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MAOL professor demonstrates the rewards of risking innovative thinking at work

MAOL Program Director Rebecca Hawthorne (left) and Author Jacqueline Byrd.
MAOL Program Director Rebecca Hawthorne (left) and Author Jacqueline Byrd.
Photo by Hilary Stein '14.

When business consultant, entrepreneur and St. Catherine University adjunct professor Jacqueline Byrd launched her new book, Voice of the Innovator, on campus last November, the celebration started with a Dr. Seuss quote.

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer your direction wherever you choose.” It’s a pithy, poetic rhyme — but serious business for Byrd.

The notion that purposeful adults benefit from a return to childish play — and the fearless lack of self-consciousness that goes with it — is at the heart of Byrd’s instructive, easy-to-read book, whose thick cardboard cover is reminiscent of a children’s reader.

“As adults we keep narrowing our definition of what behavior and ideas are OK,” explains Byrd, an instructor in the Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership (MAOL) program at St. Kate’s. “I can speak to that, having gone through my Ph.D. Your doctoral dissertation is all built on what other people’s research has been.”

Voice of the Innovator speaks to the opposite. The book aims to help readers rediscover their creative selves, and their own inner knowing, by detailing the experiences of risk-takers and out-of-the-box thinkers at work, whether as managers, team members or entrepreneurs.

Think of it as a guidebook for the road less traveled, as Byrd — the president and chief acceleration officer of Minneapolis-based Creatrix Inc. — explained in a recent interview.

Why this book and why now?

It’s been percolating in my head and my heart for a long time. I’ve always been interested in how people get dismissed so easily, because they have different ideas or different ways of looking at things. I believe that if we pay attention to what people have to say, we can open up all kinds of worlds. That’s been my journey, to allow people to be more of who they are.

How did your Ph.D. work narrow your thinking?

You’re building on what everybody has already done, “and here’s how I’m adding to the literature.” That’s basically school from day one. You make little tiny improvements, and you don’t shake anything up.

Instead of using just words, pencils and pens, and Post-It notes with my clients, sometimes I use crayons and glue and things that are tactile — which cause you to think differently. It’s visual learning. I resist that as an adult, and that’s what we have to push through. I’m on Pinterest a lot just to see what people are thinking and how they’re being creative.

How have you tried to be an innovator in your own life and work?

I push the envelope. I decide I’m going to take that risk, bring forth an idea. I’m much more willing to do that as an independent consultant, even if people’s eyes may roll and they want to play by the rules. I’ve had to come to grips with that over the years. I want to be who I am and not who I have to be.

So, how is risk-taking and individualist thinking possible inside an organization?

There’s a lot of lip service to it. A lot of people want to believe in it and then get cold feet. With one client, we kept pushing harder on doing things differently. A head of engineering in the company set up all kinds of toys and stuffed animals in his office. The president told him he needed to take them down because it wasn’t serious enough.

Creating a culture of innovation sometimes is just creating a colorful, open space that people can collaborate in. But it’s important to judge when you can do it instead of just assuming you can.

How can a manager put innovative ideas into action?

If you just talk about innovation for innovation’s sake, what value is that? But if you talk about it in terms of impact, it can have amazing results.

I helped one company come up with a venture capital model of innovation. Anybody could come up with an idea, and they’d have to present it to the executive team and, if it passed muster, to the entire organization. Then organization then votes on the idea and narrows the top 10 down to five. Those teams get $100,000 to drive it. That process allows for permission inside the organization. You’re working on things that have value to the organization.

Your book focuses on the seven drivers of creativity and risk-taking, including independence, inner-directedness, resiliency, self-acceptance and a comfort with ambiguity. Those sound like issues we grapple with naturally at middle age.

Yes, we do open possibilities for innovation as we age. At the beginning and end of our lives we’re more innovative. What do we have to lose? I think that’s a huge part of it.

How does this mindset meld with being part of a team?

We all start with: “What does the team think?” One person says something and group-think happens. Frequently I will say to a team: “I want to know what you and you and you think. Don’t verbalize it. Write it down.” Then I either collect what they’ve said or have each person read it. You start with the individual, not the team.

You urge leaders to “reward fast failures.” What does that look like?

You take a risk. If it doesn’t work out, don’t dwell on it. Just keep moving. Take a risk again. If not, you’re going to spend time and energy beating yourself up — which is something most women do. They reprocess what they didn’t do right; they don’t move on fast enough to the next idea. But women innovators don’t do that. They move on, really fast.

In fact, your research showed that women who are innovative — which includes being outspoken, determined and confident — seem to transcend gender stereotypes.

Our data show that women, in general, struggle with those traits more than men do. But women and men innovators are no different. That’s the distinction.

Click here to learn more about Voice of the Innovator.

Jan. 2, 2014 by Amy Gage

See also: Business, Leadership