It shouldn't be hard to see that one of the core strategies for achieving differentiation should involve some form of innovation.
Sure, we can hold the concept of innovation at arms length, and say "yup, that's important all right", but how many of us believe it's our individual responsibility to continually innovate at work?
Perhaps not enough, I'd argue.
How This Came About
Given my age and role in the EMC organization, I am flattered to have a number of people who consider me their informal "career coach". When time allows, we can talk freely about careers, politics, strategies and all that stuff that's oh-so-important, but somehow rarely gets talked about openly and honestly.
People want the same satisfaction out of their career as they get out of their relationships: deep, engaging, rewarding, etc. And careers, like relationships, can sometimes hit a rough patch due to misaligned expectations.
The more you do something, the more you tend to see patterns. And one of the career coaching patterns that seems to trap some people has to do with their attitudes towards innovation and creativity.
A mid-level manager and/or individual contributor comes to my office. They're doing alright, but starting to get frustrated.
We get to talking. They feel that their career has stalled or isn't moving as fast as they'd like to. So we start probing around for potential root causes.Sometimes there's something you can identify and fix, sometimes not. But it's always interesting to poke around a bit and see what comes up.
One of the questions I always ask is "how much innovating are you doing?". Frequently, that question is returned with a blank stare and a "what do you mean?".
I ask them how much time and effort they are spending working on stuff that's not their assigned work -- figuring out how to solve a business problem or create some sort of new incremental value either in your current work function or elsewhere in the company.
Hey, I'm Doing My Job
Frequently, this question results in a set of defensive statements around delivering high-quality work, attending and participating in all the group meetings, meeting objectives, and so on. Basically, the mindset is "I'm doing everything my boss asked me to do".
I think the expectation is that -- somehow -- just doing what you've been asked to do -- and doing it very well -- somehow automatically qualifies you for better job experiences, promotion, increased compensation, etc.
That's table stakes, in my book.
Doing what you've been asked to do, and occasionally going the extra mile as circumstances require -- well, that makes you somewhat eligible for consideration, but that's about it. Certainly, I wouldn't promote or reward anyone who *didn't* meet these minimum criteria, but more is required.
A lot more.
I get accused sometimes of being brutally direct and honest, but it's an effective way of getting a point across with maximum impact and effect.
So I start by saying -- imagine that your team's work could be completely accomplished by machines: robots, computers, whatever?
I, as a manager, would be motivated to spend the least amount of money possible to get the machine that did the work required. I wouldn't necessarily feel obligated to give the machine a raise or a promotion, or give it more interesting work to do. Sure, I'd take care of its basic needs so it could perform its function, but that's about it.
Now, imagine one of those theoretical working machines found a way to continually improve itself.
Not only that, but it kept coming up with clever ways to improve the work of the team, especially as it related to other groups that it interacted with. Occasionally, it would find a way to improve things far outside of its assigned work responsibility. Over time, the other machines would come to it for ideas and suggestions.
Of course, not all of its ideas and efforts were successful, but that didn't matter -- there was a continual stream of innovation and creativity coming from this particular machine, in sharp contrast to all the other machines on the team.
How would I, as a manager, treat this particular and very unique machine?
Very differently from all the others, especially if I was a good manager. And, if I was not a good manager, this particular machine would probably be smart enough to figure out how to work for a manager better than I.This Is A Completely Theoretical Discussion
Now, it isn't the case that most human work can be accomplished by machines, and there's far more to the employer/employee relationship than that, but it's an interesting analogy to consider.
The basic premise is simple, though: people who bring innovation and creativity to the table tend to be far more valuable than those that don't. Usually, it's not about the occasional "big idea", it's more a river of suggestions, insights, experiments, etc. that reflects a curious and inquisitive mind.
Back To Our Dialog
So, now the person I'm doing the career coaching with is usually by now starting to get very defensive. "I'm innovative, I'm creative, but no one listens to me!" they might say.
Fine. Can you tick off a list of ideas and efforts you've been engaged in over the last few years? Well ...
You get the picture. Perhaps the person sees themselves as creative and/or innovative, but can't really articulate specific ideas and concepts they've actually worked on to bring to fruition -- either alone, or with others.
The other aspect I have to point out is that there's usually work involved: effort to articulate the idea, engage others constructively, put some effort into validating and/or substantiating the idea, and so on.
It's not enough to occasionally daydream :-)The 20% Rule?
One of the things that Google is known for is its "20% policy" -- you're encouraged to spend 20% of your time working on stuff that you haven't been assigned to do. Now, the reality is probably very different, but it's a good thought that shows the principle at work.
If you, as a worker, manager or leader, spent 20% of your time working on new, creative and innovative stuff that wasn't really on any official radar screen -- either alone, or with others -- over time, how would that change how you're perceived?
Positively, I'd argue. And, if for some strange reason, your management team doesn't see this as a positive use of your time, I'd make the case that perhaps you need to make some changes in that regard.
I've "fired my manager" in the past; you can too.The Magic of Engagement
Innovation and creativity -- like playing music -- is so much more fun when you do it with others.
Not only do you come up with better ideas and plans, but you lessen the inherent competitiveness and conflict when you start trying to change things. Not to mention, when more people are engaged, bigger things are possible.
So, as a result, I encourage people to invest time to seek out other people who are of like mind: curious, restless, innovative, creative, etc. Find some common ground, and hopefully find something to go work on together.
At EMC, that was one of the things we expected to get out of our internal social platform, EMC|ONE -- a way to find people across the company who were interested in the same sorts of things that you were -- regardless of where they worked or what they did.
Back To The Beginning
So much of career coaching is simply holding up a mirror to people, and asking what they see, or -- more importantly -- trying to figure out what other people perceive about us.
How would you like to be perceived? If you're frustrated about your career, how is that a direct result of how people perceive you? And, more importantly, what can you do to change it? And, needless to say, don't expect anyone to go do this for you -- not your management, not HR -- it's you're responsibility and no one else's.
Sure, sometimes there are bad contextual situations where you're the right person in the wrong place at the wrong time, but those situations are easily identifiable, and it's pretty easy to figure out what to do next.
More often is it the case that all the required opportunity is right at hand -- and all we have to do is unlock the innovator within.