If success goes to those who can innovate the fastest, how do we nurture innovation? The basics are simple to understand—but difficult to implement and stick with in the face of adversity. We need to create an environment that encourages experimentation while also tolerating, investigating and learning from the inevitable failures.
It may sound easy, but executives and shareholders demand results, not “learning opportunities.” We need an approach that fosters experimentation and learning in a defendable way, with a bias for results. To innovate faster than our competitors, we need to maximize our learning potential. This means that by design, 50% of our experiments should fail since we are seeking knowledge expansion, not validation of things we already know. The trick is keeping people engaged and motivated when half of their experiment time is spent failing.
It starts with leadership and cascades down to a shared mindset of team members. Leaders need to be transparent about their own mistakes and learning moments. They need to model the desired behavior, share what they have learned and their new plan of action.
These can be strategic learnings (“Our European market testing has been poor, we are reworking the price options”) or personal (“Feedback on my presentation to investors indicated I was too technical; I need to find simpler ways to describe our technology”). Until team members see transparency in common use, they will be reluctant to practice it themselves for fear of reprisal or criticism.
We Are in the Maze-Solving Business
Developing new products or services is a maze-solving exercise. Nowadays, it is also a race. We need to find a workable solution faster than our competitors. There will be obstacles and dead-ends along the way, and that is okay. We must not let them demoralize us; we just need to learn from them, not repeat them, and keep going.
The process of learning starts with understanding the knowable and then adding to this through experiments and new learnings. So, we start with smart people who understand their industry domain, technology and the business goals. We then need to create an environment with a dual track of product development and experimental learning.
Organizations that run more experiments and iterate faster also learn faster. Scientists studying inheritance use mayflies because they reproduce and provide experimentation results so quickly. The more experiments you can run in a year, the more you can learn.
Our Mazes are Really Big
Developing a new product does not happen overnight. Outside of movies, rarely do lone geniuses develop a marketable product themselves. Instead, it takes teams of subject matter experts months to create proof-of-concepts and multiple iterations of tweaks to complete a viable product. These teams need support and coordination services throughout the process.
Sponsors, executives and shareholders need plans, projections and updates. Product managers, project managers and team leaders all play an important role in keeping the maze-solving teams motivated and moving in the right direction. They also need to keep funding and support going while providing inputs about changing market demands and conditions.
It sounds a difficult balancing act, but approaches such as design thinking, lean startup and agile provide stewardship models for development with inbuilt experimentation, observation and learning. What gets less attention is motivating teams to persevere despite the many failures encountered when experimenting for learning, not just validation.
The “Success Leads to Happiness” Fallacy
Most people start their lives with the mistaken view that success leads to happiness. Our internal dialog creates a series of “if/then” scenarios:
- “IF I pass this exam, THEN I will be happy.”
- “IF I get this job, THEN I will be happy.”
- “IF we finish this project on schedule, THEN I will be happy.”
However, the brain has a knack of moving the goalposts. We might be happy briefly, but then we quickly focus on the next exam, an even better job or a more ambitious project.
While it is good to progress in life, we should not connect achieving a goal with achieving happiness. Instead, we need to understand that happiness is only 10% extrinsic (external things that happen to us, like success) and 90% intrinsic (how we think and feel about things).
A Happy Brain is a Productive Brain
Happy workers are more productive and creative than stressed or unhappy workers. In our brains, the chemical dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for sending reward-motivated happiness signals. Put more simply, dopamine is a happiness chemical—it gets released when we are happy. Interestingly, dopamine also switches on more learning circuits in our brains.
Research [1,2,3] shows that happiness improves work performance. Happy people are 31% more productive, happy doctors are 19% more accurate at diagnosing correctly, and happy salespeople are 37% better at sales.
This intuitively makes sense. When we are unhappy or stressed, the brain prioritizes circuits for survival. If you spot a sabre-toothed tiger, it is probably best to focus on escape rather than contemplating the interplay of sunlight and shadows through the leaf canopy. Yet when searching for an innovative solution, we want all these extra brain circuits engaged. This brings us full circle on the “I’ll be happy when I am successful” logic. It turns out, being happy actually activates more of the brain to help us be successful.
Nurturing Happy Teams
So, if the smartest workers are happy workers, how do we make them happy? Well, we don’t “make them happy” at all—that would be trying to force it in externally, using weak extrinsic motivators. Instead, we equip them with the tools to help build intrinsic happiness themselves.
This might be sounding more touchy-feely than you are comfortable with. However, hard economics show that happy workers also persevere with problems longer, take less sick days, quit less and sue for wrongful dismissal much less, too…so let’s suspend the cynicism for a moment.
The good news is that with as little as 30 minutes a day, measurable increases in dopamine levels are achieved in three weeks. So, if we can encourage these behaviors and turn them into habits, we get happier, healthier, smarter and more productive workers.
These 30-minute exercises don’t even require expensive equipment or management consultants. They are simple, backed by research and include:
- 3 Gratitudes – a daily recording of three new things you are grateful for 
- Journaling – recording positive experiences from the past 24 hours 
- Exercise – increases blood flow to the brain and helps eliminate toxins 
- Meditation – resets multi-tasking fatigue and helps with concentration 
- Acts of Kindness - helping others and saying “thanks,” which makes us feel better 
Organizations spend vast sums of money hiring smart people and providing them with complex tools and training. In comparison, the cost/benefit potential in investing and encouraging team happiness is extremely compelling. As project managers, team leads and executives, we need to be conscious of the behaviors we model, because people are watching us.
If not already doing so, we can use these techniques ourselves to improve our own happiness and productivity—then share and encourage others to make use of them. A great benefit of intrinsic motivators is that they can be applied anywhere. It does not matter if you work in a toxic environment or report to a jerk. There is likely nothing stopping you making sure the first email of the day you send is to thank someone for their help or contribution. Also, no one will know if you make notes about positive experiences.
People with budgets and hiring authority do know that yoga instructors are much cheaper than labor relations consultants and HR lawyers. Longer lunch breaks and fun team activities may require some explanations, but improved problem solving, fewer sick days and better ideas are definitely worth it.
Don’t wait until project completion to celebrate team achievements. That’s too little, too late—and our brains have moved the goalposts to be thinking of the next project. Instead, celebrate the little things that recognize effort, persistence and displaying a good attitude.
Obviously, it is not as simple as “happy people are the perfect innovators.” There are some concerns that people characterized as “happy” might be less likely to spot certain types of risks. Optimism needs to be tempered with realism. However, given the variable success rates of helping people become happier (“leading horses to water,” etc.), there will still be some pessimists; but on the whole, it creates a positive change that is worth the risk.
Smart companies know the future belongs to the best innovators. Building and maintaining teams of productive innovators requires investment in tools, techniques and people. We need to have the right tools and be using today’s techniques such as the design thinking, lean startup and agile approaches. Then it comes down to our people. An appreciation of what truly makes us happy—and its effects on success—is a great starting point.
Most organizations are not R&D labs, so we need to balance innovation with everyday production and service. The mindset and changes described here may feel uncomfortable (or even unprofessional) at first. However, a quote from Eric Shinseki explains that “If you dislike change, you're going to dislike irrelevance even more.” It reminds us that the business landscape is changing faster than ever—and that we need to change with it to stay valuable.
- The Happiness Advantage
- The Benefits of Frequent Positive Affect: Does Happiness Lead to Success?
- Happiness and Productivity
- Counting Blessings Versus Burdens
- How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Words, The Social Effects of Expressive Writing
- Behavior Matters
- One Second Ahead
- Interventions to Boost Happiness and Buttress Resilience
[Note: I first wrote this article for ProjectManagement.com here]