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Technology & Innovation

Innovating Your Way to a Good Job

The key is to look for a job the same way you would look for a unique opportunity to create something better or new – a business, a product or service or maybe even a career. 

The Great Recession is over or so we are told. It sure doesn’t feel that way to the millions of Americans still searching for gainful employment. Similarly, there are countless numbers of creative and capable folks looking to find more meaningful work. It’s no wonder. The contraction of the US economy in 2008 was a single percentage point less than the 1929 meltdown of the markets. Combine that with the current cataclysm in Europe and you have a perfect storm for job seekers or what is left of them. So how do you find a decent job in this economy? You innovate.

The key is to look for a job the same way you would look for a unique opportunity to create something better or new – a business, a product or service or maybe even a career. Anyone who has ever worked in a professional service firm knows that relationships are everything. Clients seldom buy because of a wicked-cool advertisement. Or if they do it’s simply because the service is a price bound commodity. It’s likely that your doctor came recommended from a friend or family member. Service providers live by the referral. So a good reputation with key influencers is essential. A little momentum doesn’t hurt either. Just watch a successful dentist, wedding planner or plumber and take notes.

Find Your Sweet Spot 

Benjamin Franklin was a jack of all trades: Author, printer, politician, postmaster, scientist, inventor, activist, statesman, and diplomat. He was good at everything but unfortunately you and I are not. We can’t have it all and we couldn’t handle it if we did. The truth is that we are merely competent at most things and even that may be optimistic. But there are two or three skills that we have mastered and may even be extraordinary at performing. The first trick is to be objective about it. Every American Idol contestant who had an awful audition that perpetually plays on YouTube to millions of giggling spectators was encouraged by some well meaning sidekick – “I believe in you.” Chances are they were the only one. Real friends will tell you the truth. Seek them out to determine where you are “insanely great” as the late Steve Jobs put it. If you have more than a few special gifts you’re kidding yourself and need to go on a self-esteem diet. The second trick is to find where your talents meet the opportunities of the market. You may be world-class at Trivial Pursuit but unless you are going on the game show circuit chances are there is a low cost software application that can do it better, cheaper and faster than you. Use the Venn diagram approach. Put your unique skills in one circle and in the other circle list the skills that are needed by companies in your field to capture unique opportunities. Where do they overlap? That’s your sweet spot. Stick to it.

Follow the Leader

Innovation typically happens around individuals; not organizations. Like great chefs or winning left handed pitchers when these individuals move along they take their success with them. These innovators bring both opportunities to capture and challenges to overcome. That means jobs. So who do you know that is making innovation happen right now? If you don’t know anyone, ask your friends and acquaintances. Somewhere in the six degrees of separation you will get some leads. But there is a catch. These highly productive innovators have no interest in your job search or mentoring you. That’s a self-help fantasy. What they want is leverage, understudies who can do the work they can’t because they lack the time, capacity or range. They want you to fill in their gaps and get it done whatever it may be. Ask yourself what you can do for these highly practiced innovators. Adjoin yourself to their community, crew or cult.

Fish Where Others Aren’t

If you are lucky enough to have landed a great job a Google chances are you are just another pair of shoes and stylish haircut on the happy bus. They already have lots of creative talent. It’s the down and out company that is looking for your help. Why is that? In the words of Bob Dylan “When you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose.” Remember that Apple was almost bankrupt in the late 1990s. Consider all those talented folks who took the risks and eventually the rewards. Buying low and selling high after all is the name of the game. Same goes for cities. Pass on Silicon Valley, Brooklyn and Austin. You want to go to a place where the need for innovation is greater than the potential pool of talent can deliver. Think Detroit, Baltimore or Rochester or better yet some backwater berg. These places have seen hard times but are coming back strong. It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t that long ago that Hoboken was broken and Raleigh-Durham was the end of Tobacco Road. Forget the “best places to live” list and carve your little slice of paradise somewhere that others have overlooked. Chances are the cost of living is cheaper and the neighbors will be glad to see you.

Project Yourself

Over two decades ago management guru Tom Peters got it right. You are your wow projects and they make or break Brand You. While there aren’t many positions for innovators at top shelf firms there are endless innovation projects that spring from dull, drab and awful jobs. This is because Innovation is being pushed farther and farther down in the organization at the same time innovation-only positions are being eliminated as a cost-cutting move. Sadly these specialists are becoming an endangered species. But this doesn’t open the door for gifted amateurs. Instead, it requires that we surround ourselves with an ensemble of talent like an old Renaissance guild or a bus and truck Broadway troop. How can you add pizzazz to this sorry production?  Social networks bring exciting possibilities for identifying opportunities and collaborating across boundaries but they don’t necessarily bring jobs. It’s better to focus on finding projects that will give you an opportunity to create something special. Think of it like an artist’s portfolio of work. Smaller commissions lead to the bigger ones that richer patrons notice.

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Make it Up as You Go Along

While my suggestions may seem obvious or perhaps even disingenuous I believe that most of us overlook the opportunities at hand.  In the mid-1980’s, when I was twenty five years old I was a highly recruited professor in the budding field of a multimedia technology. Much to the chagrin of my advisors I turned down a faculty position at one of the most prestigious universities in the world and went to work for regional pizza company instead because I thought it would provide me with an opportunity to ply my trade. Five years and three billion dollars later I left my executive position at Domino’s Pizza a much wiser and somewhat richer man. It was one of the best decisions I had ever made and afforded me the opportunity to create my own customized career. There is no data on the future where our opportunities lie. Leave room for the stuff you don’t know now so you are free to make it up as you go along.

Jeff DeGraff is a Professor of Management and Organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. To learn more about his book Innovation You and PBS Special by the same name, visit his web site at or follow his blog on innovation at


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