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A December article in the Wall Street Journal carried the headline “The Economy’s Hidden Problem: We’re Out of Big Ideas.” Interesting article, but I disagree with the premise. I don’t think it’s big ideas or even new ideas that we need. What we need is to reinvent the things we’ve already tried.

That’s the economy’s real hidden problem: the unseen (and therefore untapped) opportunity in existing ideas. Leaders with an innovation mentality see opportunity in everything. And everything includes ideas that aren’t new or big.

Many people don’t see that because they don’t enjoy the tough part of taking ideas all the way to the end. We’ve become complacent looking for immediate success, not understanding what’s required to succeed in a world where you constantly need to reinvent yourself.

Aza Steel is a leader who sees opportunity. He is co-founder and CEO of education software company GoGuardian, and in 2016 he was named one of Forbes 30 Under 30 in the education category. Steel and I had a discussion about unseen opportunities, and he shared a view similar to mine about the nature of ideas: “To me, innovation isn’t really coming up with new ideas,” Steel explained. “You’re not going to have a new thought. You’re going to combine a few other peoples’ thoughts in a slightly novel way. I find it so exhilarating to see these crevices of innovation that the world has left.”

Seeing the Crevices

His own entrepreneurial adventure began outside a UCLA dining hall when a friend’s laptop was stolen. Suddenly realizing how vulnerable he’d be if his own computer were stolen, he found an app that tracks computers, but he couldn’t afford it. So he hunkered down for 48 hours, learned JavaScript, built his own theft-recovery tool as a Chrome extension, and released it online. In a few months, it had 10,000 users. Not bad, for a Sociology major.  

A school district reached out to him in need of help with newly deployed Chromebooks. Steel started by helping them with theft recovery and continued by helping with any other issues that came up. He’d call users and ask what problems they were having, then stay up all night programming a solution, then move on to the next problem. It was a pivotal time in education as more and more districts adopted this new technology. Steel’s entrepreneurial spirit obviously got a great workout.  

As a result, GoGuardian evolved from theft recovery to a mission of transforming education with solutions that keep students safer online and make teaching easier. Today the company has 4 million users and 75 employees.  

Ripe for Reinvention

There are a few things about Steel’s story that illustrate how to spot previously unseen opportunities.

First, he points out that a critical part of the journey was that he did not have a steadfast idea that GoGuardian needed to be a theft recovery tool simply because that’s how it started. As he put it: “I needed to be receptive to what the market was telling me. And that’s been critical.”

Second, he admits he’s never been one to think that things are the way they are for a good reason. “The world is the way it is because of some poorly thought out reasons and some decisions that weren’t even made but just randomly happened. The world is in a bunch of temporary resting places that are so ripe for being changed for the better. That is the thrilling part of existing on this planet.”

I agree. The challenge for leaders who want to operationalize this innovation mentality is that most people haven’t been trained to be able to identify those resting places – to see the opportunities, to anticipated the unexpected, and then have the entrepreneurial spirit to capitalize on those opportunities by reinventing.

The other challenge: leaders must be ready for employees to take that kind of action. In the old template, business defined the individual. To be successful today, businesses need to let individuals define the business. That requires a generous purpose on the part of the leader because for an individual to define the business by, say, challenging the status quo, leaders must be willing to have their own status quo challenged. That takes a certain level of vulnerability and a confidence in one’s own leadership identity.

Beyond that, it takes a purposeful intention on the part of the leader to become more aware and engage with the differences among people and become more effective at connecting the dots of opportunity embedded within those differences.

In other words: give your employees a safe place to unleash their passionate pursuits, and then be courageous and vulnerable enough to let them follow those pursuits. This helps you propel innovation and seize opportunities previously unseen.

Steel gives us a great example of this in action.

A Leadership Identity that Enables Evolution

Today Steel describes his role as “harnessing the potential of these incredible humans around me, and getting them to question their reality and be entrepreneurs in the context of GoGuardian.” In the same way that the world has a lot of “crevices”, Steel recognizes that GoGuardian has its own things that are a certain way for no good reason. “I want all my employees to believe in that voice they have in their head that says, ‘This is dumb. I think I can do this better.’”

This is what it looks like to live your brand. As you live your personal brand and it continues to evolve, you gain experience to manage opportunities properly. You establish your personal brand’s value proposition as it relates to those opportunities. You can then use that value proposition to forge a leadership identity that is a catalyst for evolution.

Steel sees it this way: “I see my job as helping my employees grow to reach their potential. But we’re also in a world where technical devices in schools are well-poised to help all these students better discover and leverage their potential. That’s what it’s all about.”

Steel started by solving for theft recovery and has evolved into solving for potential in people. Steel has tapped into the power of his own leadership identity – an essential step for leaders who want to cultivate new possibilities previously unseen.