Innovation Lead from Columbia Business School Shares Tips on Creativity and Career Management

Presentation by Angela Lee, professor of practice at Columbia Business School, at the 2020 Project Ascendance Summit.

Developing Hard Skills and Soft Skills for a Changing Career Landscape

Many people are switching jobs every couple of years, and that’s increasing for younger generations. How can educators equip students with the skills for navigating their career twenty years post-graduation, and how can professionals position themselves for success in current and future roles? Those are the issues raised by Angela Lee, a professor at Columbia Business School, at the 2020 Project Ascendance Summit held in late October.

People need to develop hard skills of gleaning insights from data, having technical literacy, and being familiar with frontier tech – which Lee considers, at this moment, to be machine learning and robotics. (Learn more about how innovations are being used to deliver education in this talk by Ben Starsky, Patrick Rossol-Allison, and Christine Holzem at the summit).

Regardless of the career they’re pursuing, Lee said, everyone needs to know how to navigate data, derive insights, then portray that data in a visual way.

Another skill to develop is technical literacy, which doesn’t necessarily mean knowing how to code—it’s the idea of how to work alongside technical people, maybe hire a technical team, and have some knowledge of technical terms.

Becoming conversant in frontier tech is something you can achieve by subscribing to a technical newsletter so that you’re following the trends. Once a month, Lee suggests, read about a technology that’s new to you. Lee mentioned Bessemer Atlas as a great resource for understanding trends in this space.

Soft skills like relationship building are crucial, too. Lee said that because we’re changing jobs so often, we have to know how to build up our weak ties, which often lead to innovation and job opportunities. (Anna Gurun shared her ideas for crafting your future of work at the summit – check out her thoughts in this video).

Other important soft skills to develop, according to Lee:

  • Communication: A core course in most MBA and undergrad curriculums
  • Inclusive and ethical leadership: Making it comfortable for people’s voices to be heard
  • Cognitive flexibility: The ability to have empathy and to context shift
  • Decision-making: A teachable skill that most of us aren’t taught
  • Metacognition: How to learn and making people better learners, including knowing what type of learner you are, the best way for you to learn a new skill, and the time of day you’re best at doing deep work

Divergent Thinking and the Power of Weak Ties

There are two myths about creativity and innovation, Lee said. One is that you’re either born creative or you aren’t. The other is that innovation is about “aha” moments. But innovation and creativity are processes that can be taught. Lee said to first be divergent—wide and expansive with your thinking—and then be convergent, converging down to choices and solutions.

One way to be divergent is to increase the number of weak ties in your network, because innovation and idea generation often comes from weak ties. Lee said that engaging with weak ties is the best way to be innovative and divergent in your life. This could simply mean setting a monthly reminder to talk to someone who works in a different vertical or department.

Another way to be divergent is to make it okay for conflict to exist, Lee said. She’s a huge fan of using post-it notes to increase divergence and make conflict more comfortable. You can ask people, “What’s one thing that…” and have them anonymously place post-its on a board.

Lee said that a more structured way to be divergent is to use Edward de Bono’s 6 Thinking Hats. It’s a great method for making sure that a variety of voices are included in a group discussion. S.C.A.M.P.E.R. is another divergent thinking tool that’s useful for thinking about product or service ideas, she said. The acronym stands for Substitute, Combine, Add, Modify, PTAU (put to another use), Eliminate, and Reverse.

Convergent Thinking Techniques

Here are some exercises and apps for convergent thinking that Lee likes to use:

  • Fist of five: A quick, efficient way of getting feedback that involves people raising their hand and giving agreement ranging from all-in with five fingers, to complete disagreement with a fist.
  • Pair ranking (like at the eye doctor): Do you like A or B?
  • Assign 100 points: People can distribute 100 points to rank priorities
  • Three post-its: Everyone gets three tiny post-its and puts them next to the idea they like the best
  • Ease/Impact Matrix: A simple way to convert strategy into action
  • Balloon: A web app that lets people upload ideas anonymously; the ones that get the most votes float to the top
  • Poll Everywhere: Widely used in university classes for getting live feedback from students

Lessons From Evaluating Over 15,000 Startups and Investing in 70

Each year, Lee’s 37 Angels – a community of angel investors, focused on closing the gender gap in start-up investing – looks at about 2,500 companies, meets with about 600 of them, and makes 10 investments. Founders will have to talk to lots and lots of investors to get that first check.

37 Angels examines four things in early-stage companies:

People: The biggest thing it’s assessing is relevant domain expertise, and after that, complementary skills.

Problem: 37 Angels is looking for startups that are tackling really large market opportunities, and are seeking founders who are able to deeply understand their customer and their market in three ways: demographics, psychographics, and the problem they’re solving for their customers.

Progress: Traction isn’t about the absolute number—it’s about the repeatability of that progress.

Price: As an investor, Lee said, she’s investing in the CAC to LTV ratio. This metric shows how the lifetime value of a customer compares to the company’s cost to acquire each new customer.

Summing Up the Session

For both students and working professionals, navigating a rapidly changing career landscape requires developing the hard and soft skills to be conversant in the latest technology and creative processes, and how to apply them to solve emerging problems.

To learn more about the Project Ascendance Summit, visit

Additional resources that Lee recommended:


General Assembly, Lynda (now LinkedIn Learning), One Month

Blogs, etc.


  • Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, by Adam Grant
  • Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, by Chip and Dan Heath
  • The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance, by Josh Waitzkin
  • Traction: How Any Startup Can Achieve Explosive Customer Growth, by Gabriel Weinberg — Lee said it’s a handbook for how to customer acquisition
  • Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist, by Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson
  • Rework, by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
  • The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, by Eric Ries
  • Six Thinking Hats, Edward de Bono
  • The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age, by Reid Hoffman. Acknowledge that your best and brightest employees are going to be with you for just a couple of years, so how do you invest in knowledge transfer and make the job interesting?
  • Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, by Kim Scott. Lee said this books tells you how to be really candid with your team in a nurturing and productive way.


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Sonia Steinway

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Sonia is a principal at Artemis.