The key to innovation is… happiness at work

Top Dog Live 2008

I spent Tuesday in London at Top Dog Live, an innovation conference arranged by WhatIf Innovation, the world’s largest independent innovation agency.

I’ve been a long-time fan of WhatIf, both for the cool way they do business and for the amazingly nice people who work there, and this event did not disappoint. It was interesting, different, fun, inspiring and worth every penny of the (fairly high) ticket price.

The theme of the event was innovation in tough times. With a recession looming, many businesses are cutting back on innovation and that’s precisely the wrong thing to do. Remember: A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

The speakers were many and varied – my favorites included Rachel Mooney, head of HR at Google, Lars Gejrot, head of HR at IKEA, Mike Addison og Procter & Gamble and Wim Roelandts, chairman of the board of Xilinx.

And here’s my main take-away from the day: Though the conference was about innovation, 80% of the talk was about people – and more specifically about making employees happy at work. That’s what they do at Google and IKEA and that’s why they’re innovative.

Furthermore, there was very little talk about compensation schemes, bonuses and stock options and much more focus on praise, recognition, good leadership, openness, trust, freedom and fun in the workplace.

I’ve written about this before. According to research by Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School, happy people are more creative:

If people are in a good mood on a given day, they’re more likely to have creative ideas that day, as well as the next day, even if we take into account their mood that next day.

There seems to be a cognitive process that gets set up when people are feeling good that leads to more flexible, fluent, and original thinking, and there’s actually a carryover, an incubation effect, to the next day.

So most of the speakers who could’ve been talking about innovation processes or creativity or brainstorming techniques or reward structures for new ideas were basically focuses on making people happy at work, knowing that that will make them more creative.

I like it :o)

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7 thoughts on “The key to innovation is… happiness at work”

  1. That people are more innovative when they are happy is not exactly breakthrough knowledge. What is amazing is that so few executives and managers realize that truth.

    In my 30+ years of managing people and attempting to unleash each employee’s full potential of creativity, innovation, productivity, motivation, and commitment, I had to develop a set of tools to achieve that goal. After my first 12 years, I began to understand that the traditional top-down command and control approach was a real loser and started moving away from it. When I eventually moved to it opposite, that of bottom-up, and had my subordinate managers and supervisors using the same tools, I achieved that lofty goal. In the process, I learned that people are at least four times more capable than we think. This was managerial nirvana because we were able to blow away our competition and almost everyone loved to come to work.

    Our problem is that most of society is authoritarian in nature, top-down, and that includes parents, teachers, churches, government, and the media. All this indoctrination causes the vast majority of managers to use what they were subjected to throughout their upbringing, not realizing that it is the worst way to manage people.

    There is no doubt that Google has unleashed much innovation, not through training managers but mainly through having so few that they are unable to micromanage workers, by providing all sorts of useful support such as oil changes for cars, and by mandating 20% of the employee’s hours as free time to be used as the employee sees fit. Although I trained managers on exactly what to do and not do with their people, I can imagine that the Google approach might be as effective as mine though I tend to doubt it.

    Best regards, Ben

    Best regards, Ben

  2. I think there is a difference between making people happy and creating a company culture that allows people to be happy. I think we have to be a bit careful with the idea of making people happy. We may make someone happy by implementing their idea. But what if it is a bad idea? What if we know it will hurt the company? What if it makes other employees unhappy? Creating a culture that allows people to be happy is one in which the employee knows that his her efforts, results, and ideas are appreciated even if they are not implemented. It is one in which they will try again and again even when they fail.

  3. I found this blog very interesting – keep up the good work ^^ If you’re willing to share, what theme have you installed on this site? It’s amazing and I’d love to know if it’s a free one.

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