Stepping outside of our Format Zone. (Episode 47)

Interview with Bernd “Benno” Blumoser, Head of Innovation at Siemens Artificial Intelligence Lab.


To be creative we are often asked to “step out of our comfort zone”, but this text is going to argue that you should step out of a different zone: The Format Zone.

But first some background.

Artificial Intelligence is one of the hottest areas in business at the moment. And Siemens – with its close to 300,000 employees – is one of the really big heavyweights in global Industry. So it’s fair to call the Siemens Artificial Intelligence Lab one of the absolute hotspots of contemporary industry innovation. One of the two co-founders of this lab, and the man with the title Head of Innovation, is Bernd “Benno” Blumoser.

I sat down for a discussion about innovation with Benno to see what I could learn from him.

Siemens have been developing AI solutions for decades. Things like “detecting cancer through image recognition” or “self-learning gas turbines” are just a couple of the numerous AI innovation that the more than 1000 people working with AI at Siemens have developed over the last years.

The Siemens AI Lab is a place for exploration of additional use cases, of the next wave of innovation opportunities around AI and the AI Lab is leveraging the potential of the many AI experts at Siemens. The potential for Artificial Intelligence for industrial applications is almost unlimited and it’s up to the Siemens AI Lab to find the best AI applications that Siemens should invest its resources in.

An interesting thing with AI is that it’s one of those innovative technologies that suddenly makes it possible to solve problems in totally new ways, and that means that an important part of the Lab’s mission is to get people to think in new ways.

And it was when I was talking to Benno about how they got people to think in new ways that he started to mention the need to “think outside your format zone”.

Benno: “To be creative we have to surprise ourselves.”

(Fun fact: The word “surprise” is originally a military term comprised by the word “Sur-“ (as in “over”) and “prendere” (as in “to take”). So to surprise means “to overtake” or “seize and invade”.)

“To surprise ourselves we need to see things in new ways, and we are often advised to “go outside of our comfort zone”.

The comfort zone is “a psychological state in which things feel familiar to a person and they are at ease and in control of their environment, experiencing low levels of anxiety and stress. In this zone, a steady level of performance is possible.”

To “Getting out of your comfort zone creates just enough good stress to ramp up your focus, creativity, pace, and drive.” It’s all about pushing yourselves to become a little bit uncomfortable. A bit stressed. Not really knowing what is going on.

The Format Zone – something I just made up based on my conversation with Benno – on the other hand, is about the roles we play in our lives and the processes and procedures that are shaping the way we work – and thus how we think.

To “get out of your Format Zone” then is about putting ourselves in new roles and situations and introducing new processes and procedures to shape new ways to work – and thus new ways to think.

It’s not primarily to create a sense of uncomfortability. It’s more about encouraging you to get new perspectives.

Let’s take a couple of simple examples:

A CEO working a day in customer service is not necessarily taking himself/herself out of his/her comfort zone – but it is taking the CEO out of his/her Format Zone.

A manager changing a regular meeting to a walk-and-talk meeting – to change the dynamic of what the meeting is like – is creating an element of surprise, but not necessarily an element of discomfort. A walk-and-talk, might even be MORE comfortable than a normal siting down meeting.

At the Siemens AI Lab some of the things they have done to move people out of their Format Zone are:

– To have the lab in a Co-working space, instead of having it in one of the Siemens office places. They did this to change the dynamic of what a work-place is like and to change who you run into on a daily basis. All done to trigger a bit of curiosity, as in “What is this place?” and “Who are these people?”.

– An Intrapreneurs’ Bootcamp where ideas were presented to a panel as if it was a start-up pitch, instead of the normal steering committee – creating a more dynamic and positive enviroment than the steering committee meetings that tend to focus on critical questions.

– To have strategy workshops where everyone in the beginning are asked to share one personal things he or she is taking into the meeting (“I havn’t slept enough” or “I’m a bit worried about my older son” or “I had a very relaxed weekend in the mountain and feel full of energy” etc). This leads to a different character of the meeting from the start and (sometimes) leads to higher level of honesty and openness and helps to uncover hidden agendas or worries earlier (which many times takes too much time and energy).

Benno laid out why they were shaking things up like this: “Managers tend to know what they are expect to do when they have a format. That makes their thoughts predictable. We want surprises, so we try to encourage more of that.”

The goal is not to create so much change that you create a feeling of being uncomfortable. The goal is to make people look at a role, a procedure, a situation or a process in a new way by doing it in a different way. Think of the strategy of a good joke: If someone tells you a story you already know, it is not going to be funny, because there is no element of surprise. If a story is new to you, but too weird or strange, it might make you uncomfortable and push you way, and it will not be funny. But if it’s a story is told in a way that you like and yet has an unexpected ending – then it is funny.

Benno developed his thoughts further: “A lot of the reasons for why we are predictable is because of the formats we are stuck in. Change the format and we increase our ability to think in new ways.” 

Listening to Benno reminded me of a friend I have who was born in Africa and moved to Hong Kong as an adult. His whole life in Africa he was a shy and introverted person. But when he moved to Hong Kong he told himself: “No one knows me in Hong Kong. They do not know that I am an extreme introvert, so I am going to land in Hong Kong and be more extroverted and less shy!” And he did! and it worked!

You could argue that the decision to change how he was perceived demanded that he stepped out of his comfort zone.

But the act of moving to Hong Kong was a way of changing the format. A way of changing how he looked at the world. A way of stepping out of the Format Zone.

I asked Benno for some advice on how to make sure people constantly stepped out of their Format Zones. He replied: “First of all, remember that you constantly need to change things up. As soon as a new format has been established that becomes the norm and the effect is gone. Keep changing things up. And know that diversity in a group is a huge advantage as you naturally get new perspectives on how things could be changed up. Second: Remember that people find comfort in their roles, procedures and processes. Thread carefully when you shake things up. Think about the words you use and the strategies you apply when getting people to change the way they do something. Shake things up too much and it will backfire. Lead them into the change and they will more easily follow. And keep in mind that the level of change you need to create to trigger people is different between different individuals. Remember: It’s not primarily about making people uncomfortable – it’s about making people change the way they look at the world.”

I think this is a very important message.

What we want is for people to think in new ways, not to make them uncomfortable.

How can you and your team step out of your Format Zone? 




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