By Edgar Papke
The need for innovation has long been a permanent and increasingly valued pursuit of business. Over the last two decades it has found its way to the top of the list of what we admire and value most in organizations and those who lead them. So much so, that it is hard to find any noteworthy business publication without at least one article featuring something, or someone, that defines innovation.
We now have a host of annual conferences, gatherings, and innovation festivals to choose from. All dedicated to the constant pursuit of the creation of change, the display of quickly emerging new ideas, and celebration the innovative thinkers and leaders behind them. This includes the recognition of the winners in the race to get their new idea to market.
It’s no wonder that in every virtually every workshop of executives I lead, one of the topics we inevitably lean into is innovation. The key challenge they face is figuring out how they can get their people to be more innovative. Eventually, this conversation finds its way to exploring what motivates people to want to be more innovative and how they be applied as key traits and values in the cultures of the organizations and teams they lead.
In exploring the outcomes of these conversations further, I came to the conclusion that while there are several contributors to the manifestation of innovation, there are five elements of human motivation and behavior that, when brought together, create the ideal conditions. This alchemy of elements is also the source of influence that leaders can apply in motivating the creativity and risk-taking they expect of the people in their organizations.
Element #1: Curiosity – As human beings, it is natural for us to be curious. We all have the desire to explore, discover and learn. The more we succeed in applying our learning, the more we are naturally motivated to learn more. Typically, we also become more sophisticated in pursuing our curiosities, asking better questions and becoming increasingly more effective at investigating new possibilities. It is also the human trait of curiosity that engages us to be analytical and look at existing data in new and unique ways, and makes us hungry for more information.
How: Encourage people to ask questions… plenty of them and without boundaries. This takes hard work. It’s easy to state that no question is a stupid question. It’s much more difficult and challenging to respond in a manner that gets others to believe it. And give everyone access to the information and knowledge they are looking for.
Element #2: Courage – A fear of not being competent is a great barrier to innovation. Being creative takes courage – an ability to take risks and act without inhibition. Being open and expressive is what creativity is all about, requiring one to overcome the fear of being humiliated, seen as incompetent, or feeling stupid or shamed. It is courage that manifests as the resilience we admire in those that pursue new paths and ideas and feeds innovation.
How: Ask others to see every idea as a possibility and potential opportunity. You’ll only succeed in getting others to do so by doing it yourself.
Element #3: Collaboration – Most great ideas and innovations are not the result of someone working singlehandedly. Nor are they the result of one single thought. They are the result of building one thought and idea upon another, requiring people to collaborate with one another. And no great team or organization succeeds in being innovative without members that are able to collaborate with one another. People naturally want to be inclusive and be a part of something bigger than any one person. At the heart of collaboration is the ability for us to be open to the ideas and thoughts of others. Innovation requires us to listen to one another.
How: It’s important to bring people together and create environments that encourage the participation that leads to collaboration and teaming. In some instances, it becomes necessary to teach them the meaning of collaboration and train them in the communication and interpersonal skills they need to succeed. Listening is a necessary skill that must often be trained. At the very least it must be role modeled and reinforced.
Element #4: Competency – There is always a level of knowledge and skills required to be successful. One must know how to how to tune a guitar and have the basic skills of strumming and fingering the fret board to turn out a tune. Let alone write a song. The more we endeavor toward levels of excellence and mastery of competency and know-how, the more we begin to see new levels of possibility in our performance.
How: Give people the opportunity to learn and build the competencies that provide the foundation of the skills and knowledge to be successful and competently take the risks you’re asking them to engage in. And, don’t be afraid to ask people what competencies they need to be successful.
Element #5: Conflict – In the end, conflict is the most important of the five elements. For conflict is the spark and source of the power that drives innovation. At its most primal level, conflict is the natural tension and creative energy that exists between what is and what we want… the current state and a desired future. As much as necessity is the mother of invention, conflict is the engine of innovation. Embracing and using conflict as the natural source of innovation it is, allows us to leverage it constructively and not fall prey to our fears.
Conflict is the real magic in the alchemy of innovation. While once in while you can get away with not having one of the other four elements. The same cannot be said about conflict. Avoid conflict, remove the tension, and you deaden the creative spirit. You kill innovation.
How: Take the time to engage others in defining the nature of conflict. It is the natural tension that acts as the engine that drives our human desire to explore and discover new ideas, and is the powerful force behind the innovation we crave. Needless to say, at times this belief is not easily conveyed to others. As natural as the relationship of conflict and innovation is, it doesn’t make it any easier for people to let go of their fears and embrace it. Getting people to embrace this thinking is the job of the leader.