Humanity, wisdom & innovation stories. Interview with Sue Lebeck, InnovatingSMART

Interview by Willi Paul. Co-Presented by Magazine &

At InnovatingSMART we focus on cross-generational interviews and first-person stories of in-progress Innovations. Soon, we will add Conversations with key players and perspectives driving the creation of environmentally, socially and financially SMART systems. To these we add ours and your Observations on what is happening around us in the field of SMART innovation; we want to hear from you!”

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Interview with Sue by Willi

Part One: Nuts and Bolts

Please define innovation. How has this process changed over the course of your career?

Innovation is changing how you do things. To me, it’s doing what few others are doing. It’s creating a new reality and a new expectation for how “things are”. This sometimes involves remembering and freshly deploying past practices. It sometimes involves creating wholly new things, which few before imagined. It sometimes merely means bringing something familiar in one setting, to bear in a place it didn’t exist. Innovation can create an improvement, which is generally easily embraced and taken up. Or Innovation can be disruptive – upsetting assumptions, practices and markets – and can be fiercely resisted.

For many innovators, innovation is a way of life. Innovators, or “innovation advocates” which is how I regard myself, are always forging or participating in the next new thing, moving the world forward. Necessity drives innovation. But so does restlessness. Ideally it involves both – a need, and an itch.
My own innovation/innovation-advocacy work– has evolved over time.

It began when I chose to study a field which appealed to me even though I didn’t know what it was – computer science. After “mastering” a relatively well-established area of computers in grad school, I joined a team doing something none of us knew well – computer networking. This led naturally to being involved in one new frontier after another. Along the way I dabbled in status-breaking social innovation when I found my communities stuck in a dynamic that wasn’t working well.

Ultimately, I left technology for awhile to study another field I knew nothing about –transpersonal psychology (TP). Though the subjects we explored were ancient cultural and personal truths, the study and research in this area was relatively new. Along with TP, I studied and practiced the art of “creative expression” – using art forms for personal exploration and understanding. I practiced as an expressive arts therapist for awhile. But, not satisfied with this predictable application of my new crafts, I instead invented several professional applications of creative expression, and called my new business “Working-Arts”. This adventure failed as a business, but succeeded as an eye-opening experience for myself and those I had the privilege to work with.

Though most comfortable in new terrains, I am not myself a true pioneer. Instead, I recognize and appreciate innovation I admire, and do what I can to embrace it, apply it more broadly, and move it forward. This predilection ultimately led me to work in “innovation advocacy” – helping innovators to succeed, and nudging the culture forward toward innovation in general, and toward sustainability-driven “SMART” innovation, in particular.

As for the innovation process itself – there are many processes, formal and informal, to support innovation. It is my observation that every successful innovation process will include the following six elements, which I describe in a one-page article on “Innovations Architectures” here. They are: Sources, Infrastructure, Invitation, Evaluation, Execution and Celebration. Since I wrote that article, I have learned to add Collaboration.

In general, what slows innovation in a person? What can accelerate it?

What slows innovation:

– the presence of nay-sayers;

– too much criticism, and not enough “gold” (“here are the gems”) and “green” (“this could make it grow”) feedback
(this language I learned from my friends and colleagues at

– the absence of well-placed allies

– not yet having the right environment/set of stakeholders in place to pull the innovation forward

– at some point, the absence of enough resources to carry it across the “valley of death” – that gap between demonstrated value potential, and actually finding its audience

What accelerates it:

– the inverse of the above!

– Also, see the “Innovation Architectures” paper mentioned above.

How many people are a “best fit” in a team collaborative effort? Any examples?

This depends on what you are trying to do. A design effort is best achieved with a small number of people who can work closely together.

A cultural movement requires many and diverse collaborators.

What is the difference between creativity and innovation? Online and face-to-face innovation?

Creativity – fresh thinking and playing/experimenting – can happen nearly constantly, if it is allowed and encouraged, and is necessary for Innovation. But innovation is more demanding, beginning with but going beyond creativity. Innovation takes fresh thinking and play/experimentation and moves it forward into something that can connect with an audience. It is truly innovation when it is adopted into significant use — thereby creating financial, social and/or environmental value.

Having earned my stripes in the computer-networking world, online innovation has always been an essential complement to the face-to-face. In today’s widely distributed but connected world, this complementary relationship continues. Improved “face-to-face” online technologies help to bridge the gap. But again, it depends on what you are trying to do. Spec-writing and software development lends itself to collaboration in an online environment. For other fields it is harder. But again, as tools improve, even design teams can forward their innovations on-line.

Do kids innovate differently than adults?

I’m not expert on this, but I’ll share my thoughts: Young kids think freshly by definition, and play/experiment naturally. They don’t care so much yet whether it’s applied and useful to anyone besides themselves. They will tend to remain creative until and unless it becomes discouraged and unsafe. As for becoming innovators who wish to create value for the larger world –that comes with maturity.

White board or blackboard? iPhone or Blackberry?

Though once a computer scientist, I nonetheless think best with a pen in my hand. Long-hand writing allows me to organize my thoughts and tap my inner knowing far better than typing does. And I am a visual thinker, so while audio tracks provide great stimulating company (I’m an NPR radio fan, and my InnovatingSMART team publishes a podcast channel) – I will probably not remember something unless I’ve written it down.

Email, then, is my tool of choice. The written word speaks most clearly to me, and I imagine I am most clear when writing. Of course, I may have developed my thoughts in long-hand before typing them down!

I don’t do Email on my phone, however. The beauty of email, I believe, lies in that it is asynchronous. I will get to it when I am ready, and you should do the same. That said, I am addicted to instant-messaging text. And the young adults in my life – my interns, my daughter – respond best to that.

What makes a great desk top computer application?

Anything that helps you achieve what you are trying to do. Otherwise, I have no interest.

Would you prefer doing a solo presentation or leading a brown bag discussion?

This has changed over my lifetime. In the past, I’d pick a solo presentation, as heaven knows I like having the floor: As I’ve gotten older, I have become more fascinated to learn what others have to say. Plus, when multiple people build on what each other are saying, it is a very creative process and, as a leader, I get to learn. So now – give me a brown bag discussion.

“Continuing on through a dizzying series of life experiences, lurching forward time and again with Grace, I have recently started a new business and launched several collaborative initiatives in the service of evolving innovation. This latest hero’s journey will be aided by many gifted allies who have often personified Grace to me.”
Why do you call this a ”hero’s journey?” Is this a reference to Campbell’s mythology?!

It is a reference to a derivative of Campbell’s thinking – “The Path of the Everyday Hero” by Lorna Catford and Michael Ray. See Amazon. I had the great pleasure to study with Michael Ray and his team of “Creativity in Business” teachers, and this was among the books that drove our personal and professional learning journeys.

“The Hero’s Journey” is characterized by a U-shaped diagram. On the top-left of the U is “innocence” followed by “the Call”. On the top-right destination on the U is “breakthrough” and “celebration”. Deep within the U is a very uncertain and circuitous path, characterized by repeated “initiation” and, if fortunate, the connection with well-placed “allies”. In my work as an innovation advocate, I have come to recognize this journey as the Innovator’s Journey, and, in our InnovatingSMART storytelling work, we ask our innovator interviewees about it.

What are your top three personal innovations?

Top three Innovations I was involved in:

– Email – which I most assuredly didn’t invent, but which I did my professional part to evolve and make widespread, in the 80s and 90s.

– Working-Arts practices – which I rely on to keep me sane, centered and inspired, and which I bring to others from time to time.

– InnovatingSMART – a collaborative storytelling project, which isn’t about me at all, but about the emerging sustainability-driven innovators I so admire today.

Top three innovations in my professional lifetime:

– The Web of course – brilliant in every way

– The Prius – I’ve been driving mine since 2003. Not a tree-hugger, just smart. I like the idea of being able to road trip from San Francisco to LA on a single small tank of gas. And mine isn’t teal. It’s black.

– Reconstructive surgery – it put me back together after my bout with cancer – a little better than before!
Part Two: InnovatingSMART

How do you make money? Stay impartial?

I do non-profit work and for-profit work at the same time. When doing non-profit work, I let my passions drive, and I appreciate everyone who is trying/experimenting/moving things forward. I don’t require or believe in perfection (anymore).

When doing for-profit work, I take on only projects I respect. However, I am very open-minded, and believe that SMART revitalization and transformation of our mainstream business is key. In my work, business is not the enemy; business is the pathway to the answer.

How do I stay impartial? I don’t. I like to stay partial. Otherwise, I lose my humanity, and thereby lose my wisdom.

Are your interns paid? What are the pros and cons of using an intern in a high stakes innovation?

My interns give their time and professional skills generously to our non-profit effort. Like me, my team-members are following their passions – whether it is for the environment, for sustainable practices, for writing, for media production, or something else.

That said, my hope is that as InnovatingSMART expands its audience and its sponsorship, my core staff will not have to work for free. It is not sustainable, and it is not fair. InnovatingSMART would not exist without the particular forms of leadership provided by members of our team. They deserve outside support.

To be clear, InnovatingSMART itself is not “high stakes”. Its subject, however, is very high-stakes.

What are the actual products that will result from innovation at InnovatingSMART? Prototypes? White papers?

Our byline is “Stories of Sustainability for tomorrow’s Innovators”, and that is exactly what are product is.

Our stories take the form of podcasts, videos, and blog entries. Our “story” types today are: first-person interviews with today’s SMART innovators, and observations that speak to what we are personally noticing. In the future we will expand our stories to include: conversations with SMART leaders and, we hope, sustainability-related “capstone projects” of students at local universities and beyond. Other story types will be invented to ensure that a wide range of stories can be told. Our mission is to provide a professional development resource to the SMART innovators of tomorrow; we want them to see their capacity for SMART innovation regardless of their field of study or professional industry.

As a collaborative non-profit media resource by and for young professionals, InnovatingSMART is itself an innovation. It began as a prototype built by myself, was overtaken by a totally redesigned pilot system co-created by a team of interns, and is now just beginning its story-a-week production. Our hope is to bring it to the minds and hearts of young professionals everywhere, and add more storytellers to our collaboration.


All our work is published under a Creative Common license. The innovators we speak to manage their intellectual property in a range of ways, appropriate to their mission and their industry.

Why do start-ups fail?

The first reason start-ups fail is our cultural definition of “failure”. Culturally, we define failure as not making (enough) money, or not grabbing (enough) market-share. We do not sufficiently look to a wider definition of value-creation, although this is changing. It is environmental value and social value that humans actually want. It is what they pay for with their symbols-of-financial-value. And yet over generations we have lost sight of this.

All start-ups discover something, learn something, expand our ideas for what is possible, and nudge the mental market-share forward. In that way, they all succeed and should be celebrated.

That aside — Startups fail for lots of reasons:

– By definition, they are an experiment. Even if the technology is solid, it may fail at the manufacturing step, the marketing step, the distribution step, the human-adoption step.

– Startups often run out of money before they achieve all those steps

– Sometimes the team that invents something is not the best team to take it to market; these are different skills

– If a startup is entering virgin territory, it may not find its market. If it is entering territory that challenges powerful incumbents, it will be fought mightily.

– Culturally, we love “innovation”, but hate to be asked to change.

Please define sustainability in the context of InnovatingSMART?

We use the acronym “SMART” to name specific qualities we believe are foundational to achieving sustainability. From our website at InnovatingSMART:

SMART design is…

Systems-savvy – designed with sensitivity to the context of the specific systems and environs involved; also, optimizing the interplay between systems

Managed intelligently – managed thoughtfully for best result; also, using sensors/data/analysis/control to manage systems operationally in dynamic circumstances

Adaptive – designed to work well in a changing world, in a manner that works with the environment and not against it.

Regenerative – applying creative system interplays, where the waste of one system becomes food to another; closed-loop cooperative systems

Trusted – reliable, exercising good judgment; honest, authentic, transparent; without this quality, the other qualities can be applied in a misguided or misleading fashion.

Robert Horn’s web site is very busy (to say the least!). How would you innovate and change it?

Bob’s gift is to take a complex problem space, involving many moving parts and stakeholders, and synthesize the inputs of many participants onto a single “page”. He doesn’t operate in the space of sound bites or eye candy. This is one of the reasons I find him so interesting.

That said, Bob and I would both like to take his latest info-mural created for the World Business Council for Sustainable Developments (WBCSD’s) Vision 2050 Task force – a giant wall-sized chart outlining the steps it will take to create a sustainable world by 2050 – and make it come alive. We welcome sponsors and champions to help him turn it into a living beacon and info-collection point to the sustainability efforts of business today.

And of course, sound-bites and eye-candy are critical to communication to a wider audience. We welcome experts at this, as well!

What is Obama’s record on innovation?

Obama has, I think, achieved a great deal both personally and professionally. He is a fan of innovation and is himself an innovator – socially, technologically and, if the political climate would allow it, environmentally. He reminds me though of the many under-appreciated innovators I meet all the time – people who have done great things but haven’t quite connected with their audience.

People want “innovation” but they are afraid of change and they don’t embrace experimentation and learning. It is an ever-present conundrum, a paradox that innovators face every day. Incumbent systems are the well-heeled sworn enemy of innovation.

Ultimately, the incumbent systems will break down under their own weight. Meanwhile, I choose to focus on those who see far and are not afraid to lead the way. Those who understand that true success involves thoughtful and regenerative change.

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Sue Lebeck Bio –

Founder and Principal of Silicon Valley Innovation Associates.

She created and now directs InnovatingSMART, a non-profit initiative celebrating sustainability-driven innovation; she serves on the core team of its non-profit sponsor, Sustainovation. Sue is also a proud Project Partner with the Starnet LLC innovation alliance practice, whose mission is harnessing the power of partnership.

Previously, Sue served as the Program Director for the Silicon Valley Innovation Society, a non-profit community dedicated to innovation advocacy. She practiced as a creativity consultant and coach applying the Working-Arts concepts which she created; today, these concepts serve in providing Light for the Journey.

In a previous century, Sue worked for over a decade as a collaborative software technologist, program manager and industry expert, serving the electronic messaging and internet industries during the formative years of their commercialization. Today, she and her teams depend upon these collaborative platforms, as well as their amazingly rich successors.

For the back-story on Sue and a rich collection of other scrappy women, check out this honest if irreverent book created by valued colleague Scrappy Kimberly Wiefling:

Scrappy Women in Business:
Living Proof that Bending the Rules isn’t Breaking the Law.


Sue works always in collaboration, with a large network of talented colleagues and affiliated groups, including:

InnovatingSMART team
Starnet LLC
Vision 2050 Outreach with Robert Horn
Sustainable Silicon Valley
Wiefling Consulting
Enterprise Development Group
Silicon Valley Innovation Society
and more.

Connections –

Sue Lebeck
Slebeck at

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