How Successful Entrepreneurs Turn Surprising Connections Into Business Strategy
Published DateAuthorDan Sullivan and Shannon Waller
Entrepreneurs innovate by drawing connections between things that haven’t been linked before. But how can you go about making such connections? In this episode, business coaches Dan Sullivan and Shannon Waller explain Dan’s latest breakthrough thinking tool, The Triple Play.
Here's some of what you'll learn in this episode:
How creativity is a method you can master.
How you can tell whether an activity is creative.
What types of connections get people excited.
Why Dan preferred to make his own toys as a child.
We don’t discover connections; we make connections.
Creativity is connecting things where you didn’t see the connection before.
Not many people are creative enough to build an independent career in the marketplace.
You’re not really creative if you’re not surprising yourself.
Your brain can’t ignore a question.
Children play according to a method of connecting things that don’t belong together.
People's directed usefulness is achieved at the cost of creativity.
Imaginative thinkers make more money than people who are uniform and predictable.
Creating connections is how our brains get used to the world.
Shannon Waller: Hi, Shannon Waller here and welcome to Inside Strategic Coach with Dan Sullivan. Dan, today we're going to talk about your new favorite tool, the latest evolution out of a long and illustrious history of amazing thinking tools that you have created, called The Triple Play.
Dan Sullivan: Mm-hmm.
Shannon Waller: And there are a few aspects of this which are kind of, I want to say magical because it causes when I do it, me to connect things that were not connecting in my brain before that. So let's dive into, let's talk about what The Triple Play is. We'll talk about how it works, why it works, because again, it's pretty cool. I love it. So Dan, what is The Triple Play?
Dan Sullivan: First of all, it's a tool that surprised me when I got the picture in my mind. So, I think in diagrams, so I've got a sort of a graphic mind. So, I see arrows and stars and circles. With the tools, what I'm seeing with the diagram is the progression in which you think through something. And this one really caught me by surprise because I wasn't working on something else and the tool popped out. But what had happened is that I got almost the complete diagram in my mind about three weeks before I actually sketched it out, and it kept coming back to me, this diagram. So as I've developed it, it was in a simpler form when I first developed it, but you can take any three factors in your business and you can take any three of them. It works if they're somehow related, it works if they're not related, they can be three completely different things.
And you have shapes. And the first shapes are arrows. There's three fat arrows. So you can write inside the arrow. And then outside of the... as you're going from the center of the page, you're going outwards. So the first thing are three arrows, and then you have three boxes that have square corners. And then outside of those three, you have boxes that have rounded corners. And what you do is that you brainstorm first. For example, yesterday I was dealing with issues related to company and what I considered the five building blocks of capitalism.
So there are 5 Ps, and it was, how do you price the whole part of your company? And that's about pricing. And then property that you've created, especially intellectual property. And then you can have physical property as part of your business. And then productivity, the area where you're making things better, you're getting more results with less effort, with less time, less cost. And then profitability, that you're keeping more than you're making. And then the prosperity, what all this buys for you, the kind of company you have, the kind of life that you lead, and who gets included in your success, which I call prosperity.
So anyway, I have them go through a thinking process, and that was a new tool too. I had just created that tool for the day. And it's a quarterly book we have right now called Capitalism—And Everything Else, which turned out great because I had a great interviewer, Shannon.
Shannon Waller: Thank you Dan.
Dan Sullivan: We had a great book. And it's turned out terrific. I've gotten a lot of rave reviews from this book. So anyway, I just had people use it as a scorecard to actually write down the best job they've ever done with, let's say pricing, and then what comes next where they can see improvement in how they price. And then the other piece. And then they have 10 things at the end of 10 minutes, and then they pick three of them. And I said, just pick any three that appeal to you and put them in the three arrows at the center of the sheet and then write those in. And then I time these so that they have a certain amount of time to get it done. And then I say, okay, "Take any one of the square cornered boxes"—and it's connected to two arrows—"say how these two arrows connect with each other."
And this is where the surprises start happening because there wasn't any connection between these two things before they chose them. And they say, "Well, I can't see the connection." And I said, "Well, you don't see the connection, you make the connection." And that's a lesson for a lot of people. I said, "We never discover connections; we make connections. The connection did not exist before you made it. And then afterwards, it seems natural that you saw that, but it's only afterwards that you see that of course these two things really fit together. But you didn't see it before." And that's creativity.
So, I'm just going to stop the action right there and make a point here. Creativity is connecting things in a way that you didn't see the connection before. That's what creative activity is. And you can tell it's creative because it's surprising. You were surprised by the connection that you make and say, "I didn't see that." So you do it with all three boxes, connecting the two arrows. So, two of the arrows are connected to two of the boxes. Each of the two arrows are always connected.
Shannon Waller: Yeah. So there's a connection between arrows one and two, and then two and three, and then three and one.
Dan Sullivan: And then three and one.
Shannon Waller: And there's little square boxes where you identify that, correct?
Dan Sullivan: Yeah. So each arrow gets used twice for different boxes. Then, you just have people go into a breakout group. This was on Zoom. So, they go into a breakout group, or if they're in the room, they pull their chairs together, and they talk about what they just discovered from putting these arrows into connections in the boxes. And they get very, very excited because it's all surprising to them. They say- Now, the reason is because it's three.
Shannon Waller: Okay.
Dan Sullivan: And it doesn't work with two, and it doesn't work with four. The only number I've seen is it works with three, and it triggers creativity. So one of the obstacles that we face in coaching entrepreneurs is, for whatever is in their history, they've been told they're not very, very creative. But they're creative enough to create an independent career in the marketplace. And not many people are that creative. And they're very successful.
I mean, they have to be already talented and successful before they come into Strategic Coach at our most basic level. You're already in the top 1% of income earners in the world just to qualify for the Program. So you're creative enough to be where you are and you did it through your own efforts and everything. And what this shows them is that creativity is a method that they can master.
Shannon Waller: Right.
Dan Sullivan: So, we have a nice discussion and everything else, and then I say, "Okay, now let's take the square boxes and put them together and connect them in the boxes with curved corners." And then they really go crazy and they say, "My God, I have a totally different vision about what's possible out of doing this." So, I've been creating thinking tools since 1982 where our very first tool, which was The Strategy Circle, and I would say that up until last July when I came up with this new tool—we call it The Triple Play, TM. We've got it protected. It's got a copyright, it's got the trademark, and it'll be a patent. This is going to be one of our patented thinking tools.
But the thing about this is that you can take any of our existing tools, and we have 200 that are trademarked, 200 trademarked thinking tools, and you can put three of them and put them into this, and it creates new tools. So, what I love about this is that not only can we show our entrepreneurs who are our clients, our customers in the Program, how to be creative, but our whole team inside Strategic Coach can become creative by using The Triple Play of taking any three things that they're working on and just going through the process. And it's spectacular what happens to the room. From the very first time I've done it, and I've done it now in workshop settings 20 or 30 times, and the results are always the same, and the other coaches say the same thing. So, it's a wonderful thing.
Shannon Waller: A couple things about that, Dan. One is, because I've coached it several times too, and you've talked about this. When they first connect one arrow to the second arrow, they're like, "Hm?" and they're very kind of frowning at you. And then when they start to connect the second one, so halfway through the first go, and they're like-
Dan Sullivan: They look up and they say, "Holy crap." There's always words to that effect.
Shannon Waller: Like, they don't get it, they don't get it, then they get it.
Dan Sullivan: Then all of a sudden their brain goes, "Oh my God." But it's the surprise. They're being surprised by their own thinking. And you're not really creative if you're not surprising yourself. That's a belief of mine that creative people do it because they like being surprised by their own thinking. That's why creative people are passionate. I mean, they tend to want to go on creating like that for the rest of their life because there's nothing boring about this process because they're always surprising themselves. But it's not surprising themselves from something outside. They're surprising something that just happened in their own brain. And I have to tell you, in the entrepreneurial world, it doesn't get any better than that. But you're constantly surprised by your own thinking. And then the people around you also have this ability and they're surprising you.
Shannon Waller: And what you said, which I think really bears repeating, you don't find the connection; you make the connection.
Dan Sullivan: Make the connection. Yeah.
Shannon Waller: And people go, like, "How can there be a connection between these?" And then I usually ask the question, "What's the common denominator? Who wrote these down? Who chose them? And that would be you."
Dan Sullivan: Yeah. And it's original. It's very, very original because no one else has ever tried to connect these three things. You're the first person to connect them. So you're original and you're surprising yourself. So it's got everything going for it. And I think the reason I was able to create this, this is 41 years after I created The Strategy Circle, which was the very first tool, and still, I mean, it's still a foundational tool in the Program. But I think it's because I've created 200 other tools and the number for this one came up because I'm always looking for thinking tools that do more than anything else that we've created before.
Shannon Waller: So not necessarily single use, but it has multiple applications.
Dan Sullivan: Yeah. And it's a dimension above anything you've done before. I'm always looking for the new thing that's better than anything that we've succeeded with previously.
Shannon Waller: One of the things that I find so fascinating about The Triple Play is you can put so many different kinds of things in it. So if you've happened to have done the Unique Ability exercise, you could put three of your 10 Best Habits. One of your suggestions, which I thought was profound, was pick three of your most challenging circumstances you've ever had to deal with.
Dan Sullivan: No, worst experiences. I said, "You can take the three best experiences that you've ever had in your life, and you brainstorm and your brain will come up with the three best experiences because your brain can't ignore a question, even if you're the one asking. Your brain will automatically come up with the three best experiences. It's what our brain does."
Shannon Waller: Yeah, totally.
Dan Sullivan: And it happens very quickly. So, I always start these exercises by brainstorming some aspect of their business or their life and what's the best, what's the worst, what's the biggest challenge you had that you overcame and it was a huge breakthrough? Just identify the three biggest breakthroughs you had because you were willing to meet the challenge. And they come up with it right away. And I said, "Okay, let's take those three success stories and put them in the three arrows." But then in one of the workshops, a woman asked me, "Well, what if I do it with the three worst experiences?" And I said, "Yeah, yeah, try it out."
So I didn't see her for a couple months. So she was at a session, and she said, "It totally works with the three worst experiences." And I said, "So is that good?" And she said, "Would've saved me 15 years of therapy. I didn't get this out of my therapist. There was no breakthrough. There was nothing surprising, except his bill."
Shannon Waller: I know when I've done not just the three arrows connecting, but The Triple Play, it's kind of amazing just what conclusions I draw. My insights become even more substantial. I find more core elements between them, which I find really insightful. It's surprising to me, and it's interesting because I think there are some really interesting applications in today's uncertain world, if I can say that. So how can someone listening use this to address some of the economic issues that are coming up? How can they use this to help their clients?
Dan Sullivan: For example, I'll just choose off the top here, the economy. One of the problems is, we're suddenly finding we don't have enough people who are skilled in the trades. I mean, an 18-year-old today takes a six-week welding course at the end of the first year, and they're making $60,000 in today's economy, whereas a four-year graduate of a liberal arts college is saying, "Welcome to Walmart." So, the big thing is that there's this real sudden change in the economy now where all the industry that was sent overseas is being pulled back, manufacturing is being pulled back, speaking here of North America, it's coming back. Toronto is now going to become a huge industrial center in North America because of the proximity to a hundred million Americans, but the exchange rate between the American and the Canadian dollar...
So Sasa Krcmar who's one of our long-term, very, very enjoyable entrepreneur. He's the number one site surveyor for the entire Toronto region. I mean, his company puts in more site surveys than all the other site surveying companies combined. And he says the most treasured raw land right now is for industry, it's for factories. Well, these really required skilled people, people with mechanical skills, trade skills. We don't need a lot of people who are learning skills where they're more sort of social activist skills or anything.
We don't really need them. What we need is people who can really get things done and really produce things and manufacture. So that's a big problem. The other thing is, we're in a high inflationary period and will be I think for at least another 10 years because the biggest generation of experienced managers and every other kind of worker is now retiring. So, the Baby Boom generation in the United States was the biggest generation anywhere in the history of the world. It was 125 million in that generation. The youngest of them is 59 now.
And you can see the absence of these people in the big systems like the airlines where the most experienced pilots during the Covid period were bought off by the airlines because they weren't making money. And these are the most expensive workers. So they bought out the top pilots, they bought out the top cabin crews, they've bought out the ticketing people, the people who knew how to deal with large numbers of people, and they had knowledge that's not written down in the job manual.
Shannon Waller: And people in charge of baggage handling, I think they also got-
Dan Sullivan: Yeah, baggage handling, mechanics, mechanics and everything else. And so that's going to be going on for another 10 or 15 years, which means that the cost of their replacements, the cost is going to go up. And that's inflationary, is very inflationary. So you got inflation. So you have lack of skilled trades, you have inflation. The other thing is the crime problem in major cities. The silly notion that the way that you deal with crime is by getting rid of the police and everything else. So, I would just take those three, put them in the three arrows, and go through. I haven't done it, so I can't predict what's going to happen, but now that you've brought up the topic, I'm going to do it.
Shannon Waller: Well, and it's great because their answers will be relative to the connections that they see from their Unique Ability, from their skills, from their knowledge, from their experience, and come up with very unpredictable answers and surprising answers.
Dan Sullivan: But they would be very surprising answers. I'm not going to betray my voting pattern over the last 50 or 60 years, but I said, maybe I ought to just teach all the people that I vote for how to do this where the other side doesn't have this skill.
Shannon Waller: That's a good idea.
Dan Sullivan: Not in my business, so I'm not going to, but I would do it with certain individuals.
Shannon Waller: Well, I think that's powerful, Dan, because using The Triple Play to address issues that you see with your specific clientele, with what you see going on in the world actually spurs your creativity for how you can be part of the solution, for how you can provide remedies. And it turns bad news out there into ways that you can contribute and quote, unquote, "good news."
Dan Sullivan: You can take a look at any problem. I mean, you have world events right now. Obviously, the Russia-Ukraine War has surprised everybody because that wasn't supposed to happen ever again in mainland Europe, and it comes out. That's a problem. Then there's the problems with China, because China is losing support around the world, and they're purely an export country. They import almost all their energy. 80% of their energy has to be imported, and they can't guarantee the supply chains. They don't have a Navy. So, that's going to be a problem. Middle East is heating up right now. So you just take Russia, Ukraine, Middle East, and you take Southeast Asia and you put them in the three arrows and you look at it and all of a sudden, you see all sorts of different connections. Yep.
Shannon Waller: Well, and I think even one of the other ideas that you've just spurred is taking—previous podcasts, we talked about your clients'/customers' dangers, their opportunities, and their strengths—taking three of their dangers, taking three of their opportunities, taking three of their strengths, and finding the connections.
Dan Sullivan: Creating a whole new value proposition for your clients.
Shannon Waller: Totally. With new pricing, because that was a topic of that conversation. But that could be incredibly valuable. So even if world events feel a little bit big, taking them down to the very specific issues, which means you just need to be listening for what those are. Oh my gosh. Whole new value proposition, as you said. That's exciting.
Dan Sullivan: Yeah. The thing that's interesting, I think this exercise is available to everybody. I can see children at a very young age... Actually, I think children are a bit more prepared for doing this because I think before they're educated out of it, that children play according to a method of connecting things that don't belong to each other. I remember, I grew up on a farm in the 1940s, and I always remember this weird thing that happened in relationship to the Sears Christmas catalog. So it would come in about two months before Christmas. Everybody waited all year round for the Sears catalog to come. I was into rifles, toy rifles, so I would really, really want to get a toy rifle. It was kind of a children's sized rifle. So I would get it and I'd be looking forward. My mother talked to Santa Claus, so she passed on our request.
Shannon Waller: [laughs]
Dan Sullivan: Anyway, I always got up early on Christmas morning while everybody was sleeping. I went down and I didn't open other people's presents, but I opened my own presents. And there's my rifle, and I'm sitting there, and I say, oh God, I wanted this rifle, and everything else. We're Catholic, so we went to Mass, but usually we went to midnight Mass the night before. So you had the morning and you had the toy and everything else. And about lunchtime, I just took the rifle and put it back in its box. And then I went out to the barn, and I got the stick that I used as a rifle. And now I was happy because the stick could be a spear, the stick could be a club, the stick could be a rifle.
That was my rifle because I had to use my imagination. But the toy from Sears, you didn't use your imagination. It looked like the real thing, but it wasn't the real thing and everything. I noticed that as a child, I was much more interested in creating my own toys than receiving manufactured toys.
Shannon Waller: Well, and you're not alone. It's like if you know with little kids, what do they want? They want the box that the toy came in. They can do way more with boxes.
Dan Sullivan: You can do more with boxes than you can with the product.
Shannon Waller: We're reading a fabulous book by Temple Grandin called Visual Thinking. Dr. Temple Grandin, I should say. And it's so interesting because it kind of goes through that process of who are the object thinkers, like you. And we kind of train kids out of it to a large degree. And so I think actually doing it with kids, I'm actually thinking about my friend's four-year-old. I think she should go try it with her because it's fairly instinctive for kids, like before they can read-
Dan Sullivan: Well, I think it's how the human brain from birth comes to grips with the world. You connect this thing with that thing and you make all sorts of associations and everything else, but it's not logical. It's associative, and you associate this with this, and then you create the connection. And I think it's how our brain gets used to the world, but there's a point there where they want your brain now to start being directed towards a role that you're going to play in society once you're out of your school days and you're out into the world, they want you to be prepared for certain activities in the world. And I think creativity's one of the casualties.
I think the price that's paid for people's directed usefulness is achieved at the cost of creativity because they're told, "Well, you can't be just making stuff up. Life is not imaginary." But surprisingly in our day and age, in terms of who makes the big money, the imaginative thinkers make more money than the people who are uniform and predictable.
Shannon Waller: I could not agree more, Dan. And I think that's why The Triple Play is such a useful exercise to keep doing because you can kind of—I'm not going to say you're going to unlearn some of the things that you've learned, but you're going to reignite that part of you that might have been a little bit dormant. And then doing it with younger people. There was a great study, and I'm not going to quote it exactly, but they did this survey of three different groups of people with the number of different uses that they could think of for a paperclip. Okay?
So, they gave the number like 250, 25, and then 4. Well, guess who came up with 4? The adults. Guess who came up with 250? Kindergartners. And they're like, "Well, if you make it out of foam, then you can use it as a springboard." They came up with all of these wild things, and you're like, never in a million years would I think about that. So I think encouraging kids to do that and not to lose that capability as they gain other ones, because creativity to my mind is what is going to help solve the dangers, maximize the opportunities, create new value creation propositions for people. So I think finding ways to really strengthen and grow your creativity is essential.
Dan Sullivan: But for now, we'll just focus on our check writers.
Shannon Waller: 100%. And it'd be great if other people did that too. I love it. Oh, Dan, thank you so much. I think it's awesome to share The Triple Play with people who may not have seen it in the workshop yet, to reinforce it for those who have, and to use it to actually be really creative with your clientele, with your check writers. I think it's a great value creation thing that we've done today.