I fly a hundred thousand miles or more each year, and usually when I get off my plane I’m met by the driver of a black car. I’ve probably talked with hundreds of drivers doing the same job, chauffeuring people like me around and hustling for tips. In St. Louis, my client regularly hired the same young guy to meet my plane. He liked to talk to me about his work. No one told him to do that, he just started talking. In one conversation I asked him: Who do you work for? He said all his business was with two companies. I asked, do they know you? What’s your specialty? He said other car services required a half day’s notice, but he would come if they called at the last minute. Also, he was willing to drive long-distance: if they needed a ride from St. Louis to Chicago, he’d get on the highway.

I said, if you’re valuable to them, if you’ve got a special niche, one of those companies might be willing to commit to a long-term arrangement with you, so they know they can always get a ride from you when they want it. And if they’re willing to make a formal arrangement, you could probably find a business partner who would put up some money to buy some cars.

This advice wasn’t special. I’ve given it to other drivers and equivalent advice to lots of other solo practitioners in different businesses over the years. But the next time I saw this young man, he said, “I want to tell you something. I’m no longer just a driver. I got a partner and we bought two Lincolns. I own the company.” He wasn’t rich, but the whole way he talked about his life had changed: I own the company.

Psychologists call this self-authorizing behavior. This young man changed his behavior and made himself the author of his own life. No one had told him to talk to me while he drove me to my conference. No one had told him to act on what I said. No one told him how to seek out someone in his community who could put up money to buy two cars. But he saw that his life – and almost everyone’s life – is like that moment in the old Western movies when a townsperson rides back into town with the bad news: “We’re on our own. The cavalry isn’t coming.” To me, that moment in the movie, when a man rides in, dusty, exhausted, and grim, shows the key existential moment in creativizing. It’s the moment that you realize no one else is going to save you. You’re bankrupt and no one is going to bail you out; your marriage is broken and it’s not going to get fixed; you’ve got an illness and it can’t be wished away; you have the same unrealized dream you’ve always had, and no one but you can make it come true. The feeling at the moment is hard to take, but it clears your vision. Now you see what the townspeople in the Western see: if we’re going to get rescued, we’ll have to rescue ourselves.

 

 

Of course, we all try to put that moment off. We deny. We criticize. We blame. Everyone does it– people come to me all the time with stories of the outrageous bad luck they’ve had, the unfairness and stupidity of the people they had to work with, the outrages committed by the evildoers who’ve done them wrong. Some martial vast evidence to prove the thesis that life sucks. It’s like what you hear on political talk shows, at either end of the spectrum: the other side is not just wrong, they are crazy, immoral and evil – probably all three. Even if these views are sometimes correct, they aren’t any help if what you want is to creativize. Because that kind of thinking comes from a position of reaction, of criticism. People talking that way are not self-authorizing; they’re just criticizing, saying everything that’s wrong with what others do but nothing about what would work better. But innovation can’t be done by critics. It takes authors.

When I hear people stuck in the reactionary mode, people who are too busy critiquing and explaining and blaming to self-authorize and start building something new, I ask them: okay, well, what would you do? Let’s say you’re right and people around you are crazy. What would a sane person do? Let’s say this or that member of Congress is an idiot. How would you solve the problem? Forget your vicious boss for a moment, your undermining parents. What would a good boss say? What would good parents do? These questions shift your thinking because they stop you from endlessly moving away from something, and start you moving toward something new – that is, they start you innovating.

As you think through your innovation goals, notice your feelings. Are you feeling helpless or impatient? Are you waiting for the cavalry to come charging to the rescue? Well, I’m sorry. The cavalry isn’t coming. Do you feel stagnant or stuck? Is there always a critique on the tip of your tongue? These are signs that you aren’t self-authorizing. Instead, try this:

  • Picture what you want.
  • See it clearly.
  • Now picture someone who could advise you about taking a possible next step. Someone who could help you answer the question: “What could I do to make this work?”
  • Find that person. Have a conversation. Don’t criticize their ideas, just collect possibilities, imagine how the story could go if it had a happy ending. Be an author, not a critic.
  • Then try one of that person’s suggestions or one of your own ideas.

Without anyone telling you to, do an experiment in your own life. Start a new chapter. Move your story forward.


 

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.

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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

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 background 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.

In this episode, Jeff interviews Matthew VanBesien, President of the University Musical Society and former President of the New York Philharmonic. Together, they discuss how art and innovation have much more in common then we think.

 


 

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