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Unstructured Time is not the Same as Unproductive Time

There is a reason that so many “aha” moments come in the shower. It is about the only unstructured time many people get.

We have too much crammed into every minute of our lives. Too many projects, assignments, and meetings at work. Sports, yard work, shopping, home repairs, and other responsibilities at home. Constant nagging from IM, texts, e-mails, Facebook, or Twitter demanding our immediate attention.

Too often we allow these “urgent” and “important” demands to use up all of our unstructured time. We don’t have time to turn around, much less relax and decompress. In this harried world, we often feel guilty if we do have some free time. After all, we must be busy to be productive, right?

Wrong. The ideas that will really make a difference — for us, our co-workers, our companies, and our customers — often take time to develop. Associations, connections, and alternatives evolve over time. Too often, however, we miss them completely because we are too busy responding to e-mail, racing to the next meeting, or juggling assignments.

Take some time today to let your mind wander. Give yourself 10 to 15 minutes to take a walk, people watch, or look out the window. It might be the most productive thing you do all day.

It’s the Experience, Stupid

User experience is so important, yet so often overlooked. I experienced an interesting contrast in user experience a few months back. I had been thinking about downloading a reader app to my Android phone when I got an e-mail from Barnes and Noble about their browser-based version of the Nook. They sweetened the deal with 6 free books.

I decided to give it a try (after all the books would work on the Android version of the Nook as well). The reader set up went easy enough, but when I tried reading a book I couldn’t see the whole page and there were no scroll bars. The mouse didn’t help either. I couldn’t get it to work. It may have been something I was doing wrong, but I did try it in both Firefox and Internet Explorer (and I am not a novice computer user). It was a bad experience that certainly didn’t encourage me to go with the Nook. I did try for a free book, however. I picked the book, put it in my cart and checked out. It wanted my credit card for a free book! By then I was really frustrated and gave up. More black marks for the Nook experience.

I then installed the Kindle software on my phone, which went very smoothly. I browsed Amazon’s list of free kindle books and selected one. It immediately started downloading to my phone and I got an e-mail with my “order” summary. No credit card, no fuss. The whole experience was seamless and effortless.

Wow, what a contrast. The Nook experience was awkward and difficult, making it quite unpleasant. The Kindle experience was smooth, effortless and, in contrast, quite delightful. I have since downloaded other books from Amazon, and checked out library e-books and read them with the Kindle app on my phone. Very handy when sitting in waiting rooms, airports, etc.

I will note that I have made numerous purchases from both Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and will continue to do so, but I will not be buying a Nook any time soon.

The lesson here is pay attention to the full experience. Don’t send out an e-mail encouraging people to try an application that is just going to frustrate them. Don’t make them enter a credit card for a free book, even if it is easier for your developers. This is where Apple excels. They don’t just have cool computers or MP3 players, or phones. They provide a complete, fun, engaging experience.

As an e-reader, there probably isn’t much difference between the Kindle and the Nook. However, my experience with the browser-version of the Nook (which sounded so easy and convenient), pushed me away from the Nook and firmly into the Kindle camp.

Divergent Thinking at Google

Wow. It was announced today that Google will buy Zagat. Not long ago that would have seemed like a ridiculous idea. Even in today’s environment, where it is easy to see the genius in the move (after the fact), it was still a large leap to the side — even for Google. What does an Internet search/advertising company have to do with rating restaurants?

But that is the power of innovative companies like Google. They never let themselves get too comfortable, too focused on what is working today, to look off the well worn track (rut) to consider other options. An average business would have heard that Zagat was in trouble, and possibly for sale, and thought “that’s too bad.” (Was that your response?) But, the divergent thinkers at Google asked “How can that work for us? What impact would it have on our business if we bought Zagat?”

Of course, we’ll have to wait and see what the outcome will be. But, it doesn’t take much imagination to visualize all kinds of ways that Zagat can bring value to Google, and how that synergy will bring value to Google’s customers (all of us).

You neigh-sayers out there are thinking, that’s great for Google, but I couldn’t afford to buy Zagat anyway. This doesn’t apply to me. While buying Zagat may not apply directly to you, there are many side roads that could bring value to you and your customers — if you would just take the time to explore a little bit. Ask yourself and your team questions like “What other audiences/markets could use our product or service?” What are some other ways our product/service could be used?” “What problem does our product/service solve (or as Clayton Christensen would say, what job does it do)?” What if our product/service were suddenly made illegal?

Since school is back in session, you get a homework assignment. Right now, while you are thinking about it, plan a session with a handful of your employees/co-workers and ask these and other similar questions. And don’t quit until you have really explored them. Sure, you will come up with some crazy ideas. But you don’t know which of those crazy ideas will open new markets or extend the life of your product, until you diverge from the comfortable answers and look at the possibilities.

Innovation and Story Telling

I saw a program about story telling on TV the other night.  The program included discussions and insights from a story-telling workshop.  Several times the master story teller hosting the workshop admonished those in the group (and those of us watching the program) to always have pencil and paper or some other means to record ideas.  He said that in the course of a day we all notice things and think “that’s interesting” or “I need to make a note of that” or “that would make a good story” etc.  But, then we forget.  Unless we write it down right then, the idea is lost.

The same is true with innovation.   We see little things here and there that spark ideas, but often the ideas are lost.  It might be as simple as seeing a coworker struggle with X and thinking “I’ve had that same problem,  we should change Y to make X easier” or hearing a light-hearted comment from a customer and thinking “there’s more to that than they are letting on, I should check into that sometime.”   If not recorded, these fleeting thoughts leave us, often never to return.

Observation is critical in gathering ideas that add richness and depth to stories;  that make the difference between a flat story and a riveting, engaging story.  That applies to innovation as well.  Insights that come from careful observation can make the difference between an idea that has no impact and falls flat, and an innovation that has power to improve our processes, excite our customers, or expand our markets.

We are all familiar with the idea of recording ideas as soon as they happen.  But, be honest, we have all lost ideas because we didn’t write them down.  Whether crafting a compelling story, innovating ways to reach new markets, or just remembering to pick up milk on the way home from work,  ideas are often lost if not recorded.  We all need to increase our awareness of what is happening around us, but then we also need to make sure that the ideas that come to us are recorded.  Otherwise they will slip away and be of no use to anyone.

While most of us wouldn’t think of ourselves as story tellers, we all have a story to tell.   Recording the insights we gain from careful observation will help us tell the story of new and better ways to do things.  And that is what innovation is all about.

The Innovator’s Prescription

If you are interested in innovation, or are concerned about the condition of our healthcare system, then you will enjoy reading The Innovator’s Prescription by Clayton Christensen, Jerome H. Grossman M.D., and Jason Hwang M.D.  If you are interested in innovation and healthcare, you need to click over to Amazon, drive down to your neighborhood bookstore, or log on to your library’s web site to get this book right now!

The other day I picked up The Innovator’s Prescription to read while I waited for an appointment.  I first read the book back in January when it first came out.  Rereading the Disrupting the Business Model of the Physician’s Practice chapter got me all pumped up again.  This is one great book.

This timely volume combines Christensen’s proven theories on innovation with 10 years of research on all levels of health care.  The book covers providers, hospitals, pharma, patients, and everything in between.  Rather than propose new spending programs or seeking to protect current interests, Christensen, et al provide a clear, rational assessment of healthcare as it exists today in the United States; along with well reasoned suggestions of how it could, and should, evolve into something much better.  Though many of the ideas presented are “disruptive” of the status quo, these are ideas that make sense, not some cooked up, forced plan to “save” healthcare.

Although more than four hundred pages, this book is riveting, enlightening, and liberating.  If you have concerns about healthcare, do yourself a favor and read this book.  As a bonus you will find many engaging case studies, anecdotes, and real-world illustrations of innovation at work.

The Innovator’s Prescription is a must read!

Lies, Darned Lies, and Subscription Offers

I got a “one time offer” in the mail today to renew a magazine subscription.  I threw it right into the recycle bin.  I never respond to the first renewal offer I get for a magazine.  If you have ever subscribed to a magazine you know why.  Regardless of what the offer says (one-time deal, last chance, etc.) there is always another offer coming, usually at the same price — or better.

You’d think that in this world of “voice of the customer,” viral marketing, extreme customer service, etc.  that magazine publishers would figure out that they would get more subscriptions, with fewing mailings, if they would stop lying to us.

Instead of numerous renewal offers that start cluttering our mail box just weeks after we complete the prior renewal, just send an e-mail with a link to their web site.  On the site give us three or four options (1 year, 2 year, gift subscription, etc.) with pricing that we can trust.  And, offer to not bill the credit card until the current expiration date. I’d go for that.

But, forget the “one time offer” that involves my payment 9 months before my current subscription runs out, when I know I’m going to get at least six more offers.  Just be honest with me, and leave the “buy now, or else” scare tactics to the sleazy used car salesmen.

Is that too much to ask?

Please hold so we can better serve you

Don’t you just hate interactive voice response systems?  You know, the automated voice that asks you for all kinds of information so it can “better serve you.”

One of my least favorite aspects of these systems is that they pretend to be an effort to better serve me, when in reality they are first, and foremost, a way to cut costs.  I called to request a detailed bill for a recent visit to the emergency room of a local hospital.  The automated voice said that to better serve me, and to route my call to the correct area it would need to get some information.  This was expected, and I complied fully… yes, I was the patient; account number; date of birth, last four of my social security number…  You know the drill, I’m sure.

When I had given the system all the information it needed, another voice informed me that to ensure quality customer service my call may be recorded.  After a brief pause a new voice came on the line.  Another automated attendant!  And guess what?  It asked me the same questions again!  After complying fully, and confirming my account, date of birth, last four digits of my social security number, and answering a few more questions I finally got an option to request a detailed bill.

I understand how these systems save money for the companies that utilize them.  The computer that answers the phones isn’t on salary, and doesn’t need breaks.  I just don’t understand how they can claim (with a straight face) that these systems are implemented to improve the customer experience.

Innovation without a customer is nonsense

I’ve often marveled at the naivete of designers that are so excited about their cool new web interface, or developers who are so proud of their shiny new service or method when, in reality, their creations are only novelties because they don’t solve a real need.  Cool for cool’s sake is not good design (or good code).  Good design meets a need, helps the user/customer accomplish a goal.  So, to have good design, you first must know your customer.

Along the same line is this great quote about innovation from The Game-Changer by A. G. Lafley and Ram Charan:

To understand innovation, you first have to see the differences between an invention and an innovation.  An invention is a new idea that is often turned into a tangible outcome, such as a product or a system.  An innovation is the conversion of a new idea into revenues and profits.  An idea that looks great in the lab and fails in the market is not an innovation; it is, at best, a curiosity.  As Jeff Immelt once put it, “Innovation without a customer is nonsense; it’s not even innovation.”

I would add that a design that doesn’t meet a customer’s need is not a design.  It is, at best, a curiosity.  Great designs have purpose, they achieve a goal.  And if they are cool in the process, all the better.  But, if they are “cool” without getting the job done, they are, at best, curiosities.

The “Little Things” are key to a good experience

A couple of weeks ago I arrived at the Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center in Orlando for a conference. I, along with the others in my group, was immediately impressed with the grandeur of the resort.

From the grand entrance and the ornate lobby to huge atrium with a mini everglades including live alligators, beautiful pools, and tasteful restaurants, to the personal greeting on the screen of the in-room computer system, this was a fabulous resort (as they repeatedly called it).

The “Big Things” were all very nice, very grand. Obviously a lot of money spent. This was no average hotel and convention center. In a very short time my expectations for the experience I would have there were set very high.

Those high expectations were short lived, however. As I spent time in and around the resort I was continuously bombarded by little things overlooked or done poorly.

The first night I was there I came back to my room (after having been in and out of the room several times) and my key card would not work. I went down to the front desk and got a new one and I went back up to my room. I was still locked out. I went down to the desk again. They called security. I went back up and waited in the hall. Security got finally got there and I thought my wait was over. Wrong. He tried a few tricks, but couldn’t get in either. He radioed for engineering. So, I paced the hall and waited — again. The guy from engineering didn’t have any better luck getting the lock to work. Fortunately, he had a metal rod with a string that he could put under the door, hook the handle and break into my room. Yes, break in. That made me feel secure. An hour after I first tried to get into my room, I was finally successful. The guy from engineering said he had to rush off to help someone else who was locked out of their room, but he could come back after and replace the lock, or someone could come the next day. Well, I didn’t want to go into the next day not being able to get into my room, so I told him I’d wait up for him. Forty-five minutes later my door worked. I made it to bed about 1:30 am.

The next morning the fun continued. Although I could get into my room fine, I found that I could not get out of the guest parking. Fortunately, the card reader had a button you could push for help. “They will let me out” I thought. Wrong. I had to get the 2 cars behind me to back up and drive to the exit that had an attendant — who insisted on swiping my card herself and looking up my room number before she would believe that it didn’t work (but should have).

I had been eager to forgive after getting locked out. Mechanical failures happen. Now, however, I was beginning to get a bit frustrated. And, the frustrations continued. I won’t bore you with the details, but little things continued to go wrong throughout the week. Not just for me, but for most in my group. Of the 8 in my group, only one didn’t have several irritating problems, from in-room air conditioning and phone not working to being checked into rooms that had not been cleaned (including a used shaving kit in the bathroom).

Sadly, instead of coming away with great memories of a great experience, we all came away with a bad taste in our mouths due to “Little Things” that were overlooked and mishandled. A lot of money was spent on big things to make a big impression. But that money was wasted due to the little things gone awry. That’s too bad for everyone involved.

Hyatt Place

I was in Minneapolis recently for some meetings at a customer’s offices in a suburban area. While there I stayed at the Hyatt Place. It was my first trip to the area, but those I was traveling with had been there before and said that they wanted to stay at the Hyatt Place. I was not familiar with Hyatt Place, but went along with their recommendation. From the outside it looked pretty much like the myriad of other small hotels that locate around offices in suburban areas.

Walking into the lobby, however, was a unique experience.

Just inside the front door we were greeted by the friendly staff wearing coordinating sweaters instead of formal uniforms. There was no large registration desk that separated us from the staff, just a small counter. As we came in a couple of staffers stepped to the counter and checked us in. The computer monitor was build into the counter top, which was waist high. The whole experience was open, inviting, friendly. Not formal, stuffy, or separating.

Stepping into my room was likewise a pleasant surprise. Instead of a narrow passage between a closet and a bathroom, I was greeted by the view of a large room with a sectional couch! My first impression of the room wasn’t small and cramped, but open and spacious. As I stepped into the room I then saw the 42 inch flat screen HDTV that swiveled so it could be viewed either from the couch or the bed. The things that were visible from the main areas of the room (desk, couch, bed) were all very nice. The sinks were set in a granite counter that was next to the closet, across from the bed. The bathroom was in the far corner of the room and was nice, but fairly plain. The attention to detail was in those area that would be seen, and used, the most. Very nice.

I highly recommend Hyatt Place, especially if you are going to be there more than one night. It was a great experience.