Innovation Starts Here

I have never found it enough to just carry out the tasks explicit in my job description. I have, with one exception, always been the youngest, least experienced, stupidest, and least capable member of more than few dynamic, tone-setting, uber-talented teams throughout my career. To compensate and contribute in anyway possible, I have always done whatever I could to to add value to my organization’s culture and cohesiveness by finding ways to effect positive changes in workplace morale, interpersonal relationships, and my team members’ overall productivity and job satisfaction. It’s a unique ability that’s taken time and attention to develop, but I’ve gotten quite good at identifying the attributes that detract from the overall efficacy of a workplace, which are by no coincidence the very same factors that limit it’s potential to be innovative.

For over three years now I have had a Google Alert that everyday sends me every single article on the web that is posted with the word “innovation” in it. I’ve subscribed to the LinkedIn group “Innovation Excellence”. I receive the magazines “Wired” and “Fast Company”. I had a very inspiring and captivating client that allowed me to be a part of an innovation team that worked on developing many innovative ideas for the Air Force, and even met with Google’s Innovation Evangelist. And if you haven’t read Matt McFarland’s Washington Post Innovations Blog, you’re missing out.

Innovation means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. What does it take to be innovative, who is innovative, what products are innovative, how do you create a space and culture where innovation can thrive, and what is the definition of innovation? — These are all questions asked and answered in many different ways over and over again and again in my personal search for the quintessence of innovation.

(And now I think I have already used “innovation” enough to blow up my Google Alert.)

So, what prevents an organization from achieving their maximum potential and what prevents its members from contributing the unique brand of innovation inherent within each of them? Their inability and lack of bandwidth to embrace and truly be engaged, excited, and committed to achieving their team’s mission.

Life is full of distractions and we live in a world where it’s commonplace to convince oneself that multitasking works for us. Many things we do outside the workplace affect us without us noticing and prevent us from performing at our best in the workplace. Relationship problems, lack of exercise, lack of sleep, diet, a sick child, a lack of love and support. Even simple things like not eating a healthy breakfast or drinking enough water makes a bigger difference than one might realize.

Even if one keeps their life outside work in good working order, the workplace can still be full of distractions, too. Toxic workplace relationships, unreasonable bosses, unsustainable work hours, socially inept colleagues and customers. The workplace is a minefield that we just expect someone to enter, and immediately know how to navigate all by themselves without any real help, guidance, training, or road map.

We all owe it to our team members to address all the dynamics inside and outside the office. However, here in this piece I want to focus on the work-life crossover issues that can take so much potential and energy out of our team members. If you’re going for more innovation, I believe these are the best places to start:

  • Commute time and remote work policies — If you can’t trust your employees to be autonomous and work effectively outside your line-of-sight then why’d you hire them?
  • Sustainability of work hours, and expectations for only essential after hours communications — How can an employee continue to be reliable and give his best to the team if he’s overworked and not given time to be away from work both physically AND mentally?
  • Benefits, Medical, and Retirement — Does an enhanced peace of mind for your employee and her family carry a quantifiable benefit overtime to your business?
  • Leave policy — Does the number of hours someone is present matter as much as the outcomes they can produce?
  • Paid Family, Maternity/Paternity Leave and Sabbaticals — Does a parent care about anything else in the entire world besides their newborn? Then why coerce them come back in order to make money and keep their jobs? Who’s best to decide when they’re ready to return? Maybe an employee that is satisfied and connected to her family and also excited to return and contribute to the team again, when she feels she is ready? Again, why hire someone you can’t trust to make that call?
  • The Employee’s family’s comfort with, and understanding of the workplace — Is any employee an island? What would it look like if employees’ families knew more about what they did each day? Would they be in a better position to support them, to talk with them, relate to them, grow closer to them?

There is no one size fits all strategy for these subjects above, but I can tell you that a leader that is truly looking to maximize innovation need not look any further than here for a place to start.

There is an endless amount of ideas and approaches to this, but let me point the aspiring innovative leader in the direction of Silicon Valley. At Google, they do five things that I love:

  • 20% Rule — One-fifth of an employee’s time goes towards projects of their own choosing.
  • Standing desks — Too many benefits to mention here. Look out for an entire piece from me coming up on the subject.
  • Free Food — By mandate, snacks cannot be any further than 150 feet from each employee.
  • Unlimited leave policy — They trust their employees take care of business and know when they need time off.
  • Puppies! — Dogs are allowed in the office.

You must give your employees every reason to come into work each day in their peak form, with a passion for their work, and a great report with their teammates. You must ensure they can rely on you and one another, and that each member has peace of mind that the business wholeheartedly prioritizes her and her family’s wellbeing above all else. Many companies say this, but few actually do when rubber meets road.

If you’re scared that the company will lose money or even fail if you adopt any of these measures, you may very well be right. But ask yourself: Would you rather have a mildly successful business with workers that are burnt out, unhappy, with low morale and job satisfaction, and high turnover, or the chance at a company that you can really feel good about, not only as a leader but simply being part of a real team — an innovative team — that cares about themselves, each other, the mission, and making ample time for their families and friends.

That’s where real innovation starts.