When I first started working in the innovation space many years ago, the novelty of the profession ensured that I approached each exercise with a smile on my face and an eagerness to dive more deeply into topic after topic. As is the case with almost any human endeavor, over time this excitement waxes and wanes and an innovation practitioner needs a mechanism to refresh one’s enthusiasm about the subject matter.
As I read an article recently about how to rekindle excitement for competitive sports, I immediately noticed parallels between what the author, Arianne Brown, was facing and what we in the innovation world face in terms of maintaining our energy levels in pursuit of innovation goals. The author’s five key points for re-injecting fun into competitive sports are definitely instructive for the innovation practitioner faced with the challenge of maintaining intensity over the course of time.
1. Don’t focus on the “W.”
In this recommendation, Brown encourages the competitive athlete to focus more on the “fun” of the athletic pursuit than on the winning and losing of the activity. According to Brown, “[i]f you love what you’re doing and have fun doing it, things will fall into place … [a]nd when the win happens, it will be that much more enjoyable.” Although accountants and minders of ROI models from innovation investment may cringe when they read this, an innovation practitioner should not solely focus on the winning and losing of an initiative. This is important for two reasons. First, innovation by its very nature leads to a lot of failures, and innovators often learn more from the failures than from a handful of successes. Second, by focusing on making innovation an enjoyable activity for the practitioner and the participants in an innovation initiative, the odds are that the team will deliver more creative, free-thinking outcomes. A group of smiling, though serious innovators, will probably generate new ideas at a faster rate than a group of dour individuals.
2. Take a break.
Brown, citing her own experience as a runner, observes that there are times when an athlete simply needs to take a break from a sport in order to rekindle one’s love for the activity. Powering through a low period in one’s enthusiasm for an activity, she notes, can sometimes make the downturn even worse. For the innovation practitioner, the break can apply to one’s individual efforts or to an innovation team or workshop. If the word “grind” appears in discussions about an innovation topic, such as “grinding out an idea” or “powering through a session,” then perhaps one should step away and recharge one’s batteries before continuing. Walking around the building and getting some fresh air can do wonders in terms of improving creative thinking.
3. Run at the back of the pack.
This piece of advice from Brown is a corollary to the concept of taking a break. Running at the back of the pack, she notes, is a good strategy for an athlete on a recovery day but who still is engaged in activity and not taking a break. In the business world, this may be more relevant as few bosses would take kindly to a group of innovation workers taking a lot of breaks. Sometimes one has to keep working, but by operating at the back of the pack, one can maintain a decent pace and still make progress towards the finish line without the intense exertion required to run at the front of the pack. For an innovation team, this could mean spacing out workshops or innovation sessions to avoid the “grind” but still keep momentum going towards the ultimate objective.
4. Remember where it all began.
In this example, Brown recommends that the athlete think about where he or she first experienced true excitement and joy from participating in an athletic endeavor. Focusing on the first time one really had fun at an activity, even if it was many years ago, can ignite the spark that brings one closer to those feelings of happiness about the activity in the present. Thinking about the past forces a person to zero in on the specific feelings that appeared at the time and reminds the person why this activity is so important. For the innovator, it could be the first time one’s idea went from a whiteboard to an actual process change or new product or service. The innovator may not think about the hours, days, weeks, or years that it took to develop that idea, but the moment when the epiphany struck or when the new product went to market is definitely worth revisiting as a form of inspiration for future innovation work.
5. Smile … a lot.
This last piece of advice from Brown may be the most important. Brown harkens back to a race in which she decided to smile as much as possible and noticed that her posture, breathing, and performance was much better and she won the race. For the innovator, a smile is as powerful as a set of brilliant ideas. After all, if an innovator constantly says great things but presents them with a sour disposition, buy-in to those ideas from elsewhere in the organization will be more difficult. Innovation by its very nature is forward-thinking and positive in nature, so smiling should be a key attribute of innovation activities. That does not mean that innovation is not a serious activity, but it does highlight how important it is to make sure that innovation is seen as something worthy of generating happiness for its practitioners.
Brown suggests that every athlete ask the question of whether he or she is having fun in an activity. If the answer is no, then something needs to change. For the innovation practitioner, that advice is definitely worthy of consideration.
Source: Arianne Brown, “Make fun a key ingredient in competitive sports,” Deseret News (August 13, 2014), C6.
image credit: running image from bigstock
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Scott Bowden is a Project Executive, Innovation Program Leader at IBM Global Services.
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