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Getting Unstuck With Ideas That Stick

Apr 24, 2007 Michael Wurzer

made_to_stickunstuckOne of the stickiest books of the year is Made to Stick by brothers Chip and Dan Heath. This book is everywhere, it seems. A great companion to that book is unstuck by Keith Yamashita and Sandra Spataro. Unstuck is a launching pad for generating new ideas and Made to Stick outlines how to communicate those ideas so they stick. Got that? Seriously, I loved both of these books and highly recommend them.

As we’ve been planning our next software release, I’ve put to use several of the ideas in  unstuck, which is one of the most clever book designs I’ve seen. You can start anywhere in the book and each section will lead you to a different, though relevant, section of the book, allowing you to jump all over the place, until you’re done. It seems crazy and haphazard but it isn’t, and it’s fun. Here are some of the ideas I found useful so far:

  • Put your idea down in words and “you’ll immediately recognize your idea’s vulnerability. Then rework its expression until it can fully withstand slings and arrows.”
  • Write a headline from the future. Try this, it’s really hard and scary. What does your future look like?
  • Build a haven for radical thinking. Set aside a room filled with white boards or paper for drawing your big ideas everywhere. We did this in our conference room, ordering two huge white boards for brainstorming. Better, I started using a tablet PC we had, because, when combined with a projector, it provides an infinite white board.
  • Invent a prototype of the end state. For us, the prototypes evolve from paper mock-ups through to early-stage software mock-ups into alpha stage software. But this is just an extension of writing your ideas down, and requires that you take the next step to fine-tune the details of your idea to see if they’ll really work.
  • Commit to a world-stage event. The point here is to commit yourself to action. We’ll be showing our next release at our client Summit in July. Everyone here knows it. And our clients know it. And now you know it. It may not be a world-stage event, but it definitely covers our world.

The ideas in Made to Stick also should help us communicate some of the ideas we’ve been brainstorming for the release. The authors detail six principles for sticky ideas (SUCCESs or simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, stories), but the best bit from the book for me was the “villian” in the story, what the authors describe as the “Curse of Knowledge.”

Essentially, “[o]nce we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others . . .” To illustrate this point, the authors recount the result of some research in the ’90s by Elizabeth Newton at Stanford regarding “tappers and listeners.” Basically, one person would tap out a song and the other person would listen and try to guess the song. Out of 120 tries, listeners only guessed the tune 3 times. Most interesting, though, was that before they knew the results, the people tapping out the songs predicted that the listeners would guess 50 percent of the songs. The reason is that:

“When a tapper taps, she is hearing the song in her head. . . . It’s impossible to avoid hearing the tune in your head. Meanwhile, the listeners can’t hear that tune — all they can hear is a bunch of disconnected taps, like a kind of bizarre Morse Code. . . . In the experiment, tappers are flabbergasted at how hard the listeners seem to be working to pick up the tune. Isn’t the song obvious? The tappers’ expressions, when a listener guesses “Happy Birthday to You” for the “The Star-Spangled Banner,” are priceless: How could you be so stupid? It’s hard to be a tapper. The problem is that tappers have been given knowledge (the song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it’s like to lack that knowledge. When they’re tapping, they can’t imagine what it’s like for listeners to hear isolated taps rather than a song. This is the Curse of Knowledge.”

I’ve found this to be true for myself time and time again. I know what I’m trying to communicate. I’ve likely been thinking about it for years. I know the tune but I forget that no one else does. So, I’m tapping away (at the keyboard, usually) with lots of words, but I’m not doing a good enough job at communicating the core ideas. Hopefully this will change with the SUCCESs principles. 🙂

If any of you have read either of these books, I’d love to hear your thoughts about them. If not, I encourage you to check them out, especially unstuck.