Innovation Is Not Just a Corporate Thing
By Jeffrey Baumgartner
Over the past 11 years, I've written a great deal about organisational innovation. Now it's time to talk about you and other really cool, capable and good looking people like you and, in particular, how you can innovate yourselves. Let us talk about personal innovation.
What Is Personal Innovation
Personal innovation is the act of making a change in your life with the aim of making your world a better one. Personal innovation can be on a professional, personal or family level. It can be relatively commonplace activities like quitting smoking or learning a new language to actions that really change one's life in a big way.
Here are a handful of examples of bigger personal innovations.
An engineer works in a large company for years. However, she has also dreamed of starting her own carpentry business. One day, her employer announces that it is downsizing and offers bonuses to employees who volunteer to leave. She takes the money and sets up her dream carpentry business. It takes time, but eventually takes off.
A globe-trotting senior executive is making a huge salary, has stock options worth millions and is considered a strong contender for the CEO position in the near future. However, he realises that he hates wearing suits, feeling stressed out, working 70 hour weeks and being in a state of permanent jet-lag. He quits his job, exchanges his mansion (and its demanding mortgaged) for a comfortable cottage and sets up as a local gardener making a comfortable living doing something he actually enjoys. He loves having much more time with his family. Sometimes his kids work with him.
A woman, who has been stuck in an abusive relationship for years, finally finds the courage to step out, seek help and rebuild her life into one she deserves. She eventually gets a degree in psychology and sets up her own practice to help other woman in abusive relationships escape and rebuild their lives. In the period of a year, she moves from no self-esteem to feeling she is making a positive difference in the lives of other women.
A man loves his wife and over 10 years they have three lovely children, one of whom has special needs. His wife earns a higher income and has better career prospects, so he quits his job in order to take care of the children especially the one with special needs. One terrible day, the wife is killed in a car accident. The man has to restart his career, deal with his grief, help the children with theirs and raise them all himself. Although it is a financial and emotional struggle, he succeeds. Two of the children do well in school and build good futures for themselves. The child with special needs lives with his father and eventually becomes more of a care-giver himself.
An obese man has a heart attack and barely survives. His doctor tells him that he needs to lose weight and get fit or he will not live another five years. The man gets on a sensible dietary and fitness regime and loses 30 kilograms over 12 months. He not only looks better, but he feels better and has more self-confidence than ever before.
A young woman in a promising professional career becomes pregnant from a man who should not be a part of her future. She decides to raise the child herself. Balancing work and childcare, especially in the early years, is a challenge that affects her ability at work and she soon finds she is losing out on promotions to other colleagues who are not single parents. Nevertheless, she perseveres, determined to provide for herself and her son as well as to prove her professional worth. Over time, top management recognises her determination and creativity and she is put on the fast-track for management.
A professional woman in London sees an intriguing job advertised in Bangkok. She applies, gets the job and moves to Thailand. At first, she finds the culture too strange and she misses home desperately. But over time, she makes Thai friends, learns the language and comes to love her new home. When she visits family in London, they often remark that she has become more Asian. In fact, her understanding of British and Thai culture help her thrive in her new work and before long, she is offered a senior position in the company's head office in Tokyo.
Personal innovation may be the result of a decision made in your own time. Perhaps you have dreamed of setting up a company for years and eventually, the time seems right to take action on that dream.
Personal innovation may be the result of finding yourself in a situation in which you need to change in order to survive. For example, you are laid off from work, along with 100s of colleagues. The local job market is not good and you feel the only realistic option is to set up your own company.
Usually, I believe, there is some kind of trigger. It may not be so drastic as being laid off. Perhaps you have dreamed of setting up a company for years without taking action. One day, you get a new boss whom you simply do not like as much as your previous one. As a result, work seems less pleasant and your dream seems all the more desirable. So the new boss becomes the trigger for personal innovation.
Just like in the case of business innovation, personal innovation is fraught with risks. Leaving a secure job to start your own company will almost certainly mean an initial loss of income and a substantial loss of job security -- at least until the company can be built up. And your new company is probably more likely to go bankrupt in the next year than is the big company you worked at for years.
A woman who leaves her partner of several years for a new relationship may find the new partner is even worse than the one she left.
The Indian software engineer who leaves Bangalore for a promising career in Silicon Valley in the USA, may find that America is not nearly so wonderful as Hollywood implied it would be and that without his circle of friends he is a lot lonelier than he expected to be -- even though he is making great money and building an impressive professional reputation.
Continuous Self-Improvement and Life-Changing
Just as organisational innovation ranges from continuous improvement through ideas to breakthrough innovation, personal innovation ranges from continuous self-improvement to life-changing for the better. Continuous self improvement are things you do all the time to better yourself: reading, attending lectures, staying in good health, getting exercise and so on. Life-changing -- or breakthrough -- personal innovation is about big changes that affect your life and probably the lives of people around you.
Many people dream of life-changing personal innovation, but never take the necessary steps to make it happen. Circumstances never push them to make changes and the fear of risk prevents them from taking action. That's too bad. I believe that few people in their 50s 60s and 70s look back on their lives and say, "Golly, I wish I had played it safer and not tried new things in my life."
Your Stories, Please
Do you have stories about your personal innovation? Have you made changes in your life big or small? If so, tell me about them! I would like to explore the area of personal innovation more deeply and I believe the best way to do that is to talk to people who have innovated themselves and share their stories.
I am particularly interested in how we might apply organisational and business innovation concepts to personal innovation and vice-versa.
And, as always, your thoughts on personal innovation are welcome!
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