Training Innovation Out of People: Or, Go Get that Halloween Costume

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I was talking with a friend this week about the good old days at their company. You know the days: the ones with rosy-goldy edges about the memories. Where everyone is smiling, laughing, and rushing from meeting, to project, to customer with energy aplomb. The days when you loved your team, you loved the company and what it stood for, and you loved the work. LOVED the creativity and innovation that you could bring to the work! The stories you could tell about the fun you had, the crazy Halloween you dressed up as bikers (complete with mushroom tattoo), the friends that you made – for life.

Yes, you had stress. Yes, there were a few people you wanted to avoid in the halls because they “didn’t get it.” But overall, these were the golden years. Looking back on these years, if  lucky enough to experience them, one might feel a bit deflated about the here and now.

Today, it seems that many companies are trying to train the innovation right out of people. Adding more workload without the efficiencies needed to make it happen. Wanting more of our time (our life) and giving us less to care about in our work. Pushing the newest corporate initiative with a “don’t-ask-questions-just-do-it” mentality (questions are only for negative people).  How does this relate to our mission, our vision, our values? “It just does” is an answer one might expect to hear from some leaders who, themselves, are being pushed to their limits.

I hear a lot of stories from people who are looking to contribute, but are a part of a company that has lost it’s shimmer. It could make you feel deflated, but I prefer to think about the possibilities.

It’s energizing to meet with like-minded, engaging people. Last week, that was at Centric: Indy’s Innovation Network, where people talk about innovation and hear from some of Indianapolis’ most innovative leaders. They hosted The Supremacy of Mission: An Elephant in the Room. Indianapolis Zoological Society president and CEO, Michael Crowther, shared how to avoid business as usual by genuinely focusing on the mission of the organization. By seeking ways to advance the Zoo’s mission, Michael and his team constantly develop new and innovative ways of contributing.

The Indianapolis Zoo has a mission that stands out from the rest. It’s not simply a place for recreation, an addition to a downtown scene, or for people who “love animals.” The Indianapolis Zoo empowers people and communities, both locally and globally, to advance animal conservation. Michael repeatedly spoke about how the Zoo “engages, enlightens, and empowers” individuals to make their mission a reality.

Hearing my friend talk about the golden years, and then hearing Mr. Crowther talking about the elephant (and “orangutan“)  in the room inspired me to reflect on the dichotomies we see in our organizations. That once purpose driven organizations can falter, but also that there are institutions that have been around a while, who can still reach deep and find a way to energize and engage those around them to try innovative ideas. Organizations whose mission is at the forefront of their work.

Jeb Banner (@jebbanner), CEO of SmallBox marketing also spoke last week about mission. In his TEDx Indianapolis talk, Jeb proposed that organizations might be more successful if they worked more like bands. Jeb is the founder of Musical Family Tree, a website dedicated to keeping Indiana music thriving. He reflected on how companies often put profits above purpose, while in a band, purpose is always first – it’s always about the music!

As Jeb and Mr. Crowther shared, purpose, mission and the sense that your work has meaning – beyond the dollars – are essential to individuals wanting to contribute to an organization.

So, how are you leading innovation?

Are you asking people to “just do it” without tying your work to purpose. While few of us would take this “just get it done!” approach, we may still be training the innovation right out of our people – and organizations

It starts with each individual leader. Maybe your organization isn’t perfect, but you can strive to engage and innovate with the folks closest to you.

Think about it. Reflection is a part of every great leader’s practice. Reflect on who you are being as a leader with regard to inspiring innovation:

1. How is the work of my team tied to the mission of the organization (including budget, day-to-day work, and strategy)?

2. How am I (or can I begin) creating a energized work environment, with time to enjoy the work, have fun and innovate?

And, if you want to start with the “fun” part, go talk with folks about the team Halloween costume for a start. Enjoy and engage!

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