Friday, August 5, 2016

Motivating Innovation: Fear, Competition, and the Russians

Is your company or team getting lazy?  Does it seem like people are just going through the motions?  Do you miss the sense of urgency and the thrill of achievement?  How do you get that back?

Fear is often considered a good motivator.  It gets the heart pumping and creates a sense of urgency that can be motivating.  However, this can cut both ways.  Unfocused fear can create feelings of panic, confusion, and eventually helplessness and anger.  For instance, imagine the CEO of a company says “The company is in financial trouble, and if the next product isn’t a winner, we’ll have to start layoffs.”  Is this motivating?

Imagine the workforce was getting complacent.  This perked them up.  Now they fear for their jobs.  But what are they going to do about it?  In a work environment where the connection between action and results is very clear, they will work harder.  For instance, if you’re an assembly plant worker, and working faster or more hours will yield success, then fear might motivate you to work faster and get that last car off the assembly line.  This is not so true in an innovation driven occupation.  

The fear response triggers the autonomic fight or flight part of the brain, sending the creative functions to the background.  You cannot just grit your teeth and focus on coming up with a great idea RIGHT NOW.  Even worse, fear drives people to think about self preservation rather than collaboration.  Some people may undermine others to make sure they keep their positions or budgets when the ax falls.  Others will do the math and realize that they can’t guarantee that the next product will be a winner.  Accordingly, they will start looking for opportunities outside the company.  By broadly spreading fear, you can kill motivation rather than spark it.

But what if you just tweak it a bit?  Can you still get the heart pumping, but push the team towards creative collaboration?  Time-bounded competition provides the kick in the pants without triggering the panic impulse.  Often competition can lead to fear which can lead to the sinking ship effect.  But competition can also be used along with hope to supercharge the team and make people more creative and effective.  Having an “enemy” helps a team take an abstract feeling and focus it into something that is actionable.  It turns the fear of loss into the excitement of winning.  It provides clarity, hope, and a tangible commonality for the team.

As an example, let’s examine how America has reacted to impending climate change.  Many parties have tried to create change by talking about the impending sea level rise and how this is going to flood cities and kill off billions.    Even worse, this is our own darn fault, and can only be solved if everyone stops… everything.  “Fact” or not, this is simply not a very motivating message.  It triggers the fear response.  People deny that such a calamity can happen, especially if there is no action that could really solve it.  The mountain seems to high to climb.

But imagine if it turned out that the Russians were trying to get global warming to happen.  Their land would become more arable, and the balance of power in the world could shift.  They would dominate the new arctic ocean trade routes. They are also developing renewable technologies.  The first nation to get to zero carbon will become an economic powerhouse and dominate trade.  Suddenly, the problem has become much more tangible.  The Russians will get to zero carbon emissions.  We can beat them to it.  We WILL beat them to it, just like we beat them to the moon.  We will inspire a generation of innovators in the same way the Mission to the Moon did.  Because invention loves races.

This technique has worked very well for things like the Darpa Grand Challenge, where teams went from zero self driving vehicles finishing the race to five in a single year.  In a different take, the X Prize Foundation sponsors several challenges that inspire hundreds of teams.  The prize money is a fraction of what would have been needed to make this kind of progress through traditional means.

Think about your own innovation challenges.  Is there a way competition can be leveraged to get your team motivated and having fun again?