12/24/2014 09:51 am ET Updated Feb 22, 2015

Innovators Travel Light

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.
- Marcel Proust

A Buddhist parable tells of a man traveling along a path who approaches a raging river that he wants to cross. All around him lies danger, and safety is on the other side. He travels up and down the shore looking for a boat or a bridge and finds none. So he sets about the difficult task of gathering up sticks and branches and toils to build a raft. When he finishes, he safely paddles across to the other side where he leaves the raft and continues on his journey. The Buddha points out that the man does not take the raft with him, as it no longer has any value for him.

In building our professional life, it is important to carry our lessons learned but not be trapped in repeating the past. Too often, we fall into the same patterns, defaulting to what has been successful in the past, instead of looking with fresh eyes for what we need to move forward. While doing so, we are dragging our proverbial raft up a mountain when we could set it down and free our hands for the climb. When faced with unique challenges, we tend to apply past solutions, instead of looking at the situation with new eyes, and seeing problems as opportunities to create new paths.

In business, innovation is often looked at as a way to extend our patterns or model in new markets with a bias for the leaders' ideas. Creativity is often defined or limited to programs that are simply variations of what has been done in the past and what has been successful, but that is not innovation. We are not creating, we are replicating.

True innovation is about finding new ways to add our unique value as people and organizations. Sometimes, innovation can even come from our failures.

In the Middle Ages, alchemists sought to transform base metals into noble metals like silver, platinum or gold. While they were unsuccessful in their primary goal, their efforts were the first steps toward early modern science, giving us the foundation of laboratory techniques and experimental methods. Alchemists were responsible for the discovery of how to compose some inorganic bases and acids and contributed to the development of chemistry. They added value to their contemporaries and society by creating new industries around metalworking, gunpowder, distillation and many other useful endeavors. Sometimes, innovation happens while we are focused on other goals.

Most sectors are facing a crisis of competing in a global economy and with constantly transforming technology. The usual answer seems to address the past problems that may not even exist going forward. But what if we instead ask what is possible in any given situation? Instead of questioning how we can solve a given challenge, we should be asking how we can add value in the context of any new relationship. We should be asking, in this circumstance, what is possible? What are our opportunities?

Higher education isn't immune to such traps as we find ourselves embroiled in debates over interest rates for student loans, or the validity of online versus on ground delivery, as opposed to how we can transform the system. Instead of talking about the financial considerations of a higher education, the question should be how we can create greater value - for our students, their employers and the global society. It isn't the delivery that is a problem, as higher education no longer occurs at a given location - it is not a mechanistic ecosystem, but a dynamic interaction which is centered on the individual student. We should not focus on where higher education takes place, but what we can offer society as a result of the process. That value will be added through collaborative efforts to transform students into a population of thinkers - who in turn will collaborate to solve our global challenges.

Like industry, the question may be about finding new opportunities not in just the for-profit work world, but in collaborative efforts with non-profits, government and social entrepreneurs like or that solve problems by reframing the question - maybe even questioning the possible.

If we want to be innovative, we need to harness the power of where we add value. Higher education does that when we transform people from students and workers into great thinkers and problem solvers. That transformation does not take place upon graduation, but the moment a student starts out on their journey of higher learning. We should view them as a problem solver from the beginning and teach them to become a life-long thinker, to further develop their skills. In this way, they learn to not only solve their own problems, but become a contributor to changing how society becomes aware of the possible.

The question for higher education isn't how to create better employees, but how to open and transform people to more clearly see the possibilities they can create. From a global perspective, we must be prepared to look at the world with fresh eyes, to start seeing challenges as opportunities and be prepared to abandon solutions that no longer offer value in this new landscape.