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.

Learn More

Leaders need to know their leadership type. My years of research have found that there are four main types:

  • Create: The Artist is clever and creative. They envision change, so their influence is based on anticipating a better future and generating hope in others. Being original is highly prized. They express themselves in spontaneous, creative responses to their surroundings. They are imaginative, able to handle a high degree of ambiguity and are comfortable with abstract ideas. Success for this type is defined by expressing new ideas and prototyping those ideas when possible.
  • Compete: The Athlete is aggressive and decisive. This leader actively pursues goals and targets and is energized by competitive situations. Winning is a dominant objective, and the focus is on external competitors and market place position. These leaders are hard drivers and producers, very demanding of themselves and others. Speed, stealth and discipline are key to their approach. Success for this type is in energizing employees by expanding opportunities for problem solving and redeploying resources. Power is key.
  • Collaborate: The Sage is caring and empathetic. The Sage is aware of others and cares for the needs of individuals. This leader is skilled at both building a community of people and sharing knowledge between them. They seek interactions among community members and allies and use processes like conflict management and consensus decision-making. Their success is defined by the creation of strong relationships through dialogue, trust, and understanding. Outcomes of these collaborative practices are shared values and commitment. They use their team orientation and cooperative nature to accomplish their goals. Morale and commitment are actively pursued.
  • Control: The Engineer is a well-informed technical expert. They are diligent, meticulous, and function-based. They influence others based on the control and management of information. Improving efficiency through process redesign and the implementation of reliable technology is a hallmark of the Engineer. Success for this type is in improving quality through the use of procedures. This leader is risk averse, and seeks to take variation out of the system, valuing standardization and consistency. Measurement is used as a tool to achieve these values.



Once leaders know their leadership type, they need to know where they have strengths and where they don’t. Leaders should know when to use the right tools. A tool kit is not unlike the set of techniques available to leaders: a hammer, a saw, and a wrench are all indispensable when you’re building or repairing something, but they’re not interchangeable. The same occurs when leaders are weighing ideas or possible innovative techniques.

Leaders should also keep an open mind and know their weaknesses. Everyone has a worldview and therefore a bias towards a particular strategy or perspective. Leaders should partner with others that challenge them. Sages and Engineers challenge each other, as do Engineers and Artists. Great leaders will develop the appropriate culture and competencies in their company to produce the desired value proposition. However, leaders typically favor practices that closely resemble their own preferences instead of changing those practices to fit the situation, to the detriment of the organization. Lacking range and knowledge about when you need to enlist others will not result in the desired outcome.

Additional information can be found on my blog at the Huffington Post. The following video goes more in-depth into the four types of innovatorsYou can find out what kind of creative leader you are by taking this quiz.

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

Innovation is about making our world better and new. While there are some regions that are dealing with the speed and complexity of hyper-innovation, there are others that are struggling to integrate innovation in the most fundamental forms: clean water, reliable food sources, basic health care and safety from violence.

Given that most leaders will face a challenging situation where making innovation happen is difficult at best, I thought it might be helpful to interview someone who has lived with the most formidable of problems to see what lessons we can glean from their experience.

Paul Kortenhoven has been a development leader of West African Missions for over thirty years. He has worked through poverty, plagues and civil wars and now advises communities how to thrive in the face of adversity. Paul’s suggestions could apply to any community or organization. The next time you think you find it difficult to make innovation happen, you might want to consider Paul’s advice.

JEFF: Where do you start to make innovation happen in war-torn region where many are living day to day?

PAUL: First, you have to understand that you cannot help people without giving away a part of yourself. It often hurts to help-but the long term results for both the helper and “helpee”are tremendous.

Results for the helper are respect, self-confidence, understanding of who you really are and why you are where you are, happiness

Results for the “helpee” are healing, recognition, chance to improve life, seeing an example of compassion to follow which always “pays it forward” somehow and somewhere and the awareness that you are loved and you are valuable, your life counts.

JEFF: How do you establish a relationship with these communities that allows you to introduce new ideas?

PAUL: Belonging is everything. “I exist because we are!” This is the core value of the African villager. Everyone needs to belong to some unit…a family, peer group, work group in planting season…everyone belongs regardless of their status in the village….from the deaf mute to the village chief. Then, there are no losers. Only winners!

The positives of this widely held belief are overwhelming! So overwhelming that when the civil war started in Sierra Leone in 1991, the Revolutionary United Front or RUF used this value to indoctrinate their kidnapped child soldiers. The human need to belong, to be respected, to be of value was inverted completely. The RUF through force, intimidation and extreme violence demonstrated clearly that the perversion of what is good, noble and even biblical can be turned into pure evil.

Trust is key. In Sierra Leone (and most African poverty riddled countries) you simply die if you do not live in a village or an area in which people trust each other.
In literally every business, every school system, every government department, we need to figure out how to build and or re-build trust among employees and employers, the government and the people they represent, residents and the educational systems, rich and poor. It is possible if you believe it….remember the Kevin Costner movie “Field of Dreams”.

JEFF: So how do we create this Field of Dreams in the many places that need innovation the most?

PAUL: Well, maybe we should start by paying more attention to the rural areas, to the small towns. They are the soul of the state. Learn to listen to people who live and work on farms, orchards, in a small town garage, shopkeepers. The big cities and tech towns are not the center of our universe.

Then, take care of the poor who will “always be with us”. Use the existing welfare system wisely and improve it. People who need welfare really do need it. They are not all free loaders as so many of us think. And the myth of pulling yourself up by the boot straps is a just that…a myth not a fact. I know people for whom it has worked well and are now college graduates and even Ph. D’s. When they needed help, it worked for them.

The worst insult in an African village or society is to be called “tightfisted”. There are proverbs in very West African language about the sorry fate of “tightfisted “people. A good name is worth more than gold in a poor society. It isn’t just in poor societies that people need each other to survive. In the “wealthy” society we have in the US, we all need each other as well. The sooner the leaders of our greatest cities, schools, businesses and economic leaders learn this, the better off we all will be.

Be generous not parsimonious. Think about tapping the really wealthy for the sake of the poor and make it plain that we are doing this because it is the right thing to do.

JEFF: Why aren’t we doing more to make innovation happen in these places now?

PAUL: Simply put, intolerance. One of the most important lessons we learned in our international lives was to be tolerant of other cultures, other world views, other religions. If you do not tolerate other people as they are, other people will never figure out who you are and you will accomplish nothing by working among them. Find some people that you know think differently than you do and get to know them….by listening not by telling them what to do…talk with them and not to them. You will be a better leader better, a better CEO, a better worker and a better person.

We need to be inclusive not exclusive. Learn from the “movers and shakers” but do not worship them. Do not make major decisions based solely on their interest or comments. Remember that most people are not “movers and shakers” but they still need to be heard.

To at least approach some sense of democracy, be inclusive. Exclusive groups serve only themselves and “themselves” just ain’t enough to sustain anything but “themselves”….

JEFF: What is your biggest concern about our own society’s ability to develop meaningful innovations? 

PAUL: Multi-tasking! In less developed countries multi-tasking is a luxury. You have to concentrate on what is necessary for survival. In a recent NYT article, “Think less, Think better” by Moshe Bar made a lot of sense to me.

My father, a straight thinking mechanical engineer, literally took the radio out of our new 1958 Edsel because, as he said, “You cannot concentrate on your driving when are listening to the radio” And my bother in law (a vegetable farmer from Ohio) did not obey his father when told to turn off the radio while transplanting celery into the field from the green house and subsequently planted two whole rows of radishes upside down! Grandpa was not pleased to say the least.
Moshe Bar, a neuroscientist writes that a recent study by one of his Harvard graduate students “suggests that innovative thinking, not routine ideation, is our default mode when are minds are clear”. My father was right in 1958! Doing or thinking about several things simultaneously usually results in none of them being done well.

JEFF: In many ways, your suggestions about innovation are, shall we say, traditional?

PAUL: Their “newness” comes in the recognizing that the “tried and true” values past have been de-valued or discarded by the extreme individualism of our present day culture and the ease of electronic age which allows us and encourages us to be even more self-centered. This enables us to ignore our neighbor and belong only to ourselves. …bad for business, bad for any meaningful accountability for our decisions in whatever field in which we are engaged.

Once we recognize this, innovation can begin in leadership in business, education and government.


If you’d like to be in touch with Paul Kortenhoven, I welcome you to contact him directly: pkortenhoven@gmail.com.

Jeff DeGraff is the Dean of Innovation: professor, author, speaker and advisor to hundreds of the top organizations in the world. Connect with Jeff on Twitter @JeffDeGraff.

The article was originally published by The Huffington Post.