• Karen Zeigler

Innovation Must be Prescriptive Before it can be Disruptive



Flowing with life vs. Forcing it.


When I read of the challenges of stress, mental health, and burnout in today's workplace, I can empathize. Many are suffering. After twenty years in the financial industry, ten of which were during merger mania (mergers every two years 🤯 3 in a single year), I can feel the pain. I suppose out of that period, one of my greatest achievements has been learning to flow with life vs. forcing it. Unfortunately, not the easiest thing to highlight on a resume. 🥴 I was reminded of one of the key lessons when I interviewed Christian Busch, author of The Serendipity Mindset: the art and science of creating good luck, on the Cultivating Potential podcast.

Instead of pretending we have everything mapped out, what we really need is a good compass.

Since discovering my why, it has been my compass for daily action. Starting with an MBA in Design Thinking and Innovation and preceding to build credibility at the crossroads of design and leadership. An area just now coming to the forefront thanks to the research geniuses at companies like McKinsey & Co and Gartner. Keeping my focus on moving in the direction of helping organizations tap into their employees full potential, remove processes that hinder innovation and create an eco-system of innovation through the implementation of design thinking as a leadership practice. Turns out that, if you tune in to Christian's interview, that innovation happens the same way - having a compass, but flowing with what life prescribes.


Flowing with what Life presribes.


As a personal illustration, I am a member of the design thinking group on Linkedin. One day a post caught my attention. It was one of the rare posts in the group that applied the human-centered approach to leadership. I struck up an instant connection with Oladimeji Olutimehin, Author of Truly Human Leadership who I also interviewed on the podcast. We began engaging in conversations about Culture and he posed the question - What does human-centered culture mean to you? It turned into a blog post about applying Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to employee experience to create a human-centered culture.


From that post Life brought a new connection - Praveen Ponnuru, CEO of Alpine Recruitment & Retention Solutions. The post resonated with Praveen and we scheduled a Zoom chat to talk human-centered innovation. His explanation of the path to innovation resonated with me. I had experienced it in my own use of design thinking and I could also relate it to a number of innovation stories I had read (more on those in a minute). Here's what Praveen had to say:


It all starts with awareness and intention.

Connection with humans needs compassion.

Actions will build trust not words.

Collaboration leads to Innovation


He was curious to know my thoughts on this pathway of awareness --> compassion --> innovation. Of course, I spoke about design thinking. Particularly, the super power of design thinking as an upskill multiplier. Which included upskills like emotional intelligience (awareness), compassion, and dozens more. But the conversation did peak my curiosity so I decided to dig a little more into it. Turns out the topic is starting to come into awareness (no pun) in 2022. In February of this year, Forbes featured an article "Compassion is the Key to Innovation" in part it noted

“Disruptive innovation” describes how startups that develop offerings that meet previously unmet customers’ needs can overtake markets. ... That seems to be where design thinking comes in...with a focus of identifying unmet customer needs. ... That is where compassion and awareness come in.

Now, it's not necessary to convince neither Praveen nor I. But many of you reading are looking for proof before you claim it as a truth. So I'll share a couple of examples.


Proof innovation is prescriptive before its disruptive.


Example #1: The rolling suitcase.

While the patent was originally filed in 1970 by Bernard Sadow it never really caught on. Originally bags were checked at the gate. Men were still the primary travelers, airports were not as sprawling, and traveling wasn't as frequent as it is today. However, by 1987 Northwest Airline pilot Robert Plath was tired of lugging his bags from gate to gate in some of the largest Airport terminals in the world. So he began tinkering with the concept as it exists today. Plath started with self-awareness but quickly expanded to see all the flight attendants he worked with (primarily female) at the time that found lugging the suitcase even more challenging. Notably his awareness and his compassion continued to expand noting that airport luggage carts were insufficient and never where you needed them when you needed them. Thus through the process flowing through life with awareness, acting with compassion lead to the innovation of our travel experience.


Example #2: Airbnb

In 2007 Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia were broke and looking to raise money to make their rent in San Francisco. Nothing like money issues to raise our level of awareness of unmet needs! They decided to rent out air mattresses in their apartment to attendees of a conference because all the hotels were booked. They called their service “Air Bed and Breakfast.” In a few years, this small experiment would create the hotel industry disruptor Airbnb. As the idea of turning extra living space into a cash generator caught on in the mainstream. One more example of how flowing through life with awareness, acting with compassion leads to innovation.


Your innovation prescription.


In conclusion, as a leader in today's organizations you are no doubt under a lot of pressure from your board and your shareholders to more innovative. Internally, you are under equal pressure to relieve the suffering of employees that has resulted in the great resignation. Demands for a culture where employees feel belonging and cared for. At first glance these two pressures may appear in opposition to one another. Truth is they indeed are the answer for one another. As Ultra-marathon runner David Goggins says

A whole other world exists on the other side of suffering.

As leaders we need only put into practice the willingness to look upon the suffering of ourselves and others, to seek greater awareness. And from that greater awareness act with compassion to create innovations that will meet the unmet needs of those who are suffering. And as I've written before, with the power of design thinking we can develop these skills and we can design a more beautiful world.

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