Motivated to innovate: How an organization’s culture can cultivate or crush

While motivation is essentially a self-generated state, the organizational culture of a group or individual dedicated to the pursuit of innovation greatly influences their performance. That culture both dominates and mediates, and if it is not positively addressed, competing motivations and needs can come into play. As has been mentioned previously more than once in the Think Primed Blog, innovation requires the introduction of change into inherently stable systems. Because of this, an organizational culture plays a large role in fostering and sustaining motivation.

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul.

–       John Muir

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Maslow%27s_Hierarchy_of_Needs.svg

 

To meet those competing needs, an organization must address powerful personal motivators. One of the best models highlighting what’s at stake during this kind of effort is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

So much of organization life takes place at the bottom of this pyramid; the equivalent of “keeping the lights on and the water running.” Which is a great model for an Industrial Age company intent on making an endless succession of the same widgets in a production line. Not many of those companies thriving today, are there?

A step up from physiological needs are the types of organizations that pitch benefits packages addressing the safety and security concerns of their members and, to a certain extent, some esteem needs. Organizations with strong and stable cultures often reinforce the needs associated with love and belonging, yet they have all the fun and dysfunction of families. They’re mostly built for comfort rather than speed, required to respond to changing and dynamic market forces.

The most dynamic and innovative companies seek to work at the highest levels of this model, to get the best from people every day.

 

Price of admission

It’s not enough for an organization culture to provide the equivalent of shelter in a storm, especially not if that same organization wants its members to invest themselves in the success of the enterprise. Prior to the Great Unpleasantness (aka the Great Recession), companies were scrambling to create environments that attracted the best and the brightest. Though many companies today remain focused on that, the majority merely pays it lip service or don’t pursue that practice at all.

These latter companies are minding their reserves and hoarding their resources. This is practice won’t yield significant results at all.

The price of admission to those seeking to create innovation-capable cultures is the same as it has always been: collaborative cultures where people feel safe to share their ideas, where they feel like they can find a “home,” where they are recognized for their contribution, and were they feel they can be their best selves. Charlie Gilkey, author of the Productive Flourishing blog, recently noted that it took him several quarters to come up with his list for a post titled “What I Believe.” The end result is something that reflects what most of us are looking for in our lives. Work is where people spend most of their waking hours, so organization better figure out how to create the conditions for a culture that supports those beliefs he mentions.

One such example of the fulfilling organization, a company dedicated to the principals of loose/tight leadership (small set rules, tightly managed), is the online video powerhouse Hulu. Recently Fast Company magazine ran a great profile online of Hulu’s organization culture, which showed how power is distributed to the lowest organization level possible for effective decision-making and execution. Engagement is driven by the establishment of a small set of performance-based rules that are tightly enforced, while most aspects of organization life are left to the individual or group to design, organize, implement, and process. The net result is an organization that makes people want to deliver their best effort.

We all want to belong

This kind of democratically-biased culture creates a cohesion that is rare in many larger organizations. Usually when start-ups cross the growth chasm (as distinct from the adoption chasm defined in Geoffrey Moore’s book Crossing the Chasm), the transition in revenues or size (over $10 million and over 150 people, respectively) means their flexibility collapses under command-and-control patterns and poorly defined and managed performance expectations. That hasn’t happened at Hulu. They are large, growing larger, and thriving by deferring to their community members.

Organizations that fail to cross the growth chasm come up hard against the reality of being inhospitable. They cease to grow and flourish, because they don’t make room for the strength that others may provide by applying their own unique and divergent talents. The start-up company that fails to grow is usually completely tied to one person’s hierarchy of needs: the founder. The founder is usually on a never-ending treadmill of addressing their most elemental needs for safety.

In Hulu’s case, ownership of issues, problem-solving, and performance management is baked into the culture of this company. Everyone has an opportunity to accept responsibility and accountability for outcomes. Rather than struggling with lines of authority, each person is supported in discovering how they may best contribute collaboratively to the overarching corporate success. This cohesive sense of belonging serves as a path for higher levels of self-actualization, each of which offers material benefit in attaining organization strategy.

 

To be held in high esteem

The path through successive levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy is not necessarily straight, but the value to the company of performing at each successive level is nearly always positive. Provided that each level offers some opportunity for consolidation of the needs met, and that the striving continues upward, value generation will be significant. Given a place to call “home” and the recognition that they do have a place to contribute, many employees capitalize by fostering esteem among their peers.

That focus informs value by playing to the individual’s strengths so that they may be successful and have increasing impact over time. The respect of peers for contributions, whether directly from innovation or as a result of building on an existing practice or procedure, by turn fosters self-respect. This leads to a positive environmental feedback loop—each success creates the opportunity for greater successes over time.

A better you/me/us through self-actualization

At the pinnacle of Maslow’s Hierarchy is the concept of self-actualization. The term originated in a work by Kurt Goldstein called The Organism: A Holistic Approach to Biology Derived from Pathological Data in Man (commence head-spinning now). While Goldstein used the term to describe a state all humans strove to achieve, Maslow used the term self-actualization to describe a desire, not a driving force, that could lead to the realization of one’s capabilities. For Maslow, self-actualization did not determine one’s life; rather, it gave the individual a motivation to achieve personal ambitions and fulfillment.

Taken as a level of development to meet specific personal needs, self-actualization is completely in alignment with effective innovation. Those people who are operating to become more self-actualized are more likely to embrace reality and facts rather than deny truth. This leads to more rational understanding of the root causes of circumstances and a drive towards focusing on problems outside themselves.

When it comes to an understanding of the human-centricity required for effective innovation — the notion that an innovation must have a specific utility in mind — those who firmly address their need to self-actualize accept their own human nature with all its shortcomings, and similarly accept the nature of others with a general lack prejudice. This breeds resilience and a spontaneity that are great innovation traits.

Those organizations that can play to this desire for self-actualization, that recognize the need to become our better selves, will reap the benefits. Command- and control-driven organizations will, by their nature, drive performance from the level of meeting physiological needs of safety and property. Those organizations that treat their members with respect, recognizing their talents and contributions, will enable their members with the freedom to be their best, and in so doing, will make better organizations because of it.

What kind of organization are you building? A safe place? Or a place to become your best self? If you’re interested in more innovation, it had best be the latter.

Comments

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