Jeff DeGraff

on New Directions
Ann Arbor, MI
With over 25 years of corporate leadership experience and as Clinical Professor of Management and Organizations at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, Jeff is the “guru to the innovation gurus” at Fortune 500 companies.


Exclusive Interview

Profiles of Change: Jeff DeGraff

Since some of our listening audience may not yet know who you are, would you please tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m a Professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan where I teach courses on creativity and innovation to MBAs and executives. I’ve written several books including Creativity at Work, Leading Innovation and Innovation You. I have lots of fun writing syndicated columns for the Huffington Post and Psychology Today. I’ve created a nationally broadcasted PBS program – Innovation You. I travel the world advising top companies like General Electric, Coca-Cola and Pfizer on how to make innovation happen. I established the Innovatrium Institute for Innovation with solutions labs in Ann Arbor, Michigan and Atlanta, Georgia to research and develop new innovation practices. I got my nickname the Dean of Innovation during my tenure as a member of the executive team at Domino’s Pizza during the 1980’s when it was one of the fastest growing businesses in the world. I’m into songwriting, hiking and Michigan football. You can follow my adventures at

You are a great success. Because of what you've accomplished and where you are in life, what would you tell others to Inspire them today, regardless of where they are in their life?

When I was in second grade, I wanted to be a knight for Halloween. My father, fond of quoting Teddy Roosevelt – “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are” – and never one to throw scraps of any kind away, was eager to help with a homemade get-up. In this case, he took on old plastic bucket, cut a slotted visor and adorned the whole thing with shiny aluminum foil. An old feather duster became a regal red plume. He fashioned a sword from a piece of floor molding that he spray painted gunmetal grey so it looked like a forged blade. My armor was a silver tanning blanket cut up and reconfigured through the miracle of duct tape. By the next morning, I was as chivalrous and gallant as Lancelot himself as I paraded through the halls of my elementary school to the attentive stares of the jealous rabble.

My Dad is a perpetual Creativizer. Like so many people with this skill, he is a thoughtful and innovative maker of small moves and little miracles. He can improvise on the spot in the most improbable of situations. Like my Dad, all of us have opportunities right in front of us but seldom see them because we are too busy waiting for someone to give us the solution – Meeting your soul mate, winning the lottery or being discovered. The truth is that the cavalry isn’t coming. Taking responsibility is frightening until you realize that it’s the only way that you can truly be free. You don’t need a lot of money or education or an insane amount of luck. Look around you, see what is available to you right now with opportune eyes and start creativizing yourself.

We all know that inspiration can change lives. Can you share a personal story of someone who inspired you and made a difference in your life or a defining moment or experience that inspired you or changed your life?

When I was 18 years old I wasn’t exactly college material. Sure I was a champion wrestler and had some athletic scholarships, but I desperately wanted out of that sweaty beat-down life.

It was after mass one Sunday that Joe, a friend of the family, told my Dad that his brother was leaving his union job at a shipping and freight company. He suggested that I go down to see a guy named Chuck who was the personnel man at a local trade school about the possibility of snagging the choice position. That’s how it was done back in the neighborhood. You get a job and he gets your tuition. But that’s not what happened. Chuck looked over my application and transcripts while he talked with me for over an hour. The interview ended with a cordial handshake and the issue still undecided.

The following day, I received a most unusual call from Chuck. He announced that he would recommend me for the job with one condition - I enroll in a prominent university that was located in the next city over. He went on to say that he had taken the liberty of calling the Admissions Officer at the school and that my acceptance was assured. I was astonished. How was it that this man, whom I had never previously met, saw more in me than I saw in myself? More so, what could have possibly have possessed him to put a creative plan in motion simply for my well being?

Chuck’s actions changed the course of my life. He opened a door to a new path in my life. I went to college and the rest is history. I believe we all encounter people like Chuck in our lives but we don’t always see them. They are invisible innovators – helpful friends, caring grandparents, attentive teachers and all those who provide the luck of our lucky breaks.

You make it look easy, but I'm guessing you've experienced challenges in your life. Can you share with our listeners how that has strengthened you to reach success? In other words, how do you overcome adversity?

Success is all about choices and the important ones are never easy.

When I was 25, I received my Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I was the wonder boy who was highly recruited by several top universities and decided to take a position at a very prestigious medical school. Everyone was proud of me. There was just one problem. I hated my job and more importantly, what my life had become. So I handed in my resignation to the jeers of my superiors and colleagues who assured me that this was a career-ending move. Without money or prospects I moved into an undergraduate dormitory where my wife was a librarian. I could barely show my face. Living in poverty and ashamed to talk to my professors who had such high expectations for me, I avoided people. During this time I was offered two very lucrative leadership positions at Fortune 500 companies. I turned them both down. I was not going to make the same mistake again.

Through a friend, I met a man who worked for a small pizza company. We immediately hit it off. He introduced me to the owner of the company who offered me a job. Five years and several billion dollars later I left my executive position at Domino’s Pizza to return to the higher education as a professor of innovation with both academic credentials and hard won experiences from the real world – a rare combination.

If you never say no to the things that others want you to do you will never have capacity for the golden opportunities that await you.

We all have ideas on how to improve our lives, whether it be a new job, moving to a new city, or finding love, but change can be a bit scary sometimes. Can you please share an experience with us where you "stepped off the ledge" with only faith, and took a big risk, based only on your belief that you would succeed?

I come from a large working-class family in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Surprisingly, I got through college in two-and-a-half years while working the nightshift as a Teamster unloading semi-trucks on the loading docks of UPS. It was a great place to work. I was so focused on my goal of a degree that I never really had time for a social life. I desperately wanted to change my circumstances.

So, when I graduated from college, UPS had selected me for a fast-track management position. This highly sought after career track was only given to “high potentials” that came from top schools. I didn’t really fit that description. The starting pay was more than I ever thought I would make in my life and the job would take me places I always wanted to go.

I took a road trip to go visit an old friend in Ann Arbor and slept on the coach of the house he was staying in off campus. I loved the town and felt like I really belonged there. Out of curiosity I went to visit the graduate school and just by chance ran into a former Congressman who was teaching a class in public speaking. He asked me about my training and background. I had been a student teacher for a man who had produced several National Forensics League champions. The Congressman told me that an incoming doctoral student had a change of plans at the last moment. He offered me a full tuition fellowship to teach the freshman course on public speaking originally intended for the now absent doctoral student with the provision that I accept on the spot because he was running out of time.

I had not completed an application to the University of Michigan, I had no place to stay and only enough money to live hand to mouth. Much to amazement of my family and friends, I went on to graduate school and passed on the good paying job. I slept on that couch for two semesters.

Years later, I returned to make my home in Ann Arbor and became a professor at Michigan. I now give speeches that are broadcast across America on PBS, and I travel around the world speaking at top companies and at conferences. I have the life I longed for as a young man but it happened in a way very different than what I had imagined. I often feel like Forrest Gump because so many times I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. But then I remember how when faced with a life changing decision I have somehow found the vision, courage and freedom to say “yes” to opportunity.

How can others do what you did?

Start by taking a higher point of view. Ask yourself three questions:

1.    Who am I really?
2.    What are my gifts?
3.    What do I seek?
Pay particular attention to what gives you energy and what takes it. This will give you some clues about your gifts. We are all designed to do something special. The key is to find out what that is and to do more of it – not just to get what you want.

This of course requires both commitment and discipline. You have to create the capability before you can create the results you want. Writers write just as plumbers plumb.

The idea of the self made man is nonsense. We make our pilgrimage in this life with other key people. Pay attention to who is on the journey with you.

Remember to show your gratitude through your good works and prayers.

What process, steps or exercises do you recommend that our listeners could do right now and each morning, to improve the quality of their lives?

I like to say just “creativize” what you do now. That is, just add creativity to the ordinary in your life and watch it become extraordinary. There are four basic steps to the cyclical process of “creativizing”:

1. Set high quality targets: This is much more than just deciding what you want. It’s paying attention to what you really seek, your mission, and looking for opportunities currently available to you that will start your journey towards your summit. You must honestly consider what your real talents are and aren’t and what resources you can gather. Think of it like climbing a mountain. It requires an evaluation of the situation and skills, a good map and plan of action, and the right provisions and gear.

2. Enlist deep and diverse domain expertise: We don’t know how to do everything for ourselves so we seek out help from people who are highly practiced in any given field – plumbers, dentists, accountants and the like. The same is true for our own lives. For example, if you want to write a children’s book, talk to someone who has written a book or teaches children and regularly reads to them. You can spend years learning how something works or simply talk to someone who has already spent those years and can provide this information and guidance in a fraction of the time and effort. It doesn’t need to cost you a dime. You can enroll others with shared goals but different talents or trade services.

3. Take multiple shots on goal: Innovation is about what we don’t know how to do now. It manifests itself into results sometime in the future for which we have no data. Most people collect and outline and plan instead of taking purposeful action. The key is to launch a wide and diverse array of very small projects to determine what really works and what doesn’t. For example, your goal may be to open an authentic Hungarian restaurant in your city based on the recipes handed down to your from your great grandmother. Instead of betting all your savings on a wishful plan, start by supplying some of your cuisine to a friend’s restaurant or catering some events at your church. Try lots of little experiments to quickly learn what works and doesn’t. Failure is inevitable so don’t try to avoid it. Instead accelerate it and keep your investments in time, money and energy small so there is very little risk.

4. Learn from experience and experiments: Failure is just failure unless you are getting smarter from the experience. All learning is developmental. Regardless of your age, you go through the same process of failing as when you learn speak a new language or play an instrument. For example, there is research to suggest that on average successful entrepreneurs have failed three times before they succeed. The key is that they are getting smarter. At all times consider what you are learning from a situation and how to make adjustments to your course to use these insights to your advantage.

These “creativizing” steps are used to locate your opportunities for growth and add creativity to the seemingly ordinary activities that really make innovation happen. Throw away your notions of effortless superiority and moving in straight lines. Growth is like winding your way up a steep mountain.

What's the greatest joy in your life?

My family, including my dogs and canary, and my faith are my greatest joys. Hiking along the river and lakes, playing guitar and writing are always good for a peak experience or two.

If you had to wrap up the wisdom of your life to leave as your legacy—call it YOUR BRILLIANCE—what important things that you've learned would you want to pass on to others?

There is no right way or wrong way – only your true way. We are all here to grow. Creativity is how we do it. Muster the courage to pursue your vision. Look for the stream of experiences that is your life. Follow the themes, the continuity, and the energy. Be free and responsible.

If you had just one more thing that you could accomplish in your lifetime, what would it be?

I would like to write a collection of children’s stories.


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About Jeff DeGraff

Jeff DeGraff is a world-renowned thought leader, executive and innovation expert. His expertise has been shared globally at top innovation incubators and think tanks such as the Aspen Institute and with companies that include Eaton, GM, SPX, 3M, Apple, American Airlines, Coca-Cola, GE, Johnson & Johnson, LG, Pfizer, and Toyota. DeGraff has contributed his expert knowledge in publications such as Business Week, CIO, Fortune, USA Today, Training+Development and the Wall Street Journal. Jeff focuses on how to lead Innovation, developing the culture, capabilities, and collaborative connections that result in revenue and market growth.