Innovate, or take a walk

If you’re not bringing new ideas to the table, you’re signing your own pink slip

The theme for Ahead of the Curve this year is individual innovation, and I didn’t choose that theme at random. The IT economy is marginalizing and will permanently shed those who don’t bring creativity, curiosity, and invention to their jobs.

Productivity and precision can be outsourced or extracted from the less experienced. Innovation, the ability to conjure genuinely new ideas without the constraints of convention or even practicality, is what will determine whether you climb along with the recovery or slide into the morass of the replaceable.

Mr. Smith, you have a lovely MBA and I’m impressed that you managed a 25,000-node migration to Active Directory. But what original thought is in your head right now?

IT is not considered a creative profession, and I don’t know if it ever will be. But I can promise you this: If you don’t create, dream, and invent, you are a candidate for outsourcing and automation. Great ideas, even if they’re just pipe dreams that make other people feel comfortable expressing their own, are now among the most valuable assets on the American job market. They can’t be transplanted.

If I were interviewing prospective IT staff now, my make-or-break question would be: “Give me one patentable idea that you’ve dreamed up in the past six months.” It wouldn’t have to make sense or be related to my business. If we could bat that idea back and forth excitedly and finally have to stop because it was getting late, that candidate’s resume would have a spot at the top of the pile.

Conventional wisdom holds that creativity is a genetic trait. If you’re not born with it, you can’t acquire it. That might be true in some cases, but there is always room for redemption. A career pianist of my acquaintance shows off by transposing songs on the fly or playing them backwards, but she is utterly unable to improvise. When she strains to do it, the result is a stitching together of pieces of the songs she knows. You would probably say that she could never sit down at a piano and just swing.

I say that if I got her stinking drunk on consecutive weekends (under controlled clinical conditions, of course), she’d learn improvisation. Badly at first and perhaps never well enough to perform. But at some future concert, the conductor would do a double-take as she smiled her way through a sonata instead of grimacing, her fingers gently lighting upon unwritten notes that could be heard nowhere but in her head. I’d wager that what the audience heard would have a full-hearted ring to it.

I am certain that substantial good comes from all dreams and innovations, even those that are never realized for profit. If nothing else, there is one consistent side effect of bringing creativity to your job. It leaks into the rest of your life. When you rise to a place in your career where your productivity is measured in terms of ideas and vision, you’ll find an easy continuity between life and work. Driving from a family trip to the zoo to an afternoon at the office won’t require a shift of mood or mind-set. When you see something at the zoo that makes you dream up a new line of business or a better approach to a project, you’ve made it. Go straight to your boss, tell her your idea and that you came up with it while looking at elephants. If she blows you off, set her outsourcing timer to 60 days, and decide what you want from her office.