Innovation as Self-Actualization

Innovation as Self-ActualizationI’ve been reading a number of books about how to increase engagement and excitement at work. Two on my desk right now are Bury my heart at Conference Room B (which I have mixed feelings about) and the other is The Progress Principle (which I will be reviewing on this blog shortly). Both books speak to the fact that businesses are more effective when they engage their people in what their values are, what the employees care about. To boil it down, the best businesses, the most successful businesses are those that have a purpose, and that purpose resonates and is important to the people within the business. Whether you want to call this bringing your “whole self” to work or engaging your passion at work, or another descriptor, I think the main points are correct.

What’s interesting is to explore this effect on the ability to innovate in an organization. I’ve often argued that most firms innovate when they are forced to, by competitors or circumstances, or when they believe they can accelerate into even greater leadership. The first is reactionary, based on fear, while the latter is proactive, based on confidence and vision. In my experience, firms that attempt to innovate in a reactive way often have cramped views of the future, are fearful of short term results and are limited in their thinking and creativity. The Progress Principle has chapters that confirm this – the more stress that employees are under, the more antagonistic the atmosphere, the less creativity and the more difficult innovation becomes.

Perhaps the best way to think about this is to consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If you’ve had Psych 101, you’ve studied Maslow. In the early 1940s he devised a way to think about the kinds of needs we have as humans and the prioritization of those needs. They are, in order:

  • Physiological
  • Safety
  • Love/Belonging
  • Esteem
  • Self-Actualization

Maslow’s point was that we first look for our physiological needs and satisfy them – air, water, food, shelter. Once those are satisfied we seek safety and security – in our bodies, in our jobs and so forth. Then we seek to join groups – family, community and networks. Then, once these needs are satisfied, we seek esteem, which he defines as achievement and the respect of others. Finally, we seek self-actualization:

This level of need pertains to what a person’s full potential is and realizing that potential. Maslow describes this desire as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.[9] This is a broad definition of the need for self-actualization, but when applied to individuals the need is specific. For example one individual may have the strong desire to become an ideal parent, in another it may be expressed athletically, and in another it may be expressed in painting, pictures, or inventions.[10] As mentioned before, in order to reach a clear understanding of this level of need one must first not only achieve the previous needs, physiological, safety, love, and esteem, but master these needs. (Taken directly from the Wikipedia site)

In other words, we seek to develop and acquire higher order skills and capabilities once lower order needs are fulfilled. I’ll argue that innovation can help solve problems in any of these levels – certainly you can use creative thinking and innovation to find more food, which our early ancestors did, or to create more safety using weapons. However, the culmination of human experience – self-actualization according to Maslow, is about becoming everything you want to be and can be, as innovative and as creative as you want to be, in any field or course of action you choose. Maslow’s pyramid actually includes the words “creativity” and “problem solving” as examples of self-actualization. This is the point where innovation and creativity become activities that drive ever more beneficial outcomes, rather than satisfying physical and psychic needs.

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So, perhaps we are designed for creativity and innovation, but only when other, very important needs are fulfilled. And right now, in this time and in this economy, uncertainty about basic needs is creeping in. Many find innovation and creativity difficult to consider when issues like job security or financial security are at risk. In this economy these lower level needs are now less fully satisfied, and this uncertainty is distracting innovators from achieving higher levels of innovation.

We certainly can’t “wish away” the uncertainties of the present, and we must acknowledge the risks to “safety” and “belonging” but everyone, in every firm, must refocus our efforts on innovation and creativity to help accelerate our economy out of these doldrums. In effect, we are working toward achieving some of our most ascendant goals – creativity and innovation. When we focus on lesser goals, it creates disappointment, disengagement and frustration. Our brains are built, and our psyches are designed to dream bigger and want more, which is the basis for innovation. Let’s continue to focus on the larger goals, even in the midst of uncertain times.

What can this mean? For businesses that want more creativity and innovation, help your people, as much as possible, fulfill these lower level needs of safety, security and esteem. Only then can they focus their efforts and their thinking on creativity and innovation. Think specifically about “belonging” – who do your innovators “belong” to? Are they well-respected and constantly reinforced, or isolated and considered a bit out of the mainstream? What about “esteem”? Is their work rewarded and recognized, or is it held in some sort or contempt? If your culture inhibits the innovators from belonging or limits esteem, it will inevitably inhibit innovation, which in some way creates barriers that don’t allow people to achieve their highest goals.

For governments, we need to establish more certainty so people are more focused on higher order needs. This means creating and sustaining clear courses of action, so that people can plan and understand what will happen, and how they can achieve more within the frameworks.

As long as people are uncertain about their base needs, innovation takes a back seat in any sphere – private or public, government or for-profit. But once we help people shore up those basic needs, we can then encourage, sustain and reward innovation that will flow naturally if we allow it to.

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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and

Jeffrey Phillips




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  1. Deborah Mills-Scofield on September 8, 2011 at 2:22 pm


    You’re right – and that’s why Maslow’s hierarchy has endured. One of the previous heads of the Cleveland Public School District said that if she could just get the kids in, get them fed and warm, they stood a chance. Without that, it was futile. While you need constraints to innovate (I think) – as in resources perhaps, you need to feel respected and free to innovate to the fullest.

    Thank you! deb

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