A Simple Question Reveals the Obstacles Facing Workplace Innovation

A friend walks up to a friend and asks: “How’s work?”

This is a common enough question, but with much broader implications than its phatic nature might suggest. Within the many possible answers reside insights into individual motivations related to work. Beyond the usual sidestep reply of “it’s fine” come responses that show the engagement of someone toward the work they are inclined to be creating. Unfortunately, the propensity of responses tend to start from deficit thinking:

  • I don’t have/make enough money.
  • I don’t have enough time to get anything done.
  • I need to find another avenue to achieve what I believe I can do.

Of course, there are an abundance of examples to counter these three negatives, but they seem to be forgotten when ending a day at the office and quickly reflecting. According to Kim Cameron, the co-founder for the Center of Positive Organizations, we tend to accentuate the deficits in our lives.

This has huge implications on our perception of work life.

A Deeper Motivation

Depending on where a team member’s motivation lies, the nature of work—combined with a bias toward deficit thinking—has the potential to create a real problem. Take, for example, the role of a manager. If their role involves leading a team against time parameters then, on any given day, they must move the team toward completing specific projects by a specific deadline. This manager, likely influenced by the nature of deadline-based work, is motivated more to act less than to think.

This creates a scenario where anything that “takes” from their timeline creates a deficit. With clear and singular goals for the manager to push the team closer to completion, anything that detracts from this is time wasted. Time spent on more abstract high-level team member development doesn’t contribute to the very real day-to-day deadlines, forming a deficit.

This implication for the workplace attitude has great influence on the power of learning and development in a world of work starving for innovation. Innovation takes time, but taking time creates a deficit. This extends to other motivations as well. A 20-year veteran of the automotive industry may find fulfillment in planning and designing the next great sedan, but what if they’re pushed to start innovating to imagine a world without cars as we know them today?

It’s clear then that creating teams that adopt a culture with a goal of learning, innovation or other thinking ideal requires a shift away from deficit thinking to be successful. Abandoning the myopic focus on what is taken, instead of the opportunities it may provide, requires a shift in mindset and motivation.

When you apply a more long-term lens to focus on what is gained through innovation and workplace learning, you can see how shifting the paradigm toward the inherent value of time to think may create the potential to enhance a person’s response to, “How’s work?”. From an organizational perspective, the key is ensuring the clarity of the correlation between individual motivations and

Consider these three responses and the motivations they suggest: money, time and fulfillment.

Motivation: Money

As long as compensation is measured against day-to-day accomplishments without regard to how much an employee may have contributed to a culture of innovation or lifelong learning, time spent achieving those goals takes away from time spent towards earning more money.

We are economic creatures who achieve comfort through or our gains measured against our behavioral expenditures. This is a weighted exchange where the reward—money—requires a precarious and often fickle balance between effort and compensation. If innovation and workplace learning is truly important to the continued success of your organization, invest in it by investing more in the people who make it possible.

To individuals motivated by money: go out and make more money! Make as much as you can when you can. There is no shame in this. Consider, however, that this path does not always have a clear end game. Is your method of achieving income sustainable? Can you still make as much money five or ten years from now without some level of continued learning or innovation?

The likely answer in a world defined by rapidly growing technological advancement underscores the very real additive nature of investing effort to sustain and grow long-term compensation.

Motivation: Time

The human body is built to work. Stripped to its very essence, a body is a working machine intent on consumption. It is vitally clear that if we don’t work, we are on a path toward extermination (i.e. the couch potato syndrome).

Yet, when performing mental and physical tasks at work, our consumption abilities have a certain short-sided perspective concerned with current context.

If I perform X tasks, I have provided Y results. If X times Y is greater than the expectation of my potential, then I have done good work. If X times Y is less than the expectation of my potential, then I have not achieved amicable personal results. This is the pursuit of fullest potentiality.

If task generation is the center of your work, then do as much work action as you can no matter how much time and effort it takes. This is an excellent source of experience and learning which can fuel innovation! Just consider the reality that this path inevitably waxes and wanes based on personal psychology and psychical energy reserves.

From an organizational perspective, the implication is clear: allow time for learning and innovation to take place in addition to daily job responsibilities. Adding on expectations—no matter how good the intentions—without allowing for extra time will inevitably create a feeling that time is being “taken,” laying the foundation for deficit thinking.

Motivation: Career Fulfillment

Humans have an interesting differentiation from the animal world: we imagine. We have the ability to see future states of being that do not yet exist and construct innumerable paths toward some desired future goal. We consistently ask ourselves what we want to be when we grow up, no matter our current age or set of experiences. Having a vision is vital to aligning our imagination with our current actions and environment.

If career fulfillment is the center of your work, then continuously recreating a vision of yourself into your future requires effort. Yet, does it? Building a career requires a delicate balance between clearest vision and comfort with ambiguity. What you see in your imagination often does not align with current context, and this creates fear. Entrepreneurs seems to possess an ability to plow through their fears of uncertainty and take risks toward an unclear future value. Is this a mindset that would be beneficial to you as you look ahead?

Individuals seeking to reconcile career fulfillment with the nature of the changing workplace need only imagine the possibilities opened through lifelong learning and innovation. To help make this clear, organizations should ensure that changing expectations are clearly communicated in a way that aligns with the company’s mission, vision and values.

The Ultimate Balance

Is there an optimum balance between money, time and fulfillment? It is hard to say that balance is the key to work life success. The key, it seems, is presence in the moment along with deep discernment of the truth, trust and belief in the value of an investment today toward the payoff in possibilities tomorrow.

This doesn’t have to be done alone! We are creatures who are better together than apart. Apart from money, time and fulfillment, I would contend we work to enrich interactions with others, beyond the need to make money to eat and pay bills. But, this is my belief only. Consider your beliefs with three questions:

  • Do you make enough money to balance your work effort?
  • Do you perform sets of tasks that fulfill your drive to learn and create?
  • Are you on a path toward your imagined vision for your most vital and purposeful future career?

These are not easy questions. If I could wave my magic wand I would give us clarity to reduce our future fears holding us in the present. But I also know if I did this I would deprive us of the learning required today to become the better version of ourselves tomorrow.

This is the story of the emergence of the butterfly from the chrysalis; if an outside force eases the extreme effort of fighting through the shell, the butterfly does not achieve its full and healthy form.

Photo by Gerry Roarty on Unsplash