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Unlikely Pairings

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Image: Bob RosnerI was reading the newspaper yesterday and I came across two words that just didn’t go together. They weren’t exactly an oxymoron, just moronic. At least that’s how they struck me. “Playboy radio.”

According to the article that I read, one of the satellite services is taking the bunny to radio. This challenged everything that I thought I knew about guys. That we’re visual creatures and that we’re not the best abstract thinkers. Playboy radio?

Okay, I get it that there is a thriving business in 900 phone numbers. So there is some precedence for talking dirty on the radio. But this business summed up to me everything that a real guy would have no interest in. Which got me thinking about other things that I would have never put together—like Poker TV, men’s mousse and “Adult Outlet” (I saw that on a billboard in Las Vegas a few years ago).

Unlikely pairings. And the more I thought about it they’re one of the real keys to innovation; the ability to put things together in a new and innovative way.

Meeting the needs of your existing customers is a challenge. You’ve got to watch and listen. And be prepared to shake things up when they aren’t being served. But the really tough part is serving the needs of your customers that they don’t even know they have. Their unrealized needs.

How do you find someone’s needs that they don’t even know they have? It’s not easy. You’ve got to understand their business so well that you can anticipate totally new solutions for today’s and tomorrow’s problems. For example, how many of you out there ever imagined the Internet or email before you had your first computer. Be honest.

Most of us can’t imagine something that is a few steps beyond anything we’re currently using. Take hybrid cars or the iPod. Both are relatively small leaps from things that already existed. But I’m guessing that they were a totally surprise to most of you. Heck, I’ll admit, I never saw either of them coming. And now I find both essential.

Sure there are some innovations that just come out of thin air. But most of them come in a more pedestrian way, they come from combining two unlikely things to create something totally new.

So the next time you see an unlikely pairing, and trust me you will, appreciate the leap of faith that someone took to create it. Sure it might be a bridge to nowhere, but at least they asked the questions and explored a new direction to take things.

And hopefully the unlikely pairing will motivate you to explore your own unlikely combination. Something that will push you in a new direction. I’d like to continue with this conversation about innovation, but I’ve got an important radio program that I need to listen to.

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Also check out his newly revised best-seller “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.

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Your Workplace: Puzzle or Mystery?

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Is the challenge you’re currently facing at work a puzzle or mystery? Think about it.

When asked myself this question, I decided this was the most provocative insight I’d heard in a very long time. A distinction that can have a profound impact on how you approach your job and the results that you can expect from it. Unfortunately, most of us fail make this distinction.

First, let me give props to the person who introduced this unique way of addressing challenges, Malcolm Gladwell. In turn, he credits national security expert, Gregory Treverton.

In short, a puzzle can be figured out if you just assemble enough pieces. A mystery lacks “pieces” and it involves a totally different thought process to address.

First, let me give a non-workplace example of each. A puzzle would be trying to find Osama bin Laden. His location could be determined if we only had enough clues. On the other hand, what would happen once the U.S. invaded Iraq is more of a mystery. That outcome was more about guessing than piecing together a puzzle.

The key to me, is that a puzzle is mostly about the left side of your brain. It’s a logical process of collecting data. Get enough data points and you’ll be home free. On the other hand, solutions to a mystery live on the right side of your brain. The artistic, creative and non-logical side. Solving a mystery usually takes leaps of faith and judgment.

Hopefully by now you see the distinction between these two ideas. But what the heck does this have to do with work? Plenty.

Take a poor performing employee. Often we view this as a mystery. They’re getting paid, so it’s a mystery as to why they aren’t performing. To me this is a classic case of a puzzle. Often, when you dig deeper you can see why an employee is not performing. Maybe it’s because they are having problems at home. Maybe they are in the wrong job. Or maybe it’s their manager who is setting them up to fail.

Now let’s take a problem that most of us would see as a puzzle, our customers. If we only have enough focus groups and data we could predict how our customers will react in almost any situation. In fact, economics has a huge number of formulas and ratios that “explain” exactly why we all behave the way we do. There is only one problem, most consumers that I’ve met are anything but rational. We make decisions on whims, poor data and impulse. Calling customers rational might be the biggest oxymoronic statement in business.

Each of us was born with two sides of our brains. Yet, many us tend to use only one side at work. The best part of the puzzle vs. mystery framework is that it forces us to think about the challenge we’re facing and to apply all of our firepower to solving it. So take a hard look at your next challenge and decide whether it is a puzzle or a mystery. And then, and this is the important part, assign it to the correct part of your brain to tackle.


“It’s not what you are that holds you back, it’s what you think you are not.” —Denis Waitley

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author, award-winning journalist and contributor to On The Money. He has been called “Dilbert with a solution.” Check out the free resources available at workplace911.com. You can contact Bob via bob@workplace911.com.

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