Unusual Tip #43,252,003,274,489,856,000

Rubik's Cube

Do you know what this number represents?

Here’s a hint: It has 6 colored slides, 21 pieces, and 54 outer surfaces.


You guessed it…it’s the most iconic 3 dimensional puzzle of our time – the Rubik’s Cube.  43,252,003,274,489,856,000 represents the number of possible configurations for a single Rubik’s Cube. Mind-blowing, isn’t it?

Like it or not, the Rubik’s Cube has mesmerized millions of people around the world, and has spawned a whole breed of niche clubs, obscure competitions, and even me-too products.

But it represents something much more to me.

I see the Rubik’s Cube as a metaphor for the innovation challenges that we are confronted with on a daily basis.  Having participated in a variety of innovation experiences over my career, I couldn’t help but notice that many leaders view innovation as a one-dimensional problem. And even fewer see it as a two-dimensional problem, much less three-dimensional.

One dimensional innovation, as I see it, is when leaders focus on the intellect of a closed team, usually bound within the walls of the internal organization. This approach rarely takes into account their customers, users, or anyone else who actually touches the product or good they are selling. It’s business suicide.

Two dimensional innovation, on the other hand, takes it a step further by tapping into the knowledge base of external thought leaders and customers. A little better since it at least ventures beyond the organization itself; however, it is still restrictive since the thinking remains trapped within the walls of our silo’d industries.

With such limited perspectives, are we sabotaging our ability to effectively innovate and create transformational change?  Both one and two-dimensional innovation simply produces uninspiring, incremental improvements with ‘just ok’, ‘help us get by’ solutions. It truly disheartens me to see such wasted opportunity.  Most leaders of organizations fail to recognize their full innovative potential from a three-dimensional perspective.  This is oftentimes a factor of groupthink where we are silo’d in our thinking and only surround ourselves with people and ideas that are most familiar to us.

It’s time we break this ‘mediocre’ cycle of innovation.

My baseline assumption is that if you are in the game of innovation, you are in it to win it….not just to be another average player in the mix. To reimagine new opportunities and create transformational change within our respective organizations (from education to healthcare to transportation and beyond), we need to think much bigger, and aspire to achieve more audacious goals. We need to apply three-dimensional thinking to our innovation playbook, much like how we solve for the Rubik’s Cube.

Let me elaborate.

The exponential growth in technologies is increasingly blurring the lines of innovation.  Software is converging with hardware, humans and technology are blending in unique ways, and ideas are starting to intersect across organizational and industry lines.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at some of these examples:

So here’s my unusual tip: We need to view our innovation challenges as three-dimensional puzzles that encompass the perspectives of every possible angle. Take a step back, reassess the core challenge at hand, and rethink our approach by embracing the unusual ideas and perspectives that are typically overlooked.  Along this journey, there are many twists and turns that ultimately will result in failed attempts..but that is all part of the learning process.

Erno Rubik

I’ve provided below an abbreviated three-step guide to help leverage three-dimensional thinking — techniques that I have used to achieve innovation success in my personal and professional endeavors.

1. Widen the lens: As a first step, redefine the business you are in.  Take a step back, and clearly define the challenge you are attempting to solve. E.g., if you are a transportation related company….are you in the business of renting cars, or are you in the business of moving people? Just ask the folks at Uber and you will see all sorts of unique innovative approaches to their people moving business. How you approach innovation will vary greatly depending on how you define your core purpose, key questions, and customer goals.

2. Seek outlier perspectives: If you do step 1 properly, you will quickly realize that there is much more to your organization than just the widget you are selling. People buy your product or service because of the experience, how it makes them feel, and the ultimate value you deliver.  In fact, in many circumstances, if you dig deeper, you will uncover unique and unusual ways your customer is engaging with your product.  Ways in which you never imagined. Viewing the entire experience from the customer perspective, and not just a single transaction, will open up a world of unexplored, innovative possibilities.

3. Explore the unusual intersections: Put your ego aside and dare to venture into the unknown.  Seek contrarian experiences that open up new perspectives.  Once you widen the lens and redefine your customer focus, you will quickly realize that your same problem has been tackled in many different ways from innovators across other industries. For example, as a healthcare professional, I am often asked how a business can improve patient engagement.  If we look at it from the lens of customer engagement, we can start to venture out and learn how Disney, CVS and the Ritz Carlton have solved for such similar issues. You will be pleasantly surprised what you learn.

Applying three-dimensional thinking to innovation is an art form that only a few have mastered. As with any artist, it takes years of practice to perfect the process.  Eventually, you too can be like Collin Burns with a whopping 5.25 second world record in solving the 3x3x3 Rubik’s Cube (record set April 26, 2015).  Over time, with persistence, determination, and an open mind, you can lead your organization towards transformational change that sustains many lifetimes.

This is the story behind Unusual, Inc. – my new media company focused on helping leaders of organizations gain new and diverse perspectives to help drive transformational innovation.

Always #ThinkUnusual,

Gautam (@drgautamgulati)

PS: Did you know that the Rubik’s Cube itself was an accidental innovation when Erno Rubik, architect and interior designer, was seeking ways to challenge his students on how to build structures with independently moving parts? By exploring various perspectives and prototypes, he landed on an idea that was highly unusual and beyond his comfort zone. He widened his lens, explored the outliers, and experimented with intersecting ideas to help him eventually create the most iconic puzzle of our time.  The rest is history.

Unusual Intersections

PS: If you want to explore further, please JOIN US for our flagship event, Unusual Intersections, (Sunday, September 27th, Washington, DC) to hear stories directly from unusual suspects applying an unusual perspective to carve out new, differentiated business opportunities. We have partnered with TEDxMidAtlantic to bring you a one-of-a-kind gathering of unlikely minds to inspire innovative problem solving across diverse industries.

Below is a select sampling of the stories of intersections that we will explore:

  • What can doctors learn from 5 star hotels to drive patient satisfaction? (Dr. Jordan Shlain, Healthloop & Private Medical)
  • How can the culinary industry be used to foster upward mobility for the under-privileged? (Mark Brand, Save on Meats)
  • How can a winery create a new model of community? (Brian Roeder, Barrel Oak Winery)
  • What do exotic cars and healthcare have in common? (Dr. Margaret Cary, The Cary Group)
  • What can corporate badness teach us about social good? (Roberta Baskin, The Flourish Prizes)
  • How can we use military techniques to recruit  and retain top talent?(Daniel Walker, Human Revolution Studios)
  • How can corporate entities act like living organisms? (Dr. Alex Jadad, Center for Global eHealth Innovation)
  • How can a customer experience studio help create customer evangelists?(David Beebe, Marriott)
  • How can health create wealth? (Esther Dyson, HICCup)

…and much more!

>> Interested in attending Unusual Intersections, register for the event here. (early bird extended until Friday, September 4th)
>> Click here to view the unusual suspect speaker lineup.
>> Want to be notified of future events, sign up here.

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