The Key To Focusing on the Problem Is Having an Open Perspective

Man overlooking a mountain
Elijah Tuuri of TracFone Wireless
Innovator and futurist Elijah Tuuri

Elijah Tuuri is an internationally recognized innovator and futurist whose projects have been featured in the Wall Street Journal and Forbes. He’s taken part in innovation incubators, accelerators, and design sprints in Europe and throughout North America. He was a featured panelist at the Institute for the Future’s Future 50 Summit, and in 2015 he was invited to attend the Upskill America White House Summit. Currently, he heads up innovation at TracFone Wireless and runs MADNFT.

You’ve had a lot of different experiences with innovation. How did it all bring you to what you’re doing now?

My career originally started in finance and accounting. I wanted to do something more strategic that challenged me, and it happened to be that Daimler was running the first internal incubator in the company’s history. I was selected by our VP of HR to be on that team, and it was my first introduction to all things innovation. We were mentored by a local incubator and others within the innovation community, and to my surprise I found I had a knack for innovation. After that experience I went back to doing financial analysis, but one of my mentors at the time said, “Make sure you keep trying to innovate.” Daimler had an open inbox for sending ideas to the C-suite. One of the first innovation projects I sent they liked and said, “Run with it!” A few months into that project I received a call from a White House policy advisor who had heard about that program. That project and invite to the White House kick-started my innovation career, and from there, I kept working in more and more innovative roles until I started doing it full-time. I was exposed to Lean Startup with the global innovation work I was doing and was hooked into that community and process. That brought me to TracFone, where I’m working in our innovation labs to bring innovative solutions to our customers.

Innovating with emerging technology seems to be the go-to, but often the most impactful innovation is a change in mindset and goals and process.

Do you have a favorite project?

One of the my favorite projects was an accelerator I worked on in Germany. I was brought in because I’d done a lot of work with gamification and they were looking at how to solve a particular problem with gamification. It was also one the first Lean Startup projects I was a part of. I was there because I was the gamification guy, and they thought that was the solution, but when I came in and looked at the pain point we were solving, I saw the solution wasn’t gamification. We completely flipped the project on its ear, and instead of gamification, it was about a new paradigm of recruiting, self directed work, and directed passion. It was one of the first innovation projects where it wasn’t about cutting edge technology. It was about changing the way you look at something, ignoring the obvious technology answer everyone thought was there, to innovate in terms of process and mindset. Innovating with emerging technology seems to be the go-to, but often the most impactful innovation is a change in mindset and goals and process.

Have you taken that forward to other places and to TracFone?

Definitely. The model I’ve always gone with is always be curious about whatever projects you’re working on, whatever group you’re working with. Have that empathy meaning you’re always open to learning and being wrong, but also have some conviction. To be a good innovator you need to be humble enough to understand that your area of expertise like gamification or NFTs may not be the solution, you have to always be open to a different perspective, a way of looking at things that you may pivot to. In my opinion you can’t be a jackass and be a great innovator. Being curious, humble, but having conviction in your ideas and a passion for growth is what has given me the opportunities in my career. 

What are you working on at TracFone? 

I head up a couple of the innovation labs at TracFone. The company’s overall purpose statement is “coverage and access for all.” Our customer base is individuals who don’t have services and coverage to access even basic services in telecommunications and also outside of telecommunications. So some of our innovation labs have to do with wellness or self-care: how do we help this population in terms of fighting chronic disease when they don’t have the health insurance or the resources that others do. Or, how do we help them in terms of their finances or even getting connected to the services that we take for granted. For instance, if you don’t have a credit card, you’re probably not able to get an Uber or rent a scooter. The innovation lab is really focused on: how do we offer the coverage and access that we all deserve to everyone.

What’s your experience of the relationship between mission-driven work and innovation? 

I find mission-driven innovation easier because when you first start a new technology or process-focused innovation initiative, most people have some preconceived notion going into it. There are stakeholders that think they know the answer, so you’re always going to have to push against stakeholders a bit harder in those situations, which makes tech focused innovation politically difficult. Whereas, when you come at it with a broad, mission-driven approach like coverage and access for all, you have broad pain points, but you’re just starting the discovery journey and are not far enough to have any great ideas or specific technology that is being pushed on you. To me, mission-driven is an easier place to start. Not only from a tactical standpoint of less politics or preconceived notions, but also there’s built-in empathy when you have a mission-driven approach.

What do you do to keep balance in your life and diffuse stress?

I have to keep active and also learn something to balance out the stress. I run and workout every day and listen to podcasts or clubhouse rooms constantly. I always need to learn and challenge myself: knife forging, scuba diving, glass blowing, krav maga, mountaineering. Actually I was once stuck on the side of a mountain for 13 hours in a blizzard–so I’m not sure how much mountaineering has diffused stress, more like added to it! But for balance I have to do something active with my body or mind.

What’s something you think somebody really needs to start innovating around?

Definitely the health system. You look at the population segment I work with at TracFone and see all the pain points. There are answers to all of these issues, but there’s such a close-minded approach to how we can help people in this area and rethink the system. I think there are a couple of facets to why it’s an area ripe for innovation. One is that there’s so much data out there it’s hard to understand what data to value and not value. Trust and truth are keys here. For instance, if I asked, “What’s the number one thing I can do to increase life expectancy by five years for this demographic?” There’s data out there that could help me find specific nutritional food elements, that given the customers family history or lifestyle the data tells me could make a major change in life expectancy, but we don’t push for proactive health management, the system is built to be reactive. The information is out there, but it’s just not being applied in a truthful transparent way. I think there are a lot of reasons for that and one is for the most part, there just hasn’t been much incentive to do that yet for the low-income population, it seems. So I think that area has the biggest opportunity and impact for potential innovation.

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