Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Why passion is the key innovation driver

For years people have debated the reasons why some companies innovate and others don't.  To some extent, the business models and corporate strategies dictate where and how much innovation is done.  For example, when I worked at Texas Instruments, the strategy was to drive costs out of products that other firms created.  No one knew better how to drive the costs out of the manufacturing process for DRAM than TI.  Yet, within the DRAM and microprocessor markets and some other product lines, there was very little product innovation.  We created very little that was new, preferring instead to drive out costs once someone else had established the market.  The folks in Houston who were working on DSPs changed that model, and arguably TI became a product innovator because of DSP.  But much of the strategy and business model that TI had in place limited innovation, on purpose.

Other factors have included the state of the industry, the amount of regulation, the maturity of the organization and a host of other factors.  I see from Twitter today a new report from HBR that argues that companies that treat their workers "well" are often innovators.  Hidden in this research is the assertion that unionized organizations tend to have less innovation.  The author contents this is because of worker-management contention, inherent in a unionized company. 

What so many people get wrong about why people and organizations innovate is that they expect innovators to be quantifiable and measurable. They expect innovators to respond to external factors and influences, they expect innovators to be extrinsically motivated.  Therefore, we should see lots of pinball machines and free food (like a startup), lots of rewards and recognition.  Corporations should be able to create an environment where innovators want to work, and this theory is correct.  But what it misses is that the environment is an external factor that plays a part in attracting and sustaining an innovator.  But what you'll find true about most innovators, and innovative companies, is that they have something that is difficult to measure and difficult to create externally.  They have passion to solve a challenge or problem that others think is difficult or insurmountable.

And, yes, I've introduced a soft, qualitative and almost impossible to measure or define concept into the discussion as perhaps the most important aspect.  Sorry, but not everything about modern business and management can be passed through scientific filters.  People are still very important to modern business success, and they can be unpredictable and play against stereotype and all of Frederick Taylor's scientific principles.  And that's almost always the case when we talk about innovation.

Other consultants have rightly noted that you cannot "mandate" innovation.  I cannot force an uninspired, efficiency-oriented workforce to suddenly and consistently create disruptive ideas, and even if I could they probably wouldn't be able to implement them.  What I can do as an executive or manager is set the stage, create the conditions where innovation and innovators can thrive. These are the external factors that may establish appropriate conditions, but there's an internal motivating factor as well that must be addressed.  And it has to do with the core principles of your organization, what you stand for, what you believe must be fixed or changed.  Your corporate principles and passion should convey to innovators that you want to fix important challenges or problems.  Then, if you are lucky, the combination of preparedness and opportunity collide.  You'll find or attract people who have a deep passion for the challenge or problem you are trying to solve, and you'll get a lot of innovation.

You see, most people work at a company for the pay, or the benefits, or the prestige of working for a company, or a myriad of other reasons.  Innovators work to solve challenges, address key gaps, promote interesting ideas.  Passionate people are hard to manage and hard to please, which is why most organizations have so few of them.  But you need passion, which creates energy and enthusiasm, to overcome all the barriers and hurdles that will be placed in the way of an innovation activity.  Only passionate people will resist narrowing the scope, reducing the expectations and accepting the status quo.  Only passionate people will take the time to think through the range of options, do the necessary homework and research to create really interesting ideas.

Given the choice, I'd spend more time clarifying my corporate goals and directions, ensuring what Simon Sinek calls the "why" is very clear, and recruiting people who have deep passion to create new solutions and to change the status quo rather than building an innovative environment for uninspired people.  Of course the perfect world is the combination - a corporate environment that promotes innovation, establishes a welcoming environment for exploration and divergence, rewarding innovators, married with a team of people who have real passion for the challenge and the problem.  Then you'll get real innovation.  The problem is:  building the environment is difficult but achievable.  Identifying, recruiting, hiring and especially managing passionate people is really difficult, and requires a very clear set of strategies and purpose.  The management effort alone to encourage, sustain and direct passionate people is itself a distraction from the day to day operations.

In the end passion for a particular challenge, gap, opportunity, technology or need is far more important for innovation than culture or environmental factors or rewards.  Passionate people don't care if the management team treats them "well" as long as they get to work on the problems and have a chance to innovate to solve them.  They don't care about pinball tables or "Fed Ex" days or anything else, just the chance to change the world - "put a dent in the universe" as Jobs would have said.  And this is why major corporations will struggle with innovation, and why inventors and smaller organizations will always be more innovative - it's a management chore to deal with passionate people, and they tend to be very single-minded in their pursuits. 
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:35 AM


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