Highly Skilled People
A Supportive Infrastructure
Motivation - if any aspect of executive leadership is overworked and overhyped it is motivation. We all have either observed highly motivated organizations, or if very fortunate, have experienced the exhilaration of being a part of a highly motivated group.
There are two quite different sorts of things that affect motivation. It is helpful to think of them as intrinsic and extrinsic influences that motivate people. Extrinsic factors are such things as incentive compensation, and elements of the environment in which we work. In general extrinsic factors motivate people to go beyond merely “getting by,” to perform beyond normal expectations. In short extrinsic motivational factors have to do with performance.
That is an important part of organization design and management practice. But what I’m concerned with in this series of notes is innovation and the characteristics of highly innovative organizations. So what is it that motivates people to innovate? What motivates us to look for novel ways to meet some need? Certainly external circumstances are a part of the answer. The need for alternatives to fossil fuels as an energy source so as to improve economic sustainability has created a burst of innovation. For example, in my blog “New Plus Ultra” (2/20/08) I talked about capacitor innovation.
The lead article in the “Business” section of the March 1st Economist features three executives - Shai Agassi (SAP), Elan Musk (Pay Pal), Vinod Khosta (venture capital) for whom the challenge and excitement of “green technology,” and in particular electric powered vehicles, is a powerful motivation to move from the world of information technology to “greener” pastures.
In The Eye for Innovation I tell the story of Hilda Pridgeon for whom the external circumstances of her life -- her husband developed early-age onset of Alzheimers -- motivated her to start a support group for similarly afflicted families, an innovation that finally led to the formation of the National Alzheimers Association.
So external circumstances, happenstance if you will, can provide powerful motivation to innovate. But what we’re talking about here is executive leadership: what managers and executives can do to motivate, to stimulate, to awaken innovation in their organizations. Surely there is something beyond just sitting around and waiting for cataclysmic change to motivate novel improvements in how we live, play and work.
Leadership in motivating innovation means first and foremost instilling in people an intense belief that the product or service they are delivering is important to human welfare. Moreover, it means making every task meaningful to that purpose.
That was true for Control Data when it began its quest for the world’s most power computers in 1957. It was true for Michael Dell in proving the effectiveness of direct marketing for personal computers. Clearly it has been true for the people working at Google. I find it equally true on a much smaller scale in companies such as Les LaMotte’s Xtra Lite Display Systems here in Minneapolis, and in the small hand of people teaching and guiding would be entrepreneurs at Dakota County Technical College under the leadership of Christine Pigsley, and in an amazing little company founded and run by Julie Hellwich called Smart Women. In all of these situations, with products or services ranging from the mundane to those at the leading edge of technology, there is a leader who has great energy and radiates enthusiasm for and belief in what they do. More than that, they radiate a belief that what they do makes a difference for their customers and for the community in which they live.
So motivation, the inseparable companion of awareness, starts “at home” - with oneself. There are many ways that an executive can help generate an environment of innovation. Eliminating the fear of failure as discussed in chapter four of The Eye for Innovation is one of the most important. But all that begins with an intense belief in oneself and a deep seated conviction that your organization can and will make a difference.