To Create Innovation and Creativity, Dr. David Owens Says Something Has to Stop

Dr. David Owens, 57, was born in Germany and moved to the U.S. to attend Stanford University when he was 18 years old.

“My mom’s German so we spoke German at home. We wore lederhosen and ate bratwurst and sauerkraut,” he said. “I remember being on the plane on way to school and I couldn’t figure out where it was. I didn’t know where San Francisco was compared to Los Angeles. I didn’t really know anything.”

David encountered a great deal of culture shock, which made the transition to the United States difficult.

He dropped out of school and joined a punk rock band. After, he began working at a stereo shop selling and repairing stereo equipment. It was there he realized he wanted to further his education and begin designing them.

David eventually went back to school, graduated with his undergraduate degree and worked at the San Francisco airport as an electrical engineer. He worked there for four years and became licensed before he decided to go back to Stanford for another degree.

“I became interested in the process of design and how innovation works,” he said. “I knew people went into a room, they came out, and something happened. I wanted to know what it was.”

After getting his Master’s in product design, David worked for a company called IDEO as a designer.

At the time, in the early 1990s, he said design wasn’t as sexy as it is now and said even the word innovation was only used in technical journals about research.

“After that, I became interested in the human part of it, and so I went back to Stanford for the third time and did a Ph.D. in industry engineering and studied organizational behavior,” he said. “I was studying how people who did technical work like engineers, research and development scientists, and people engaged in design make decisions.”


After graduating, again, David accepted a position at Vanderbilt University’s business school. In 1998, he, his wife, and his two young children moved to Nashville.

“I had been interested in what we call management in the business school. I taught a class for about 20 years called Touchy Feely which was a class about how not to be such a jerk. If you’re going to be an MBA and you’re going to be rich and famous, don’t be a jerk,” he said laughing.

“It was about how to get along on teams, how to handle conflict, and how to make decisions as teams,” he said.

David said before technological advancements, people would work solely or independently with calculations. Now with computers able to do so much, he said the true value comes from interacting with other people.

He said along with IQ, or intelligence quotient, the department also teaches a section on EQ, or emotional intelligence and teaches people how they can cultivate that for themselves and how to be more aware of their surroundings.

David said people find it weird to have a class like that because he is in an essence teaching creativity. He said some people tell him that’s not something he can do, and that humans are creative or not. He, on the other hand, takes a different approach.

“People can stop creativity, right? If I do a session with people, I could get them to tell me 100 different ways of how to stop creativity at an organization. If I ask how do I do innovation? They can’t tell me very many,” he said. “Then I say, well how about if we just stopped the stopping? Wouldn’t stopping the stopping create more creativity?”

“I don’t try to teach people to be creative. I try to teach them how to stop the stopping of creativity.”

David is the chair of the Internal Advisory Board of The Wond’ry, a 13,000 sq. ft. innovation and entrepreneurship center at Vanderbilt University for students of all schools, levels, and disciplines.

His main job, however, is teaching at the Owens Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt. Along with being heavily involved in business, he also has joint appointments in education, engineering management, and medicine that allow him to teach in those disciplines

“It’s not that I know about any one of those things necessarily, but I do know how they need to come together,” he said.

David’s classes are often a congregation of multiple disciplines including business, education, medicine, engineering, health, anthropology, political science and more. He said what he needs his students to understand is that there is benefit and value in diversity.

“I’m about the process, so with the process, I’m not worried about what each person knows,” he said. “The problem is that diversity creates conflict. If I say up and you say down, we have a conflict. So how do you manage the conflict so that you can get all the benefits of diversity without the negative?”

He said students have to learn how to leave behind being stuck on who they are and bring the elements that add value in the context of the project they’re working on.

“Sometimes you’re going to be an expert, and sometimes you’re going to be a moron. Learn how to be both.”


When David and his family arrived in 1998, Nashville was a lot different.

“I love music. We had two young children at the time, and Nashville seemed like a good place to raise kids.”

Over the years he said the city has changed in features, but its heart has always been the same.

“The thing about Nashville is that it is very friendly. I remember on the plane when we were coming here, and someone on the plane gave us their babysitter’s phone number. I just thought, wow most people don’t give out their babysitter’s phone number because you need someone who is reliable and you don’t want other people calling them.”

The friendliness wasn’t just limited to strangers on a plane, but it extended throughout the city and even into work life.

After getting established in Nashville and at Vanderbilt, David began branching out.

He said to do the kind of research he does, people have to let him in and trust him. In big cities like San Francisco and New York, it was difficult, but in Nashville, he said the attitudes toward being let in for research was more welcoming.

“There are obvious obligations that come with that. You have to be honorable about it, but it was so cool to see the kind of openness and friendliness here.”

David and his family rented the first year they were in Nashville and then moved into a house in Hillsboro Village where they’ve been since.

“Everyone says Nashville’s changed, but they always claim it’s changed more in the last five years than ever before,” he said. “In 1998, when we moved here people said, ‘Oh, it’s changed, but in the last five years it’s changed a lot.’ So part of all of this seems natural in a way.”


David said it’s easy to find community in Nashville, but it does take effort.

“Growing up I went to ten schools by the time I graduated from high school. We were constantly moving so I was good at making friends and ditching friends,” he said. “Here, I’m trying to be better at maintaining relationships and holding up my part of community building and community making. People are very forgiving, and people have more skills in that than I do, and so they’re helping me along.”

Just as it is important to the future of business, innovation is also important to the future of a community.

In one of his classes on innovation, he asks his students to tell him the difference between change and innovation. When they answer he tells them:

“Innovation is when you do it to them, change is when they do it to you. It’s the same thing. My innovation means you have to change.”

David said the word innovation covers up a lot and makes it an opaque blanket over the actual work of innovation.

“Innovation for a community is when something changes and makes the way we’re currently doing things not fit. Meaning, we’re either eventually going to be clobbered by the environment, or we need to change what we do.”

He said a community has an option to knee-jerk change or sit down and consider letting go of some things and adopting others things to make the community and the environment fit again.

“For me, that’s what the innovation does for a community. It helps a community think about the possibilities and then considers them against each other and makes choices that are fair, ethical, responsible, kind, and humanistic.”

As far as his concerns for Nashville in the future, David said that no other city has solved the problems of gentrification, affordable house and access to education which is why there’s no one model to learn from.

“On one hand, it means that these issues are hard, but on the other hand it means that there’s an opportunity to do something differently,” he said.

David said the problems communities and cities are facing around the country are real human and social issues.

“We have all these universities and schools, but there are people who don’t graduate from high school. It’s the same thing with health care, we have all these hospitals, but if you rank us we’re one of the tops states for obesity and alcohol and drug abuse. The problems of Tennessee as a state are also exhibited here in Nashville,” he said. “These issues that we’re talking about are ones that we as a community have to come together and decide.”

David said what matters to him, after his wife and his kids, is his work, which gives him a sense of identity, belonging, and a developed ethical sense about responsibility. He said having fun, playing and listening to music are all things that matter to him.

“What matters to me is having the time each day to do things that I care about like talking to people, thinking, analyzing stuff, teaching, and eating a little bit of spinach. What matters to me is being able to keep my daily life in a way that I get to do those things.”

Dr. David Owens will be speaking at TEDxNashville, today, Friday, March 17th. Find out more information by clicking on the highlighted link!

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