Leaders must encourage employees to allocate time for emotions to emerge and become synthesized with
thoughts and actions. Without valence, light bulbs would be dim, funnels would be dry, and moonshots would
While most organizations are highly adept at planning, reflecting, and doing, they are often reptilian in terms of
emotions. According to decades of research in neuroscience and sociology, rational and emotional thought
processes are inseparably intertwined and synergistic. In addition to R&D budgets and combining A and B in a
multidisciplinary manner, emotions provide the spark required to effectively ignite innovation internally. In order to
accelerate the frequency and increase the penetration of novel ideas throughout their organization, a progressive
leader will need to build an incubator that supports the balanced expression of ideas and emotions by human
capital. Described below are five steps designed to address the sticky psychological “red tape” that challenges the
widespread organic growth of innovation.
Step 1. Prepare for an emotional roller coaster. Innovation implies change. Change can be either incremental or transformational for an organization. Changing business operations to improve productivity, quality, product range, and other aspects of performance introduces uncertainty which can have significant repercussions depending on the skills and abilities of managers, employees, and stakeholders. While successful innovation often results in a gush of pure joy, failed experiments can cause deep frustration, reduced motivation, conflict, and fear of risk. Negative emotions impair decision making by managers and employees alike and present challenges for learning from failure and for future innovation. A bad day at work can rapidly become malignant and metastatic. Therefore, organizational leaders must prepare realistically to develop processes that effectively manage failure and help employees cope with negative outcomes. What is the threshold for failure acceptance and the experiential learning capacity of your organization? Can your management team successfully capitalize on strategic opportunities? How does leadership decide when to terminate its investment in a project? How often do organizational goals change? How does the organization respond to talent voids? Do employees fully understand the terms of invention stated within their contract? Each of these key factors must be carefully considered prior to unleashing pan-organizational innovation.
Step 2. Understand the resilience of your organizational fabric. Engineers can readily explain the mechanical properties of various materials; their elastic modulus, stiffness, breaking point, strength, and so on. Similarly, athletes are acutely aware of the limits of their performance. Business leaders can not expect every member of their organization to run a marathon without the proper training, nutrition, rest, and experience. Therefore, challenge level must be equally matched with organizational skill level to prevent rupture and to achieve a positive outcome. There is a prevailing notion that innovation emerges in response to difficult socioeconomic conditions. If true, this suggests that innovation is driven by environmental conditions rather than individual genetic composition. What is so special about an entrepreneur's DNA? They are no different than an Inuit hunting for caribou. Entrepreneurs represent a special case in innovation because the manager, employee, and business are usually the same accountable individual. Thus, entrepreneurial projects probably fail primarily due to the pure risk involved with the project rather than various human factors such as poor communication, planning, commitment, and so on. Since entrepreneurs are relatively insulated from most project management issues, the emotional outcome may be more favourable even though the risks are more acute. In addition, as entrepreneurs are highly independent, they experience less inertia with decision making which offers greater direct control over the experiential learning process and possibly greater flexibility in emotional focus. In sum, leaders need to be aware of the talent limits of their organization and build the skills of entrepreneurial-minded employees in order to weave fibers of innovation together into a high performance fabric.
Step 3. Enable the undaunted flow of bold ideas. "Innovation experience" and "innovative thinker" are not universal criteria in a job description. Therefore it is not reasonable to expect each member of an organization to contribute to innovation without asking to hear their ideas. Being a first mover is risky and individuals may fear sceptical or negative responses. Peter Kramer's book “Listening to Prozac” readily highlights how treating depression helps to overcome social inhibitions, increase mental dexterity, and facilitate career advancement. Similarly, exam performance was improved when students had opportunity to pet a dog for a brief moment prior to their exam. These points are summarized by the psychological concept of “Flow” developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi where individuals become positively immersed in a task to the point where they are able to create rainbows on demand in their own backyard on a sunny day. Leaders should therefore strive to reduce the cost of risk associated with the expression of organizational problems and solutions in order to adopt ideas and extract performance gains from keen observations. Individuals must recognize that it is safe to share their thoughts autonomously. Build trust, ask for innovation, and be prepared to support innovators.
Step 4. Value time for blissful thought. Let's hack apart a typical Rube Goldberg organization with Occam's razor to study firm creativity. A lemonade stand or a bubble tea kiosk in a mega mall are reductionistic examples of businesses that offer a mixture of both product and service. Bubble tea is a cool and sweet tapioca beverage that is offered in a wide selection of flavors and consumed through a colorful wide diameter straw. Colors and flavors are readily customized according to consumer tastes and preferences. My first bubble tea was incredible; each chewy pearl of starch was joyfully enrobed in delicate lychee flavor. But the drink that I ordered at my subsequent visit tasted terrible because the kiosk manager became irate with a trainee and she hurriedly prepared my beverage in effort to better serve a growing queue of customers. The key point is that one appreciates when service is provided with flair and one can easily tell when work is done recklessly. Healthy innovation requires time to incubate in a pleasant and supportive environment. Therefore, organizations must factor in significant slack to allow for creativity to freely emerge. However, it is relatively safe to assume that most employee schedules are overflowing with meetings and assignments with no safe distance in between. Liberating time in work schedules provides a protective air bag that prevents concussions and wild ideas.
Step 5. Build dynamic communication networks between innovation units. Effectively uniting and aligning the goals of managers, employees, and stakeholders will always be a significant challenge facing organizational innovation. The theory of Six Degrees of Separation suggests that innovative ideas should diffuse rapidly along each node in the social network. On the other hand, n(n-1)/2 handshakes are required for all individuals to be physically introduced and mentally aligned. Thus, a total of 4,950 handshakes is required for a team of 100 employees to be mutually introduced. If each interaction were to consist of one minute conversation, then more than 80 hours of time would be required for one-on-one brainstorming. Alternatively, if each individual delivers a one minute presentation to a team of 100 colleagues, then greater ground would be efficiently covered in less than two hours; although additional time would be needed for debate and discussion to ensure that the signal is accurately and cohesively understood. As indicated previously, protected time for clear communication is critical to save time for innovation. In this case, each partner involved must block common time periods in their schedules to assemble and listen effectively. Establishing a dynamic network of knowledge between static innovation units of a certain, to-be-defined, critical size is essential. Building active routes of communication strengthens network alignment, facilitates the selection and validation of innovative ideas, and promotes time efficiency which helps transform ideas into reality.
The framework described above encourages business leaders to consider benchmarks for innovation. Developing
quantitative measures of internal innovation efficiency will inform limitations and aid stakeholder decisions.
How many human hours are invested towards innovation? What is the critical mass of human capital that is
necessary to grow innovation? Are team meetings effective? Are employee skill development programs readily
available? Are employees satisfied? Innovation is energizing but it can also cause organizational chaos. Therefore
extensive managerial effort should be allocated towards ensuring timely, clear, and organized communications
between positively motivated employees so that great ideas can be heard and integrated.
I have highlighted five key steps for leaders who seek to engage employees thoughout their organization in innovation. Each step offers significant operational insights and unique challenges. The scale of the hack can readily be reduced for experimental purposes.