Don’t most people notice the weather?  Yes, but they don’t respond to it.  In my home state of Michigan, there were signs as far back as the 1970s that the auto manufacturing jobs on which so many relied were leaving the country.  By 1994, Michael Moore had made his movie “Roger and Me,” about the horrific effects of outsourcing on his hometown of Flint.  Word was out.  I personally had two friends who took it upon themselves to get new training before their manufacturing jobs disappeared.  They started to ask themselves and their friends: is there any reason to think the number of auto factory jobs is going to go back up again?  Is the work I do so special that it will be necessary no matter what happens to the auto industry?

When they thought about these questions, they realized the answers were no and no.  So then they looked around for industries where the weather was better.  Online sales were growing every year, and one of my friends had always liked and been good with computers.  The population of elderly people in Michigan was growing, and my other friend – a big, burly guy, the last person you would have guessed – had always had a feeling for caring for the elderly.  In the end, one became a website designer and the other a nurse.  Yet most people with jobs in the auto industry kept going to work as if they didn’t see the storm clouds or feel the first drops of rain.  Either they felt the sensations and didn’t think about them or they had no way to apply their creativity to what they observed all around.

How can you shift from passive notice of the weather to active response?  To begin, make time to reflect on the larger changes going on around you.  Instead of using all your time to check items off the to-do list or kick back and relax, give yourself a half a day a month, or two hours here and there, to watch the weather.  Put it on your calendar.  Treat it as one of your most important meetings.  When the time comes, learn about changes going on in your area and your industry.  How could you start?

  • Read a news magazine or industry publication that you normally skip
  • Replace an hour of “entertainment” television each week in favor of a news or documentary program about an issue you are concerned about
  • Browse an online news aggregator such as HuffingtonPost or Google News, that gives a wide range of experts and observers a place to comment on the trends they observe
  •  Make use of the expertise and experience of the people all around you.  Make a point to talk to different folks at community gatherings – at a party, after religious services, at a school event – and ask them what’s new in their business or their neighborhood.  Where do they see opportunities?  Or what has them concerned?
  • When you travel, talk to the people traveling alongside you.  The person next to you on the bus or plane, or in the seat nearby when you stop for a bite to eat.  The driver of the airport shuttle or the taxi.  Are things changing around here?  What’s on their minds?
  • Join a group on Facebook or another social networking site that provides neutral information on big-picture issues that concern you – health, education, finance, etc.  Remember that the goal here is to choose a group that will expose you to new points of view, not just reinforces the views you expect to be true.
  • If you have children in your life, discuss issues of the day that get raised at your child’s school.  Work to help them develop a big picture perspective.  As you help them to think for themselves, you may find that they are learning things or encountering situations that are new to you as well.  

In any of these ways, you can begin to become aware of the changes on the horizon.  But don’t just sit alone to wonder and worry – find others who are interested in watching the weather and discussing the longer-term possibilities.   “I saw on Huffington Post that X and Y.  Do you think that will happen here?”  “I read in the newspaper that …” Start an ongoing conversation, with others and with yourself.  Conduct thought experiments: When you look up at the sky, what do you see coming?  What might that mean?  Is that something that’s going to matter for you?

The most important thing is to remember that you are starting a learning process that will take time.  If you spend one afternoon learning and talking, chances are you won’t end the day with any answers at all.  That’s exactly where you should be.  For now, your goal is to establish the innovator’s habit of looking up and identifying some clouds you need to keep an eye on, some areas down the road that are expecting sunshine.  

Discover the power of constructive conflict and how it can help foster innovation. By reading The Innovation Code, you will learn how to harness tension and transform it into positive energy to successfully implement your innovation projects.

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A journalist asked me, “Is the Euro going to go up or down?”

“Up, of course,” I said. That got his attention.  

“Why? “

“Because it’s down now.  That’s what currencies do.  They go up and down.”

“When?” he wanted to know.  “When is it going to go up?”

All I could do was smile.  “If I knew that, I wouldn’t be telling you.  I’d be off buying Euros.”

We would all like to know right away which of our ideas for how to make our lives better is going to succeed and which isn’t, so we can be perfectly certain of success.  That’s why people buy so many of those checklist-type books with titles like Seven Steps to Get Rich Quick.  We’d all love to find a foolproof checklist that will succeed everywhere, for everyone, forever – but as we find out sooner or later, there’s no way to get that kind of perfect information.   Just watch any old science fiction movie. It may be good or bad, but with hindsight we always find that the filmmaker never gets the future right.  If you watch “2001,” you’ll see that the story assumed that by 2001 there would be two bases on the moon, one run by the United States and one by the Soviet Union.  At the same time, when a character in the movie makes a video phone call, he has to sit inside a phone booth and pay by the minute – the creators were able to imagine an American moon base but not a free Internet phone call on a handheld device.  And though it’s supposed to be the future, everyone is dressed in closely tailored 1960s clothes, because that’s what was in style when the movie was made.  There is no data on the fashion future, either.

Even graduates of business school fall into the trap of thinking they can know what the future will bring.  MBAs typically try to understand the future by doing more research on the past, so they can document and repeat what worked before.  But as innovators know, the game keeps changing.  What worked before won’t necessarily work again.  There is no certainty.   If you don’t believe me, go read the checklist-style business books on innovation that were popular five years ago.  It’s the reading equivalent of slowing down on the highway to get a look at a car wreck. Innovative business practices that were heralded as the next new thing are strewn to the side of the road.

Take a business practice from that era called Total Quality Management.  It was the innovative management approach developed back when the Japanese were suddenly making cars of much higher quality than we were making in America.  Our cars were full of defects, and lots of Americans started to buy Japanese.  To become competitive again, the Total Quality Management approach said that everyone involved in making a product like a car, including people outside the company such as suppliers and customers, had to participate in checking and maintaining quality.  It was a very good idea about how companies could make fewer mistakes, and by about the year 2000 American quality ratings were indistinguishable from those of Asian companies.  TQM worked.


The trouble was, too many business people forgot that TQM was an innovation developed to solve a specific problem at a specific time.  They forgot that their fabulous data about TQM only applied to the past, and that there was no data from the future.  TQM came to be seen as a cure-all, a required “improvement” for any company.  But eliminating errors is not the only thing companies have to do well.  And in fact, while American car companies were focusing increasingly on reducing the number of mistakes they made, Japanese and Korean companies shifted focus.  They started to ask: how could we build exciting new luxury cars?  How could we break into what has always been an American and European market?  They had shifted from reducing errors to expanding into new markets, and the fact that American companies were hyper-focused on reducing manufacturing errors meant the Asian companies had plenty of time and room to innovate – and pull ahead of American manufacturers again.


All those American companies that jumped on the TQM bandwagon were making the same basic mistake: they thought that past success was a guarantee of future success.  We all do this at times.  Every year, it seems, as college admissions news comes in, I hear about some family shocked that their child hasn’t gotten into any college except a safety school.  They say something like: “How could that happen to Billy?  He was such a smart little boy.  Why, when he was four years old….”  They’re still relying on the mental picture they have of him from years ago – and ignoring more recent potential pictures, like the one of his school losing its standards, or the one of smart Billy, bored in his failing school, cutting classes and getting into trouble.  


If past performance can’t predict the future, and you can’t rely on the methods that worked yesterday to work again for you tomorrow, then what can you do?  How do you meet the uncertainty of the future – the only place where you can grow? By taking the mental stance of the successful creativizer.  Neither hiding from change nor lost in endless preparation and research.  Uncertain – but not upset to be uncertain.  Because life can’t be fully plotted in advance, only understood in hindsight, the innovator goes forward uncertain but curious, interested, and responsive to new data as it comes in, and comes in again tomorrow.

Discover the power of constructive conflict and how it can help foster innovation. By reading The Innovation Code, you will learn how to harness tension and transform it into positive energy to successfully implement your innovation projects.

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One of the first stories I ever learned to read was called Stone Soup. It was a tale about three wily soldiers with no food or money who come to a wary village and set a large iron cauldron by the well in the town square. As the inhabitants look on, the soldiers fill the vessel with water and ceremoniously place a large stone in the pot. Intrigued, the villagers come out to examine and critique the colorless concoction. Some suggest that the broth would be improved with carrots or potatoes and such to which the tricksters agree. The meal gains momentum as the folks each willingly add some small ingredient. Soon the cauldron is bubbling with a sumptuous brew and all feast and dance in celebration. The story ends with the soldiers moving down the road to repeat the whole charade on the next unsuspecting burg.

I have never forgotten this parable about the generative power of communities engaged in small and diverse creative acts. Over the years I have been lucky enough to work with many of the top companies in the world on ways to make collaborative innovation happen. Sometimes it requires complex strategic maneuvers or the intricate coordination of customized processes and arcane measures. But at its most basic level, organizational innovation is mostly about making stone soup. That is, getting everyone, everywhere, every day to make small unique contributions that when combined create something truly great.

All learning is developmental. If you don’t believe it try speaking a foreign language or taking up an instrument and you will quickly discover that the failure cycle knows no age. We learn by seeing and then doing and finally by teaching – See One, Do One, Teach One. Of course talent matters but our gifts come in many diverse forms so it is essential that seek out those who are unlike us so that we may see beyond our own blind spots. Innovation is not produced through alignment or agreement but rather through the positive tension that comes from constructive conflict. Diverse teams can jumpstart a project in four simple steps:

  1. Set High Quality Targets
    • Identify high impact and high probability growth targets
    • Create a shared vision with an appropriate level of ambition
    • Select initiatives to test the strategy
  2. Enlist Deep and Diverse Domain Experts
    • Identify the various areas of expertise needed
    • Assess organizational capability and culture
    • Enlist high potential growth leaders
  3. Take Multiple Shots on Goal
    • Brainstorm winning ideas and transform them into solutions
    • Jumpstart growth and innovation project teams
    • Gain organizational buy-in for new ideas
  4. Learn from experience and experiments
    • Assess what worked and didn’t
    • Develop simple rules of thumb
    • Implement winning solutions throughout the organization

Pay special attention to the intangibles such as how the team uses its creative energy to produce momentum.

An innovation only exists for a very brief moment before it goes sour like old soup. As with a chef trying new recipes, practice precedes mastery. The more you cook the better the dish. The stock of this innovative soup is deviation and requires the encouragement of deviance. The old adage is wrong. Too many chefs don’t spoil the broth; they make the sumptuous stone soup.

The following video about the future of creative collaboration might also be helpful.

This question originally appeared on Quora.


Discover the power of constructive conflict and how it can help foster innovation. By reading The Innovation Code, you will learn how to harness tension and transform it into positive energy to successfully implement your innovation projects.

Learn More