Happiness, Meaning & Innovation

Can an organization be too customer oriented? What are the consequences of letting short term requirements of existing customers cannibalize the exploration of your own an agenda? How can a sense of meaning be reinstalled in disillusioned development organizations? Read Susanna's latest blog post to find out.

Some time ago I had lunch with a friend. She and her husband had just returned from a short sabbatical. His passion is wine and wine making and when an opportunity to go and work at a winery appeared they grabbed it. When talking about the experience my friend admitted that she had done it mostly for his sake even though she had enjoyed some of it too. That led to us exchanging thoughts about our passions, our interests outside “the musts” with work and family and we were both unsure of what we would pursue. In addition, we both admitted some false comfort in using our spouses interests as an excuse to feel overly responsible for food and family instead of taking the time to find and develop a true hobby. We were both jealous of our spouses though, feeling that a part of us was dissatisfied.

Interestingly enough, I have found similar behavior at some of the companies I work with. Development departments claim to be customer driven and market orientated on one hand and on the other hand they’re frustrated about not creating enough innovation, using all available time to try to catch up an ever growing list of demands of product development and sales, aka customers, even testifying a sense of disillusion amongst co-workers. They say that they are stuck in not having enough resources, wanting to but not knowing how to act differently, knowing that the brainpower is there but is not reflected in the results.

Could it be, I wonder, that they, just as my friend and I also feel some comfort in this? After all, being a victim of circumstances is quite nice. Blame circumstances instead of taking accountability for ones behaviors and decisions. Is it not easier to put oneself into the hands of somebody else, a customer or a partner and let them decide what you should do instead of going into an uncertain and sometimes ambiguous process of exploring what it is that they as an organization or I as a person really want?

How do you know it’s the right ladder if you always have somebody else to decide which to climb?

Research shows that the amount of happiness co-workers experience at work is correlated to creativity and the capability to innovate – the happier the more creative and the better innovation. And as it turns out, one of the two factors (the other one being relationships) that heavily influences the happiness level is results: the feeling of making a difference, of creating meaning. Of going home knowing that a good day of work was done. Stephen Covey (author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) compares being successful (or rather having a career) to climbing a ladder, emphasizing the importance to climbing the right one in order to create meaningful results. So I ask: How do you know it’s the right ladder if you always have somebody else to decide which to climb? If all you do is try to satisfy existing customers and never explore your own ideas.

Short term it may be comforting to have someone else making the decisions for you, but experience tells me that you’re only prolonging the issue of figuring how to make meaning, hoping to avoid dealing with it by using the “somebody else” as a shield of false protection. The price is loosing the sense of meaning since the only thing you do is carry out someone else’s ideas, not your own. No meaning, no happiness. No happiness, no creativity nor innovation. As simple as that.

It is a big mistake to let customer requirements take over at the expense of an agenda of ones own.

You may think that I am pushing things a bit here, but I believe that we as human beings create our organizations, not squares in a Powerpoint presentation. If we are dissatisfied or have lost the sense of doing something meaningful then that will be the state of our organizations as well. I do not argue against customer orientation. But what I see is a deeply unbalanced situation. It is a big mistake to let customer requirements take over at the expense of an agenda of ones own. In many companies the development department is the heart of the innovation activities. It consists of highly skilled engineers with advanced thoughts on where to go in the future and great ideas supporting those thoughts. But if they never get to explore their own ideas at the expense of constantly doing incremental innovation for existing customers then they loose the sense of meaning.

So I say to all of you who want to increase the level of innovation: make sure to have an agenda of your own, a few development projects and activities independent of customer demands. It will add to the sense of creating meaning and allow you to feel complete ownership of an idea or a project. And let your employees and co-workers explore their talents in a way that completes managing daily life and short term issues.

As for myself, I decided to consciously set aside time this summer to pursue one of my interests, kicking it of by watching the documentary of el Bulli (“Cooking in action”). I have chopped, fried, cooked and baked, not because I had to, but only but because I wanted to. It felt great.

By Susanna Bill

About the author


Susanna is the former Head of Innovation at Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications. In 2009 she founded Sustenance AB and since then shares her time between advising corporate leaders in how to make innovation happen by strengthening the innovation capabilities of their organizations, and pursuing a PhD at the department of Design Sciences at Lund University, focusing on the social processes that are beneficial for the innovation capabilities of self organizing teams. Susanna is a sought after speaker and panelist and the moderator of Innovation in Mind conference.

  • Prakash Rama

    A true eye-opener and inspiring. Inhind-sight reflecting own feelings and experiences. The last bit ” Cooking in Action ” ahows Susanna.s integrity.

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