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Driving Innovation Through Shared Values

Driving Innovation Through Shared Values

Conflict can be the spark that ignites innovation. There are four different type of innovators, and each brings his or her expertise (but also his or her weaknesses) to the table. Constructive conflict between this four points of view is the key to creating strong and lasting innovations. Today, we’ll discover the story of Mae, the Sage.

Mae loved to knit, but she didn’t like beautiful things. Elegant and chic were two words not in her vocabulary. “If you want something that’s in style, go to a store,” she joked when relatives and friends gave her their requests for tasteful scarves and fashionable hats. Her specialty was tastelessness. Homespun kitsch—the kind of sweaters people wear ironically to ugly sweater parties—those were Mae’s favorite pieces to make. She found beauty in the awful and was determined to share it with everyone she knew.

There was a sweet logic to Mae’s preference for the ugly: in her eyes, the aesthetics of knitting were an afterthought. It was the connections she made with others that she valued most about her favorite pastime. In over 30 years of knitting every day, Mae forgot many of her most hideous creations, but she never forgot any of the people she made them for.

A social worker who constantly went out of her way to help others, Mae made her passion communal. In her living room, she hosted all sorts of friends, acquaintances, friends of friends—anyone with the slightest connection to knitting, from veteran knitters, to eager beginners, to reluctant recipients of future ugly sweaters. At her gatherings, she did what she did best: knitted and talked. While she stitched away, she listened to other people’s problems, offered advice, and helped visitors find other people who might help them solve their problems. Mae created much more than too many ugly sweaters to count. Her house became a kind of community center where people could chat, meet others, unwind, recharge, find solace, and, of course, knit.

Like a child outgrowing her baby quilt, Mae’s weekly meetings got too large for her house. Eager to keep her at-home community center going, she looked around for other spaces. A nearby elementary school had recently become vacant. She’d heard rumors of an imminent demolition, so she went to the school board and asked if she could rent the space. Mae promised to keep the school in good condition and to pay a fee for the use of the space in return for the creation of an actual community center. The officials thought the idea was great and agreed to let Mae rent the space.

The knitting meet-up was only one of many regular activities at the new center. People of all ages, with interests of all kinds, showed up for a variety of programs, including open counseling groups and courses in painting, crafts, creative writing, and languages. Eventually, Mae let new teachers, mentors, and leaders run the center, and she enjoyed the facility as just another individual.

At the peak of the center’s popularity and success, Mae died. In the wake of her absence—a huge devastation to everyone in the community—the center thrived. Instead of falling apart, the members, who all had different skills and specialties, stepped up and carried on Mae’s legacy. The connoisseur of ugly had left behind a thing of surprising splendor.

A Compassionate Facilitator

Part connector, part listener, part counselor, Mae is a Sage for the ages, a mentor even to other mentors. In her radiant—indeed, contagious—warmth, she’s a shining example of this most compassionate of creative leaders. Her greatest qualities are the things that define Sages at the top of their games: persistence, empathy, and the desire, above all else, to be around, work with, and learn from both like-minded and totally different people. Sages are facilitators that put everyone they meet at ease. They attract people and bring them together, creating a family atmosphere and collaborative spirit.

Their charisma lies in their reserve, their willingness to let other people speak. Recall the way Mae gladly gave up her role heading up the community center once it got off the ground and she herself became an eager patron. Sages thrive on building a culture—defining the larger character and vision of the people they unite. They are the fundamental source of knowledge for the groups and teams they lead. They are the people who first develop the crucial competences and capabilities that endure for years or even lifetimes.

At the organizational level, the Sage companies are driven by their shared values—often by a desire to help others. They look for input from everyone within and without their ranks, from new and old employees, to consumers, to friends, and they welcome people of all kinds into their family. Think universities. Think Habitat for Humanity. Think Doctors Without Borders. This is a dynastic kind of innovation—a vision that gets passed down from generation to generation.

The Sage is one of the actors of innovation. To get the best out of your innovation project, don’t hesitate to use all the resources that are available to you. Do not avoid conflict, but embrace it, as it will allow you to see and understand how you can improve your processes and innovate in a way that you didn’t know was possible.

Excerpted from The Innovation Code by Jeff and Staney DeGraff (Berrett-Koehler Publishers August 7, 2017)


The Innovation Code is a rigorous but highly accessible guide for achieving breakthrough solutions by utilizing the full—and seemingly contradictory—spectrum of innovative thinking.

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