Hey, Ms. DJ

Due to social distancing requirements, people have become remarkably creative about building community remotely. One of my favorites has been the shared playlist. And yes, this concept has been around for years, but I feel like they are taking on new meaning now. Rita Wilson’s Quarantunes, anyone? Just like our mixed CDs from childhood, curating a playlist for a friend means “I’m thinking of you” and also “don’t I have amazing taste?”

Another trend that we are seeing popping up everywhere, like tulips in the spring, is online training. Yes, yes, it has always been there, but many of us were too busy to notice before the past few weeks. Well, it’s time to stop and smell the, er, tulips. Some people are hosting live classes, while others are offering discounted or free access to their on-demand content. It’s like a 21st century version of the Library of Alexandria out there. And since many students are home from school unexpectedly and other employees are furloughed, this is a great time to spend sharpening our skills and exploring new careers. 

Except having thousands upon thousands of fantastic options is not necessarily a good thing. Enter decision fatigue. Every choice we make tires us out a bit, leaving us mentally depleted. After several (dozen) choices, we are likely to stop making more decisions all together, and any decisions we do make will feel sub-optimal. Think back to the last time you stared blankly at the wine aisle at the grocery store–so many choices! How many times did you put something in your cart, pause, check some online reviews, put the bottle back, desperately scan the sale labels to see if they offered a clue, then ultimately just go for the bottle with the pretty label, but still wonder if you were doing it wrong? (Please don’t say it’s just me.)

After all this, he chose pizza.

What does this have to do with innovation? I’m getting there. One great technique for coming up with new ideas is mashing up other concepts in new ways. (The game Disruptus is a great way to practice this skill, by the way.) In our case, the concepts are playlists + online learning + decision fatigue

Enter: The Personal Professional Playlist. 

Just like a playlist, it’s a handpicked collection of content designed to flow together and send a message. In this case, that message is “Here’s who I am, professionally.” Another way to think about it is a “micro-certificate in YOU.” “But,” you may say, “I already am me! I already have these skills!” That’s true. But think of all the people who are interested in your line of work. How many times have people asked you, “Wow, how did you get to where you are? How does one get started in your line of work?” This is your chance. 

In the spirit of prototyping, I’ll go first. As a disclaimer, I am not officially endorsing any particular products or services, just sharing these as potential routes to acquire the skills and knowledge that I have found most useful in my career so far. I encourage you to follow along at home, and also post your own Personal Professional Playlists in the comments, on your LinkedIn page, or wherever albums are sold. 

  1. Bad Doors Are Everywhere: Once you watch this video, you won’t be able to un-see bad design for the rest of your life. And while it will make you angry, the rest of this playlist will give you skills to fix it. 
  2. Overview of Design Thinking in 90 Seconds: What are the basic steps to design thinking? What I like about this video is it talks about why design thinking is not the same as just asking customers what they want–a common misconception. 
  3. Innovating for People: This book answers the question, “OK, but really, how do I do this?” My copy of this book is dog-eared and has been loaned out to colleagues across the Intelligence Community (with a big sticky note on the front that they MUST RETURN IT). This book boils down the wide world of design thinking into a few dozen techniques that you can mix and match to tackle pretty much any problem.
  4. Are you testing the right thing? This video shows how easy it is to fall into the trap of creating a scaled down version of your product and calling that your minimal viable product, rather than testing the riskiest assumptions. 
  5. Owning the room: Facilitating design events, strategic planning sessions, conferences, or really any meeting requires lots of practice to feel comfortable. This TED talk gives a good introduction to how to host thoughtful and productive meetings. But really, the key thing here is to practice! Volunteer to lead your next team meeting, talk to your boss about her goals, give it your best shot, and then ask for feedback at the end. Lather, rinse, repeat. It will get better, and so will you.
  6. Becoming a savvy shopper: Some government innovators are bona fide acquisition specialists. They know their CRADAs from their SBIRs and how to turn around a prize challenge before you can say OTA. I am not one of those people. But I am familiar enough with the Intelligence Community’s major procurement authorities to have a thoughtful discussion with people about potential options for working with the private sector (and then introduce them to the real experts). A good starting place is the TechFAR Handbook, a user-friendly guide to buying technology in ways that support agile software development. Even if your flavor of innovation doesn’t involve software or acquisitions, do your colleagues a favor and share this document with your contracts and general counsel offices. 
  7. Putting the human in human-centered design: So the bad news about creating tools, policies, and experiences for humans is that we are all rather irrational. For example, we know that cookies are not healthy…and also that they are delicious. Result: a policy of informing people that cookies are unhealthy would likely not win over many hearts, minds, or stomachs. The good news, however, is that people are predictably irrational, so we can design with this in mind. Here’s an interview with one of the leading scholars on the topic, Dr. Richard Thaler. Listen and get ready for some heated discussions with your economist friends!
  8. Get Sticky: It’s not called the “curse of knowledge” for nothing. The more you learn, the harder it is for you to imagine not having this knowledge. This means communication skills are crucial if you ever want to share your ideas with others, or better yet, get them to act on your advice. A great book on this topic is Made to Stick. For a teaser, presented via techniques from the book (so meta!), check out this video.
  9. It’s all a negotiation: One of the most useful classes I took in graduate school was not about national security or memo writing–it was about negotiating. I’ve used these skills for everything from buying a car to negotiating my job benefits to persuading a boss to try out a new idea. In this podcast, Adam Grant shares some techniques to help you get started.
  10. As the world turns: I bet you were wondering how a career intelligence professional could have a playlist that didn’t have anything dedicated to national security. Well, here it is! But, with a caveat. While I did study international affairs in college and grad school, I don’t actually use that knowledge for my day to day work. It certainly drew me to the IC in the first place, and it helps to build trust with my customers in the IC because I know why they care so much about the conflict in their region, but no, my shelf is not full of books about cyber security or irregular warfare. I am, however, an avid listener of this podcast, which features thoughtful interviews with subject matter experts, animated discussions about how policies are made (or unravel), and a fun dose of pop culture at the end. 
  11. (Special Bonus Track) And now, for something completely different: Even if you consume every item on this playlist, read all the books, listen to all the podcasts, and facilitate all the meetings, you still won’t be me. And that’s wonderful. What makes each person uniquely valuable as an innovator is the extra set of knowledge, skills, and passions that they bring from outside their professional life. For me, that’s my alter ego as a triathlete, my time living abroad, and the 100+ books I read each year. This is the secret sauce, people–it’s the stuff you do outside the office that helps you see the world in new ways, connect with people who have vastly different perspectives, and apply a solution from one space to a problem in another. And that’s how to become an innovator.
Innovators, this should be you.

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