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The Innovation Code: The Creative Power of Constructive Conflict

The Innovation Code: The Creative Power of Constructive Conflict

by Jeff DeGraff, Staney DeGraff


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The Innovation Code
The Creative Power of Constructive Conflict

Harmony is sublime in music but deadly to innovation. The only way to create new, hybrid solutions is to clash. Innovation happens when we bring people with contrasting perspectives and complementary areas of expertise together in one room. We innovate best with people who challenge us, not people who agree with us.

It sounds like a recipe for chaos and confusion. But in The Innovation Code, Jeff DeGraff, dubbed the “Dean of Innovation,” and Staney DeGraff introduce a simple framework to explain the ways different kinds of thinkers and leaders can create constructive conflict in any organization. This positive tension produces ingenious solutions that go far beyond “the best of both worlds.”

Drawing on their work with nearly half of the Fortune 500 companies, the DeGraffs help you harness the creative energy that arises from opposing viewpoints. They identify four contrasting styles of innovator—the Artist, the Engineer, the Athlete, and the Sage—and include exercises and assessments for building, managing, and embracing the dynamic discord of a team that contains all four. You can also figure out where you fit on the continuum of innovator archetypes.

Using vivid examples, The Innovation Code offers four steps to normalize conflict and channel it to develop something completely new. By following these simple steps, you will get breakthrough innovations that are both good for you and your customers. This is a rigorous but highly accessible guide for achieving breakthrough solutions by utilizing the full—and seemingly contradictory—spectrum of innovative thinking.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781523084760
Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers
Publication date: 08/07/2017
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 8.70(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Jeff DeGraff, who has been dubbed the Dean of Innovation, is an advisor to Fortune 500 companies-including General Electric, Coca-Cola, Google, and Mercedes-Benz-and he is a professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. His books include Innovation You, Creativity at Work, and Leading Innovation. He has written for Inc., Fortune, and Psychology Today and has a regular segment on public radio called The Next Idea.

Staney DeGraff is the CEO of Innovatrium Institute for Innovation, a laboratory and consulting firm with multiple locations. She works with large organizations, universities, and municipalities to create sustainable innovation ecosystems that connect the dots between research, talent acquisition and retention, commercialization, and economic development.

Tom Dheere is a trained theatre actor who has worked as a voice talent for over twenty years. His first audiobook narration was Danielle Steel's Amazing Grace in 2007, and his specializations are self-help, nonfiction, and science fiction. In addition to narrating audiobooks, he is a co-creator of the comic-book series Agent 1.22. For more information, visit www.tomdheere.com.

Read an Excerpt

The Innovation Code

The Creative Power of Constructive Conflict

By Jeff DeGraff, Staney DeGraff

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2017 Jeff DeGraff and Staney DeGraff
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5230-8478-4


Tell Me Your Biggest Weakness

Tell me your biggest weakness: it's that awful, cringe-worthy question anyone inside or outside of corporate America will immediately recognize as the most overused, clichéd line in the job interview script. "I work so hard I tire myself out," you've probably once said. Or, even better: "I'm too much of a perfectionist." You groan — we all groan — because the very premise of the question is absurd. Why would anyone give away their worst quality at the moment when they're supposed to be at their best?

Take a step outside of the interview room, and the question evokes a sense of dread. Its real absurdity is its sheer difficulty. How are you supposed to articulate a legitimate vulnerability in the space of a two-minute conclusion to a conversation with someone you've never met? Then there's the haunting suspicion that there might be a real answer to the question that you don't even know yourself. Is it possible to know what's great about you without also knowing what's not so great?

It's a wonder that the most popular interview question of all time is actually a good question — despite the fact that most likely it never yielded a meaningful answer in the history of hiring. That's because it's pretty damn hard. And even understanding why it's hard is, well, hard.

What makes it so hard to answer that question is ourselves: because we're clouded by our own biases and worldviews, it's nearly (though not totally) impossible to get outside of our heads and get an objective look at what's wrong with us. This bias is our dominant worldview.

The Upside and Downside of Your Dominant Worldview

On the one hand, your dominant worldview is your biggest strength — the quality that makes you stand out from other people. Your dominant worldview determines the way you approach all challenges in your life. Some people are big-picture thinkers. Others fixate on particulars. Some people are pragmatic and by the book when it comes to solving problems. Others are dreamers who go outside the box. Some people are goal-oriented, driven by the thrill of competition. Others are patient listeners, inspired by a cooperative community that they build around them. These dominant worldviews are our greatest gifts, the set of skills we bring to any situation.

On the other hand, your dominant worldview is holding you back. Your defining quality is also your greatest weakness. The problem is that our dominant worldviews overpower all other points of view. Our dominant worldviews are so intense that we lose the ability to think outside of them. They give us blind spots. We become prisoners of our own ideology. Left by themselves, the pragmatic thinkers become bureaucrats. The big-picture thinkers become chaotic. The goal-oriented thinkers become control freaks. The patient thinkers become irrationally enthusiastic.

The biggest obstacle you face on the path to innovation is yourself. Dominant worldviews of all kinds can distort reality. They inevitably twist facts and prevent us from seeing the bigger picture. When it comes to innovation, our dominant worldviews impede creative thinking. The most effective innovation solutions are almost always hybrids, processes that combine multiple perspectives, so it's imperative that we learn to break free of our own biases and preconceptions.

You Are Your Own Biggest Problem

Consider this tale of a whiz kid fresh out of graduate school, hired as an operating officer for a rapidly growing company. In the wake of wild success, he unexpectedly found that things weren't getting done. When he confided in his boss, he claimed that the problems were with the people he managed. But the CEO told him that what they all had in common was him. He was the source of his own problem.

"Ask everyone on your team what you're incompetent at," the CEO said. And he did. One by one, they told him what he couldn't do. "You're not very good with finances," one said. "Marketing just isn't your thing," another said. When he went back to his boss, the CEO told him they were all correct. "Well, they're right. Now make other people do all those things so you can have the time to do what you're best at — which is, of course, strategy. No one can come up with solutions to complicated problems like you can." Over time, the whiz kid learned to delegate. He learned to accept his weaknesses and acknowledge his strengths. He learned to rely on the talents of others as he showcased his own talent.

What Are the Gifts You Don't Know You Have?

To break free of your dominant worldview is also to embrace it. And sometimes embracing it is even harder — because we can't always see what we have to offer the world. Take as an example the story of Miriam.

Miriam was a caretaker to everyone but herself. She was always quick with a pleasant word or a comforting comment that made you believe everything was going to be just fine. Few would have suspected that this middle-aged woman with the radiant smile had more worries than most. It all started out well enough for Miriam. She graduated from college and married her high school sweetheart. But twenty-five years later, he ran out on her and their five children. Though her career as a nurse brought her tremendous satisfaction, it didn't provide much in the way of income. Miriam struggled just to make it all work, and it did, for a while. As if on cue, after all of her children had grown and moved out of the house, her vivacious mother was diagnosed with dementia. Always a deeply spiritual person, she went to her rabbi seeking advice. He was very helpful, and with the support of her synagogue, her mother was moved to a local assisted living center where Miriam could visit her daily.

Believing that Miriam's situation was becoming more common among members of his congregation, the rabbi asked Miriam to tell her personal story at temple one Friday evening. She was reluctant to speak to her friends and neighbors about such a deeply personal and difficult subject. But the rabbi emphasized that other members of the synagogue needed her help to get through their own struggles. So when the appointed time came, Miriam slowly began to disclose the challenges of her life and how she had, to the best of her abilities, endeavored to meet them through prayer and positive action. What followed were drawn-out moments of silence and sobbing. When the services were complete, dozens of congregation members came up to talk to Miriam. To her surprise, many of them wanted to share their own experiences with parents who needed assistance in their golden years. The rabbi suggested that Miriam develop an educational program that could be delivered at other synagogues and perhaps beyond.

At the medical center where Miriam worked, she talked with a wide array of doctors, nurses, patients, and their families to better understand the key challenges, potential solutions, and the needs of caretakers. She met with specialists who were happy to share their expertise and information. Over the course of a year, Miriam became a practical expert on caring for elderly parents with dementia. She was asked to speak at temples, nursing homes, and hospices. With each new speech, Miriam added to her material — stories others had given her, variations on her subject matter, handouts, and even a website filled with articles and other resources.

These days, Miriam is widely known as a regular on the speaking circuit. It all came together the moment she realized what she had to offer to the people around her. She had powerful gifts of storytelling, caregiving, empathy, communication, and bringing groups together, but it wasn't until she'd been put in this difficult — indeed, dire — situation that she knew she had them.

What are the gifts you don't know you have? That's precisely the question this book will help you answer.

Introducing the Innovation Code

The Innovation Code is a system for identifying, understanding, and combining the different dominant worldviews of creative thinkers and leaders. A worldview is more than a type or a style. It's a collection of deeply held beliefs about how we interpret and experience the world. A dominant worldview is a comprehensive conception of the world from a specific standpoint. We derive these views from our personal experiences as well as the cultures in which we are socialized, for we are neither self-contained nor self-created. We exist as part of a larger community and system. Our dominant worldview may change over time as we experience new situations and become more self-aware of our own inclinations.

In revealing your greatest strength, your dominant worldview also reveals your greatest weakness. Furthermore, it considers how each kind of thinker and leader interacts with others, so you can determine the other people you need to surround yourself with most. The best innovation teams are like bands of superheroes: each member acknowledges and makes use of his or her gifts and talents, but they don't let those superpowers limit them. They use them at the appropriate moments and then stand back and let their partners take over at other moments.

There are four basic approaches to innovation: the Artist, who loves radical innovation; the Engineer, who constantly improves everything; the Athlete, who competes to develop the best innovation; and the Sage, who innovates through collaboration. These approaches come together to produce a positive tension, a constructive conflict that promotes sustainable and scalable growth. When you combine the radical, visionary thinking of the Artist and the methodical, practical thinking of the Engineer, you get innovation that's both revolutionary and manageable, highly ambitious but without high risk. When you combine the cutthroat, results-oriented attitude of the Athlete with the conscientious, values-oriented attitude of the Sage, you get innovation that's both a good investment and good for the world.

In today's snappy corporate speak, forms of creative leadership are like statement blazers or ultra low-rise jeans: they're either in or they're out. Every year, the most popular business magazines claim that a certain type of person is the most innovative of the moment. This month, it might be the triumph of the technological guru. In the fall, it might be the rise of the artistic genius. Pundits treat innovation strategies as if they were fashion trends, hot during one season, only to become passé the next.

The truth is that dominant worldviews are more than just catchy buzzwords on a glossy list. There is no single approach to innovation that will always come out on top. There is no overriding trend you can rely on. Rather, knowing which kinds of leaders to bring to your project is about knowing all the things you can't do yourself.

Innovation Is Not About Alignment

Most people like to surround themselves with people who are like them and run the plays that they're used to running. But in reality, it's crucial to work with people who have different skills than you and to run a wide variety of plays in order to increase the likelihood that one of them will work.

Do things that make you feel uncomfortable. Talk to people with whom you have nothing in common. Remember that the ideal solutions to the most complicated problems will never involve just one mode of thinking. They always require a cross-boundary, interdisciplinary approach that takes advantage of multiple — and often seemingly contradictory — mindsets and ranges of skills.

Innovation is not about alignment. It is about constructive conflict — positive tension. This is exactly how and where innovation happens: you need to surround yourself with people who are not like you.

The Innovation Code begins with a look at yourself: both what you have to offer the world and how you fit into that world. Once we've established a structure of the self, we'll discuss how you can create constructive conflicts. We'll go through each of the four innovation types individually, examining all of their talents and flaws, their gifts and shortcomings, and talk about how these types use constructive conflict to innovate. Finally, we'll end with an action plan for the future, a set of simple tools for building and maintaining an innovative mindset and an ever-evolving sense of self.

So that question we've all sighed, rolled our eyes at, and thought we were done with forever once that interview ended is actually the start of something great. For identifying your biggest weakness is the first step to looking outward and seeing the kinds of people to enlist on your teams. Think of the question as less of a demand than an exchange: Tell me your biggest weakness and I'll give you my greatest strength.


Innovation starts with two self-assessments — one devastating, the other uplifting: what's the worst part about yourself and the best part about yourself. Once you've really identified your greatest weaknesses and strengths, you can determine what kind of people you need to surrounded yourself with. Find people who are unlike you, who can push you to create the things you can't on your own. Create your own team of superheroes.


Start your journey toward growth by looking closer at the stories you tell about yourself. For it's in these self-narratives — the stories we tell ourselves — where we can get the strongest idea of our strengths and weaknesses.

1. Reflect on your story

Draw a straight line on a page. Treat this as a timeline of your life. Starting at the right end, which represents today, recall memorable events working backwards.

List them on your timeline. This doesn't mean recalling every important event but rather whichever events feel significant to you right now: perhaps an argument with a sibling, a decision not to take a job, or a project that really made your career. Give yourself a moment to reflect on these events.

2. Analyze a moment of failure

Now pick one event that represents a failure: a bad relationship, a work of art never completed, a job from which you were fired. Recall the event with as much detail as possible: who, what, where, when, why, and how.

Make sense of this failure. Ask yourself these questions: What went wrong? Why? What went right? Why? Have you experienced similar failures in the past? Do you see a pattern? What does this tell you about your biggest weakness?

3. Analyze a moment of success

Now, repeat this self-assessment by reflecting on a story of success. Ask yourself the same questions you asked about your failure. What do these complementary self-narratives reveal about your dominant worldview?

Keep in mind that you'll return to both of these stories over the course of this book, each time seeing these situations anew, so hold onto your timeline and reflections. Get ready to go deeper. Seeing your own dominant worldview is just the first step in seeing the very different dominant worldviews of the other people who will round out your innovation team.


What Is the Innovation Code?

There is something indulgent — even sinful — about taking a personality test. Whether you're curling up on the couch to take a Cosmo quiz about what kind of lover you are or sitting down at your laptop to complete the full 222-question Myers-Briggs questionnaire, you're turning away, if only for a brief moment, from the rest of the world to find out a little bit about yourself. Personality tests appeal to our desire for self-knowledge, but they also tap into our inner narcissists. That's why they're so undeniably, hypnotically, and addictively fun: there's something weirdly rewarding about recognizing ourselves in categories.

That's also why they're often limiting: because they only reveal things about ourselves (and things we usually already know) and not anything about the other people around us. The reality is that we exist in relation to other people, and so, if we want a full understanding of how we function in our worlds, we need to learn things about everyone else — from the people we love most to the people we clash with.

How can a personality test tell us about other people? We might try taking these exams from perspectives outside of our own to get into diverse mindsets that might unsettle and broaden our own thinking. Yet this sounds oxymoronic: a personality test about everyone else but us. We do, after all, have to keep ourselves in the picture.

A Relational Personality Test

The solution is not a selfless personality test but a relational one — one that indicates types in relation to other types, showing how they interact and define each other rather than exist as fixed points on a scale of unchanging identity.


Excerpted from The Innovation Code by Jeff DeGraff, Staney DeGraff. Copyright © 2017 Jeff DeGraff and Staney DeGraff. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface ix

Chapter 1 Tell Me Your Biggest Weakness 1

Chapter 2 What Is the Innovation Code? 13

Chapter 3 Constructive Conflict 27

Chapter 4 Dwelling in the Conflict 37

Chapter 5 The Artist 49

Chapter 6 The Engineer 63

Chapter 7 When Artists and Engineers Meet 79

Chapter 8 The Athlete 83

Chapter 9 The Sage 99

Chapter 10 When Athletes and Sages Meet 117

Chapter 11 The Innovation Code Within 121

The Innovation Code supplemental Material 129

Index 131

Acknowledgments 137

Author's Notes 138

About the Authors 139

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