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Creative Problem Solving for a New Millenium

Today’s fast-paced world demands new approaches to problem solving. The ancient Chinese proverb: “If you only have a hammer every problem is a nail” highlights that we all approach problem solving with a preexisting set of skills, biases, values, and past experiences that might not apply to the new challenges that we find ourselves facing or may be insufficient in seizing new opportunities. We therefore need to expand our toolbox of solutions to approach problem solving in a fresh new light.

Today’s blog is dedicated to providing sure fire ways to unleash your creative juices and add tools to your arsenal. Using the strategies below, you will be able to approach problems in a new way to conceptualize, analyze and implement new ideas.

Whether you’re searching for new products or services, conducting a job search or thinking about transitioning to a new career, these sure-fire problem-solving strategies will help you to unleash your full potential.

SKETCHING: Remember all those times you doodled in class when you were bored by your teacher/professor? Well, turns out that sketching is a powerful tool to help your mind wander aimlessly while firing up those neurons. Keep a small notepad with you. You can sketch when the mood hits you, and jot down all those ideas as they pop up. In my daughter’s school they call it “Stop and Jot.”

BRAINSTORMING: This time-tested strategy works for a reason. You get a group/team together, have a moderator outline the problems and assess a myriad of solutions in a working group format. Brainstorming however has many flaws. More vocal, aggressive, and self-confident outspoken members tend to dominate the forum even despite effective facilitation, thus the quieter, more introspective players are blocked out and their ideas go unheard. One way to counter this natural group behavior that comes out in brainstorming is to pursue brainwriting.

BRAINWRITING: Overcomes the inherent shortfalls of brainstorming. With brainwriting the moderator asks each participant to write down 3-5 ideas to solve a problem. This is all done anonymously. Then the moderator collects their answers and passes them out so others can add ideas, thoughts, or question the initial respondent’s list. You do this a few times and then get together as an entire group to go through each thread of ideas.

ASKING WHY: Ask anyone who has little children or has been around them, and they will tell you the most annoying question you can be asked over and over is…”WHY?” However, when you question accepted processes, systems, approaches, or ways of doing things you can force yourself and those around you to consider new perspectives. Along those lines, you can and MUST demand that it is no longer to answer any WHY with…”that’s how we’ve always done things.” That is an unacceptable answer in light of the unique challenges we face.

STARBURSTING: In a team, you start by writing down an idea, problem or challenge in the middle of a six-point star. Then you collectively answer each of the 5 W’s and H (who, what, where, when, why and how.) Come up with as many potential solutions as possible without editing yourself. Then choose amongst the ideas that can be implemented.

PROVOCATION: Make a statement that is provocative and seemingly flawed on its face value, with the intent of sparking debate. For example, if you are leading an architect’s team building a new commercial building, you might consider starting a meeting by saying: “the building we design doesn’t need a roof.”

The goal of provocation is to spark “What if” scenarios to support that (seemingly false) claim. Example, the building we design shouldn’t have a traditional roof, but rather a roof with solar panels or green/eco-friendly feature to capture and re-use the energy from the heat of the sun.

METAPHORICAL THINKING: This creative problem solving exercise features combining two seemingly unrelated ideas, concepts, features, products in order to come up with new solutions. For example, if you were trying to determine the best way to apply the collective time your Team spends working on a task, you would blend the two seemingly unrelated ideas of TIME and MONEY.

REFRAMING MATRIX: The approach with re-framing is to force your team’s participants to consider challenges using a different perspective than they typically use. This FOUR PERSPECTIVE approach forces them to consider the following:

The PRODUCT/SERVICE Perspective: Is something wrong with the product/service we offer?
The PLANNING Perspective: Is our business/sales/marketing plan(s) faulty?
The POTENTIAL Perspective: If we increase our workload, project focus, offerings, how will we achieve this?
The PEOPLE Perspective: Do we have the RIGHT people and are they working at the RIGHT tasks/in the RIGHT roles.

ATTRIBUTE LISTING: This exercise is ideal to help you identify new product and service offerings.

Start out by listing all the functional groups of offerings your company, department, team offers. For example, a Student Affairs Department in a college delivers services to students around student development, counseling, career services, housing, health & wellness, etc.

Your team will then list all of the different services/products offered in each category/group. For example, career services offered by Student Affairs includes job fairs, resume writing, cover letters, interviewing skills, etc. The goal is to mix & match different services in different categories to formulate new offerings.

The DO IT Approach:

D” Define the problem
O” Open your mind and apply creative solutions
I” Identify the solution(s)
T” Transform…implement the solution(s) using an action plan

WALT DISNEY CREATIVE STRATEGY: Walt Disney was one of the most creative and prolific business people and a true visionary in America’s history. Not only was he a great visionary and creative genius, but he was also exceptional at using a formal process (neurolinguistic language programming) in order to get the most out of the people he worked for. Here’s how he did it:

Have your team meet in a conference room or space. Have 3 separate areas. Start out in the DREAMER area. Every one must visualize a time in their life when they were a dreamer and came up with a tremendously creative idea. What did they feel like? What were they thinking? When everyone is done, move to the REALIST area. Everyone must think about a time in their career when they effectively planned, solved or executed a problem. What were they thinking? How did they feel? When time is up, have everyone move to the CRITIC area. Ask all the participants to think back to a time in their work life when they had to critically assess/determine if an idea or proposed solution would actually work.

Make the team go through this exercise 2 or 3 times, until they are confident that their approaches can stand up to the collective scrutiny of the team when they meet to discuss their findings.

Dare to be GREAT: Just being good enough can no longer be our goal to strive for, when so many of our business/industry, academic, and political systems are failing us. We need entirely NEW approaches. We need to demand greatness. Jim Collins in his book ‘Good to Great’ wrote that “Good is the enemy of great.”

Steve Jobs who ex
perienced the highest of highs and low of lows being fired from his job as CEO and founder of Apple wrote: “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work.”

So, why not try to implement some of these approaches to problem solving. You’ll be amazed how many actionable new ideas and solutions you can come up with.

Networking Skills to Get Everything You Want

It never ceases to amaze me how few people there are that understand how to network effectively. Given how important it is to make a first impression, and how valuable our network of relationships are in our personal and professional lives, you’d think that more people would try harder to network effectively.

Well, no worries. Here are some strategies that you can employ in your 2011 networking activities, to win friends and influence people.

1) Develop a Strategic Networking Plan.

Whether your goal is to find new business opportunities or conduct an effective job search, you need to have a strategic networking plan. In the plan, your create a comprehensive profile of your target (whether its an employer, client, vendor, partner, supplier, etc.) Be as detailed as you can in your description. Include information about where they went to college (undergraduate and graduate programs), what industry associations do they belong to, what events do they attend, what conferences do they go to, what panel discussions are they going to participate in, where are they speaking/presenting at, what if any volunteer organizations do they support, what programs such as coaching/mentoring are they involved with.

You then want to create a plan on how you are going to get yourself “in front” of these people. You want to be at any and all events in your area that are attended by target clients/employers.

2) Meet People Through MeetUp.

Go to www.meetup.com and search for groups of professionals in your city/home town that share your professional interests and background and send a request to that group’s organizer requesting to join these groups. Once you are accepted, you will receive emails alerting you to when the groups plan a networking event.

3) Research Event Attendees BEFORE You Go.

Once you accept an invitation to attend an event through MeetUp, go to LinkedIn and research the other registrants, to see if they are someone you want to target at the event. If these people fall under the profile of your ideal networking target on your strategic networking plan, memorize their face and one or two key things that you are going to make a point to bring up at the event.

4) People Like You MOST When They Talk About THEMSELVES.

Have you ever gone to an event and there is someone who trolls to crowd, stopping only for a second to hand everyone their business card? You know the type, the one who looks and acts like the used car salesperson. They don’t bother to find out anything about you. How does that make you feel?

Instead, try asking those people that you researched beforehand some great probing questions like: “So, what do you hope to get out of tonight’s event?” Another great question to ask your fellow networkers is: “Can you tell me what your ideal customer (or employer, if you are using the event for job seeking) profile is?” One thing my wife has taught me after 20 years of marriage…people LOVE to talk about themselves.

Don’t spend more than 10 minutes speaking with any one person. The goal at networking events is a simple one…you want to make a connection, and find out enough just to see if you can help them. If so, ask for their business card and agree on who will take ownership of following up next, to schedule a follow up meeting.

5) Employ the “5-2-1” Rule of Thumb.

In networking you have to make an immediate impact with the people you meet. In the first five seconds, you have to say something about yourself and your personal brand that resonates with your networking peers. For example: “Hi, I’m Ethan the compassionate career coach.” The goal is to say something that makes them say: “Wow, what does that mean.”

That’s the FIVE in 5-2-1.

Your answer to that should be no more than two minutes and make them so interested that you walk away from that encounter with them saying “I have to schedule an hour to meet with that person in the next week or two.

That’s the TWO in the 5-2-1.

Then you schedule a follow up meeting either right there on the spot or you take ownership of reaching out to them later to set up that next meeting.

That’s the ONE in the 5-2-1.

So the take away is, you want to approach networking strategically, be interested in learning about other people and taking every opportunity to get better at it.

How Poor Communication Leads to Lost Opportunities

As we shoot out of the starting gate into a (hopefully) strong rebound year in 2011, I can’t help but wonder if the collective poor judgments exhibited in the past by our not so stellar politicians, educators, and business leaders may doom us to greater failure at a critical crossroads in America’s 21st century future.

Let me share with you a story that might shed insights into how our own actions lead to often missed opportunities due to nothing more than plain old poor communication.

Late last year I met for lunch with a client that I had served for two years. He is the Executive Director of a major industrial development organization in the NY Metro area. He leads a team of nine people that deliver a wide range of employee placement and business services to 1,400 organizations throughout New York City.

During our two year relationship, I had delivered training and development programs for his staff and coached him in key areas of running his business.

He wanted to meet before the end of the year, because he was considering a career move and wanted to brainstorm ideas before January. We talked about our mutual challenges (him in leading his organization, me in continuing to grow my business consultancy.) I confided that over the past 2 years I occasionally thought about closing shop and going to work for an organization. We parted ways in agreement that I would provide him with career transition guidance and continue working with his staff to deliver coaching.

A week later, he emailed me the link to a job opportunity for a Director of Continuing and Professional Studies at a university in NY. His message read: “What do you think of this?” That was all.

Well, given that I have worked with over 30 colleges and universities and deliver many career coaching and business consulting services to academic institutions, I thought he was sharing a possible job lead. I applied for the opportunity and emailed him to thank him for thinking of me.

He replied immediately. He said that he was thinking of the position for himself, and wanted to know what I thought about it. He then demanded that I rescind my application as a requirement for us working together in the future.

I immediately attempted to do so. I informed him that I wasn’t able to withdraw my candidacy. I apologized profusely and attempted to explain the reason for the misunderstanding.

That was three months ago, and despite many attempts to contact him he has not replied.

So the lesson learned? Due to a simple misunderstanding, two people that had forged an excellent working relationship no longer do business together.

Many of the greatest challenges that we face in achieving success in the workplace, launching/growing a business, achieving effective partnerships, serving clients…all of these can be achieved by maintaining open, honest dialogs through effective communication.

How many opportunities have you lost out on, due to plain old poor communication?

Think about our dysfunctional 2 party political system, spending most of its time and effort fighting to thwart each others’ initiatives? How about our business leaders who react to every challenge by initiating massive employee layoffs. How about our education administrators who scramble to develop policies to deal with falling American student performance with such foolish programs as No Child Left Behind?

So many of our problems can be reconciled through the power of open, ongoing and honest communication. Sounds like a GREAT New Year’s resolution, huh?

Why 2011 Is Going To Be a GREAT Year

Given the past two years, it might seem ludicrous to claim on 1/1/11 that 2011 is going to be a great year. On the one hand, many industries have been struggling and the historical drivers of new job creation (small business owners) are not exactly in a hiring mood given their company’s future uncertainty.

So how can I claim that 2011 is going to be a GREAT year…? The sheer power of positive thinking will create our own opportunities. For starters, let’s agree to replace the phrases “I CAN’T”, “I’ll TRY”, “I MIGHT” and “I HOPE TO” with “I WILL.”

We each deal with a psychological term called “head trash” in which research shows more than 65% of all the things we say to and about ourselves is NEGATIVE.

In order to break out of this two year slump our nation has been in, we need to all make a concerted effort to keep reminding ourselves how special we are and how much we each have to offer. It also requires a bit of reinvention nd VERY proactive changes be made.

We all need to remove those people from our network that serve as negative influences in our lives. Anyone (whether they be family or friend) that is a negative stimulus in our lives needs to be removed. We have the right to protect ourselves from these people that are always seeing the negative side of things, and/or trying to tell us what we cannot accomplish and remind us of our personal challenges. They are a cancer that needs to be removed before we can be free to rise up o our full potential.

We need to all make 2011 the year of significant action. It’s about figuring out what has been happening to our country the past few years and taking proactive steps to get our proverbial “house in order.” It’s about improving our family finances, improving our physical condition, improving our career situation, and positively impacting the lives of those we value most.

We will do that by setting realistic, tangible goals for ourselves on a weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual basis. Forget those silly New Year’s resolutions.

Instead, we will each develop our own personal marketing plan, create a job search pipeline, develop a list of key contacts to conduct informational interviews with, set goals on networking events, build an online presence through Facebook, LinkedIn, MeetUp and Twitter. Join relevant professional associations for the 2-3 industries you are interested in breaking into.

It means we all need to take classes, seek additional certifications and accreditations, learn a foreign language, investigate the industries we’d like to break into, seek out internships, offer to do volunteer work in your community, make key contacts, travel, work/study/live abroad, etc. Get going! Any action towards progress is desirable. We should all avoid the status quo and way we did things in the past! The one sure constant is change in 2011. Embrace it.

Dare to make 2011 GREAT and ignore all those negative people that want to focus on how bad things have been in the past.

Develop an Organizational Talent Management Plan

World-class organizations understand that their people are their greatest asset, and therefore pursue aggressive strategies to constantly improve the overall talent level of their employees as a means of achieving lasting competitive advantage in the markets they compete in.

Following are some strategies that your organization can employ, as part of an integrated and effective talent management program that recruits, hires, trains, and retains top talent.

1. Always Be On the Lookout for Top Talent:

Your organization should constantly be on the lookout for potential new hires, even if they don’t meet an immediate, short-term staffing need. You always want to be on the look out for talented people to bring into your organization. The most successful companies all maintain a constant vigilance in their search for top talent regardless of their immediate needs. Their philosophy with respect to staffing is, they can ALWAYS find a place for these stars who have established a clear track record of success in generating revenues, reducing costs, and improving organizational efficiencies for other organization.

2. Conduct a Human Capital Audit:

To unleash the many untapped talents of the people working in your organization, match every employee’s core competencies to their job descriptions. Your management team and Human Resources should always be on the lookout for the talents that are NOT being used by all their employees, as well as key areas for each employee to receive additional training and development.

3. Develop a Reward & Recognition Plan:

Nothing builds up long-term employee morale and their loyalty to their organization more than rewarding and recognizing them for their work and contributions. Many short-sighted, poorly run organizations seem to think that recognizing an employee is giving them a paycheck. They fail to recognize their people’s contributions and commitment to their organization. When the economy turns, people that have been overworked and under-appreciated will leave your company. Do you know who they are? How many are your rising stars who hold a key to your company’s long term success?

4. Develop a Coaching/Mentoring Program:

The most effective way to leverage the talents of your more recent hires and longer term employees is to pair them up for formal coaching and mentoring. Your less tenured employees will have their ramp up time in learning the Ins & Outs greatly reduced, and will benefit greatly from the collective experience and insights that your more seasoned employees can share. Your more tenured workers will receive the benefits of feeling connected, contributing to your organization’s success, and feel respected that their past experiences and knowledge are appreciated and still relevant in terms of training your future leaders.

5. Create a Idea Generation Lab:

In order to ensure your organization’s long-term success, you should constantly solicit ideas from your staff, esp. those employees that are closest to the work processes, systems, clients, vendors, partners, and other stakeholders. Create a program to actively seek ideas from all of your employees. Reward employees or the ideas that have the greatest positive impact on your ability to serve clients, create/launch new products, come up with new service offerings,reduce costs, etc. This will improve morale and employee retention as positive side effects.

6. Employee New Venture “Intrapreneur” Program:

An excellent strategy that you can employ in order to prevent your best people from leaving to start their own entrepreneurial efforts is set aside funding to have them pursue new ventures while they (STILL) work for you. This is an exceptional way for your organization to retain your top talent, while building your company’s intellectual capital portfolio of patents, trademarks, copyrights while simultaneously benefiting from your people’s desire and knowledge to develop new product/service offerings.

7. Leadership/Management Development Program:

Create a formal program to develop your key people’s leadership skills, and provide them with the tools, resources, knowledge and skills they need to manage others for success. This may be the single greatest potential to positively impact your bottom line. Rather than having to recruit outside talent to fill key leadership roles or recruit for new managers, cultivate the talents of your existing workforce and provide them with lasting skills to position your organization for success.

8. Develop a Succession Plan:

Create a formal strategy to identify the top talent in your organization that should be groomed/prepared for future leadership and/or management roles. This is especially vital for family run businesses or organizations led by someone that possesses most of the intellectual capital needed to run your organization over the long haul. Think of Jack Welch at GE when he identified Jeffrey Immelt to take his place, Bill Gates, Steven Jobs, etc.

9. Training and Development Program:

Create a formal plan to identify areas for each employee to be trained and develop their skill sets and knowledge base. Employees should have the skills they need to exceed in their current role as well as have a clearly defined action plan for managing their long-term performance, and a clear future career track within the organization.

A final note to owners and managers…

If your people are important enough to hire, then they can and must be leveraged as your greatest asset to achieve long-term success in the markets you compete in. Far too many businesses take the approach of pursuing massive layoffs during trying economic times. This is a cop out and very myopic strategy that costs significantly more to the organization in the long run then taking care of your workforce.

Far too often organizations hire consultants to come up with strategic recommendations and one of their first strategies is to suggest layoffs. This is a surefire path towards self-inflected long-term damage. Rather, take ownership in determining how your people can be leveraged. Expand their skills, provide them with additional resources, give them a greater stake in your organization’s success, challenge them to come up with solutions or make changes.

How to Find a Job That DOESN'T Exist

In today’s job market with rampant unemployment, global competition, shrinking industries, and rapidly evolving technologies and business models, an entirely NEW approach to job searching is required.

This new job search strategy requires that you MUST focus on finding jobs that don’t even exist. How can you do that? It’s definitely NOT easy and requires an entirely new mind set as a job seeker, BUT…the results will prove much more rewarding than following the old traditional, conventional approaches that no longer work! Here’s how you do it…

First off, it’s critical that you match you background, values and belief system to the types of culture in organizations that would be attractive to you. It is important to note there are TWO types of culture in any organization. The first is called the FORMAL culture…consider it “aspirational.” It’s what they want to believe it is like to work in their company. That is what they say about themselves. It’s called “spin” or PR. Take it with a grain of salt. The much more useful and instructive information is in the INFORMAL culture. You find that out by speaking with employees, ex-employees, industry analysts. What is it like if you got to walk around their place of business and just watch how people interact with each other? What kind of volunteer work do their employees do, what causes do they support, which politicians do they contribute to? This type of information is INVALUABLE. You find this by conducting informational interviews.

After you have conducted this personal exploration, you are ready to create an action plan. Target 3-4 industries and 6-8 organizations, companies, not for profits, agencies in each. That gives you a manageable search for 18-32 organizations.

Next, research everything you can about those organizations. Their key challenges, latest successes and failures, top competitors, key trends and developments in the markets they compete in. Are they publicly traded? Get their quarterly and annual reports from the SEC EDGAR website. What are analysts writing about them. Have any lawsuits been filed against them. What does their intellectual property (Trademarks, patents and copyrights) look like. How promising?

Next up…identify the person that you would be reporting to in those 18-32 organizations based on your ideal job working in that organization. Research everything there is to find out about that person. Where they went to school, the professional associations/organizations they belong to, any volunteer work they do, articles they wrote, panels they served on…everything!

Once you know as much as you can about them and the challenges they face leading the team in the organization you’d love to work in, write a script of how you would explain to them just how well you can help them overcome the challenges they face in one or or of the following THREE critical areas: 1) make their organization MORE money; 2) save their organization money, and/or 3) improve their organization’s operational efficiencies, processes, systems, structure.

Now that you have a call script, pick up the phone and call them. Explain that you have done research and are in a unique position to help them overcome (list the top 1-2 challenges they face) and ask if they have 15 minutes to sit down with you to discuss that.

It won’t work all the time but it will be MUCH more successful then responding to those nonexistent job postings on Craig’s List, CareerBuilder, Monster, and Yahoo! Hot Jobs.