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George Barbee's Innovation Nuggets

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For forty-five years, George Barbee helped lead innovation with Fortune 100 companies like Gillette, General Electric, PepsiCo, IBM, and PricewaterhouseCoopers. He has been

a successful entrepreneur and for eighteen years has taught innovation at the

University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business. As a businessman

who worked with people in over forty different countries, he found that

innovation can be taught and learned across many cultures.


Throughout his career, George was a voracious note taker. If he came across something innovative, he would jot it down and put it in a folder. When he started teaching, he would dig out these notes to use as examples and stories. After decades of seeing

so many different kinds of people attain a far greater level of innovation than they thought they could, George was inspired to write a book about his observations in order to help people discover within themselves their own creative ability. In 2013,

he started seriously organizing his notes into a book form, starting with over 140 nuggets. He intended to boil down to fifty-two (one per week) but decided to stop

when he got to sixty-three. He titled the book 63 Innovation Nuggets for Aspiring Innovators, and it was published in 2015 and became a business best seller.


George uses the analogy of panning for gold nuggets. Prospectors collect and sort through individual pieces. At first, an individual gold nugget may appear to have minimal value, but it is a small collection that results in sizeable wealth. Similarly,

any one of the book’s innovation nuggets may not be earth shaking, but they can

take on special value when assembled in a personally meaningful collection. A

nugget isn’t just something new out of research and development. It is a strategy

for how to look at the world differently. The nuggets in the book have evolved

from very practical situations, readings, and many brilliant colleagues whom

George has learned from over the years. They are reflections that

have worked for him personally and for those he has had the

professional benefit of working with around the world.


The book begins by explaining that most of us are far more innovative than we think. The problem is that we tend to associate innovation with invention. Inventors create something entirely new. Innovators make something better. Innovation is all around

us, and using these nuggets can help improve observation skills, transfer skills, and many other skills. In fact, it is remarkably easy to develop these skills. The simplest

way to innovate is to pay attention, observe what’s around you, and then transfer

what you observed to another category where it can be applied. When looked at

in this way, anyone can innovate, because these skills can be learned and taught.


People love stories. Stories make theoretical statements come alive. That’s why

George presents each of the nuggets in the book in two parts: an explanation

of a concept followed by a life anecdote or case study that brings the concept

to life. The illustrations include specific examples from within the boardrooms

of big corporations and even mention executives by name, making the

reader feel privy to information and examples that over five hundred 

MBA students and executives have benefited from.


You don’t have to read the nuggets in order, and George says

a good place to start is with one of his favorites:        


#19. Observing as an Art.

 

Most successful innovators have a keen sense of observation.

The good news is that it’s an art, and it can be improved at almost any level.

 

Take time out. Put yourself in listen and receive mode. Look around you.

Make time to do this when you are alone. Observe what is innovative.

Make notes. Keep a list of innovations you’ve observed.

 

Set the goal of at least one “observation exercise” per day.  Review your list each week. Have the quality of your observations improved over time? Ask a like-minded

friend or business colleague to try this exercise and compare notes.

 

You’ll have fun and get better at observing. Innovation is all around us. Look for it.

 

All of us can do this. And it improves with practice.

 

As an illustration of this nugget, George talks about innovation in ATM and bank teller lines. People used to pick one of multiple lines and hope for the best. Then came

the line “I formation,” a great innovation where everyone lines up in a single line,

with the front person going to the next available opening. By taking time to

really observe what’s going on around us, we can train ourselves to innovate,

to make something better, to do something in a new and different way.


The need for innovation is a common thread across the globe in large and small companies, entrepreneurial organizations, nonprofits, education, government,

liberal arts, as well as individual careers and personal lives. It is also

something that we can easily pass on to our children and grandchildren.

George has gotten great satisfaction from helping so many people

discover that innovation and creativity are within their grasp.

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