Finding New Paths – The Innovator’s Compass

innovator's compass

Passion Project: Finding new ways to see and do: Innovators’ Compass


Your Name: Ela Ben-Ur
City: Cambridge, MA
Sign: Libra
Spirit Animal: Black Bear
Food: Dates stuffed with walnuts
Favorite Sound: My daughters’ laughter

Tell us about your passion project…..

I believe that we are all innovators—from curious 2-year-olds to technical or social pioneers—whenever we find new ways to see and do things. My passion is asking what happens when we do this more—alone and together—at home, work, school, and in our communities?

When we can barely pause to breathe, it’s hard to make even a little space—and remember helpful places to look—for finding new ways to see and do things.  As I’ve helped people do this, I’ve found myself actually drawing the spaces from which these possibilities always seem to come in our everyday breakthroughs or in many formal approaches to creativity, problem-solving, and learning.

The Innovators’ Compass is a workspace we can explore over months or just seconds—in our heads, in conversations, on paper or on whiteboards—whenever we need to find new ways to see or do something. This Compass offers us space to include people at the center and:

  • Dig deep into present details to discover What’s happening? Why? (our Observations)
  • Zoom out to define What matters most? Why? (our Principles)
  • See the big-picture for the future too, to dream What could happen? (our Ideas)
  • Dig back into enough real details to design What’s a simple way to try?  (Our Experiments)
  • Try it and again see what happens! If it’s not great, we can revisit our observations, principles, ideas and/or experiments to find what we might be missing.

Most formal approaches follow this powerful cycle (though some start in different places). Their techniques help us tap into all our sensibilities in each space. Of course, our real breakthroughs happen in many different, messier ways. I say: when in doubt, try that cycle—but unleash and follow your own intuition! If you’re not finding new possibilities in a space, mix up how you explore: look, listen, feel; use words, draw, move, make. You can also move on to the next space, or anywhere around the Compass, whenever and however you’re inspired to.

Children introduced to Innovators’ Compass have used it to work through their personal or classroom challenges.  Adults have used it to handle tough situations or conversations, and to explore their careers. And people have worked together—as pairs, families, teams, and communities—to work through issues, develop their relationships, and continuously evolve and pursue their collective visions. People have used it with many of the practices that inspired it: from Design Thinking and Scientific Method to Appreciative Inquiry and mindfulness.

As I and others experiment with the Compass in all these ways, I too work to continuously evolve and support it.

How did you first get inspired to do this project?

It was a build-up of so many experiences that inspired me. It was feeling moments of powerful  compassion, clarity, creativity and courage in my innovation work at IDEO, and with many social and educational innovators since. It was longing to get back to those breakthrough moments when I, or people I coach and teach, were stuck on a big problem, struggling as a group, or stressed personally. It was seeing how those challenges fed one another. It was sensing that ways of navigating those different challenges (all the methods for leadership, design, creativity, communication, systems thinking, and so on that I’ve been fortunate to learn) had similar ways of bringing us to breakthroughs.  It was becoming a parent and desperately wanting to sustain the natural courage, curiosity and creativity in my daughters, and everyone around them, so they/we can overcome all kinds of challenges.

I didn’t want one more how-to “map”, but a portable, flexible tool that would amplify our own creativity, empower us to find our own way, and orient us to all the different “maps” when needed. I wanted this tool to be inspiring, intuitive and impactful for people right away, without a big presentation or book, and to become more and more powerful over time.

Whose shoulders are you standing on?

My parents, educators, and mentors.

People throughout time who’ve inspired others to overcome challenges. Most recently, Tom & David Kelley who led IDEO and have helped share “Design Thinking.”

People experimenting with the Compass in their lives and work.  Their feedback has helped me evolve and name the Compass and shape experiences around it. They’re always offering new ideas: “Where’s the app?!?” “Write a book!” “Make a set of videos.” “Share powerful examples.” “Start an online course!” “Help people share observations, principles, ideas, and experiments around global problems!”

Some Compass fans have helped get small experiments going around these ideas. One educator started the #innovatorscompass hashtag, to which many people have posted. Another helped create the “Pocket Compass” card. A videographer asked to film me working one-on-one with someone on their personal Compass. People have begun telling their Compass stories on their blogs.

What is your biggest challenge right now and what do you need to overcome it?

Moving to the bigger ideas from the the small-scale experiments I just described is a leap.  

First, I need to feel settled about the Compass itself, because everything is built on it (more on this in “risk” below).

I also need to see which are the next building blocks that require my careful attention. While the Compass must work on its own, I’m finding it’s valuable to develop a powerful guided experience and set of examples for people who seek more support when they try or guide the Compass for the first time.

Then I need to see the best ways to turn these building blocks into all those great ideas—better tools, forums, and so on. Should I continue to empower Compass fans working with Twitter, blogs, and FaceBook? And/or should I engage professionals, with my own or formal investment, to build special resources?

Anyone can help! Give the Compass a go here. Share your experiences and any ideas for what else you’d like to have. You can also give and get inspiration on Twitter here!

What are you learning?

Between passion work and parenting, this is the most intense time of learning I’ve known. I try to express new lessons through the Compass itself (and when I can’t, I evolve the Compass!).

Let people in. Keep them at center of all we do. If we journey through challenges together, the results are better. More importantly, everyone feels ownership and rallies to fix any shortcomings.

What we bring to that journey is who and how we are. It’s always OK to pause, observe what’s happening with us, and look for one or two principles, ideas, or experiments for ourselves in-this-moment that can serve as the “oxygen mask” we need so we can better assist others.

Look and listen a lot to really understand what’s happening.

Zoom out often to see what matters most, and to dream. Be just as open about how those things could happen. It’s amazing how many relevant opportunities and resources spring up, or maybe we just didn’t see them before.

Then try stuff.  Understand and embrace what happens. We’re often surprised at how much positive impact a little experiment can have. We can turn both encouraging and tough observations into empowering new principles, ideas, and experiments that help us and our ideas grow.  

What is your biggest fear?

I worry that this can’t make a difference in the world; or that it could but doesn’t because of choices I make. That would mean that all the time, energy, emotion, and money I’m investing in this work is actually not the best way to help my daughters’ future. I try to give the Compass my all—and use it to be the best wife and mother I can be too.

How are you organizing people in your community for this project? What tips/insights are you learning from that?

I spend a lot of time listening to people who are trying to enable great things to happen in their classrooms, schools, organizations, and communities. We usually talk about whatever’s on their mind.  We recognize and expand their observations, principles, ideas, and experiments—and how the person shapes these with the other people involved. The Compass came from such conversations, so I naturally use its language: “What else is happening? Why? More details—what is that person feeling? Why? How might you discover more about this?” and so on.

I give them the “Pocket Compass”. This could feel cheesy. Instead it feels great handing them the key to what we just experienced together. I invite, yet never push, them to try it on their own. They can sense more and more ways to use it in their families, schools, organizations and communities.

Half of these people are leaders and educators in my own Cambridge community, who I meet over coffee or work deeply with in-context.  The other half, from around the US and world, I meet over video. Some of of these people first experienced the Compass with someone I still haven’t met! All of them know they can call me as they explore their challenges, enable Compass experiences for others, or take time to reflect.

I’ve also facilitated many workshops myself. These have evolved too. I focus on giving people time to use the Compass for challenges they’re facing as individuals and/or as a group, coached by me and by each other, as well as time to relate the Compass to ways they’ve had their own breakthroughs.

To engage the global community, I encourage people to share further at #innovatorscompass. I’m considering ways people can connect more deeply around challenges they care about, for which I hope the Compass can offer a common, generative language.

What is the biggest risk you are taking and why is it worth it?

It feels like a huge risk to settle on a final Compass, especially one that’s a bit aspirational and not always accessible right away.  

I’ve found that to have impact a tool like this must be simple yet powerful, concrete yet flexible. These principles are very tricky to balance.  I’ve taken out or simplified every word I can. The only words that remain over two syllables on the Compass are “Happening”, “Discover,” and the labels “Observations”, “Principles”, “Ideas”, and “Experiments”. The first Compass had a readability score like Shakespeare (yikes!); the current one like Harry Potter.  Dropping all the bigger words only brings it down one more grade level.  

However, I still sometimes hear “I see some big words” or “there’s a lot here” or “I didn’t get it at first”. I’m so tempted to strip it further. To ditch those long-word labels, or the smaller language on the Compass points. But I don’t.

I’m encouraged as I see that more and more people I’ve never met are grabbing onto all combinations of the Compass’ remaining language—often just the one-long-word label in each space—and are using the Compass in diverse ways to affect their lives/work/communities. It’s also incredible hearing kids pick up even the big Compass words (they’re easier than saying “Millennium Falcon”!) and use them to voice a “principle” that’s important to them, offer up an “idea” or to ask to do an “experiment” they’re curious about.

I am starting to experiment with how the Compass aesthetic can feel more accessible—for example, more handmade. And, for a graphic in each space that conveys the feel of that space. The guided experience I’m working on will be another way to help people relate to and use the Compass.  But what if these aren’t enough?

To me it’s worth the risk because language shapes society. This Compass encourages us to name, value and explore incredibly important aspects of our worldview—our observations, principles, ideas, and experiments—as individuals or groups.  “Innovator” is another long word that many people don’t relate to yet;  however, I hope people who use this Compass will begin to identify with being “innovators” in their own lives and communities. And I hold on to the Compass points (seeing past/present/future in new ways, from details to big picture) in hopes we’ll remember this isn’t about filling in random boxes, but exploring meaningful directions as long as we need to to see things in new ways.

What advice do you have for others working on their passion project (if any)?

We aren’t robots. Embrace your humanity.  

  • Use your passion—it gives you tireless energy and ignites others’.
  • Use your intuition (consider letting the Compass help unleash it!).
  • Embrace your challenges—we’ve all got ‘em.
  • Remember we can’t do it all. Focus on what matters most. What moves you, and what moves your idea forward?  What’s noise that sucks your time and energy?
  • Connect your humanity with others’.  See their passion, consider their intuition, support one another’s challenges and create a larger whole.


What tools, resources, books or people have been the most useful to you on this project?

People: the most powerful medium for spreading ideas. And their hard feedback, great ideas, loving support, and deep wisdom.
Ways of meeting them:  Accelerator communities like 4.0 Schools, physical gatherings like SXSWEdu, virtual meetups like #dtk12chat.
Ways of unleashing them: Just a little bit of space to do things differently in a conversation or meeting. A blank sheet of paper. The book Creative Confidence.
Ways of connecting them and their ideas: Twitter, Facebook, Zoom, Google Docs. Big dinner tables.

What is the most fun you’ve had working on this project?

My kids using the Compass on me and each other. “Well my principle is having FUN!” Spontaneous calls, tweets and emails from people who say “It’s changing my life/school/community.”

Ultimately, what do you hope your passion project will offer to the world?

That we can always find another way when we need it, using our whole selves—individually and together.  

Extra Credit: What book, movie or song do think Up With Community readers should definitely check out?

Creativity for Everybody.  An short, inspiring book co-authored by my friend Jane Harvey.

I crank up the song Broken Line by Enter the Haggis when I need inspiration (last few lines in particular) or am working, passion-driven, through the night.

--Teamwork compass --Kevin Day school retreat anxiety+experiment 21060201


Date: December 01, 2016