I’m always studying the world’s greatest innovators. From Apple’s Steve Jobs to Tesla’s Elon Musk, we can admire and emulate some of the practices that inspire creativity. Whether you are looking to boost your own innovative spirit, create an innovative team, or power your creative genius, you may find that regularly reading and studying others sparks new ideas.
One spark may be a new book by George Barbee.
63 Innovation Nuggets (for aspiring innovators) is a practical guide to boosting your innovation. George Barbee developed these nuggets during the span of his 45 year career as an entrepreneur and corporate leader. For the last 15 years, George has taught at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business.
I recently spoke with George about his many decades of teaching and living the subject of innovation.
Don’t Underestimate Your Ability to Innovate
George, I have heard you say, “Yes, Steve Jobs is a genius, but what about innovating for the rest of us?” What exactly do you mean by that?
Steve was in fact a true genius of “Invention.” He could imagine what people needed and wanted even before they realized it or could verbalize it themselves. He could see around corners into the future.
But I believe most of the rest of us way underestimate our ability to “innovate”—especially with focus on techniques and methods within our control to improve this skill. And yes, it is a skill and an art, not an innate ability or something we are necessarily born with. I’ve witnessed this in my business career and the last 15 years teaching at University of Virginia, and interestingly across 40 countries. It’s a major theme underlying the book.
“Invention” is part of the broader scope of “innovation.” In fact, only a slice.
For example, the rest of us can be gifted and train ourselves to “innovate” in new and different ways. Key to the word “innovation” is doing something in a “meaningfully new and different way.” This takes us well beyond just product invention, but “innovation” now incorporates anything that is new and meaningfully different.
In the book we talk about dozens of “nuggets” or little gems that provide insights as to how to innovate. It is, in fact, remarkably easy to develop these skills. Like exercising a good muscle, the more you use it and focus on it, the better it gets. It’s a form of building innovative confidence through practice.
It’s learnable. It’s teachable.
Make Observation and Art
Of the 63 nuggets in 63 Innovation Nuggets, do you have one that is a favorite?
That’s a tough question. I started with over 140 nuggets and in an effort to winnow it down to 52 (one per week) I couldn’t bring myself to cut any more, so I went with 63. Not necessarily brilliant, but sincere.
So, a favorite? Well, not necessarily only one favorite but it’s a good place to start: Nugget #19: Observing as an Art. The power and concentration it takes to observe what is around us is quite challenging. As we say, put yourself in “receive mode.” Just take things in around you. Listen. Look. Smell. Maybe even feel and taste. We observe with all our senses. This is time out to THINK. The key is sensing. Thinking.
We go on to encourage note taking. Practice alone or with a like-minded friend and confidant. Have some fun with the process.
We then go on to tell some stories about observing. Practical situations where innovation around us is often under our noses, but we haven’t taken the time out to appreciate it or document it. One example is ATM or teller lines at banks. It used to be that we would go up to one of three tellers or machines and pick one and hope for the best. Woe to the person picking the wrong line! The tendency was then to hop over to the faster moving line. Then came the great innovation in line management—the “I” formation, or lining up in a single line, with the front person going to the next available opening. Brilliant. It takes the early guesswork out of picking the right single line. Happier customers. True Innovation.
Think ACROSS to Progress in Your Career
I pressed you for one Nugget, how about one more?
I have many favorites as you might expect. One that is quite different that your readers might find interesting is Nugget #36: Progressing in Career. It lends itself to a visual of a “T” with most of us progressing up a functional silo within our organization. We go from being a “doer” to progressing upward in our silo to a manager or director.
In today’s complex organization one key to leadership and innovation is progressing ACROSS the organization. It’s a different model. But it lets us see other perspectives and ways of thinking—and creating networks across the organization.
For some, this working across also translates to familiarity and skills in working with complex customers in similar ways. And if one adds working across to include working in other countries, the innovative skills become quite complex and rich for one’s career path.
So think ACROSS. A key to leadership.
Innovation Is All Around Us
So what do we take from this?
The real headline is that innovation is all around us. Sometimes it’s under our noses already. It can be built upon. And even more importantly, it can be TRANSFERRED. That ties in with another nugget in the book, #23: Transferring Innovations.
Just to play out the observable “line management concept”… At its best it has transferred into ski-line management in many ski resorts or passport lines/security checks at airports. If this seems terribly obvious and pedestrian now, one only has to visit Russia where there is no respect for lines. People “cut” in front. Or some European ski resorts where many crash to the front to save a few minutes. This then begins the global observation phenomenon where we can observe happenings in different environments and perhaps glean new best practices to transfer (or the worst, to avoid).
Absolutely they are related. Building innovation skills for oneself and instilling them is essential for any organization desiring profitable growth. Innovation is the life blood because to stand still or become complacent is to rapidly fall behind.
These nuggets have evolved from very practical situations, readings, and the many brilliant colleagues who I learned from as well. They are not difficult. They just take the time to THINK about them. To OWN them. To put them into ACTION.
Successful, innovative leaders are generally looking to stretch themselves. To become extraordinary. To challenge those around them. To share with their peers both above and below them.
Skip, I like to think of it as one nugget at a time—not a single silver bullet but a collection of insightful and actionable nuggets, massaged to become one’s own. This approach soon begins to take on considerable wealth for a coming generation of leaders.
63 Innovation Nuggets (for aspiring innovators)