Stoking the Drive to Innovate

A 2014 article in FastCompany discussed several reasons why people are going freelance. Primarily, the article cited market forces that incentivize reducing full-time employees and hiring freelancers, and then mentioned that people freelance because they need autonomy, which is one of the three fundamental human needs described in Ed Deci’s research on self-determination. As another FastCompany article notes, the autonomy found in freelancing is a way to ensure that one engages in work that is personally meaningful, which fits research by Amy Wrzesniewski that highlights the importance of finding meaning at work. There is, however, another related human need that I think is driving this shift to freelancing, which is occurring because companies are not enabling their employees to fulfill this need:

The need to innovate.

As I have noted previously, many companies do not want to innovate. They have their concept and they want to keep doing whatever has been making them money. The trouble, though, is that the employees of these companies get stifled by the lack of innovation, and they end up leaving because they need to create something. Underlying some of the work by Deci, Wrzesniewski, and many others is the theories of developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, whose Psychosocial Stages of Development describe the formation of one’s identity throughout life. Towards the adult portion of one’s life, one hits the stage of “generativity,” in which one seeks to create something that will stand as a legacy and monument to one’s life. Having done this, one is in a position to achieve “integrity,” which is the recognition that one has lived a meaningful life. This is eminently consistent with Maslow’s concepts of self-actualization and self-transcendence, which basically involves the fulfillment of one’s potential and then going beyond oneself to contribute to the world (Maslow 1968, 1971). As Maslow (1971) put it:

“The concept of creativeness and the concept of the healthy, self-actualizing, fully-human person … may perhaps turn out to be the same thing.”

It is not just companies that have a need to create and innovate; people have a need to create and innovate. Just as companies will languish and fold if they do not innovate, so will people. When adults have an “identity crisis” sometime around middle age, this often occurs because they have not created something that reflects the meaning of their lives and have no idea how to do it. So, too, can companies find themselves in an identity crisis when their original value proposition has limited meaning in the company’s middle age. Consequently, companies need to do what it takes to innovate (here’s how to do it), and they need to find ways for their employees to engage in meaningful work. Here are several ways to help employees develop self-actualization in the workplace:

1) Ensure that employees can make their ideas known and heard.

2) Give employees time to pursue their own ideas in the context of the company’s mission and value proposition.

3) Give employees opportunities for growth.

4) Help employees align with the company’s vision.

Because creation plays such an integral role in human development, it is crucial for companies to understand the human need to innovate. Those who can meaningfully harness this drive can not only become great places to work, they can become centers of innovation that promote the self-actualization of their employees. In turn, those employees will power the innovation engine and do great things for the firm’s triple bottom line. It will become a firm that attracts talent, capital, and recognition, and it will make valuable contributions to the world that will earn some serious profit.

Now that’s what I call win-win!

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