Innovation ceases only when it’s extinguished.

Emotionally salient events stick with us while the day-to-day fades. At my first fulltime job, I still remember the excitement with which I worked with those around me to improve how we went about our work. There were many mundane, repetitive aspects that we sought to simplify.

There wasn’t any external reward for our investments, just the satisfaction of not doing work we found boring, and perhaps most satisfying the intrinsic challenge to shape the way we worked.

I remember one day in particular, it stands out like a sore thumb, when after years of enthusiasm in improving what we did, my boss blurted out, angrily, though somewhat passive aggressively: I don’t know why we keep changing things, what’s wrong with doing things the way we always have done them.

The salience lingered, for years. Immediately, I began to doubt if the improvements were helpful. I felt bad, as if I had hurt those around me. I wondered if I had let my excitement and curiosity get the better of me. And I was extremely frustrated because I prided myself in the work I had done to improve. I knew many of the improvements were key to impressing customers, to providing more value for them, and ultimately helpful to our organization.

But I knew, once I heard the resentment, that I would never receive support in what I was doing. I felt let down. For some people this could easily quash their efforts to improve. I’m sure it halted some of my own.

But for me, it wound up putting me at odds with those that didn’t see a reason to improve. I simply knew too much about the results of the improvements to know that it was foolish to abandon them.

While it remains vibrant in my mind, I’m not sure my boss would even remember the occasion. The way I felt was surely not the way my boss meant for me to feel. But perception is reality.

In some ways I’ve never understood the utter fascination with the word innovate, as if it’s some lofty notion that involves luck or supreme intelligence. Or even worse, is some buzz word for something nobody can really describe but everybody desires. To me the word is synonymous with directed improvement.

Deep inside of every one of us is a yearning to improve. Sometimes all it takes is one emotional outburst to extinguish the candle inside of another. Because the salience of the response, to past attempts at improving, is a bitter reminder that fosters daily acquiescence.

Fortunately that same candle can be fueled—augmented externally.

Historically, the marked revolution was recognizing that innovation could be taught. That it’s a skill that can be honed. And while that is true, it’s also important to recognize that it’s an innate capability to begin with. It doesn’t have to be taught so much as it has to be permitted. And it’s easily hampered because of external factors.

The large majority of individuals and organizations fail to innovate simply because they aren’t setup for success. Problems in innovation are largely problems in management. All it takes is one crude remark from a person in a position of power, to unknowingly—or knowingly—veto future improvement and innovation.

Here are six steps management can take to foster, rather than discourage, innovation:

Step 1 - Recognize that innovation is innate – the bedrock of innovation is improvement, improvement is something we all do automatically.

Even my dog, Pax, knows how to improve. We go through countless treat toys, toys that have a treat pouch or other means to embed or lock away a treat, something that makes getting the treat a bit harder than snapping it out of my hand. No matter how difficult they seem to be, what might take her 20 minutes the first time, only takes 10 minutes the second time and 2 minutes a week later.

Upon closer inspection I notice she has created elaborate ways to hold down the treat with her paws, as if she has human hands, and quickly get her teeth around a small part of the treat, just enough to rip it off—or out of—the toy.

Step 2 - Orient people toward the right goals – part of the reason that innovation is innate is because our minds are hardwired to achieve a goal, when presented with one. It’s part of the lazy nature of our mind. Effort is expensive, therefore we seek to minimize effort.

The goals we hold people accountable to, dictate the optimizations they create.

Part of what I suspect led to the frustration (in the improvements I was making in my first job) was that it was hard to connect the improvements we were making to the bottom line of our organization. There was a disconnect between the goal of our organization—to produce more billable hours of work—and the goal to improve how we worked.

Furthermore, the improvements led to complexity, perhaps at times unnecessary complexity. That was largely because the impetus to improve was not well aligned with the direction of the organization. It was simply those of us that wanted to eliminate the mundane. And in some situations, the desire for change.

If I were to summarize the improvements, we tended to get better at how we did our work, not what we produced. In other words the benefits didn’t really impact our customer, or our organization. They only benefited those of us doing the work.

To make this tangible, imagine you were a part of a team that assembled a chair. If your job was to assemble the armrests, and you found a way to cut armrest assembly time in half, you wouldn’t necessarily improve the whole process. It likely would still take just as long to assemble a chair. And even worse, the backlog may cause problems in the process. You might have to find a way to store and retrieve the excess armrests. None of this would benefit the customer or the organization; in fact it could do the opposite.

Step 3 - Customer need is the right goal - without customers, a business wouldn’t exist. The purpose of a business is to create value for customers. It’s a creative capacity, not a consumptive capacity.

Therefore, the right goals are goals that contribute something that the customer ultimately buys. Something that satisfies the customer.

In the case of armrest assembly, the customer doesn’t benefit from the armrests being assembled quickly.

Take all the people in charge of assembling individual parts and task them collectively with assembling the entire chair, if you do this, their improvements will likely align with the interests of the customer.

For example, if they can find a way to cut down the time it takes to assemble the entire chair, that’s something a customer would notice. Especially if your organization produces custom chairs, the ability to quickly turn around a custom chair could be something the customer appreciates.

Which brings me to the next point, take the time to determine what it is you think your customers value and collectively use that as fodder for improvements. If customers routinely ask for faster turn around time on custom chairs, make that a collective objective. Customers might want greater durability, prestige or merely comfort. These are the things everyone in the organization should be tasked with, not merely assembling a part of the chair.

This holds true no matter what type of work you’re engaged in. Even in purely digital products, if you slice and dice how the work is done, you are likely to see suboptimal improvements that don’t optimize the whole, let alone optimize the whole in a fashion that the customer is willing to pay for.

Step 4 – Motivation is best when it’s intrinsic – goals alone do not motivate.

I could put a treat toy in front of Pax, filled with what she considers food—food she routinely gets at meal time—instead of food she considers a treat. Chances are this isn’t going to result in the same behavior as a treat might garner. She definitely won’t improve.

And although treats are motivating, they’re external motivation. Positive external motivation isn’t as robust as internal motivation.

For example, we also keep toy balls around our house. Miniature tennis balls because Pax is a smaller dog. Most nights, before bed, Pax will rouse herself in search of a toy, usually one of these balls. There’s no treat attached. Instead, she wants to play.

Nothing makes me happier than watching her pounce upon a ball—dramatically—that is thrown right next to her on the bed. The bed isn’t big enough to toss the ball very far; nonetheless she enjoys a chase even if it’s only 4 feet away.

We like to find new ways to challenge her; a while back we started hiding the ball under a blanket. Then we’d ask her: Where is the ball? To which she would start digging through the covers. It’s beyond adorable. At first, it took her a while to figure out how to dig through the covers. I would test her skill by gradually hiding the ball further and further under the blanket.

At first we slipped the ball under the edge of the blanket. Now, we like to hide it about four feet from the edge and then pull the blanket taught over the bed. Four feet would’ve been enough at the start to frustrate her sufficiently to give up, now she can retrieve it within seconds.

Even when we hold the covers down so she can’t easily get under them, or we wrap the ball in a wad of covers, she ruthlessly and methodically finds the ball. It’s almost to a point where it’s not a challenge anymore. And I can tell it’s not nearly as much fun for her as it used to be. Something about the chase and the challenge motivates her to improve.

That reward isn’t external. There’s no treat. Certainly there are intangible rewards from the joy we share together, but the real reward is intrinsic. She enjoys the challenge. It’s hardwired into her brain. Just like it’s hard wired into your brain to enjoy the challenge of learning and improving.

The takeaway is simple: goals should be internally motivating for individuals. The only way to achieve this is to let individuals take part in setting their own goals. Certainly there must be a demand that the goals benefit the customer and the organization. That the goals lead to the creation of something that didn’t exist before.

Fortunately, customer satisfaction is often immensely satisfying if individuals can identify their contribution to satisfaction.

Which would you rather identify as? An armrest specialist, or, someone that crafts chairs that provide comfort, prestige and reliability for others?

Helping others is the foundation of high esteem, something no external reward could ever hope to compare to.

Step 5 – Autonomy is essential – nothing kills innovation as fast as a lack of authority and responsibility. How can one improve if they are not allowed to make decisions about the work they do? How can one improve if they don’t take accountability for their actions?

Without autonomy, one cannot change. Without change, one cannot improve. Without improvement, one cannot innovate.

Try as I may, if I pick out the toy at night, Pax will rarely want to play. But, she loves it when we look together, as I take each toy out of her box of toys, she smells it and if it’s the one, she’ll clamp down.

If the goal is to craft a chair with greater comfort, it’s not merely enough to tell people a new way of assembling a new type of chair. It’s not enough for designers to sit in an ivory tower and create the plans for a new chair that are then handed off to someone else to assemble. Everyone involved in crafting the chair should work together to contribute, for everyone will play a part in ultimately creating an innovative chair.

It’s also not productive to have plans drafted and then require approval from someone ten bureaucratic levels above them. Nothing is more effective at exterminating intrinsic motivation.

Autonomy requires 4 things: authority, responsibility, freedom and continuity.

Authority means an individual, or team, has the right to make decisions. They don’t have to turn to someone else’s approval. Of course this comes with limits. For example, a $1 million dollar investment might require approval, but perhaps it’s reasonable to allow up to $10 thousand without.

Responsibility must be demanded and it must be something individuals take. This necessitates that people focus on outcomes not inputs. It’s hard to take responsibility if you are dependent on someone else. If a team is only responsible for half of the chair, how can they improve its comfort if the deficiency in comfort stems from the other half?

Freedom means individuals have the right to decide how they will work, what techniques they will use, when they will work and who they will work with. Of course this is always within reason as there may be practical constraints on some of these aspects. For example a nurse cannot unilaterally decide when he wants to work, but he surely can contribute creative ideas for improved scheduling.

Continuity means that those that decide what to do differently should be the ones that go about doing things differently. It’s disastrous to separate decision making from implementation.

Decision-making is rarely a single event. It’s often a continuous stream of decisions that ultimately lead to an improvement. These decisions don’t stop when implementation begins, in fact, most of the decisions happen in tandem.

Thus if a decision is made, and the result is handed off without context, it’s very difficult for someone implementing the decision to have the perspective necessary to adapt as they go. It’s much more effective if they’re a part of the initial decision, if for nothing else than to understand the initial decision and to continue to make decisions accordingly.

Step 6 – Develop innovative habits – while innovation is innate, developing habits that facilitate making improvement an automatic routine can strengthen the ability. Here are a few habits to get started with:

Reasonable Risk Taking – perhaps the biggest mistake managers make is to assume that people know a desired behavior is acceptable. Even if a behavior is never shunned, that doesn’t mean people don’t have internal feelings that prohibit them from acting.

Improvement necessitates risk taking, failure is often more likely than success. There are strong motivations for people to avoid failure. It’s very possible people may have worked in organizations in the past where failure and change were discouraged.

It’s not wise to assume people know they can take risks simply because one day someone tells them that innovation requires risk taking, and we want innovation, therefore feel free to take risks.

Instead, reasonable risk taking, in the context of innovation, is something that must be encouraged. To do this, the behavior of taking risks must be rewarded. Regardless of the outcome. Therefore it can be counter productive to reward successes. You must also reward failures. In fact you shouldn’t reward either, you should reward the behavior of taking the risk. Of trying something new, in terms of a goal the organization hopes to accomplish.

Objectives & Reflection – it’s virtually impossible to improve if you don’t take the time to assess progress. How else can you determine if efforts are worthwhile or not? Naturally, reflection requires an initial objective and measure to determine progress.

Reflection must be fed into objective setting and then objectives must be used to reflect. Reflection requires three simple questions: what have we accomplished (in terms of our objectives and measures), what isn’t going as planned, what can we do to improve?

Learning – while it’s important to leverage existing knowledge, it’s also important to seek new knowledge. Fortunately, objectives (goals) help narrow the focus for the search of this knowledge. Routinely learning—especially in the context of the objectives at hand—is an essential habit. And learning has to happen at work, it's not enough to expect people to do this in their spare time.

Forward Thinking – it’s not enough to merely concern ourselves with present day affairs. The biggest stumbling block is to set objectives that merely improve upon what we already do. At the expense of preparing us to do what we’ll have to do tomorrow.

In other words, it’s not enough to improve upon what we already provide for customers. It’s important to improve to be able to provide what our future customers will demand and desire.

This requires thinking that goes beyond today. It requires thinking that doesn’t just ask: what can we do. It asks: what should we do. And then how do we get from where we are to where we need to be.

We must develop the habit of not just asking what will boost productivity today, but also asking what investments will boost future productivity. I call this the productivity/investment dichotomy. Businesses usually neglect the latter.

In developing habits—perhaps you could say inclinations—one must do more than talk about them. Here’s the sequence of steps one must transition through to truly foster behavioral changes:

  • One must not actively discourage the behavior, i.e.: verbalizing frustration about change, especially if one is in a position of status.
  • One must not passively discourage the behavior, i.e.: not condoning but also not supporting change.
  • One must actively encourage the behavior, i.e.: extoling the virtue of change, improvement and innovation
  • One must actively display the desired behavior, i.e.: not only extoling but exhibiting the behavior, if you want people to innovate, innovate yourself

There are a myriad of books that can teach techniques that accelerate innovation, techniques such as which sources provide a gold mine of opportunities and how to assess which opportunities to tackle. These are invaluable techniques but without the right environment, they’re irrelevant.

One must first create the environment that unlocks the innate potential to innovate. The only reason why innovation doesn’t exist is if someone has extinguished the innate motivation.