"Innovation Leaders are paradoxical people. And they should be!"

The Innovation Leaders Blog features interviews with seasoned Innovation Leaders. This cycle is kicked-off by co-initiator of Coehoorn Centraal: Paul de Bruijn.

Under your initiative Coehoorn has become a very special place in the city of Arnhem. What led you to it?  

Coehoorn Centraal has turned into a large and complex whole, but it certainly hasn't started that way. That would have been intimidating. It was a feeling, a drive, that led Peter Groot and myself to start the initiative. We felt something had to change in the city, as too many creative ideas remained just that, ideas. That had to change. Chance played a large role, as it so often does. Our first idea was to redevelop empty warehouses in an area aptly called The Paradise, right in the city center. The city council decided otherwise. They did have vacant lots available near the station. We had to shift our mental gears from an inspiring location to worn out office buildings. More than once we asked ourselves if we should really take this challenge on.  

A project like Coehoorn really sweeps you of your feet and you should let that happen. Do not have any resistance or fear. And don't even try to oversee the whole. This is completely contrary to how nearly all projects are run in most organisations. That's why they rarely possess that game changing quality.  

Wanting to keep oversight of all aspects of a truly game changing initiative, leads to fear. And then the flame extinguishes.

Dealing with what pops up, is what works. I don't believe in big masterplans. No change without initiative. An initiative always has to be taken by an individual, or a few of them in the case of Coehoorn. That's the start and it's something that fit's me quite well and always has. 

Can you give an example of that? 

In my former professional life I was responsible for labour conditions at the personnel department of an insurance company. I had the chance to write a paragraph in a reorganization plan. Some seven hundred employees changed jobs and location: from Venlo to Maastricht, from Eindhoven to Nijmegen and more. Until then, facilitating public transportation was not part of our labor conditions. Now there was an opportunity to change that. So I wrote a paragraph arranging for office locations near train stations, first class transportation for our employees and more. In order to do this, I got room and support from my manager, something crucial when introducing a game changing initiative inside an existing organization. After this specific plan, public transportation became a fixed subject on the corporate agenda.  

When your ego is more important than your idea, the idea will wither and die. 

I did have to arrange for extra carriages at the railway company in order to have enough first class seats on the right tracks. I've learned a lot from this project, because when the announcement was made, suddenly my name was replaced with that of the then director. Something you just have to let happen as an Innovation Leader. Your ego must be able to handle it, the game change is more important than your ego. The moment you think your ego is more important than your idea, the idea will wither and die. Guaranteed. In my case the plan itself was recognizable as 'Paul's' to many.  

Looking at your creative talents the verbal and interpersonal really jump out. Do you recognize that and how do you apply these talents? 

Completely! The interpersonal and verbal are very much on the forefront of everything I do. The best idea is the one of which everybody thinks it's theirs. Then an initiative can grow wings and start to fly. To me a game changing initiative is an idea that develops story by story. You have to be able to bind people to your initiative, to join in. Especially when you have to work without any financial means. My talents really come in handy at that. 

I recognize my interpersonal and naturalistic talents in the way I recharge myself. Going out in nature and being on my own, or rather with myself, keeps me balanced in a life full of action.  

How important is having maneuvering space to you?

Very much so. Working in a bureaucratic environment was suffocating to me. I can remember an instance where management asked the people in public for ideas. When I jumped to the occasion, their reaction was: "it seems best that you stick to the work of your own department".

Renewal requires maneuvering space. To get that space a lot has to be removed: rules, government regulations but first and foremost ego. 

You have to give breathing space to your own projects as well. Do not have a fixed goal envisioned that must be achieved no matter what. This way you give the project room to grow roots, develop naturally and gain the shape that fits it best. With Coehoorn a lot of unexpected things happen. Things that either speed up developments or slow them down. The beauty of not having fixed plans is that everyone can tag along and have an influence on the course. A project only comes alive when it lives in the hearts and minds of the people. Then the actual form arises.   

If you look at your capability to transform ideas into pioneering action, your Global Awareness really stands out. How is that recognizable in Coehoorn Centraal?

I have strong feelings and opinions about what is happening in society as a whole and want to translate that into Coehoorn. It's not easy, but I try to nonetheless. I am very much aware that a lot of people can't follow their heart's desire because they've locked themselves in financially. Or have adopted a consumptive lifestyle that limits their options. This is a structural systemic error. Students are loaded with college debt. Only to mortgage themselves to the hilt for buying a house later on, locking themselves in even further. 

When you can't afford to exit the treadmill, the mental consequences are devastating. That's why a lot people only dig themselves in more and aim for certainty and security. There is no getting off this train, or so it seems. My advice: create financial room. Limiting your spending is a virtue, financial self-control a must. Use money you've put away to grant yourself a restart if necessary. And I don't mean a consumptive trip to Bali or Ibiza to 'discover yourself', but to take entrepreneurial action. Put money aside for experiments and that goes for organizations as well. 

In Coehoorn this Global Awareness principle can be seen in points-of-practice for alternative solutions in the field of trade and economics. The principle of steering clear of debt that limits your options, is translated to us not making debt as Coehoorn. This way we try to contribute to a more stable and sustainable world. To show people that things really can be done better in a different way.  

Perhaps surprisingly you score relatively low on Reception of subtle influences. How do you view that? 

To me it has the important advantage of not being bothered by resistance or adversity for too long. I get over things quickly. I do not loose my bearings easily and really follow my own track. Something you can also recognize in my score on Individual Direction.

"You're a great listener, but you do not listen."

Innovation Leaders often are paradoxical personalities. I once got feedback from someone who worked closely with me for many years. He said: "You're a great listener but do not listen". This hits the mark. Listening has two distinct meanings. To hear and understand what is being said. And to actually do what you're being told. The latter doesn't work for me. I can fully understand what you say and what you want and choose not to act on it at all.  

Dare to be paradoxical and unpredictable. At all levels in society we're confronted with disfunctional but very consistent systems. These form the biggest blockage to renewal we're facing today. But they remain firmly in place because of their consistency and their ability to attract people that embrace consistency. As an Innovation Leader you are obliged to be unpredictable.  

Working with you I'm always surprised by your speed and agility. How important are those properties to a Innovation Leader?

Coehoorn is not a planned revolution nor a rebellion against the system. It's a lot of initiative and experiment. And first and foremost it is fast, speed is crucial. My frustration used to be the lack of agility in other people. Not everyone can shift gears so easily. Now I've changed my mindset in this respect. If someone can't tag along, I let them be.  

As an Innovation Leader speed is more important than uniformity of ideas. Seek support with people that are as fast as you, that share your pace. Being in agreement is of less importance. You can handle having different opinions as long as you are equally fast. Speed gives you the time to try, test and experiment and to reconcile differences by doing. You have to steer clear of influences that slow you down. Keep up your pace and the only way to do that, is to keep moving. 

Character wise you're quite an excitable person. Does that sound familiar?   

Being excitable is at the core of my personality. Although I also possess a Calvinist working ehtic and strong structuring abilities. I don't back down from responsibilities. With Coehoorn we've raised so many expectations that I see it as my duty to follow through. But Excitability is what keeps my flame burning. I need excitement as much as oxygen. Achieving milestones at Coehoorn really gives me a boost. The dopamine rush is welcome! It's also the reason you can find me in Berlin regularly, a city that is always surprising, self-renewing and intense. 

People consider me driven and enthusiastic. But when you give as much as I do, you have to receive as well. That's what Berlin does to me, it keeps me fresh and balanced. And at least as important is having a stable and supportive home front, in my case with my wife Annemarie. Having your home base in order is crucial. It prevents you from leaking energy and gives you support and space to do what you need to do.  

Some people seem to be jealous of my life, of my lifestyle. As if it's not done or threatening to them. But my freedom can only exist thanks to my discipline. The two go hand in hand. This is one of the main reasons I do not consider myself a rebel. As an Innovation Leader you simply need skills, discipline, talent and guts. Putting your hands, head and heart where your mouth is.

What a great quote near the end of this interview. How was filling in the Innovation Leadership Questionnaire for you?  

I noticed that I scored myself rather moderately, very self-critical. Comparing myself to others and raising the bar for myself. I'm not a modest person, but like to keep things in perspective. 

Paul, thank you very much for this interview.

With pleasure!

The pictures of Paul de Bruijn were made at Strijp-S in Eindhoven, Netherlands by Bolivian-Dutch photographer Mymza Wever.

The Innovation Leader: Paul de Bruijn

Paul de Bruijn (1956) was born and raised in Amsterdam, but for many years now is living and working in Arnhem, Netherlands. Expert in Urban Renewal. Recurring theme in all his activities: Berlin. His unique career comprises being an electro technician, DJ, record salesman, draftsman cable nets, steel trader, personnel manager, consultant labour relations and personnel development, owner of a communications bureau and currently co-initiator of a citizen's city project and city guide in Berlin.

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More on Paul de Bruijn 

The Innovation: Coehoorn Centraal

Coehoorn Centraal is an initiative of two involved citizens whereby a foundation rents 7 former office buildings from the city to create a local creative zone. The underlying thought is that the large number of creatives in Arnhem were missing out on visibility, cooperation and growth because of their being scattered around the city. With this project, that has been given a 5-year period by the city, this is what is aimed for. Some 80 to 90 creative entrepreneurs are already active in Coehoorn Centraal. Want to know more?

Press statement on the future of the project

Third-party initiatives triggered by the project within the area.

About the project

His Game Change DNA