In today’s episode, we’re chatting with Stephen Shapiro about innovation and how it applies to not only full-blown organizations but also expert-based businesses.
Innovation at its core is all about a cultural change and asking yourself the right questions.
Stephen shares with us his lessons, trials, and triumphs navigating the world of an expert, sheds light on his business model, and shares how his 25 lenses can help smoke out the simplest, innovative ideas that lead to the largest results.
If you’re looking to go deeper in your business and with your clients while always staying on the cutting-edge of innovation, this episode is for you.
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Show Notes 📓
✅ Learn More about Stephen here: https://stephenshapiro.com/
✅ Get Access to Stephen’s Book, Invisible Solutions: https://stephenshapiro.com/invisible-solutions/
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🚀 And as always, don’t forget about all the mind-blowing free resources at https://speakerflow.com/resources/
Read the Transcription 🤓
Taylorr: Welcome to another episode of Technically Speaking, we are your hosts Taylor and Austin and today we are talking about innovation and we decided to bring the best of the best in on this subject, Stephen Shapiro. For over 20 years, Stephen has presented his provocative strategies on innovation to audiences in 50 countries. During his 15-year tenure with the consulting firm, Accenture he led a 20,000-person innovation practice. He’s the author of six books, including his latest Invisible Solutions: 25 Lenses That Reframe and Help Solve Difficult Business Problems. His personality poker system has been used around the world to create high performing innovative teams and in 2015, he was inducted into the speaker hall of fame.
Now today’s episode is all about innovation and not just technical innovation, not just innovating on your own business, but what it actually means to be innovative and how it starts with culture. Stephen shares his twenty-five lenses with us, and we unpack those lenses to make sure that we’re asking ourselves the strategic questions that we need to ask ourselves to stay innovative in our businesses. And at the end, Stephen shares a golden nugget about how you shouldn’t pivot your business, but rather divot your business and go deeper. As always, don’t forget to stick around to the end, to get this episode’s resources, we hope you enjoy this one. And we are live. Stephen, welcome to the show. It is so great to have you here.
Stephen: It’s fantastic to be here today with you.
Austin: You’re like a legend, Steve. The way we talk about you, the way other people talk about you, you just have this essence of being really an expert who is extremely good at what they do, but you’re also just like all the most humble down to earth people I’ve ever met. So, I’m very grateful that you’re here, you’re an awesome person.
Stephen: Well, thanks. And it’s funny when you say like legend, I’m thinking, I guess maybe it’s the humble part. I’m thinking, are they talking about me?
Taylorr: Case in point. That’s exactly right. So, on that note, Stephen, one of the ways that we’d love to kick this show off is just talking about your background, how you got into this space in the first place. What led you down the path of becoming a speaker, a thought leader, an expert in the wider particular focus and innovation? What led you here?
Stephen: Well, I’ll start off with the focus on innovation, because I think that it’s why I’m so passionate about it. And it was back in the early nineties, I’m dating myself a little bit, but back in the early nineties, I was involved in what was called business process re-engineering and basically what it was is making processes more efficient, optimizing a company’s processes and the way they do business. And one of the things I found was that when you optimize a company’s processes, in many cases, they’re going to downsize their workforce. And I realized that the work I was doing was resulting in literally tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people losing their job. And I just woke up one day and said, this doesn’t work for me. I don’t want to do this anymore. So, I took a leave of absence.
I was working at Accenture at the time, a large management consulting firm, and I took a leave of absence and I decided I loved what I was doing, but I want to help companies grow and innovation really wasn’t a popular term 25 years ago, but I managed to, working with some other people, create a 20,000-person practice around process and innovation and growth. And that to me is really why I’m just so passionate about is I see the big potential that innovation has not just for companies, but for individuals and for society as a whole.
Austin: I like that. It started with the passion, seeing the results. It’s interesting too, that you came from this, I don’t know this background that was creating negative effects in some ways, while ultimately trying to increase the profit obviously of the business that you were working with. And it’s just an interesting path that you kind of took the got you here. It also speaks to your character, which I appreciate. One of the things that I’m curious about though, is your definition of innovation. Because I think that word has been getting tossed around more and more in the last few years and I don’t think it’s like quite a buzzword necessarily, but I think that it gets used in places where maybe it shouldn’t be. So as an expert, how would you define innovation? What does that mean to you?
Stephen: Yeah, and I think it is a little bit of a buzzword because if you ask 50 people for their definition of innovation, you’re going to get 200 different answers. So, nobody agrees, even within the innovation space nobody really seems to agree. My perspective on innovation is it is all about adaptability and relevance. And if I had had to choose one of those two words, it would be relevance. And to me, it’s we’re not changing for change’s sake, we’re not innovating to be novel, we’re not changing to be different or anything like that. The purpose of innovation is to stay relevant in the minds of the market. So, for example, we just came out of the pandemic or in the middle of it but we’re coming out to the other side of it. Well, if you didn’t change, if you didn’t innovate, you were going to become irrelevant pretty quickly if everything that you did was in person. I mean, that’s a very simple example, but that to me is the key is companies need to understand that there are always forces outside their organization that are going to impact their value in the marketplace.
Taylorr: Nice. So, one of the things that kind of stood out to me, when you were talking about your journey is you were working at this management consulting firm and the efficiencies that you’re adding, the process efficiency ended up downsizing the organization rather than growing it. How did you overcome that by stepping out and working with organizations? How does innovation fuel growth for organization?
Stephen: Well, a lot of it has to do with, if you’re creating relevance for an organization, they’re going to have more business. So, if you think about optimization, optimization tends to focus on margins, it tends to focus on profits and in many cases, the way that you increase your profits, isn’t by growing the top line, it’s by reducing the bottom line. So not instead of increasing your revenues, you decrease your costs. And I remember there was this many, many years back when Jack Welsh was running GE, I saw this video clip of him talking, it resonated with me for decades now. And he said for the longest time we’ve been squeezing lemons, there are no more lemons to squeeze. We need to grow more lemons. And that to me is the difference is optimization is squeezing lemons, innovation is growing lemons. So, it’s about growing the top line, it’s about growing the revenues, it’s about creating more value in the market so that you are more valuable as an organization.
Austin: Okay. That seems like a tangible definition. Do you think that the two play-off of each other in some way? Because the way you’ve explained it, I think could make it seem as if those two things are totally separate, but are there instances in which they go hand in hand this optimization?
Stephen: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. They’re not at odds with each other. Look at the end of the day, the reason why we want to increase revenues is because we want to increase profits so they all go hand in hand. And for a lot of companies, when they start off their innovation efforts, sometimes the things that they will do is start off with efficiency challenges. Okay. We need to be higher levels of productivity; we want to be able to reduce the cost of processing of payment or whatever it might be.
And that’s where a lot of companies start because that gives them money to fuel. It’s easier to cut than it is to grow. It’s faster to be able to chop something than it is to actually plant something and have it produce fruit. So, it’s a portfolio, it’s like a financial portfolio. We always have a portfolio of, okay, we’re going to have some quick wins, we’re going to have some incremental improvements. Some of them might be cost savings, but some of them hopefully will be revenue gains but at the same time, we’re also looking longer term. And I think that the mistake a lot of people make is they assume that innovation is these big breakthrough, radical changes and sometimes very, very simple changes can have a huge impact on an organization that to me is really where it becomes most exciting. Is where you’re focused on the small changes that have the big results. That to me is leverage.
Taylorr: Got you. What a good definition of that too. And I know your brand has kind of round up this idea of invisible solutions and how that plays into innovation. Can you tell me more about that and why invisible solutions are a part of innovation? Because it sounds like it ties into that whole idea of finding the simple things that can have the biggest impact.
Stephen Yeah. Spot on. Because basically the premise of invisible solutions, which is the title of a book and my whole body of work right now, is that the best solutions to our problems are right in front of our nose we just can’t see them because we’re asking the wrong questions. And it’s sort of like if you go to the optometrist and you sit in the chair and they put that humongous thing in front of your face with all the different lenses and they change the lenses. And when they move the lenses, all of a sudden thing that were blurry now come into focus and that’s what the invisible solutions. We have twenty-five lenses that help organizations reframe problems so that what was invisible becomes visible. And that’s, to me, the key is the best solutions are the simplest solutions, but we just can’t see them because we’re asking the wrong questions.
Austin: I love what you said there, right at the end. That makes sense asking the right questions or I guess the wrong questions in the sense that you just put it, but asking the right questions is really the key there, right? Because if they’re already in front of you, it’s a process of discovery as opposed to creation. Am I hearing that right?
Stephen: Well, absolutely. So, take the work that we’re doing together. So, I’m working with you and in terms of getting my CRM going and really being able to build relationships. Now, a lot of people would be into funnels, there’d be into quantity. So, the problem they might be solving is how can I get tens of thousands of people to love what I’m doing. And that’s a question, but it leads you down a particular path. My question is actually a very different one. Is how can I tap in to the relationships I’ve built over the years and actually nurture those? So instead of growing my network, how can I nurture my network? And it’s a different question, it’s a different problem statement and if you think about the types of solutions, you’re going to focus on one might be focused on Facebook ads, mine is focused on CRM and actually doing a personal outreach to people.
Austin: Yeah. I liked that as an example too, you take your own medicine, here’s maybe a bit of an abstract question for you to build on that, but you find quite often, and especially this space, the expert’s space, the cobbler son syndrome, where somebody may be an expert in sales and yet doesn’t execute sales properly for their own business. But you’ve just given us an example of an instance in your own business where you were able to innovate. So, is there a question that you ask yourself that leads you to the right question? I don’t know if that that makes sense or not, but I’m wondering if there’s something that people can get underneath that might smoke out some of these proper questions that will get them where they want to go.
Stephen: The underlying principle behind a lot of my work is just understanding what assumptions we’re making. Because assumptions, they’re not necessarily wrong, but they might lead us down the wrong path. And so, I have a number of tools around assumption busting, but the key thing that actually helps surface assumptions are the 25 lenses from invisible solutions. So, for example, one of the lenses, number one is called the leverage lens. So, I’m always asking myself when I’m working on something, what will give me the greatest leverage. If I could only do one thing, what would have the greatest impact?
Now it might be which customer segment do I go after? Because that’s where I have the greatest impact or what type of content is going to have the greatest impact? So that’s one of the lenses. When I was writing the book, I use the lenses to help me reframe it. Originally, the book was going to be on innovation and growth and all that and then I got to the pain versus gain lens and I realized this is before the pandemic. But I also was predicting, we were going to have some kind of economic adjustment. Whether or not it was a recession, but I knew there’s going to be some kind of correction because we had so many, we had a decade of strength. So, I decided instead of focusing on growth, which is the first thing that people cut, when there’s an economic correction, I decided to focus on problem solving, which when there’s economic downturn, we have more problems.
So, I use that pain versus gain lens to reframe the content of the book. I used another lens to recognize, no, I’m not creating a book, I’m creating a product. What else am I going to create? That goes along with it. So, we created a whole bunch of digital and physical tools that support it so it’s a whole body of work, not a book. So, the bottom line is I used my 25 lenses all the time on everything that I do, because if I don’t do that, I’m going to be doing what I’ve always done and I’ve been in business for 20 years. So, it gets very easy to say what I did in the past will help me in the future. So not true.
Taylorr: That’s so tangible too. I feel like I need to master those 25 lenses, just so I know I’m asking myself the right questions as we navigate our business and Stephen, we’ve known each other for a little while now and one of the really interesting things about you that I kind of gleaned right away is that there were moments in time where you thought about your business and what you want it to look like and then you shifted, you basically innovated on it. Especially before even the pandemic started, you knew you wanted to go virtual in 2021, you knew you wanted to focus on these deeper relationships. What are some of the milestones over the last 20 years or so of you doing this where you’ve innovated your business and it’s really had an impact for you? Are there like markers along your journey where you’ve had to innovate that have kind of put that to the test?
Stephen: There’s been quite a few. I mean, and some of them actually didn’t work the way I thought they would work. I’d been a corporate person, 15 years with Accenture, left Accenture had my first book written, which was a business book on innovation and then about four or five years later, I decided I want to impact people, not just companies, but people. So, I wrote a book called Goal-free Living, and goal free living is really how do you live a creative life without goals? Because from my perspective, although we have goals in many cases, our relationship to goals limits our ability to think creatively, limits our passion. And so, I wrote this book thinking this is going to be the big thing for me. It’s going to be awesome. It was on the cover of O magazine, Oprah magazine. I thought this was going be the biggest thing. It was like, oh, huge.
And what ended up happening was my corporate clients were like, well, this guy is talking about not having goals, clearly, he’s not the guy for us. And so, what it forced me to do is to double down on innovation at that point, then I started building partnerships. Those have really helped me a lot because I really believe partnerships are the key to growing a business, whatever kind of business you have and so I did that, and then more books. Some of them were smaller changes, some of them were bigger changes, at the end of that, I’d say right now, these are the biggest changes I’m doing right now in terms of really, really going deep with clients. I launched an Institute, which is all around helping companies create a culture of innovation and problem solving and those are the types of things which are creating the most value.
And I’ll just say one last thing on that. And the reason why I did this, wasn’t just economic. If I go back to 25 years ago, when I’ve gone into innovation, that was not an economic decision to help companies grow. It was an emotional decision for me. And what I’ve noticed is over the past 20 years of having a keynote speaking business is a little bit of a hollow feeling at times when I get off the stage and I think that was good, people got value from it, but it’s just an hour and then I’m onto the next stage. And what I realized is if I’m going to touch people deeply, I have to talk to people individually. I have to work with people at a much deeper level. And that really has been the main reason for this biggest transformation is I want to feel good about myself knowing I’ve created as much value as I possibly can for organizations.
Austin: Yeah. Well, I don’t think there’s any doubt in the world that you do that. One of the things that you mentioned that I’d love for you to elaborate on, and this is just sort of going into your own business, but you said that part of the Institute’s purpose is to create a culture of change and innovation if I said that right. A culture has to be applicable at all levels of an organization and obviously like you’re a busy guy already, and I’m sure when you’re going deep with these clients, if you’re truly going to give people the individual attention that they need in a lot of cases, to be able to foster that culture, you have to do that at all levels. So how do you package your expertise in a way that allows you to touch a big number of people, but in an individual way within an organization?
Stephen: So, the first thing that I do is I think about an organization in terms of layers and as a speaker we’re sort of talking typically a percentage of an organization, 1%, 2%, 5%, whatever it might be. And what I do is I think about first of all, how can I go deeper into the organization? Which means how can I get to a hundred percent of the organization, which is obviously very low touch, but still content, whether it’s videos, e-learning things of that nature, but I’m also looking at how can I go deeper with individuals? And that’s where I start looking at certification and licensing. And that’s one of the things which I’m really just excited about is if I want to scale my business, the best way to do that is to get other people who are skilled at what I do now.
It doesn’t mean, I want to be clear, a lot of I’m not a lot, but many people who are speakers might certify other speakers to deliver their content. I’m not doing that. What I’m doing is going into companies and saying, look, you could bring me in, you could spend millions of dollars trying to create a cultural revolution inside your organization, or I can take a handful of people within your organization and not just teach them to teach, but teach them to think the way I think such that they can now carry on the torch and bring it to the rest of the organization. So, part of it is that leveraged model. How can I get leverage? The other thing which I’m doing a lot is asynchronous tools. So yes, I do have conversations with people, but also when people have questions, I use yak, which is a basically a walkie talkie type of app, it’s like Voxer or Marco polo, which is a video version of it.
And I love these because people can just leave me questions and I can respond back at my own time. And so, I use a lot of asynchronous content and also a lot of pre-packaged content. So, each week when I’m working with people, they will get videos and PDFs and templates of materials that they need to read, watch consume before we get together, there’s a little bit of homework. So, I’m really putting the burden of time on them so that the time that I spend with them is really focused on digging even to a whole deeper level into the content, but I’m not delivering content when I’m doing one-on-one or small group types of things.
Taylorr: Wow, got you. Man, a licensing model, it’s one of my favorite models, honestly. It’s the leverage, being able to go deeper with an organization, still have an incredible amount of impact and still be able to affect individuals, by having people carry on that torch. And you said something that really stood out to me. You said, you said that you teach them how to think the way you think, not just to teach. That’s a powerful statement because really as an expert, it’s your thought process that allows you take really the abstract for your clients and make it as simple as possible for them. So, if you can ingrain that within an organization, obviously that’s going to have a tremendous amount of impact for them. So, thanks for summarizing that so simply for us.
One of the questions that I have about innovation just generally speaking is it sometimes feels that people, they say, yeah, I know we need to innovate, or I need to innovate maybe as an expert, a thought leader, but it seems to be reactionary in a way where it’s like something happens and then that means that innovation is needed. Are there moments in time where innovation is reactionary? Is it proactive? Is it always ongoing? How does a thought leader, an expert, how do we practice innovation in a way that always warrants results? Or is it only reactionary?
Stephen: I hope it’s not reactionary because reactionary, well, by the time, if it’s reactionary, then you’re playing catch-up. It’s why one of my books is called Best Practices Are Stupid. If you’re just copying what other people are doing while you’re now reacting, because by the time you implement their best practice, they’re onto the next practice. So, it’s not will we be reacting? Yes. But the key to any good innovation program is the ability to sense and respond to changes in the market. And this is the biggest mistake that I think a lot of organizations make is they look at innovation as an inside out endeavor. What am I good at? What can I offer as opposed to looking at it outside end which says, what is the market need? Where are their gaps? Where are their pains and problems that people have that I can solve?
And so, it’s that outside and if you constantly ask yourself, okay, what pains do people have? Oh, it’s a different pain today than it was yesterday. Can I solve that with what I have today? Or could I create something that will help solve that tomorrow? And it’s that sensing and responding, that becomes a really integral part of any good innovation program.
Taylorr: Sensing and responding.
Austin: Like that. I’d be curious to hear from you, Steve, how do like analytics or data play a role in the practice of innovation? Is that a focus in terms of the work that you do with them, your clients?
Stephen: Absolutely, data is critical. Two of the lenses of the 25 is one is the insights lens, which is all around data. People think of creativity as sort of this sitting on a mountain, smoking a joint, looking at the clouds and coming up with wacky ideas and it is absolutely not that at all. It is like so far from that.
Taylorr: Bummer. That’s disappointing to hear. Dang it. Dang. Not going to do that now.
Stephen: Yeah. Look as background, I’m an engineer, I’m a trained engineer, that’s what my education is in. From my perspective, innovation is actually an analytical process that starts with an issue, problem, challenge, or opportunity and ends with the creation of value. So how do you identify those issue problem, challenge or opportunities? Partly it will be through data, it will be through analytics, it will be through insights that we gather by whether it’s doing surveys, whether it’s data that we’re able to gather as part of our regular work, whether it’s conversations. But the other lens, which I think is really powerful is the observation lens, because data is still limited.
Data is based on your current interactions with people based on their past experiences. Observation is going to give you a deeper sense of what’s going on. You’re going to be able to discover pains and problems that even your customers don’t know they have, and that’s a different level of innovation. So, I think it’s a combination of data insights and observation, which is sort of what we call ethnography. It’s like really just observing what people are doing and seeing, wow, there’s a better way to do it. How can I help them in a way that they’ve not thought about?
Austin: Yeah, I love that. Thanks for the succinct answer there. So, I know we’re getting pretty close on our time here. I’ve got one other thing that I wanted to ask, which is like telltale signs that you can be looking for preemptively in order to know that innovation is something you should be considering in your business. Are there indicators that you think people can for that says like, this is a good time to be thinking about how we’re going to improve this moving.
Stephen: If you have people in your company, that’s the telltale sign. Because…
Stephen: People think of innovation as it’s something that starts and stops. It is an ongoing, continuous, nonstop endeavor. It is part of your strategy and it is really just trying to determine… the world is changing at an exponential rate and unfortunately, most organizations are improving at an incremental rate. And that basically tells you that in a relatively short amount of time, you’re going to be out of business. So, we need the pace of change inside the organization to be faster than the pace of change outside the organization so it never stops. And it requires not just innovation teams, if I’m talking to a big company, for example, it’s not about innovation team, that’s going to be innovating. It’s about the entire organization, helping with the innovation effort. So, it always takes place. It never stops. And that is the key. Once you stop, world’s going to change and pass you by.
Taylorr: That’s all she wrote. I like summarize that because it really does play into your, your comment earlier about how you need to make innovation a part of the culture because if it’s a part of the culture, the culture implies that it’s always there, it’s always present, it’s ingrained deeply within that organization. And I think far too often, we’re seeing innovation be like a reactionary thing where it stops and starts and stops and starts. And it’s incremental rather than it always being a part of the program so you get that exponential gain. Man, Steve you’ve made this kind of abstract idea, incredibly simple for us. I must get a copy of the book of course, those 25 lenses, I feel like are going to be very handy in our back pockets, but outside of the book and invisible solutions kind of content that you have, what else are you working on right now that our listeners can benefit from?
Stephen: So, and this is more for larger organizations, but I’ve launched the Invisible Solutions Institute, which is invisiblesolutionsinstitute.com. And it’s really where, if somebody wants to under… like that model where I talked about where you can go deeper with certification or go broader, all those models are on that page. One of the things which a lot of people do is they talk about pivoting their business and I always say, you don’t want to pivot your business, you want to divot. And if you’re a bad golfer, you divot, which means you get a chunk of dirt and it goes flying because you went deep and that’s what I’m doing is I’m divioting. I’m going deeper, deeper, deeper into my content. So, I’m not working on anything new, other than going deeper. So, we have on invisible solutions, if you go to invisiblesolutiontools.com, we have a browser that actually brings the lenses to life. We’re creating a chat bot around that so it sort of simulates what I would do to solve a problem. We’ve got the Institute, so it’s just more and more and more to basically help organizations solve their most complex problems as quickly as possible and do that by creating a culture of innovation.
Taylorr: Wow. I feel like I just found the title of this episode. Don’t pivot, divot.
Taylorr: I love it. Stephen, thank you so much for being here and hey, if you liked this episode, don’t forget to like it, write it, subscribed to it and if you want more awesome resources like this, go to speaker flow.com/resources. Thank you so much for chiming in. I just wanted to take a second to thank our sponsor Auxbus. Auxbus is the all-in-one suite of tools you need to run your podcast and it’s actually what we run here at Speaker Flow for Technically Speaking. It makes planning podcast simple; it makes recording podcasts simple; it even makes publishing podcasts to the masses Simple and quite honestly, technically speaking, wouldn’t be up as soon as it is without Auxbus. Thank you so much Auxbus. And if you are interested in checking Auxbus out, whether you’re starting a podcast or you have one currently, get our special offer auxbus.com/speaker flow, or click the link below in our show notes.