Cultivating Innovation

I place a high value on innovation. Like, really high.

Innovation (put simply) is about creating new and better process, products, or solutions/features. It can be about taking something that exists, and reimagining it in a better way: one that may be simpler, easier to maintain, more performant, or potentially solving more problems than originally intended (or with less side-effects). It can be about changing processes to eliminate confusion and friction (by the way: the tireless effort to remove friction is the single most commonly self-reported attribute in successful people, according to Inc Magazine). Or it can be imagining a new product, or reimagining an existing one into something better. Or maybe a new way to manufacture said product…

However, innovation doesn’t spontaneously happen — and even if it does, it won’t continue to spontaneously happen without consciously creating the business environment to support, encourage, and reward it.

So what (if anything) is the magic recipe? Is it just hiring the right people? Is it working on an under-specified problem? Is it paying/rewarding success via bonuses or stock? Probably not. In fact, an overly heightened fixation on success — or even worse, punishing failure — can actually be a detriment to supporting an innovative work culture.

What Breeds Creativity?

At the root of innovation is creativity. Seems pretty obvious: in order to think creatively to create something new, you need to be creative. duh. Let’s explore the recipe for creativity…

Harvard Business Review says there are 3 main ingredients required for someone to be Creative: 
Expertise, Creative Thinking Skills, and Motivation.

Expertise

This one should be easy to understand, though that may not always be the case. It should also be fairly obvious that it’s extremely difficult to think creatively about something you know nothing about. So don’t expect to be able to just “turn on” your creative juices on any given problem area — you must first deeply understand the thing you wish to innovate, and have some experience working on or with it.

There’s two main types of expertise: Routine and Adaptive Expertise.

The first type of expertise we’ll cover is called Routine Expertise — this is what you mainly exercise by doing your day-to-day job.

The only way you really gain expertise (as opposed to sharpening the routine expertise you already have) it to work on things you’re unqualified to work on.

Think of every successful, badass engineer or leader you know. Or just pick one example, up to you. There’s no magic to how she got to where she is today. It’s a very simple method: actively seek out things beyond your skills and capabilities, and perservere beyond your inevitable series of early failures until you finally succeed. Rinse and repeat — that’s it.

I call this “Leaning Out Over the Edge.

It also helps a lot to be inquisitive. Always ask questions (even the “dumb” ones). Truly seek for understanding, don’t just get an answer, write it down (but not understand it), and elect to ruminate on it alone later. Instead, sit with an expert, face to face, and have them walk you through the explanation again and again until you reach your “ah ha!” moment. (If your Organization doesn’t support this behavior, it’s probably wise to just get out).

Then, you can start failing. And only through a sequence of failures will you finally find success.

But failure is bad” you might protest. Wrong! Failure is not bad. Not only that, but failure is literally a required ingredient for successfully expanding your expertise. It is said that Thomas Edison invented 1000 different lightbulbs before finding one that actually worked.

Put another way: If you find success on a project without first finding failure, it is overwhelmingly likely that are you’re not expanding the boundaries of your expertise.

Rid yourself of the preconception that Failure Is Bad. Failure is only permanent if you choose to let it be. Nearly every single project I’ve worked on reached a dead-end that could easily have been a failure — especially early in my career when my expertise was more limited. I have only allowed one project to stay a failure (back when I was an intern, I leaned a bit too far over the edge), and that was the lesson I learned. Keep pushing, keep learning, and seek to have each and every single failure you encounter teach you something beyond “well, that didn’t work”. Seek to understand why it didn't work. This is the recipe for expanding your Routine Expertise.

Routine Expertise is only the first part of the expertise pie. According to this article published by Johns Hopkins University, the next step is being able to apply this so-called Content Knowledge to areas beyond the original context in which it was acquired. They call this building your Adaptive Expertise. As you increase this Adaptive Expertise, your Creative Thinking ability will expand proportionately.

In order to build your Adaptive Expertise, you need to not only understand what works, but why it works. Turns out, why” is a hugely important question, both to ask and to have answers for, in business and engineering.

Having a good answer for “why” will build shared context and vision on your team (a necessary ingredient for intrinsic motivation, which we’ll see later). It sharpens your ability to take “how” skills you have in one area and apply them to another area successfully. I helps you build an intuitive understanding of what drives your Organization, allowing you to start operating independently while remaining generally aligned with Business and Org goals.

Always seek to understand and communicate why.

Creative Thinking

This one can be slightly more tricky, especially for folks with more analytical minds (or minds that tend to stubbonly stay firmly anchored in reality — like mine).

One technique that I use is to consciously remind myself to not limit my ideas to things that can actually be done with current technology. Try to think more like someone writing science fiction. One quick way to start is to think about what you’re working on, and imagine how it would look in the context of your favorite Sci Fi. You’ll probably come up with something unrealistic. Further, if you’re anything like me, you’ll probably concurrently generate a long list of reasons why such a thing would be impossible. This is actually a perfect start — just make the “why this is impossible” list after you’ve thought up the impossibly cool idea (do not do it concurrently).

Once you have this list of “why this is impossible”, your next step is to attack each of them one-by-one: What would it take to make X possible? If that was possible, what else does that unblock? Having this sort of “cause and effect” roadmap of what is keeping your futuristic idea from happening is basically generating your engineering roadmap for how to get there.

Another useful method is to bounce your ideas off someone else, especially if you can find someone that is better at Creative Thinking than you are. I’m quite lucky because I married such a person. But, I’d be willing to bet if you looked around your workplace, you’d be able to find some people who could help. I’ve actually found it more useful to bounce tech innovation ideas off of people not in tech. These people have way less preconceptions about “what is / isn’t possible” and so naturally have less self-imposed limits on the Realm of Possibility than we do.

Learn to brainstorm effectively. How? Have a 45min session with someone or lots of someones on whatever topic, and simply write down as many ideas as possible. Do not allow yourself to critique any single idea at all. Write it down and move on. The moment you critique a single thing, stop the session. You’ve just taken the wind out of everyone’s Creative sails — take a break, start again later. If you make it to a full 45min on your first try, you’ll officially impress me. It takes serious self restraint to not automatically critique things. As we’ll find out later, this skill becomes paramount if you’d like to foster a team where innovation and creativity thrive.

There are numerous other resources online (including in-person classes and seminars) on Creative Thinking, so I won’t give it much more treatment here.

Motivation

Most everyone probably already knows there’s two main types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic is self-motivation, extrinsic is motivation due to external factors. Further, extrinsic motivations generally take two main forms: The Carrot (leading/rewarding motivators), and The Stick (punishment motivators).

What type gets the most “bang for the buck?”

Many famous leaders relied too heavily on The Stick (I’m looking at you, Steve Jobs — often rumored to be firing folks in fits of rage if things weren’t delivered “just right”). Don’t get me wrong, it works sometimes, but I’m not convinced that most people are capable of sustainable, passionate innovation in such an environment.

The far other end of the extrinsic spectrum is The Carrot: ship this product by X date, while meeting this list of KPIs, and you’ll receive Z% bonus. This also works, but doesn’t move the needle at all on people’s level of true engagement or passion, in my experience.

Of course, most companies and leaders today use a combination of both: meet or exceed expectations, you get The Carrot. Fall behind, you get less/no Carrot, and more Stick. These techniques, it turns out, do nothing to manage people’s motivation, and do everything to manage performance against communicated expectations. Or worse, some leaders do a downright shit job of clearly communicating the expectations (or change them constantly), leaving employees constantly worrying about where they are on the Carrot/Stick spectrum, instead of pouring that mental energy into creating the best products possible.

Extrinsic motivations can only do so much (basically, manage people’s performance against explicit goals or manage them out). To truly breed innovation, try putting much more focus on Intrinsic Motivation.

Dan Pink says there are 3 Intrinsic Motivators that make the most difference in business settings: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.

For mastery, re-read the expertise column above — that’s the basic recipe to achieve mastery. Let’s talk about Autonomy and Purpose.

Autonomy is the freedom to determine your own fate: to decide what you work on, how you work on it, and who you work on it with. In a business setting, some (rightly) argue that it’s dangerous to allow everyone to decide what they work on all the time: there’s a chance many folks will pick something not at all aligned with the Business or Org goals. Then what?

If you try to achieve some level of “everyone gets to pick what they work on”, I’d bet you’re are likely to find your teams unwittingly anchored (heavily anchored) back to Carrot and Stick motivation due to their inevitable performance reviews being unavoidably tied to business goals (read: impact). Effectively, you are lying to them if you promise this freedom and continue to measure them against business goals. This double-speak can actually be a huge detriment to morale and motivation, so let’s just be honest with each other. More than likely, you won’t actually be allowed to freely pick your goals, but you absolutely should be allowed to determine how you get there. Also, perhaps we can carve out enough time for you to pick some of your own goal(s), in addition to most that we’ll pick together (i.e., Google’s 20% time — though even that has gone sideways it seems).

Pink breaks Autonomy down into Time, Technique, Team, and Task. We covered Time above (somewhat). Team (at most places) is generally something you address during the interview/job seeking process. At other places, you address this after you’re hired, but before you really start working (Facebook calls it Bootcamp, for example). I’ll cover Task later. For now, let’s talk Technique.

Technique is about process: How you and your team get to the necessary outcome. Giving your team the freedom to define how they work (assuming they perform a known list of key things along the way) can be a huge boon for motivation. Let your team determine what works best for them — they should know best. After all, they’re the ones doing it every day. Your job as a leader is to keep their process (whatever it is) anchored to whatever outcomes that are expected of them along the way to the goal: any key progress reports, exec reviews, key metrics to work on, fixed deadlines (e.g., manufacturing event dates), and, of course, their (your) priority list.

Task is a great one to talk about next.

I always look for volunteers for anything new (even critical work) before I resort to assigning it. Why? I’m not a psychic, so I can’t see inside yours or anyone’s head. That means, I can’t tell if Suzy over in the corner absolutely lit up inside when I mentioned this emergency project. I might think Stacy is the “right” one for the job, but for all I know, Stacy is actually dreading me picking her because she’s overloaded from the last project still.

If I just hibitually assigned things to whomever I thought was “the right person for the task” , or the historical owner of the component — or worse, whomever originally complained about the problem — I’m robbing my team of a potential powerhouse of passion coming from someone whom I maybe would never expect was excited about this particular project/challenge. That intrinsic excitement / passion feeds motivation, and leads to much more innovative solutions than the person who gets the task assigned and just has to “get it done” to get back to whatever else was on her queue.

Always look for volunteers first. The motivation and passion that the rest of the team observes when this happens is contagious.

This can backfire a bit if no one on the team ever volunteers (I’ve had that situation too), but in my experience so far, the downside is way less negative than the upside is positive.

Let’s talk Purpose.

Most people feel like there’s a reason for their existence. It could be something so basic, such as “provide for my kids,” or it could be something more lofty like “cure cancer.” Whatever it is, chances are that it’s there, somewhere, in each and everyone of your direct reports. People generally want to do things that matter.

Your job, as a leader, is to connect your people with their purpose. Connect that to the Business’ purpose somehow. And if you simply can’t (not a lot of engineers at Apple (for example) are “ending world hunger”), then maybe with those folks you start working on finding a role that is more aligned with tapping into the moral power of their Purpose.

Here’s some practical ways you can do this: open each of your meetings with an opener that underlines the purpose of your org. For example: “remember, we’re here to connect people through the intersection of liberal arts and technology,” or “We are here to create the best products on earth — products that change lives and help shape the future.” These are two examples that I’ve personally seen used to great effect in my past at Apple. Reminding people of their purpose, and how it connects to your business goals and their day-to-day work is a job you can never stop doing–All day, everyday.

List of sources I’ve drawn this from (beyond my own experience):