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Innovation and the Business of Self-Improvement

6/17/2011 --

Jeff DeGraff brings business innovation techniques to personal improvement with new book and TV broadcast.

ANN ARBOR, Mich.— Jeff DeGraff has worked on innovation projects at General Electric Co., Coca-Cola Co., Pfizer Inc., Telemundo, and other global companies. He founded the Innovatrium, an innovation laboratory and community, in Ann Arbor and Atlanta. And the clinical professor of business administration at Ross recently won a Champion Award for his work with the University's Voices of the Staff program. A recent revelation in his personal life inspired him to translate his experience with business innovation into a helpful guide for the masses.

Innovation You delivers proven business ideas to individuals who seek to re-invent their lives. Combining personal anecdotes from the field with his own expertise, DeGraff walks the reader through the process of how to think, plan, and execute a new course in life. Innovation You hits bookshelves in late July, and DeGraff will host a 90-minute special on Public Broadcasting Service stations in August. DeGraff also authors a blog on innovation.

In the following Q&A, Degraff talks about the genesis of the book and why he shot the PBS program at The Henry Ford outside Detroit.

You've done innovation work at all these big, well-known companies. What motivated you to translate these concepts into personal innovation?

DeGraff: I had nearly completed a manuscript for a book on leading innovation for executives when the recession hit. Family and friends began to call asking for help. Some of the most talented people I have ever known were out of work. I did my best to assist them but I still felt helpless. I was concerned that so many clever people were having trouble reimagining their own lives. They needed to find a more creative perspective and a wider array of approaches if they were to going to craft a viable solution for their unique situation. So I shelved the executive book and decided to write a different kind of book, Innovation You. In this book I apply the key ideas I had developed for leading innovation at big corporations to everyday situations and difficult personal challenges. The result is a cross between a business book and self-help book with accessible stories and tools for people who are trying to reinvent their lives.

What separates this book from other self-improvement books?

DeGraff: I challenge a lot of self-help tenets. Let me give you a few.

First, it's not just about you. Imagine yourself as the smallest of three Russian nesting dolls, each doll contained within the others. The world is bigger than you. If the recession didn't show that to you, I don't know what will. The importance of situating the individual as part of a team or family, an organization, and a larger strategic context reflects a business point of view.

Second, there's a lot of new-age thinking that says if you wish for something hard enough it will come true. I want to encourage you to have a sense of destiny and an affirmative view of the universe. But I also want you to understand there are things you need to do to move things along. You need to put your shoulder to the wheel, use your imagination, and change how you typically maneuver the obstacles. Engaging the world as it presents itself is key if you are to succeed.

Third, I want you to see that these powerful forces around us can be harnessed and used productively to propel you toward your goals. Pay attention to trends, which types of innovation work in different situations, and what practices and capabilities are necessary to master each. Business leaders do this all the time. For example, in business we know the difference between a bear and a bull market. You can make money in either if you're optimized for it. The same is true for your life. I'm always amazed when educated people tell me they don't watch the news or read the paper because it's painful or distracting. They don't want to hear bad news or trouble themselves with making sense of the complicated issues. Why did they get an education if they planned to stop learning? You have to pay attention to what’s going on around you because those are the forces that are either going to work with you or against you.

To that end, you outline this four-step approach. Take us through those.

DeGraff: They're the four steps to innovation you would find in any business.

• Set high-quality targets. Set a goal that stretches you, but is achievable and clear. You don't want to boil the ocean. This is where most people fail. They create something so ambiguous they couldn't possibly hit it, or they create a goal that already spells out exactly how they are going to achieve it, so they have no range or ability to adjust.

• Enlist deep and diverse domain expertise. I believe that most forms of diversity are the key to breakthrough innovation. The people who think the same way you do aren't really that valuable when you are trying to create something better or new. Constructive conflict is essential to create hybrids. And, it's not just about type. Innovation requires real knowledge and competence. Amateur hour doesn't cut it. We have innovation blind spots in our ways of looking at the world. We need other bright, artistic, and committed people to challenge our dominant logic.

• Take multiple shots on goal. The classic mistake in innovation literature is this idea of going big or going home. As somebody who has spent a lot of time on really big innovations at really big companies, I can tell you that most of those guys go home. It's just loose talk. Innovation is more like what venture capitalists do. You're going to invest in a dozen potential therapies for a disease. You invest small at the beginning as you try to accelerate the failure cycle. This is very hard for most people, including MBAs, to get. What you're trying to do is take multiple shots on goal that are highly differentiated. So when you fail, you're gaining real and useful information so you can make adjustments. You are actually reducing the risk of betting it all on the wrong horse. As we say in the trade, hedge first; optimize last.

• Learn from experience and experiments. One of the challenges people have is they hate to look at things that didn't work because it feels like failure. You have to do the after-action review. The planning cycle isn't going to help you with it because there's no data on the future where breakthrough innovation happens. So quickly learn what works and what doesn't from your mistakes and get smarter quickly. Make adjustments and keep moving forward.

You say that people have to rethink their approach, a process you call "creativizing." You have a captive audience for a long period of time with MBAs. But how do you get that through in the book to everyday people?

DeGraff: The most amazing people I know live by Teddy Roosevelt's famous axiom: "Use what you have, where you are now." I've seen women working at home, guys building things in their garage, and homeless people living on the street do some of the most creative things simply because they didn't have the resources or spare time to do it the conventional way. Innovation is indeed deviation. I coined the term "creativize" to mean adding creativity to ordinary activities to make them extraordinary. The truth is people everywhere are capable of innovation. In the book I get this point across through stories about real people who have made innovation part of their lives. This is a new voice for me, telling stories about how somebody lost weight, found that special someone, opened a bakery, or beat a disease. Remarkable feats often are done by those we once believed to be average.

The type of approach people take is very important. In fact, it's the one thing you hope people take away from the book. You label them as competing values: to compete, collaborate, and control. People are usually a natural at one of these, but you suggest they have to use other approaches to reach a balance. How does somebody do that?

DeGraff: I like to think of it as being right-handed or left-handed. The more right or left you are, the more you need the other hand. The more you are ambidextrous, the more you can operate interdependently. I have a strong "green and blue orientation" – colors that I assign to the terms create and compete. I've worked with a lot of companies on revolutionary solutions, and I like to win. But I'm a little light on collaboration and I'm not very detail-oriented. So the people I chase down to go to lunch with typically have a strong orientiation toward the collaborate and control sides. You have to seek out the people who will tell you, "You might be blowing it here. I think you should do more of this." Or, "This is where you have to do this thing you don't want to do because it's important at this phase." You need that creative tension in your life. This is the essence of the "Competing Values" approach. It's not what everyone wants to hear. But do you want to grow or do you just want life to be easy?

One of the stories in the book that covered a lot of ground was the one about the laid-off teacher looking for a career switch and whether she should sink her savings into a bakery storefront. She didn't and instead sold some baked goods to a cafeteria here and there, a couple of restaurants, did a lot of testing, and took shots on goal, "failing off-Broadway" as you put it. And she did some substitute teaching for cash until she was ready for a store. So while you're encouraging people, are you also warning them they can't have everything right now?

DeGraff: That's exactly the message. In my experience women get this idea more readily because they have had to work around the impossible "supermom" expectations of being everything to everyone all the time. I believe this is a newer idea for most of the men I know. Men think they can have it all just by working harder or being more efficient. But what if you are trying to change careers or some other major personal transition? You can't do more of everything. You need to make significant adjustments. There are only so many hours in a day. So, you have to give something up to get what you seek. Everything costs something. You need to create the capacity before you can produce the desired outcome. Think of it like a famer. You can have it all, but in seasons. You plant in the spring, till and tend in the summer, harvest in the fall, and plan in the winter. People think innovation happens all at once but it doesn't.

These are concepts business people know but it's entirely new to other people. How can you reinforce those ideas after they read the book?

DeGraff: That's why we made a series of three how-to DVDs. We also created a step-by-step workbook that can be downloaded to accompany the DVDs. Finally, we created a free website, that provides an Innovation You assessment, a blog, an innovation forum, and a daily news feed on five personal innovation topics from career to relationships to money provided by Thomson Reuters. The aim here is to be the definitive resource for personal innovation. Forget the one-size-fits-all checklist mentality. This vast array of resources is provided to help you make innovation happen in your life.

How did the show on public television come about?

DeGraff: I've always been a big supporter of public television and their mission to educate and inspire our people. I had done some pro bono innovation strategy work to help them develop alternative business models. Someone from their leadership team asked me what I was writing about and I told them about Innovation You. They came out to hear me give a speech on the topic at a Michigan alumni event and they jumped on it immediately.

Why did you shoot the show at The Henry Ford?

DeGraff: I wanted to show people that innovation is in our blood. Detroit was the Silicon Valley of the '30s, '40s, and '50s. Look at a city like Ann Arbor. It was the birth place of the polio vaccine, the Internet, the human genome project, Lipitor, and many other inventions. We have a long history of game-changing innovations. This isn't our first trip to the playground. We know how to do this. I also wanted the rest of the country to remember how central innovation is to our history and culture. This is our contribution to the world. At the Henry Ford we come face to face with the innovation practices of Edison, the Wright Brothers, George Washington Carver, and Ford himself, among others. Their story is our story. We come from everywhere and rise up through our industry, imagination and sense of purpose. That's what I think is special about America. Now is the time to make ourselves new and improved.

Order Innovation You.

Read DeGraff's blog.

For more information, contact:
Terry Kosdrosky, (734) 936-2502,