Youth & Innovation

Initially published October, 2015. 

Last week I was invited by some high school teachers to be part of a panel to discuss youth, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Below are some of this things I told that group, and I thought I'd share them here for a couple of reasons. First of all, I wanted to provide these comments to those who weren't in attendance. Secondly I wanted to put this out there as a challenge to myself to keep creating new thoughts and insights. I don't want to repeat speeches.

"How do we foster innovation and entrepreneurship in our youth?

First of all let me say that the term “our youth”, and specifically the word “our” is somewhat misleading. They aren’t “ours”, they are their own people – each of them contains a universe of problems and opportunities, same as all of us here today.

Secondly, what I find in my work with both young people and adults is a tendency for both groups to either: 1) focus squarely on what the ideal solution would be, but not start anything at all and kind of wait around for someone to pick up their suggestions and run with them or; 2) have very little insight into the actual problem they are trying to solve. I have to reiterate that this is not a problem specific to youth, it is everywhere and in every organization I work with.

These issues are closely related as each involves a lack of context into what problems do people actually have and how might we start to solve them. The risk is that the person falls in love with their solution regardless of the negative, or sometimes no, feedback they are receiving from their anticipated customers or clients. The risk is also that they build something terrible and utterly and completely fail, wasting time and money. I know we say that failure is part of learning, and I agree that it is important to fail safely in order to learn. However utterly failing can destroy people.

The alternative – and this is what I continuously advocate – is for people who have ideas, or who are searching for ideas, to actually spend a huge amount of time with the people they think they can help. The time spent with the people you want to help is not intended to sell them your solution – in fact ideally you don’t talk to them about your solution. The time you spend with them is intended for you to gain actual empathy and compassion for the people you want to help. To gain a better understanding of their challenges, their opportunities, and also find out how they’re solving their problems today.

To me this is the real challenge in innovation and entrepreneurship with youth. How can we generate interest and excitement into deeply exploring and understanding problems? From the work that I do, both on products I work on as well as those I help create with others, it appears that the key to this is empathy.

Now, empathy here isn't defined as a skill or an ability. Empathy here means a practice. A practice of continually connecting and understanding other people, what motivates them, frustrates them, makes them laugh, moves them to tears. From this empathy you can start creating an idea to help people. From this same empathy you can change an existing idea into something that works before you’ve spent time and money building prototypes and generating financing.

With an approach to innovation and entrepreneurship that places empathy for a community of clients at its centre, the impact of “failing” is completely reduced. In fact, what you “fail” at the start are your bad assumptions and hypotheses around the problem while learning what the challenges and opportunities actually are. This way, whatever you end up building is grounded in actually solving real problems that you’ve discovered along the way, as opposed to building something and then realizing the real problems after you’ve launched. By this point it’s frequently too late.

Given that the majority of the audience here today are high school teachers from around Manitoba I thought I’d also add the following---- your role in this cannot be over-emphasized. It’s not about teaching people how to start businesses or social enterprises, it’s not about teaching them how to write resumes or how to apply for jobs. It’s about teaching youth how to understand the world around them, about their place in it, and how their perspective shapes the world. It’s also about teaching young people how to not only identify problems or opportunities, but to explore them. . .continually seeking to learn what the actual underlying problems are, how to build empathy and connections with others. . .and how this serves both their own ambitions and the needs of the community. It’s about providing young people with the questions they need to ask and giving them the experiences they need in driving their own projects as early as possible.

You yourselves help foster innovation and entrepreneurship in young people by being examples of it yourself. The teachers I’ve had the pleasure of working with on some projects exemplify these traits as much as anyone else I’ve worked with. Everyone and anyone can do this work.

It’s a mindset, not a skillset."