a matter of perspective. It requires an objective look at the situation, or the ability to step back for a moment and view the proverbial forest instead of the trees. It may require a deeper look into the future. It requires greater interest in letting the other party find the right answer, than in you telling them what to do. It’s a matter of getting them to think through their priorities, objectives, and strategies and come to their own realization of their necessary actions. It may require listening deeply to what is not specifically stated, to the underlying motivating principles and priorities. It may involve asking the question that is screamingly obvious to you that no one else dares to ask or that everyone else is blinded to; or probing deeper into the circumstances and thought processes of the people involved.
The right questions also require the right timing for the respondent to be receptive. I had a discussion with a client several months ago regarding a colleague that he continually wanted to include in meetings. The colleague was well known in certain business circles and brought a level of credibility to his team, but the colleague’s area of specialty wasn’t well aligned with this client’s business goals. Finally, the timing was right for me to directly ask what value this colleague added. The client thought for a moment and came to the realization that there was no value, but he now owned the decision. Similarly Coach Pop’s timing in letting his team figure out the right next strategy helped them to better understand how to apply their skills to the challenges on the court.
Blake Mycoskie and Jay Stein’s right questions helped them make major decisions in their work and their lives. They didn’t avoid the response but embraced it and experienced growth. So appreciate and value the people in your life who are insightful and who venture to ask you the right questions.
Read more about Gregg Popovich here.
Read more about Blake Mycoskie here.
Read more about Jay Stein here.
Copyright 2014 Priscilla Archangel