How to Become More Innovative

By Caroline Newman

George Barbee (MBA ’67) firmly believes that anyone — not just the Steve Jobs of the world — can be an innovator.

“Most of us are far more innovative than we give ourselves credit for,” said Barbee, a fellow at the Batten Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and senior lecturer at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business.

Barbee sets about proving this point in his first book, 63 Innovation Nuggets for Aspiring Innovators, released in October. Each nugget is derived from his 45 years of experience working for startups and large companies across 40 countries, and from his last 15 years of teaching “Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Marketing Strategy” at Darden.

Barbee’s book has earned glowing reviews from business publications like Fortune, Forbes and Inc., as well as public praise from executives at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, IBM, Kellogg’s and General Electric, as well as smaller startups.

George Barbee Headshot

UVA Today spoke with Barbee to learn more about the book and discuss which nuggets might come in particularly handy for students and alumni.

What inspired you to write this book and how did your own business experiences feed into the writing process?

During decades of working in business, across about 40 countries, I found that getting people to be more innovative was almost universally teachable. I was fortunate enough to be around people to help them self-discover an innovative idea, and my further motivation was to help them find within themselves the dimension to take action and get the idea to market.

I have worked for both large companies — like Gillette and consulting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers — and for small startups, including several ventures that I founded or co-founded. There are certainly differences between large companies and entrepreneurial organizations, but the need for innovation is a common thread. It resonates far beyond traditional business – in the liberal arts, education, government and much more. The universality of the topic has been a real discovery. I have seen everyone from students at Darden to top executives, to doctors, lawyers, engineers and more discover that innovation is within their grasp.

Can you share a few nuggets of innovation that would be of particular value to current students?

One would be the Art of Observing (Nugget No. 19) — the art of taking time out, putting yourself on “receive” and taking in what is happening around you. Make think time. Most of us do not take the time to do this. Related to this is Nugget No. 23 — Transferring Observations. It is important not just to observe phenomena, but think about how you might ‘transfer’ it to an appropriate category or different industry.

I would also suggest students pay particular attention to Investing in Themselves (Nugget No. 51). Take time, while at UVA, to test and experiment with what your real passions are. Try an internship, sign up for an activity, just try to experiment and find out what you love to do. It is not too early to be thinking about this, and it could become a career idea.

Finally, students must realize the importance of “going across” (Nugget No. 36). The best innovators can think across organizations and across disciplines. UVA is perfect for this. It is a hotbed of business, law, liberal arts, medical and engineering work and other disciplines. The person who can effectively work across and integrate the diversity that a community like UVA offers is well on their way to coming up with innovative ideas and executing them.

What advice would you have for alumni looking to advance their career?

Whether you are a student or many years out of school, it is important to think about “how you want to be regarded” (Nugget No. 62) — not in terms of job level or job title, but who you want to be and how you want people to think about you. The advantage of thinking like that is that it helps you consciously and purposefully work toward that goal.

I would also remind alumni that while “most entrepreneurs are innovative, not all innovators are entrepreneurs” (Nugget No. 20). You don’t have to work for a startup to be an innovator. Think about what you can be doing within your company to make your job and your career more innovative. Innovation can start with you and a small network you consciously create.

If you could suggest one change in routine for someone who is eager to innovate, what would it be?

Take time to be an observer. Look at what is around you and think of the customer — see what need might be going unfilled.

Cameras were not always included in cell phones. That came about when a well-known keen observer noticed people wishing for their cameras during spontaneous events, and not wanting a bulky camera. Steve Jobs and others realized that a small camera, integrated with a phone device and portable music would be revolutionary and useful.

When you have 20 minutes to kill, don’t just turn up the sound or start sending messages. Turn everything off and just observe.

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About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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