We watch (sometimes enviously) as teams make these ideas of “innovation” and “creativity” feel like a natural occurrence, and we wonder, “How can we do that?” Our response tends to be too staccato, too sporadic. We hire someone with “innovation” in their title. We jump in a room to brainstorm. We schedule a team retreat to break from the norm.
This doesn’t address the underlying issue, that our way of operating isn’t cutting it. Rather than make innovation a discrete thing, something to focus on from THIS moment until THAT one, shouldn’t our aim be to make innovation consistent? To make creativity consistent?
Teams that organically innovate, who seem to just naturally and routinely exceed expectations no matter the changing times, all exhibit four underlying traits.
The process of doing the work is its own reward. They aren’t focused on skipping to the end, on blinking their eyes and pointing to the results they generated. When we’re intrinsically motivated as a team, we become moment-oriented, experiencing enjoyment in the here and now, instead of ending-oriented (which is how most work turns into a chore). Additionally, to be intrinsically motivated is to focus entirely on the process and the enjoyment of that process. This means we seek it out more, and we seek to improve it. We become keenly aware when something is growing stale and needs refreshing.
The tradeoff to make to become intrinsically motivated is hard for many leaders to encourage: Purpose-over-Profit. Choosing the vision over the metrics as the motivating factor and getting alignment on WHY we do the work can be the most liberating thing … and the thing that drives greater results. Funny how that happens.
Having the bias to act. Teams that are consistently creative admit that knowing the answer in theory matters far less than finding it in reality. They test, tinker, and reflect. They identify whatever is growing stale (being intrinsically motivated helps them naturally pick up on that), and then they experiment with the best ways to improve them. They don’t do this on the macro level, either. They aren’t implementing sweeping changes, because they never reach the point where they need to do so. If we have to make giant changes, that’s a sign we weren’t paying attention all along. We were clinging to one solution too long, instead of constantly exploring.
The tradeoff we make is thus to explore rather than to exploit. We don’t see our current position as the best one, ever. We know there’s always room for improvement. “If it ain’t broke, fix it anyway,” is far more likely to be heard on the lips of those who are consistently creative than the more common or “correct” quote. In the end, explorers take little steps all the time, constantly updating their knowledge. They recognize that creativity doesn’t mean big. It’s the sum of lots of little choices, all strung together.
This means we have a preference to find and build on what’s going well to create success that compounds over time. I was an English literature major, so I had to double check, but the formula for momentum is as follows:
Momentum = Mass * Velocity
We tend to over-index on time spent caring about velocity. We undervalue mass — not “more stuff,” mind you, but “more stuff that’s going well.” Lean into what’s working, not to put it on repeat, but to explore it and change it and evolve it and apply it to more things.
Few things are as motivating or as exhilarating as using current progress to create more progress. It rallies teams, and it creates results that compound. Rather than pure hustle-based work (like digging holes in dry sand), the previous work makes the current work more effective, while the current work makes future work effective too.
To be momentum obsessed as a team is to tweak the standard way we operate in business, however. Companies are normally viewed as complex sets of problems to solve, which then unlocks growth as you do so. Instead, those who are momentum obsessed view companies as systems built to unearth a few things that work … so we can then build on top of that.
Inquiring into what’s going well, so we can both build on top of that and use the good to address the bad, is a process called “appreciative inquiry.” (Sue Annis Hammond writes a nice little guide to this called The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry, available on Amazon.)
Lastly, teams that are consistently creative are…
The bestselling author AJ Jacobs writes about this brilliantly in the article, “An Entrepreneur’s Most Important Tool: Self-Delusion.” In it, he points to the quote from Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity, who rightly claims, “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.”
Expanding on AJ’s writing on the subject, from an individual entrepreneur to an entire team of thoughtful people, I’d define the need to be usefully delusional pretty simply: The confidence to act as if.
We’re all doing something kind of insane, when you think about it: We’re trying to make a difference. (To a single other person, to a group of people, to millions of people, it’s all the same: an irrational desire.) Nobody has ever set out to do something that they were 100% convinced they sucked at, only to trip into the kind of success we crave. Doing innovative work involves nothing if not the people behind that work, all acting as if.
Creativity might be portrayed as big, random acts. Innovation might come off as giant stunts. Make no mistake: The teams who make creativity a habit, not a Hail Mary, reject the silver bullets and embrace a way of operating. These four traits can help.