The following is a conversation between Stephen Shapiro, Author of Invisible Solutions: 25 Lenses that Reframe and Help Solve Difficult Business Problems, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.


Stephen Shapiro, Autor of Invisible Solutions

Denver: To find better solutions, you need to first ask better questions because the questions you ask will determine which solutions you’ll see, and which ones will remain hidden. That is a topic of a fascinating new book by Stephen Shapiro, titled Invisible Solutions: 25 Lenses that Reframe and Help Solve Difficult Business Problems.

Welcome to The Business of Giving, Stephen!

Stephen: Oh, fantastic to be here, Denver. Looking forward to it.

Denver: You know, you opened the book with a story about air travel and baggage claim. Tell us that story and the point you’re making.

Stephen: So the point that I’m trying to make with that story is that we can take something that seems like a very simple problem and look at it from a number of different perspectives.

And so the short version of the story is, people complain about how long it took for bags to arrive at baggage claim because they didn’t like sitting there and waiting and twiddling their thumbs. So, the airport initially solved the problem that most of us would probably think to solve, which is to speed up the bags. But what they found was that there was a point they couldn’t speed it up enough for people to be satisfied. And then they realized something interesting, which was that, although the bags took 8 to 10 minutes to get from the plane to the baggage carousel, the passengers were only taking one to three minutes to get from the plane to the baggage carousel.

So instead of speeding up the bags, they slowed down the passengers, they literally moved the baggage claim so the passengers would have to walk 8 to 10 minutes to get to the baggage claim. And that’s just a simple example of it, but then we go deeper into it and talk about, well, we could, you know:  Are we really talking about the speed of the bags, or are we talking about wait time?   Wait time is speed of the bag, speed of the passengers. What if we were to change the question to: Instead of reducing the wait time to improve the wait time, and each of these gives us completely different solutions. And that’s the thing that we don’t spend enough time doing is changing the question to get better solutions.

Denver: Well, you need to reframe it. Well, let me ask you about solutions in two of the most traditional ways we go about doing it. One would be the suggestion box to surface existing problems. What’s your take on that?

Stephen: I find a lot of my clients do a suggestion box as the default for innovation because it’s easy. And if you think about it, question or suggestion boxes, have an implicit question behind it, which is: How can we improve the business?

The problem is when you ask broad questions like that, you invite a lot of irrelevant answers. So I just remember, this was a while ago, but I was doing some work in the UK for a major bank there, and their innovation program imploded and they brought me in to figure out what happened. And they did a suggestion box. They got about 2,000 ideas. They implemented two, and they got no value from those two. And so what ended up happening was they realized that they were really just focusing on the wrong issue, which was: How do we improve the business because it was too broad?

And one of the things which I find is:Look, I’m all for suggestion boxes, because it gets people engaged. Everybody has an opinion, suggestion or idea. So if you use the suggestion box as a way of engaging employees, maybe tapping into some low-hanging fruit for ideas that have been out there, that there’s never been a vehicle for somebody to communicate it, that’s great. But what I find is usually after six to nine months of a suggestion box, the value starts dropping significantly, and we need to move to something else. And that’s asking questions, asking people to solve problems rather than asking them for ideas.

Denver: Well, let me ask you about one other traditional way people go about this, and that is brainstorming. Let’s get everybody together for a brainstorming session. What are the shortcomings of that, in your opinion?

Stephen: Brainstorming can be an okay approach. The problem is that most of the time, first of all, it comes back to the question: Are they really solving the right problem? We spend a lot of time on solutions, but not a lot of time on the question: What’s the problem we’re really solving? So if you started there, a brainstorming session could work.

The other challenge with a lot of brainstorming though, is the people that are in the room have a, usually a shared perspective, which is dangerous …because if you have only people who think the same way, you’re not going to get that breadth that you need. So I do believe that at times, expertise can be the enemy of innovation because what happens is our past experiences limit our ability to see new and different futures.

And brainstorming sessions… typically we’re working on a marketing problem. We have marketing people in the room, and I guarantee you, if you’re focused on solutions, you’re not going to get them from the marketing people necessarily, but it might be somebody in a completely different industry or a completely different area of expertise.

Denver: No diversity of thought. You spent your career at Accenture, optimizing processes. So you decided to use that skill, and you set out to optimize the innovation process. What are some of the tenets of that?

Stephen: So it’s interesting because as an innovation person, a lot of people wouldn’t assume that I’m an engineer, but that is my background. My education is in engineering, and so I have a process mindset. And so when I look at innovation, I’m always looking at: What is the way that we can make innovation repeatable, predictable?  And the best way to do that is with a repeatable and predictable process.

And so for me, the process starts not with the idea, not with a suggestion, but rather with the question. And so what we need to do is figure out what are the problems that the organization needs to solve. And then we need to spend time. First of all, making sure it’s the right question to begin with, but then also making sure we’ve reframed it just like with the baggage claim example. Speeding of bags is not the same as reducing wait time, and if we just have people focused on speeding up bags, we might be missing other possible solutions.

Denver: Let me ask you something about innovation. You know, we hear all the time that companies are looking for the next big creative, innovative breakthrough idea. From your experience, is that actually the case?

Stephen: They say that. I think most companies believe that to some degree. The reality is, if you’re a larger company, I think it depends on the nature of your company. So if you’re a smaller company, well, yes, you’d probably better be coming up with some type of breakthrough technology that’s going to differentiate you, that larger companies can license or buy you out, or whatever it might be.

But for larger companies, a lot of times I find it difficult for them to develop game-changing innovation for a lot of different reasons. And therefore, partnerships in the ecosystem of innovation becomes really important. Being able to collaborate with the startups, being able to collaborate with the tech companies— that to me becomes a really great strategy for larger companies, rather than trying to just do everything in-house, because it’s very difficult for someone to develop a breakthrough innovation inside of an old culture.

The main reason we ask questions poorly is because that’s the way the brain is wired, and partly it’s because the brain’s primary function, its primary instinct is survival. So the reason why we innovate is actually to survive. The reason why we adapt is to survive. And that’s a general statement, but that’s relatively true.

Denver: Well, as you say, don’t focus so much on the solution. Focus on asking better questions. So I have to ask you Stephen, why do so many of us seem to ask terrible questions?

Stephen: The main reason we ask questions poorly is because that’s the way the brain is wired, and partly it’s because the brain’s primary function, its primary instinct is survival. So the reason why we innovate is actually to survive. The reason why we adapt is to survive. And that’s a general statement, but that’s relatively true.

And so what happens is the brain assumes that everything that we did in the past didn’t kill us, therefore it’s safe. So when it comes time to ask questions, we’re going to ask those safe questions. And there’s a lot of research that shows that even when people say they want innovation, even when they say they want change or creativity, deep down inside at a very, very subconscious level at this instinctual level, they really don’t want to change because change is risky from a survival perspective.

Denver: And I think it sort of disavows everything they’ve done prior to that too. Like, did I just waste those last 10 years? In other words, this is who I am. This is where my self-worth is. And you also say, Stephen, that changing one word in a problem statement can reveal a completely new range of solutions. Can you give us an example of that?

Stephen: Sure. So there’s one we talked about briefly… I’ll give you a couple of them. So one is the baggage claim example. We went from a reducing wait time to improving wait time. So, if we’re going to, I mean, it’s just one word reduce versus improve, but one’s about speed, and one is about experience. And the interesting thing is when you change even just one word in that situation, it comes back to what we just talked about a little while ago is: it opens up the range of possible solutions. So if I’m thinking about improving the wait experience, improving the wait time, I’m not looking to airports anymore. I’m looking to… I’m here in Orlando, Florida. I’m looking to theme parks who are the masters of the wait experience. They either graded eliminating or reducing wait time, or when they can’t do that, they create these amazing wait experiences. And so that’s just one word there.

And NASA was trying to find a way of getting clothes cleaned in space, and then they changed one word to how do we keep clothes clean? Now, to get clothes clean is about, after the fact it’s about cleaning fluids and things of that nature. Keeping clothes clean now is a material science problem. Different range of solutions, and each of those are going to bring us completely different value propositions.

The other lens, which is on the other side of the house, which is the increasing abstraction. If we’re asking questions that are too specific, sometimes we need to make them broader and lens number, I think it’s number six, is the analogy lens and the analogy lens is a super powerful lens, one I always like to use. And it’s based on two words, which is: “Who else?”

Denver: Yes. The heart of your book, you offer 25 different lenses in which to look at a problem, and some of these lenses increase abstraction; some reduce it.  Some switch elements; others change perspective. Give us one or two examples of lenses and how they helped people look at a problem differently.

Stephen: So, since you mentioned the first two categories, one is reducing abstraction. So you mentioned suggestion boxes before. Well, suggestion boxes are almost always by default an abstract question. Whether it’s explicit or not, it’s an abstract question. How can I improve the business? How can I improve productivity? How can I improve revenues? Whatever it might be, but those big, broad, abstract questions invite a lot of wasted energy.

So one of the lenses in the reduce abstraction category is the leverage lens. That’s number one. And basically what that means is it can be looked at a few different ways.  But one is like: if we could only solve one aspect of this problem, what would it be? So if I’m looking to improve revenues, maybe you might ask. Okay, which of our customer segments provide the greatest amount of revenue? Or, which of our geographies do we have the best opportunity?

And so instead of trying to solve the broad question, we might zero in on a particular area, but the leveraged lens is also extremely helpful if you’re getting stuck, and you don’t know where to go. Sometimes you can even ask yourself: What’s our biggest barrier? So, if we could eliminate one thing from the entire problem, what would it be? What’s our greatest barrier in being able to achieve something? And so that’s a really powerful lens, and I like to start there in many cases.

The other lens, which is on the other side of the house, which is the increasing abstraction. If we’re asking questions that are too specific, sometimes we need to make them broader and lens number, I think it’s number six, is the analogy lens and the analogy lens is a super powerful lens, one I always like to use. And it’s based on two words, which is : “Who else?” 

Who else has solved a similar problem, not the same problem, but a similar problem in a different area of expertise? And so if, again, the baggage claim example, if we asked, well, who else is a master at the wait experience? Well, now all of a sudden I can start looking to theme parks and other places where they’re really great at creating these great experiences. It’s a very powerful lens because my assumption is: whatever problem you have, someone has already solved it. You just need to make sure you are looking broadly enough to find out who might’ve already solved that.

Denver: Yes. I guess you could call it analogous research. I was working with somebody once, and they were trying to design a hospital room. And what they did is they went out to a pit crew at a NASCAR race, and what a great way to see how to do things easily, simply, efficiently and effectively! So you get out of your realm.

Do people find it difficult to reframe questions? I mean, you’re talking about it. It makes so much sense, but I don’t think that it necessarily would come naturally to a lot of people. Does it?

Stephen: You are spot on. When I do this as part of my sessions with my clients, whether it’s a speech or a workshop, we’ll almost always have time for them to practice using the lenses. And I will ask a number of questions afterwards and one is: How many of you found this difficult? And on average, it’s 90% to 95% of the people find it difficult. And the reason for that is because it’s not what we’re taught. We always say, I mean, there’s the business mantra: “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.”

I want bigger, better, more important, well-framed problems, not solutions, because if you give me a great problem, I can then find a solution using a number of different techniques. But if you give me a solution, it might not even solve an important problem, and that’s where we fall down a lot in organizations. So it’s just not a natural thing. We don’t teach this, and we don’t train people to do it. 

Denver: You’re right.

Stephen: But the problem is if, if you’re only focused on solutions, you’re not focused on making sure we’re asking better questions, focusing on more important problems. And so we don’t train people in this. It’s not even something that we encourage.

And so I always say, I want bigger, better, more important, well-framed problems, not solutions, because if you give me a great problem, I can then find a solution using a number of different techniques. But if you give me a solution, it might not even solve an important problem, and that’s where we fall down a lot in organizations. So it’s just not a natural thing. We don’t teach this, and we don’t train people to do it

Denver: Right. It’s like a muscle, I guess you just keep on doing it and doing it, and like anything else, you’ll probably get better at it.

Stephen: Absolutely. Absolutely. And what I find… and this is what I tell people is just: There are 25 lenses. So if you take a problem that you’re trying to solve, and on Monday of the first week, you use lens number one and apply that lens to that problem… five minutes…that’s it. Five minutes. And then the next day: lens number two; you do that for five weeks, and you’ve only spent five minutes a day.  But by the time you’ve gotten through five weeks, you would have practiced it over and over; it will have become a habit. It will become ingrained in the way you think, and you will have practiced it. Like you said, it’s like going to a gym, you build that muscle. You become better at it.

Denver: So let’s say you do that, and you come up with a solution. How can you determine whether that solution is valuable or not?

Stephen: That is the million-dollar question in many cases. And I think where most companies fail with innovation is the belief that: failure’s good. I know that sounds maybe a little strange, but like right now, there is this prevailing common wisdom that if we’re not breaking eggs, we’re not innovating. If we’re not failing, we’re not doing something different.

Look, failure’s going to be an inevitable outcome of the innovation process. It’s not the goal. It’s not what we’re shooting for. And so, what we want people to become masters of is experimentation, because the best way to determine whether an idea’s valuable is not to sit around and say, “Hey, this sounds like a great idea. Let’s build a spreadsheet to validate it”. 

No. You conduct an experiment, a small, small experiment to test it out. And then it comes back to the brain being our enemy in that situation because the confirmation bias will kick in. And all that means is:  if you think you have a great idea, and you get evidence that tells you it’s not a great idea when you’re doing your tests, your brain is going to filter it out or justify why that contradictory evidence is wrong. And so we’re just not wired to make really good decisions. That’s because we’re built for speed and instinct rather than for deliberate thought.

Denver: From your experience, what happens to the culture of an organization when everybody starts asking better questions…when you have an inquiry-driven culture?

Stephen: Ooh, I like the term, inquiry-driven culture. That’s a really good expression. What I find and what we know is that the best organizations are ones that aren’t driven from the top. So a lot of people think that the leaders need to have all the answers, and that’s totally wrong.

The leaders need to ask better questions that get everyone inside the organization to ask better questions. And it doesn’t mean that you want every person sitting around questioning every single thing that we’re doing. But if you’re working on a project, there’s nothing wrong with pushing the pause button. Like if you’re in the middle of a project right now, push the pause button and just spend even a half-hour just asking, What problem are we really solving? Do we know, is this a valuable problem? Do we know if people really are going to want this? And is there a better way to solve this problem, or is there a different problem that if we solve, it would unleash even greater value?

So that’s what you get is: when you have people just following the leader, when you have people just moving forward, blindly, most likely everybody in the organization is moving in the wrong direction. And that pause button just makes sure we’re doing a course correction, to make sure we make sure we’re moving in the right direction.

Denver: As they say, you have to slow down in order to move fast. And sometimes we don’t do that. Pause and slow down. Well, you bring a lot of this together in your FAST innovation process. Tell us about FAST.

Stephen: So FAST is an acronym which stands for Focus, Ask, Shift and Test. And these are the four steps that I think are critically important for organizations to get right, and they happen in that order. Although it tends to be a little more iterative than sequential, but they pretty much have to happen in that order to some degree. So focus just means innovate where you differentiate. You can’t be the best at everything because you’ll be the best at nothing if you try to do that. So how can we get focused? How can we focus our innovation efforts on the areas which help us stand out in the market? So there’s a whole body of work around differentiation. And how do we determine what a good differentiator is? That’s the first step.

The second step we’ve been talking about, which is asking better questions. So once we know where we differentiate, now we just make sure we’re solving problems that are actually aligned with our differentiation, and we go through the process of reframing. 

The shift,  the S part is shift, which means: if we want to develop breakthroughs and expertise can be the enemy of innovation, we need to shift our mindset. We need to move away from the belief that our past experience is going to find the best solution, or our industry will have the best solution. How can we shift our mindset from airports to theme parks or hospitals to NASCAR pit crews, whatever it might be.

And then that last step we talked about, which is testing, which is developing hypotheses that we test… and going through a methodology to make sure that we are testing in the right way and that we’re not just confirming what we believe to be true, but we’re really validating in an accurate way whether or not our ideas are good.

Denver: Now, withstanding what you said before about doing five minutes a day for 25 days to begin to develop a muscle. Let’s say a person is faced with a problem and they have these 25 lenses. What have you found to be the most effective and time-efficient way to use this method?

Stephen: Well, once you get practice with it, it starts to become natural. So one of the things which I love to do, like during a speech, every speech I’ll do a hot seat and it’s literally 10 minutes of somebody telling me one problem. And then I put them through the lenses and we come up with six, seven, eight, nine different variations on the problem in 10 minutes. That’s it. Don’t overthink it.

There’s a quote that’s attributed to Einstein. He reputably said: if I had an hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem, one minute finding solutions. I just find most people, most organizations and teams are spending 60 minutes solving the wrong problem. So that’s all you want to do is have this mindset of asking the right question, using the lenses, practicing them, quickly. You don’t want to turn this into a “paralysis by analysis” type of exercise. We’re now spending, you know, a hundred years trying to reframe problems. That’s exactly the opposite of what I’m suggesting here.

Denver: Finally Steven, in using this method, have you come across anybody who was facing one of the myriad of problems that this pandemic has caused, whether it be at work or at home, that has applied this method and come up with a better solution?

Stephen: Quite a few. Absolutely. I mean, one which I like is a longtime client of mine. And one of the things which they always did was this annual celebration. They had a big party basically to celebrate the people who are the best contributors to the organization. And so the original plan was: let’s just do a virtual celebration, but as we went through the lenses, what they saw was that maybe a real, like… hopping on Zoom and having everybody do what they would have done in person didn’t make any sense. 

And so they just developed a completely different strategy for acknowledging and recognizing people. And it wasn’t everybody coming together, but it was a combination of videos and asynchronous content and gift bags and other things.  But that was their instinctual response, was: Let’s just automate what we did in the past, but the lenses helped them see different ways to do it.

Denver: Great example. Well, for people who want to learn more about this work in addition to picking up your very fine book, they also can go to your website. Tell us what they’re going to find there.

Stephen: Sure. The easiest place to go to is getthelenses.com. That’s getthelenses.com, and if you go there, you’ll be able to download the 25 lenses. You’ll be able to download a template where you can actually put in all your reframes or several videos there. That’s the best place to go. And then while you’re on that page, you can learn about the book; you can learn about me. But if you start with getthelenses.com, that’s a great starting point.

Denver: The name of the book again is Invisible Solutions: 25 Lenses that Reframe and Help Solve Difficult Business Problems. Compact, yet very powerful. Thanks, Stephen. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.

Stephen: Pleasure’s all mine. Thank you so much, Denver.


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