Seven powerful lessons for building thriving teams of innovators — Part 3
In post 1 and post 2 on this topic, we focused on more individual behaviors and on approaches to thriving teams. Now we are shifting to the allusive beast of corporate culture, but in a way that might be surprising.
Culture is often cited as the primary reason for the failure of implementing organizational change efforts (Cameron and Quinn, 2006). In my final post of this series about internal teams of innovators, I’m going to share 2 very tangible approaches that leaders can put into practice today to help push through the pervasive corporate culture and model a different way of working. These approaches will help create teams who face risk, openly learn and evolve together and who are truly motivated about and engaged in their work. This is key for successful, sustainable innovation teams in ANY industry.
#6 Activate the Progress Principle
How to keep a team excited amidst the corporate muck
When I added the role of “researcher” to my CV I was amazed and humbled at all of the brilliant research that was out in the world just waiting for practitioners like me to uncover. Edmondson, Carlgren, Fixon, Liedtka and Amabile, just to name a few.
It’s Amabile’s work that I want to focus on next as I find it so simple that its profound. She studies organizational innovation and individual creativity. One branch of her research was to study what keeps people in an organization engaged in the work at hand (Amabile and Kramer, 2011, Amabile and Pratt, 2016).
Innovation and creativity are both fun and very hard. However, you are often pushing against the prevailing current of organizational culture, so motivation is really key because it’s really hard not to burn out. Her work was done through a “longitudinal diary study”, a fancy term for having people write in a journal over a set period of time. Over several months she asked employees to write about what went on that day and about their feelings and motivations; it was a study of their “inner work life,” our quiet inner reflections about work that might not be apparent to others. After interpreting thousands of pages of journals she was able to create a principle that captured what kept people motivated. And we all know just how important motivation is in the innovation space.
Amabile’s research, when summarized very simply, showed that:
“People are motivated most powerfully by progress toward meaningful work.”
Before releasing it, she sent a survey to cross-section of 669 leaders from around the world and asked them to rank order five different employee motivators. Where did “progress” land on the leader’s ranked list? Dead last. A sliver of 5% of the leaders did rank it as #1, so way to go for those 5%.
It’s not money, or praise, or promotions. Odds are most of us fall into the 95% of leaders who have a blind spot to “progress” as a significant employee motivator. We as leaders have a very skewed view of what really motivates our workforce.
Let that sink in. Progress toward meaningful work. If each of us who manage teams used this as a north star, I believe that we would lead much differently. We may know what is meaningful to our organization, but do we know where that overlaps with each individual on our teams? Are we creating opportunities for our team members to feel progress, a real sense that they were able to move the mark in a positive direction? Or…do they instead spend weeks and months just trying to push through the muck as we say “Sorry, you know how it is here at (insert organization name here), it’s a complex place to make change. Just keep trying!” If we thoughtfully created opportunities for people to feel progress toward meaningful work, I posit that the way we lead our teams would be transformative.
I’m glad she did this research to shed light on inner work life and what we can do to really impact that in a positive way, because it’s easy to be blind to it. Amabile noted that employees often don’t show their emotions at work when faced with setbacks so you may have no idea just how frustrated and defeated, they really are. The inner work life is just that — inner. She said, “you probably don’t get to see those emotions, especially if you are in a position of power.” So, let’s go there. Let’s talk about emotions.
#7 Embrace emotions at work
Bring out and celebrate the humanity in your team, and they will bring forth their best
My final point is about emotions. I am a very emotional being and I feel emotions in others.
You know Mantis, the empath in Avengers with the antennas and the big eyes? She absorbs and feels other’s emotions when she touches them.
I’ve spent a lifetime trying to control and hide what I deemed as “too much” for the business world to handle
I have a loud laugh, I tear up when others hurt and maybe even more so when they say or do something that is touching. I feel the pain of disappointment deep in my belly and I audibly gasp when something surprises me (a key reason my daughter can’t stand to watch movies with me).
When I was forming an innovation team at Kaiser Permanente, I was one of the very few people in my work circle with small children. On top of growing a team, I was also learning my way through trying to be a mother…some days more successfully than others. While I didn’t unload every detail of my journey, when I was asked questions about balance, challenges, and such, I was honest. I shared where I was not doing so well, what I was trying to learn and how I felt like the experience was changing me. It felt really vulnerable being honest sometimes, I can’t lie.
Fast forward 5–7 years later when many of those same people still worked on my team and were beginning families of their own. All of the women, bar none, told me that the honest sharing about my own experience as a new mom gave them grace and energy for themselves as young working moms. Wow. I was humbled by these amazing women’s show of gratitude.
All of those years that I was concerned about how “imperfect” I might have seemed, to them I wasn’t modeling imperfection, I was modeling being human. Somehow it gave them the ‘permission’ to be human too.
We are not robots; we are wonderfully imperfect beings who have a lot to learn from one another. Struggling with balance, feeling the sting of failure, the nerves that come with stepping outside our comfort zones. Show that you can embrace those things, and you will develop a team of people who trust and learn from one another in good times and bad. They will also feel the permission to bring forth their whole and very best self as well.
So, there you have it. Many of these lessons have been learned the hard way, road rash and all, but such is the way we learn, right? Life and all of the dynamic and diverse people in it have gifted me, and I’m sure you as well, with some great lessons. I’d love to hear some of yours too.
Good luck to you and good luck to your teams of innovators. You all are desperately needed for all the changes that lie ahead. Thank you for letting me share my journey with you.