I make it a rule to ask myself a question, “What’s new?” from at least two perspectives. One is “What’s new from the past?” i.e. what I do today is different from what I did yesterday. By asking this question, I try to make sure that I do NOT repeat what I did, and try something new every time I do something.
For example, we just finished Problem Solving Skills course last week. (I am almost finished with grading/making comments on their final exams and have completed grading for the course, which is always a challenge!) I began teaching this rather unusual (not typical course offered in the MBA program) about five years ago. We realized that the basic problem solving skills are critical today, and yet, it was not well developed, particularly among some group of students.
The problems today, whether they are in business, politics, or social, do not come in the neat package as in the case of business case. We need to define and frame the problem itself, and it is almost a most critical part of problem solving. As it was not a typical course in the MBA program (which means there are no ready-made syllabus or course materials) and it is rather difficult skill to “teach”, (you need to practice many times!), I have actually experienced quite a few “problems” in developing the course. (At one point, some students called the course, Problem Creating Course rather than Problem Solving Course!)
We tried many different ways, such as giving it as two credit course, as required four credit course, pre-requisite for the field study project (consulting project students do during the spring break), etc. etc. every year. I experimented with different textbooks, different case studies, etc. etc. After so many trials and errors, I feel that we have come to a fairly good course content and format. (We still wait for students’ reactions yet and continue renewing them.) But every year was a challenge, as I tried something new. So “What’s new?” has been the rule of the game.
In a way, I consider myself to be very fortunate, as I have been given the opportunity to design a new course, experiment with various materials, and explore many different ways. In a way, I was forced to ask myself “What’s new?” from the past every year.
This approach is contrasted with some other projects I see in some organizations. Some programs such as conferences, seminars, and projects go on, just repeating themselves year after year. You cannot tell, from the content of the program, which year it was held!
The other perspective for the “What’s new” question is “New or different” from others. Here I ask myself what is unique about what I do or what I think, i.e. which “differentiates” me from others. If I have the same view with the neighbor or other participants in the conference, I offer no additional value to the conference. Using terms in business strategy, which is my area, it is “differentiation” which forms the core of strategy today. In order to ensure “What’s new and different?” from two perspectives, I ask myself the following simple questions. For the first, I say, “Suppose I change the year or the time, does it still hold?” For example, if I can change the year of my problem solving skills course syllabus from 2007 to 2005, without any problem, my course in 2007 is NOT new or different.
For the second one, I change the subject. For example, if the subject of the view I advocate can be replaced with somebody else other than me, it is NOT unique, new or different from others. There is no additional or unique value from my view.
It is compared with the company’s vision or strategy. If you can replace the subject of the vision and/or strategy of your company with other company’s name, it has no uniqueness. The broad, and unclear (thus “dull”) vision such as “we focus on customers” that anybody can say fits under this category.
By asking simple questions, “What’s New?” we can force and encourage ourselves to be innovative.