Miércoles 8 de Marzo de 2006, Ip nº 143

Happiness and the art of innovation
Por Diego Rodriguez

In the course of my work and teaching, the question I'm asked most frequently is, "How can I get the people in my organization to be more innovative?"

It's an easy question to answer, but a difficult one to answer in a way that leads to meaningful change. It's easy because the business world is full of highly touted prescriptions for being more innovative. From putting beanbags in the lobby to using Six Sigma to keeping teams nimble and lean, if you read this august publication, you know there are myriad options, many of them legitimate, but more than enough to make one's head spin.

In my experience, few solutions actually address what I believe to be a fundamental enabler of innovative behavior in organizations. Now, I'm no psychologist. Nor am I an expert in organizational behavior. But I've been playing the innovation game since 41 was President, and as I look back on what made for innovative behavior and what didn't, there's one thing I would point to: personal happiness.

SAX SOLO. When it comes to creating innovative organizations, the key question is not "What superstar creative people do I need?" or "What highly-touted process can I put in place?" No, the key to unleashing innovative behavior is asking the question "how can I help each person in my organization achieve a state of happiness on a daily basis?" In other words, help happiness bloom, and innovative behavior will follow.

You already know how. Think back to your formative years. What made your heart sing? When did you feel intrinsically motivated to get out and makes things happen?

In my case, it was developing my skill as a jazz saxophonist. I never grooved with piano lessons, but at age 10 I picked up a sax, and over the next decade, I spent thousands of hours noodling on my horn with an intensity bordering on the obsessive, always trying to crack the code on some innovative Coltrane lick.

IN THE MOMENT. I could play for hours and feel like only 10 minutes had passed. Though in the moment my practice was difficult and often frustrating, in retrospect I was in a state of bliss, and developed a deep self-awareness of how happy -- even joyful -- it could feel to engage in innovative behavior.

You likely have experienced this kind of happiness, too. If you enjoy any kind of sporting activity, you know what I'm talking about. Or if you relish the art of producing a well-cooked meal. Good video games -- much to the chagrin of parents and significant others -- routinely take users to a state of mind where time disappears and mind and body meld into one seamless, focused whole. It's no surprise that some of the above activities are considered more work than play, or least as serious play. We're happy after we do them, intrinsically motivated to pursue them as and integral part of our life.

The psychologists in the crowd already know that I'm talking about the concept of flow, as originated by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Here's a brief summary of the concept, so that you don't have to read Csikszentmihalyi's book (though you should if you can): Flow occurs when the complexity of the thing you're doing just outstrips your ability to get it done. In other words, it's challenging, but not overwhelmingly so.

THE MIDDLE WAY. For me, it was mastering the next Coltrane song on the album. For a dedicated cook, it's a wild Mario Batali dish built around unusual porcine lipids. For my friend Frode, who as a Norwegian commando used to snow camp without a fire or tent on the border of Russia, it means climbing a gnarly iced-over waterfall 2,000 feet up a rock face deep in Patagonia.

Too much complexity and challenge leads to despair, frustration, and paralysis. Too little leads to boredom. Just right, and it's easy to become fully engaged, and as you stretch and overcome the challenge, you experience flow, and are primed for innovative behavior. Happiness follows. It's basic human wiring.

This is why you already know what to shoot for when it comes to innovation. Getting individuals to experience this same state of flow -- a state of happiness --is the key to fostering innovative behavior across your entire organization.

The Case for Flow and Innovation
So why are happy people -- people in a state of flow -- likely to innovate?

Think about a new work assignment. How complex and challenging is it relative to what you've done before? Are the goals clear? If it's too complex and too fuzzy, and if you're at all like me, you'll end up sitting around scared out of your gourd, your IQ will drop by 100 points, paralysis will set in, and not much will get done.

On the other hand, if you've done it a dozen times before, you're likely to do it in a bored, rote way. Either scenario leads us away from innovative behaviors and outcomes.

The perfect work assignment for someone who needs to be innovative is one that balances clear, achievable goals with just enough task challenge to ignite the fires of creativity that lie within us all. These are the conditions for flow, and they enable a state of serious play.

WORK FUN. Ask me to dig deep, and I'll be forced to act entrepreneurially and to wrack my brain and my network for creative insights. This combination of entrepreneurial action and creative insight is the basis of innovative behavior. And while I may curse my boss while I'm navigating through the choppy waters of a challenging assignment, I'll look back and say I never felt more engaged and happy and -- oh, by the way, look at all the killer, innovative stuff I did. Cool!

But don't take my word for it. Listen to the words of arch-innovator Sochiro Honda, father of an organization that manages to create category-pacing (even disruptive) innovations year after year: Each individual should work for himself. People will not sacrifice themselves for the company. They come to work at the company to enjoy themselves.

The proof is in the pudding. We can all agree that Honda (HMC ) innovates on a routine basis, and it's very likely due to a happy workforce (see BW Online, 10/23/05, "Hot Honda Hybrid"). What Honda recognizes is that people who are led with an eye toward flow really don't need to be "managed" at all, as you're setting them up to live in a place where intrinsic motivation is the norm, rather than the exception to the rule.

PERSONAL DAY. Doesn't that sound like a more believable way to encourage innovative behavior than an "up or out" HR policy, cheesy mandatory-fun company picnics, or a lobby full of beanbags?

Google (GOOG ) is another good example of solving for happiness to help make innovation bloom (see BW, 10/3/05, "Managing Google's Idea Factory"). Each engineer at the company gets a day a week to work on a project of their choice -- that is, something that's intrinsically motivating, something that leads to flow.

There has to be a happiness ripple effect which influences the overall innovation quotient of the Google workforce, and ultimately, all of Google's market offerings. Other innovative organizations, such as 3M (MMM ), have practiced this for years.

So -- What Should You Do?
First, make it your goal to enable other people to be happy. So that this isn't an overwhelming proposition, get started by focusing on just a few of your key innovators. Your goal is to design individual experiences that put task complexity just beyond the individual's current comfort zone.

Remember, freaked-out people aren't innovative, but neither are bored people. It's a difficult balance to reach, but try to be a leader who inspires others to try new things, acknowledging that there will be failures along the path to success.

Be sure to check in frequently to make sure your initial assessment of challenge vs. ability was on target. How do you know? Day to day, a flow-inducing assignment will feel more like a climb up El Capitan than a stroll through Central Park. It should induce moments of breathlessness balanced by episodes of sheer delight, even rapture. If temporary setbacks and moments of personal crisis aren't encountered along the way, you've aimed too low.

HUMAN INTEREST. A person should finish the process excited, more confident, and highly motivated to do the next cool thing. Can you apply metrics to measure this stuff? Yes. But that's the stuff of a future column. For now, let me say that I think the best gauge of success in achieving flow is the work itself, and the tone of the workplace in which it happens.

So the next time someone says, "We need a strategy to become more innovative," respond with this question: "How can we make individuals happy in their work?"

Let me know how it goes with the flow.


  06/03/2006. Business Week Magazine.


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