What we learned about unexpected innovators

This article is a draft excerpt from the upcoming book Everybody Innovates Here: Developing a higher-impact, more sustainable, more effective system to accelerate innovation and entrepreneurship. Click Here to learn more about the book and sign up for updates.

For my Econogy co-founder, Owen, and I, the purpose of Econogy has been to accelerate innovation for the places and people we care most about. That includes universities and neighborhoods, businesses and nonprofits, wealthy and disadvantaged, students and seniors. We focused our first two years on building a new machinery of innovation: a system for unlocking the capabilities and lack of barriers that one overlooked source of innovation — young adults — bring to problem-solving.

We found that a support structure that combined diverse teams, clear processes, and high-stakes stretch challenges resulted in practical but innovative solutions to problems that had no cookie-cutter answers. From both a business and a human development standpoint, the results were better than (I, at least) anticipated.

We then tried the same methods with adults of varying ages faced with creating strategy for their community’s future, and we had similar results.

Consistently, people outperform our expectations when we place around them a structure that enables them to solve problems collaboratively and constructively. And innovation research has found the same:

  • Diverse teams consistently make better decisions, potentially because they “alter the behavior of a group’s social majority in ways that lead to improved and more accurate group thinking.”
  • When teams use explicit structured processes to evaluate choices and make decisions, they are more likely to succeed — and when leaders assume that the team will take care of itself, the team is more likely to fail.
  • Creating useful solutions to problems that do not have direct precedents require a fundamentally different approach than simply tweaking things that have been done before. And being too familiar with the things that have been done before can be like a pair of blinders, making it impossible to see feasible alternatives that fall outside your expectations.

At Econogy, these experiences gave us proof of concept on something bigger: we had a small but accumulating body of evidence about how we could enable people to accelerate innovation. 

For someone who had spent over 20 years trying to improve problem-solving in communities as a downtown revitalization, urban planning and economic development specialist, this was the kind of insight I’d been looking for. You see, I’d become trapped by my conventional understanding of how economies and teams work, too.

Before co-founding Econogy, I had written a lot of lines in a lot of blogs and articles and books about how local economies needed to change, and how the ways we were pushing that to happen weren’t working. I had spent hundreds of hours with tech startups, mom and pop shops, universities, microentrepreneurs, and the organizations that try to take care of them. And I knew we needed something different.

But I didn’t know what.

After two years of working out the mechanisms for supporting diverse team innovation, and combining that with decades of experience with economic and community support organizations, we think that most cities need empowered innovation districts to accelerate innovation across the complete economic and community spectrum.

There’s a lot of different kinds of organizations in this process, and they go by different names in different places. So for sake of simplicity, we’re going to call all of these organizations Innovation Systems.

An Innovation System, as we are describing it, is a program, a place or a group of programs and places that play a role in generating more economic activity from the people who are in a community. These might include anything from a tech accelerator to a regional rural entrepreneurship collaborative, from a university advanced manufacturing initiative to a class for African-American urban residents.

That’s a radical statement, in case you didn’t notice. Historically, we have carefully parsed these segments apart — tech programs over here, Main Street business owners over here. We differentiate them based on how much money they might make, where their clients live, where they will have their shop, whether we designate them as having a “social impact,” and more. And yes, they will have certain needs that are specific to their unique situation.

What we find over and over is this: Innovators and entrepreneurs are often more similar than different. They all need help innovating. They all need help getting out of their own paradigm. And they can all learn from each other.