Often, I’ve noticed, when I talk to someone about the need to innovate, that person will respond by telling me how much he or she is doing already.  

These days we make productivity something like a religion.  We believe that if we are productive enough, organized enough, task-focused enough, that this will save us from the fact that our lives are overcommitted.

I think of Jon, a manager who worked for a corporate client of mine.  I was helping his company develop new approaches to efficiency, but he wasn’t using any of them.  He wasn’t even giving them a try.  In fact, he was running his team exactly the way he had run it three years earlier.

When I asked Jon if he had considered trying some of the company’s new efficiencies with his team, he turned his computer screen around so I could see it and brought up his work schedule.  “Look at this calendar!” he cried.  “I’m working seventy hour weeks.  You won’t find a more efficient employee in this entire company!”

I didn’t disagree.  He was working very long hours and his scheduling was highly efficient.  I admired his drive and his focus, and I told him so.  But I also told him that from the point of view of innovation, his efficiency was not a plus.  It was evident that he was getting it wrong.  

Perhaps the most important of these rules is the 80-20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle.  It states that 80% of the results we’re trying to achieve come from only 20% of the causes.  It was first inspired by the observation that 80% of the peas in someone’s garden came from twenty percent of the pods, and it’s been found to hold for many other examples of productivity: 80% of a company’s income tends to come from twenty percent of the customers.  Most of the distractions and wasted time in your life tend to be created by a small number of distracting, wasteful people.  So today, many of us focus on trying to do more for the most important clients or customers and to avoid whoever is wasteful or doesn’t show results.

In our personal lives as well, many of us try to use our time where it’s more productive, where we can see immediate results.  Now we carry portable electronics so we can fit ten more computer activities into our day while we’re carpooling kids to activities; we carry smartphones so that even when we’re walking the dog, and even sleeping, we can be “on call” and available to move projects forward for those extra-valuable twenty percent of the clients, or those extra-important people in our lives.  That can be a good thing, but the trouble is, if you constantly optimize your life for productivity, it doesn’t give you more time.  It uses up more of your time.  You become like Jon the manager, with an ever-longer, ever-more-tightly-packed schedule.  As useful as these approaches can be, our quest for productivity can cost us our capacity to innovate.

Like Jon, we complete many tasks but we wind up too busy to try anything new.  Instead of improving our lives, we just do more and more of the same old tasks in the same old ways.  Even if your goal is short-term results, you may not have time to notice that conditions have changed, and the parts of your life or your work that used to pay off the best no longer do – there is still a most valuable twenty percent, but it’s a different twenty percent than it was before, and you don’t have time to learn how it’s changed.


To make time for improvements, we need to forget the 80/20 rule.  Innovation requires us to experiment, to follow new paths even though some – many – will be wrong turns or dead ends.   But that doesn’t mean you need to stop your life and do nothing but experiment and explore.  That would be very difficult, and it often backfires: I’ve known too many people who have quit a job to get to work on their dream, only to run out of funds and retreat to another job no better than the first.

Instead of trying to innovate one hundred percent of your life at once, pick a narrow part of your life and concentrate on innovating on that twenty percent.  It’s much easier to make big changes in a small area of life than it is to make even moderate changes all across your life.  If you want to become a musician and you’ve never played before, which would you rather do: commit to practice for an hour every day, or to practice all day every Saturday?

I call this the 20/80 rule.  It is easier to change twenty percent of a company or a life by eighty percent than it is to change eighty percent of that company or that life by even twenty percent.  Innovation requires us to break off and protect a relatively small piece of time and then, in that protected area, forget efficiency and short-term gains in favor of experimentation and the long-term improvements.  

Mastering the 20/80 rule in three steps:

  •  Set aside scheduled time to be creative
  • Protect that creative time as if it was as valuable to you as your most productive hours.
  • Accept that you won’t see short-term results.  Your goal in that narrow, protected piece of time is to work toward the innovations that will improve your life for the future, not for today.  Over time, like plants, these small growths that don’t seem good for anything will mature and bear fruit.

Unleash your creativity

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


It is important to find value in being different. In this episode, I interview Stephen Shapiro, innovation instigator, business consultant, Hall of Fame speaker and author of Best Practices Are Stupid.  Together, we discuss how innovation can help people stand out. According to Shapiro, it is key to find out what makes you unique.

Office Hours with Jeff DeGraff is a video series where the Dean of Innovation interviews thought leaders on the broad subject of innovation. These thought leaders come from various backgrounds but all share insight from their personal and professional experience that can be adapted to foster innovation either in a business setting or in your personal lives.

Unleash your creativity

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

Successful innovation requires us to notice what is moving and growing around us, and to find ways to harness its energy to get us where we want to go.  Newton’s First Law states that an object in motion tends to stay in motion, while an object at rest tends to stay at rest.

If you can climb onto something that is already in motion, it will save you a great deal of energy, compared to pushing that thing yourself.  Along the same lines, there is an economic principle called “value migration,” which states as conditions change, the first to recognize them and to invest or capitalize on these shifts stand to make the greatest amount of profit.

Some of the “accidental billionaires” who rode Facebook to their fortunes, as portrayed in the movie The Social Network, provided only a small amount of cash or some early networking, but because they were the first to ride this new phenomenon that was moving, they saw huge benefits.

The choice to ride what moves can make the difference between innovation and slow decay for an individual, an organization, even a city or country.  Consider Kalamazoo, Michigan. Located, halfway between Chicago and Detroit, Kalamazoo was crowned the “All-American City” by Life Magazine in the 1960’s.  It was home to post-war corporate giants like Fisher Body, Checker Motors, the Upjohn Company and that symbol of the generation in motion, Gibson Guitars.  

Frank Lloyd Wright created some of his greatest architectural marvels here and nestled them in-between the painted ladies that housed the local gentry.  The city even closed its main thoroughfare to create a little European flair downtown – the first outdoor pedestrian shopping mall in the country. Kalamazoo was an emblem of forward thinking and self-reliant success.

But slowly things unraveled. Manufacturing left the Snow Belt for warmer lands, as did the city’s creative and enterprising youth.  Roads cracked, factories failed.  For three decades the city was mentioned as yet another example of Northern Blight, if it was mentioned as anything besides a town with a funny name.

And then it happened.  A group of anonymous donors got together and raised an enormous trust to fund the college education of every child that graduated from a Kalamazoo public school. They called it the Kalamazoo Promise. Families that owned homes in the school district began sending their children to State of Michigan universities and community colleges for free. People began to move to Kalamazoo for the sake of their children.  Neighborhoods were rehabilitated.  The momentum that had shifted from good to bad now shifted back towards good again. Like the unexpected hit in a baseball game that starts a rally and wins the game, which starts a winning streak that ends with a pennant, Kalamazoo was moving again, and innovators came to ride.  Beauty shops and coffee joints popped up alongside internet developers and art studios.  Businesses began to give the old town a fresh look as biotech and material science firms started springing up.

That’s why I say: no matter what in your life you are trying to innovate, look to ride what moves.  I encourage you to make time to notice the areas of growth and fresh opportunity.  Get to know them.  Talk to people making use of them. They may not have any obvious connection to what you want to do.  They may be as different as oil painting and online marketplaces.  Still, find chances to experiment with them.  The transition to the area that moves won’t be seamless – you can’t expect to notice an area of growth and then immediately see how it can take you where you want to go.


Discover the power of constructive conflict.

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

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