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Learning to Be Innovative

U-M's Jeff DeGraff shows parents how they can become innovative in their own lives and teach their kids this life-changing skill in a new book and PBS special

What does it mean to be innovative? Most of us see it as the gift of some rare genius who naturally sees things in a way we don't. It's a word applied to people and companies that are cutting edge and, well, kind of cool. Think: Steve Jobs and his shiny Apple or those clever kids at Google who awe us with their creative holiday logos.

But for more than 25 years, one unassuming, energetic Ann Arbor dad has been negating the notion that innovation is simply an innate ability. Jeff DeGraff, a professor at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, has lassoed the cloudy concept of innovation and dragged it down to Earth, showing business school students and big name companies, such as Toyota, Pfizer, 3M, GE and the even the aforementioned Apple, that everyone can be innovative – not just the cool kids. His methods have helped companies transform themselves, and not only survive, but thrive and grow.

Now, DeGraff is broadening that message and the practical principles behind it to help everyday people break out of their boxes and learn the tools and methods to innovate in their own lives. Whether you're dissatisfied with your professional, personal or parenting life, his new book, Innovation You: Four Steps to Becoming New and Improved (releasing on July 26, 2011) is a roadmap guiding you to the life you always envisioned for yourself. At 8 pm. on Thursday, June 16, 2011, Detroit Public Television will air a sneak peak of his PBS special, Innovation You with Dr. Jeff DeGraff, before it goes national. DeGraff filmed the special, which highlights the teachings of his upcoming book, at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. It made sense to him. "It's important to remind people in the state of Michigan that we have an incredibly proud history of innovation. It is our tradition."

DeGraff and his wife, Staney, a fellow academic who runs his Innovatrium lab in Ann Arbor, are the proud parents of three: Marika, 22, who's keeping up the family tradition of getting an undergraduate degree from Western Michigan University (both DeGraff and his father are graduates), Joshua, 13 and Justin, 9. His role as dad makes him particularly attuned to the limitations parents feel when striving to create innovation in their own lives. "We don't live our lives in a bubble, and for parents, that's particularly true. So it can be even more challenging to make changes in our lives."

Metro Parent talked to DeGraff on how to overcome those challenges, raising children to be innovative and why he's a far cry from your typical self-help guru.

Your life's work in innovation is all about teaching the tools and practices for making creative changes in businesses, so they can grow, expand and improve. Now, with your new book, Innovation You, you're trying to transfer these practices to people's lives. Are they really so synonymous?

Yes, absolutely. In fact, I would say that people really need to look at themselves as businesses. Businesses can't just sit and not work on trying to adapt, change, improve, develop new product lines or services or refine the ones they currently offer. It's about growth. And people need to always grow, too. You're either growing or you're dying.

What about parents who want to change or innovate their lives? Moms in particular can be so overwhelmed with things to do that it can seem impossible to work on themselves.

One of the biggest challenges for women, in particular at the beginning of the 20th century, is we need to get rid of the "super mom" concept. I think it's creating a set of expectations that no matter how successful you are going to be in your life, you're never going to meet them all. I meet so many bright, successful women who feel like failures. And it has nothing to do with their lives; it has to do with their expectations. I always tell people something they don't want to hear, which is, "You can have it all – you just can't have it all at the same time." I think we don't learn that our lives have seasons and have kind of a rhythm to them. There is a time when your children need you all the time. But that doesn't go on forever. Then you can say this is now a season when I can start experimenting with things. I think the first step is we have to look at our lives as a process, as a sequence, as a winding road up a mountain.

So, there's a lot of cycles. We're going upwards, and we have to accept there are times in your life when certain things require more time. And I think we need to set a clearer expectation of things like motherhood. Being a mother is a very hard thing to do. It's one of the most important things for any civilization. It is the job.

So, how then do parents get started in innovating themselves? Do they just put it off until their kids are grown?

No, but it's starting small. We just don't do justice to the investment of time to be good at something, to make changes and achieve goals. People audition for American Idol and are crushed that they don't get on, but sometimes it's because they haven't put anything into it. This is one of the really important mythologies of innovation. Innovation is as far away from effortless superiority that you can get. There is a lot of schlepping involved in innovation. There's a lot of things that don't go right. There's a lot of dark nights of the soul. People who tell you it's easy, some self-help guys who make it seem like it is – you know, it's not easy for me, and I've done a lot of tours of duty. But every step, every action pulls you forward.

In the real world, fully self-actualizing people, whole people, exist in communities, they exist in societies, they exist where they have responsibilities to their family, to their place of employment, and they take these responsibilities seriously. And it doesn't mean that you don't count. It just means that you aren't the only one who does when it comes to the choices you make in your life. Let's say I'm working as a lawyer and I really don't want to be a lawyer. What I really want to be is an organic farmer. Well, if your kids are in prep school and another's in college, then organic farming isn't going to pay the bills at Michigan or Dartmouth or wherever they're going. So, you're going to probably have to be a lawyer. But if you want to be an organic farmer, it doesn't stop you from running the experiment. It doesn't stop you from eking out the 5 percent of your life where you're going to try something. And who knows? It could get momentum.

Is there a benefit to this 'baby steps' approach to innovation?

Yes, absolutely. I meet so many people who say that "what I want to be is this other thing" – and only to find out two years later, when they chucked that nursing career to run a small Mexican restaurant that they said they always wanted to run, that they hate it. Because they have no real data on that life. What they have is a fantasy. And innovation is not about fantasy. It's about experimenting. And so the person who really ends up happy is the person, maybe a nurse who has a catering business on the side, who learns over a year or maybe two how to really make that Mexican restaurant go, and then she becomes a restaurateur. They've replaced their fantasy with real information.

This is where I think being a professor is very different than being a typical self-help guru. If the recession didn't teach us this, I don't know what will. I say this in my PBS special, "If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride." If you're going to innovate, then you have to run the experiments. The experiments can be run when you are a mom. In fact, I know a lot of moms who do that. Experiments can be done when you are a working dad. And what's also interesting is sometimes, it changes your relationship with your job. It can give you an outlet, give you more balance in your life.

There have been a lot of reports lately on how children are less creative, less innovative perhaps, because of a shift from hands-on learning and so much 'teaching to the test' in schools. Do you see this as an issue?

It's terrifying. Absolutely. One of the challenges is that in a high-wage economy, the only way to distinguish yourself or to have a high-wage or standard of living is to make things better and new – whether it's technology or design or a business model or an entrepreneurial concern. And the challenge I think for us is learning to paint, learning to sing, learning to dance, learning to play an instrument – these things that involve us in the creative process in a very direct way – are less available. It just strikes me as very curious. What we really ought to be focusing on is this much more hands-on approach to integrating science and the arts in our young people. It made a huge difference in my life.

How so?

Well, I grew up in Kalamazoo, and my family moved to Portage when I was in elementary school. In Portage, I went to third grade at a new elementary school called Woodland. Up until that point, my education had really been with just books, but at the new school, they had built science labs and art rooms that were extremely interactive. The whole idea was that you were going to have an experiential education, you were going to be hands-on, and it really affected me. It was the whole idea of "see one, do one, teach one," which means you first learn, then you practice, meaning you actually do the things you read about, and then you pass on what you know to others.

As you get older, you realize that this is an idea that's really fundamental to the American innovation movement with John Dewey at the turn of the century. It seems to me that we'd forgotten that for a long time, but it was resurrected during the late 1960s. I had an opportunity to explore science and art in a very intimate, personal way. So, instead of just saying, "Here's 10 ways to paint," they would bring different people who were painting in different ways to show you.

You know, I come from a blue-collar family, so this was all new stuff to me. And, you know, you experimented, and you found your own voice, what your preferences were – but, most importantly, you found a real joy in the act of expression and you found that your imagination was this incredible resource, this sort of endless fountain that you could draw on. And that kind of confidence when you're young is so important.

You've said you're an independent-minded person, and being that way is important to being innovative – allowing you to see the possibilities for change and improvements. And yet parents often suppress independent thinking in their children, wanting them to see things the way they do and do things the way they say. I assume you parent very differently than this.

I do, and sometimes it exasperates my kids. I have this principle called "free and responsible," and the principle is that you're free to do whatever you need to do, within what's safe and legal and moral, but you're responsible for it. So if Justin says, "I want to take all this stuff outside and make a fort," I say, "Great, but when you're done, you have to bring everything back inside and be sure to shake the leaves out, etc."

The kids do a lot of projects. I'm very accommodating about tools. The rule of our house is if you want books, you can have them. You could do this at the library, but we go to the bookstore every week, and our rule is, if you read it, we'll buy it. But you've got to read it. If you want some paintbrushes and some paint, I'm in. If you want to take a summer program, I'm in.

Now, not everybody has the means to do that, and I appreciate that, but I don't think you have to spend money to have this philosophy. There are a lot of community programs; there are a lot of things sitting in your house that you can use. What I'm really trying to do with "free and responsible" is instill a love of creating. And so we spend a lot of time talking about the artistic process itself.

My son Joshua just won these two very prestigious writing awards, and so we talk about what it means to write, the craft of writing. Justin recently told me that he wants to learn how to play an instrument. I used to write music for (NPR's) All Things Considered, so I gave him one of my old guitars. I told him, "Here's what I want you to do, and if in three months, it looks like you're serious about this, I'll send you to lessons."

Again, I'm trying to instill a love of creating and I'm trying to create capability. It's not all going to stick, and it doesn't need to stick.

Do you think parents should push their kids into a particular creative outlet or activity?

No. Parents are way too worried about that. They get their kid into violin. The kid didn't get a choice about whether they were getting into violin, but it's going to look good on a resume, or the parents think so, so I assume that's why they are doing it. And they hammer and hammer and hammer and hammer. The kid graduates from high school and he never touches an instrument again. He doesn't touch it again – because he's been traumatized. And parents do this with sports these days, too.

Now, I want to be sure I'm being clear about what I'm suggesting. If a child develops a natural propensity for something, then that's a completely different deal. Then they should run with it and you should encourage them. But what I'm seeing are parents trying to create a perfect child. But I believe that an important part of being young is having a lot of diverse experiences.

But a lot of today's kids have really tight schedules, trying to get these diverse experiences and improve their chances of getting into a certain college. How does that play into the quest for free time and exploration in developing innovation skills in kids?

It's a big challenge, even in my house, to create what we call "slack." My wife is an academic, too, and I travel a lot, so we get very busy. So we build into our schedule times where we say, "This is the part of the day or this is the day of the week where we're going to just goof around, we're going to build stuff or we're going to try projects." I think it's essential – and incidentally, when we study real businesses, one of the things we see that's a marker for breakthrough innovation is what we call "slack."

Slack means resources that are not allocated. And there is an enormous debate in the academic community as to why this is. But what we know is that when we look at companies that have high growth, they usually have quite a bit of time and resources not allocated – which means that there's room for the stuff that you don't know now but has the potential to become the innovations of tomorrow. I think that's really essential for children, too.

And that's a real challenge. In our home, we might go weeks where we're just running crazy, but then you have to say, "Enough. Now we're going to make sure that our kids are getting the development that they need."

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