The Yellow Duck Principle
Innovation has become a groan-worthy word in modern society. That’s because many people still affix an upper case I to the word. Upper case Innovation is the realm of scientific and technological breakthroughs. It’s where the Apples and Googles of the world live.
But there’s something to be said for lower case innovation as well. It’s not about breakthroughs, but pushing boundaries. It’s not about being first to do something, but doing things smarter. It’s about finding novel approaches and new twists on traditional models and ideas. It’s about applying The Yellow Duck Principle to your life and work.
I first encountered The Yellow Duck in my final semester of journalism school at Toronto’s Ryerson University. I was interning at a weekly community newspaper, and one of my first assignments was to cover the launch of a new addiction treatment and resettlement program for homeless men at The Good Shepherd Centre.
As I listened to dignitaries and program graduates speak about Transition and scribbled shorthand notes, I glanced around the room and wondered how I could make my piece – which wouldn’t hit until the following week – stand out from what the established reporters at the dailies would deliver in the next morning’s edition. I sat down to speak with the program’s Executive Director, and instinct nudged me to request a tour of the facilities by some of the current participants.
On the tour, I filled my notebook with personal stories of struggles, setbacks and triumphs. I discovered a native Canadian artist who had rediscovered his passion for painting poignantly beautiful watercolours. And I found The Yellow Duck.
As one of the program participants showed me around the living quarters, my eye fell on a plastic yellow duck sitting on a bedside table. It had tufts of hair taped to its head and chin, and even though it might have no relevance to my story, instinct once again nudged me. I asked: “What’s with the duck?”
And with that simple question, born of innate curiosity, I unearthed my story’s lead. Turns out, the duck was something of a mascot to the men of Transition – an unbiased sounding board and silent support. He was Serenity Duck, so named in a contest that cost each participant 25 cents. As the men graduated from the program, they donated a lock of their hair to Serenity Duck as a symbol of hope. When I met the duck, he had already sprouted a mohawk and small goatee.
I raced back to the newsroom and feverishly typed out my piece, which, instead of the two-inch news brief I had been assigned, was now feature length. I had to dig deep for the courage it took for me, a lowly intern, to hand that story to my editor. I lived in mortal fear of his slashing red pen. But I knew I’d struck journalistic gold with my lead sentence: A plastic yellow duck is helping homeless men in Toronto to make a Transition in their lives.
That piece became my first double-page spread as a published journalist. From that moment on, I applied The Yellow Duck Principle to every story I worked on. If an interview subject took the conversation down a different path, I went with it, often finding bigger and better stories on the detour. I applied it in my personal life as well. If I was curious about something, I didn’t just wonder – I found my answer. My curiosity has made me something of a dilettante. I’ve amassed a wealth of random knowledge on a vast number of topics, mundane and cerebral. And I think it’s served to make me a more interesting and interested person.
And so, I challenge you to look for The Yellow Duck in unexpected corners and in every conversation. You won’t always find it, but your eyes should always stay open. When instinct nudges, follow its lead. Take a detour. Ask a question. Take a risk. And every once in a while, you’ll spot a flash of yellow that tells you you’re on to something.