To Do Better Work, Seek More Chaos in Your Job

With corporate life spans shrinking and the pace of change showing no signs of slowing, business school graduates and up-and-coming managers must strengthen their innovation muscles to prepare for the coming age of discontinuity. To get ready: Seek chaos, diversify your skills, and broaden your innovation network.

Innovation is not chiefly an academic pursuit, so would-be innovators need to put themselves in ambiguous situations where they have no choice but to come up with creative solutions. That doesn’t necessarily require joining a startup. If you work inside a company, find a way to involve yourself in a new product launch or take an assignment in an emerging market. If you are in school, help a club or local nonprofit do something it hasn’t done before. Seek chaos—and the learning that comes from it.

It’s at least one reason why I moved to Singapore in 2010. Not only could I lead the expansion of our consulting business to a new market; I also picked up responsibility for our venture investment arm. I believe the diversifying experiences have made me much stronger as a manger.

Generally, the further we get in our careers, the more we are told to sharpen our strengths. Since we can’t predict future challenges, the more diverse our skills, the more resilient we will be.

Steve Jobs serves as a classic tale of the value of diverse skills. The legendary innovator’s eclectic interests ended up being vital components of the dramatic growth he drove at Apple. Learning calligraphy during his brief time at Reed College wouldn’t seem to be a particularly useful skill. When Jobs was trying to determine ways to make the Macintosh computer line more distinctive, however, the calligraphy training helped him conceptualize what later became called TrueType font. It was but one component of making the computer—historically the province of hackers and hobbyists—friendly and approachable to laypeople.

Also, reconsider your “innovation network,” or the group of people you turn to for advice about an innovation issue. Most of us have networks with people who look like us, are in our industry, or went to the same schools we did. It’s natural to network with people with whom you share a common connection, but innovation happens at the intersections, where different skills and mindsets collide. Look for people who work in different industries, are artists or entrepreneurs, or are 20 years older or younger than you are.

One simple starting point is to find an alien. Software entrepreneur Donna Auguste used this term a few years ago when we served on an advisory board helping E.W. Scripps’s newspaper arm develop new growth strategies. Auguste said the people at the fringes of the core business can often be the best sources for creative ideas. They don’t quite fit the establishment, and that’s exactly what you want. She suggested talking to young employees who wore the white headphones that were telltale signs of early iPhone adopters. Since they were living the new styles that were disrupting newspapers, they could provide real-time views on potential strategies.

Almost 70 years ago, the great French poet Paul Valéry wrote a line that roughly translates to “the future is not what it used to be.” Prepare in the right ways to develop the innovation muscles to handle whatever the future might be.

Go ahead, ask your aliens how life is on their planet. It is a great way to get nonobvious insight.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.