Scientists estimate that 74% of the mass-energy of the universe is made up of dark energy. Dark energy is an expansive form of energy that fills the empty space between cosmological objects. Scientists know it’s there, but they can’t see it.
Dark energy is a useful metaphor for understanding organizations’ challenge and opportunity in innovation. Call it their "innovation dark energy". At a time when executives are seeking innovation more than ever, it must be tremendously frustrating to employees who have energy for innovations but nowhere to channel it. It’s also frustrating to executives who want new ideas but are having a hard time getting them.
And that 74% of the mass-energy isn’t too far off on what companies are missing in their innovation efforts.
Considering the volume and potential impact of this innovation dark energy, let’s understand the sources of it.
External and Internal Sources
The diagram below outlines the factors that produce employees’ innovation energy:
Employees’ desire to participate in a corporate innovation program derives from outside influences and intrinsic motivations. Both elements are present in every company’s workforce. The best innovating companies know how to channel these elements effectively, such as Google and 3M with their discretionary innovation time for employees.
External Drivers: A Day in the Life
Every day, employees come across information and think of ideas relevant to your business. They really can’t help it; it’s part of work. These experiences and the ideas they generate are the vital raw material of innovation.
Customer interactions: This is the mother lode of innovation energy. Customers know the "jobs" (Clayton Christensen sense) they are trying to accomplish with your products and services. As such, they provide valuable insight into the strengths and weaknesses of your offerings. Front line employees have a rich set of innovation energy that needs a good system for transmission to the organization as a whole.
Market research: In reading up on industry developments, employees are naturally going to come across interesting ideas that can have applicability to your company’s business models, products and operations. And it’s not just your industry. Companies in unrelated industries will have processes and technologies that can help you too.
Frustrations with existing processes: Ever find that the way you’re doing something today isn’t working as well as it should? Maybe the way your product is delivered to customers, or the feeling you’re leaving money on the table with your contracts? The Six Sigma philosophy loves to find these opportunities and improve them. How about expanding the mentality to solicit improvement ideas across the organization?
Company goals: A company’s goals are a deeply integrated part of its culture. As such, employees are well aware of them. Goals provide a focus for ideas. Employees will use that focus to generate ideas that can help the company in its objectives. Now the question becomes – how to transmit those ideas to the organization at large?
Internal Drivers: Natural Human Behaviors
Innovation efforts benefit mightily from the intrinsic motivations of employees. Indeed, the whole of our economy does. The challenge for organizations is to not let these internal motivations be blunted by the lack of an outlet for them. A recent survey by CareerBuiler.com and Harris Interactive found that 40% of employees have difficulty staying motivated at work.
Natural ambition: How’d you do on your standardized tests in high school? Pretty well? How about some projects you nailed at work? By and large, humans are an ambitious lot. The level of ambition varies, but it’s there. Inside companies, people that come up with innovations are rewarded and promoted. Work with this natural source of innovation energy.
Desire for meaningful work: Survey after survey shows the importance workers place on doing meaningful work, often ahead of compensation. Innovation is the chance to improve situations and deliver new solutions. Now that is meaningful work. How integrated is innovation in employees’ everyday work? Recognize that the chance to be part of the organization’s innovation efforts is a source of meaningful work.
Career goals: Where would you like to see yourself in five years? Aside from an answer of "on the beach in Hawaii", many of us have some general point we’re aiming for in our careers. These career goals are important motivators for the work we do every day. And getting to the goals requires a mix of task execution and innovation. This is a significant source of innovation energy.
Satisfy customers: Ever work directly with customers? Then you probably know about this motivation. It’s not ambition, it’s not so much a career goal. There’s a deeper satisfaction that comes from delivering value to a customer. When the customer says "great job, thank you", there’s a natural happiness. And a desire to earn more of it. This may be the most important source of innovation energy.
Notice I didn’t include creativity here. Why not? Because creativity is the characteristic that follows our motivations. It "turns on" when we’re "turned on". In a work sense, of course!
How good is your organization at tapping its innovation dark energy?
(Cross-posted @ the Spigit Blog)