Was I Better Today than Yesterday?

Stefan Lindegaard wrote two interesting posts this morning. The first talked about how a number of people in his open innovation workshop last week were very frustrated with the innovation process within their company. The second followed up a comment that I made on the first one – where he said that he sometimes advises people that are unable to innovate within their firm to find another job.

Both posts resonated with me. The first because I also run into a lot of frustrated people in my classes and workshops. A lot of people feel that they want to be more innovative but that the environment within their organisation prevents this. The first thing that I tell people in this situation is that they should start by trying to innovate as much as they can within the scope of authority and budget that they control. This is similar to Stefan’s suggestion that people manage up in an effort to influence their managers.

This often works. I’ve talked about this problem before – it actually reflects issues both on the part of the frustrated people and on the part of their managers. In many cases, people are waiting for someone to give them permission to innovate – they’re too scared to start on their own. This is a problem – and the first step to being more innovative inside of non-innovative firms is to try stuff.

Most of the time, this will work. Set things up as experiments, and find out what works. Once you learn this, then tell your manager about it. In the vast majority of cases, they’ll be happy to hear about new ideas that work.

But sometimes, they won’t. I’ve been in jobs where I haven’t been able to implement new ideas. It’s incredibly frustrating. It’s disempowering too. That’s why Stefan’s second post also struck home. I learned a lot about frustration from a women that worked for me in New Zealand. She was incredibly smart, and talented. She was innovative and consistently came up with great ideas. So I was incredibly disappointed when she told me that she was leaving for another job.

I did what I could to keep her. But in the end, her problem wasn’t with her salary, or with me. It was with the rest of the team, which was always blocking her ideas. We had been working on that problem together, but couldn’t find a way around it. That’s why she decided to go. I learned a lot about motivation from that experience.

I think that the main points in Dan Pink’s Drive are fundamentally correct. That people want autonomy, mastery and purpose in their jobs – and that if you give them this, they will do well. Here are two questions that get at these points:

Two questions that can change your life from Daniel Pink on Vimeo.

The second one in particular is critical – “was I better today than yesterday?” Are you building skills? Are you improving? Are you happier? If you don’t like the answers to these questions, than maybe you do need to think about looking for another job.

(the graphic is another one from the awesome Hugh MacLeod)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

10 thoughts on “Was I Better Today than Yesterday?

  1. Great post Tim, it hits home for me too.

    Getting turned down constantly is the beginning of the end as far as I’m concerned because the person who comes up with fresh ideas STOPS ideating/thinking (aka caring) and therefore is looking to take his/her ideas somewhere where they can be implemented.

    Best case scenario for that person is he/she ends up building a business out the ideas and does it better than the previous employer.

    Worst case scenario for the previous employer is they’ve been outdone by a former employee and want to shoot themselves for not paying attention.

    As you know some of the most successful companies in human history were born this way, the entrepreneur scratched his own itch.

  2. Really good points Jorge. I think what you’re talking about definitely holds true for people that have entrepreneurial ideas. There are also people that don’t have ideas big enough to start a firm around that still run into this problem too – which is where your first point comes in. Even if these people don’t leave to start up their own company, they become disengaged and uninterested – which is bad no matter what.

  3. “Was I better today than yesterday?” – Tim, you are absolutely right in that this is an excellent question to ask of oneself.

    Constraints are a way of life. I have yet to work in a corporation that had infinite resources, money, and time. So from that respect, part of the innovation in firms is not just creativity but more an optimization problem. How can I – given the limited resources – innovate a certain process or product or service?

    Another approach I have taken and also advised others on is to broaden your domain. Meaning, if you have an innovative mind but your boss or group does not like your ideas, then look around and try to help someone else innovate by providing critical inputs. Just cross-breeding of thoughts can sometimes result in amazing creativity — and you will have a nice side-effect of broadening your network and making new friends.

    Having said that, I have always encouraged folks to move on to other pastures if they felt they are going inert and lethargic in the current environment in spite of these alternative approaches. As you said, if one is not continuously improving or feels that they are going stale they definitely should not be wasting the next five years getting deeper in the wrong direction.

    Enjoyed the post.

  4. Domain broadening is an excellent suggestion Ned! I did something similar in the situation that I outlined, but in the end the atmosphere within the team was just no good. But it’s certainly a worthwhile idea to try.

  5. “waiting for someone to give them permission to innovate” — isn’t that analogous to waiting for permission to lead?

    In both cases, if you ain’t doin’ it, you ain’t doin’t it.

  6. Hi Tim,

    Nice thread about having an environment to bred new ideas as critical for an interesting rewarding innovative work environment. I’m in the middle of a PhD in biotech/nanotech type engineering and stuck with a supervisor that treats all ideas that didn’t originate within his mind as not worthy of discussion. I think they are great ideas, well at least even just to disucss for the sake of developing ideas but my impression is disregards them immediately.

    Its a terribly disempowering environmnet and one that for a PhD is certainly not what I was expecting. If I was employed I think I’d just find a new job and take my skills, energy and drive elsewhere. However, as a student half way through a PhD thats a very big decision to make and one that I’m not willing to make as I enjoy the discipline and want to finish my PhD. The question is; how does one develop processes and systems to get around the disempowering supervisor as sometimes quitting is just not an option.


  7. Thanks for stopping by Dave. I’m sorry that you’re in that position – it is incredibly disempowering and frustrating. Particularly in science PhDs that can be a big problem, and there aren’t many good answers. To some extent you probably just have to figure out a way to get through it as quickly as possible.

    One thing to consider is whether you might be able to bring in a second supervisor who might be able to balance the first one a bit. If you’ve gone through confirmation it’s often normal to add to the supervisory team at that point. That would at least give you another voice in those meetings (and probably more importantly, another set of ears).

    Good luck with it! Sorry to not be of more help.

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