How to Drive a Culture of Innovation Powered by Wellbeing
People Are Our #1 Asset for Innovation
Often, we hear companies say that people and/or human capital are their most important asset. Essentially, they are suggesting that without the right people or talent, a company would not be able to successfully compete. This suggests that in order to succeed in the long-run, it is critical that companies protect their most important asset. With this as a guiding value, I believe it is critical that companies include wellbeing into their innovation strategy.
Usually design thinking, disruption, technical skills, etc. comes to mind when we think of innovation. However, wellbeing must also be a major part of a company’s strategy for driving innovation and success.
People who are burnt out, stressed, or anything that negatively impacts our wellbeing will find it difficult to be at their best. We know this to be true personally, so just imagine this being the case throughout an entire company.
No Company or Job Can Be 100% Perfect
That said, I don’t think the solution is to create the perfect company culture and environment. With imperfect people at the heart of organizations, it is not fair to set such a target. We are human and we will have our bad days, make mistakes, have oversights, etc. Essentially, there will never be a perfect company to work for or job to have. However, we can design to operate as closely as possible to that.
We’ve all had days that were difficult, only to be rescued by a magical moment. Sometimes that moment was so powerful that it washed over all the tough parts of the day. For many years, I served as a high school and middle school math teacher. There were many occasions where a tough day (thanks to an imperfect job) was made incredible thanks to the success or breakthrough of a student. Sometimes, it was just a few kind words of gratitude from a student that made my entire day.
Magic Moments Go a Long Way
It is well documented that an expression of gratitude or a moment of acknowledgement can make all the difference in making a day great. Ultimately, magic moments or experiences have a way of making a day great. Since no job is perfect, it is critical that leaders create these magic moments, by design.
Two Powerful Ingredients for Creating Magic Moments
According to Tony Robbins, there are two human needs that contribute the most to fulfillment – growth and contribution. Take a moment to think about how you feel when you are learning and growing in a new skill or ability? There is a powerful sense of satisfaction that comes from unlocking a new skill or level. Now reflect on a moment when you are serving others? Perhaps you taught a workshop, mentored someone, helped a colleague, or served your favorite non-profit. As a teacher, I experience a profound level of fulfillment from serving my students and unlocking their best performance.
Experiencing growth and contribution can drive wellbeing by overcoming the negative effects of an imperfect company or job. It can also provide you with the fuel to address the source of some of the problems negatively impacting your work. Imagine addressing a difficult challenge with your manager after teaching others in your company a new skill or strategy. Your state, energy, mind, and body are all stronger when the time comes to address the challenge.
Below are two ways companies can, by design, create the conditions for magic moments and experiences. When people are operating from this place, they can overcome difficult challenges and unleash a better version of themselves. This fulfilled version of people are significantly more effective in leading and managing others.
Personal Growth Creates a Spirit of Innovation and Creativity
Imagine for a moment that your work place is a breeding ground for growth and contribution. Meaning that the culture of your company expects and paves the way for you to grow and contribute by design. Powered by that incredible fulfillment and some thoughtful design, companies can harness that energy into innovation. When people are at their best, they can solve any problem in the market or organization, no matter how difficult or impossible it may seem.
To that end, I believe innovation strategy should put wellbeing at the center. Powered by these two human needs, companies have an opportunity to align innovation with wellbeing in a strategic and practical way.
Build-Measure-Learn for Growth
The book, The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, is considered by many to be required reading for aspiring founders and innovative startups. One of the ideas Eric shares in the book is the “build-measure-learn” framework. Essentially, this framework guides us to quickly build our ideas into experiments, measure them for data, and learn from that data in order to make some iterations or a pivot into a next experiment. If you repeat this cycle over and over, your ideas evolve into better versions of itself guided by real feedback.
Developing new skills and abilities is actually no different. When I taught math, I leveraged the same framework to help my math students learn and grow more efficiently and effectively. This led to students reporting that they enjoyed learning math, even if math was not their favorite subject. That is, they found the magic moments in what was a less than desirable subject.
Companies have an opportunity to empower and create the space for their people to pursue learning interests and passions internally. Essentially, companies can empower their people to build, measure, and learn their way into new skills and ideas. The practice of this framework in our own growth and development will eventually have spillover effects into the organization’s mission.
Perhaps your company doesn’t approach growth and development this way. Instead it might look more traditional with internal courses and learning modules offered in exchange for badges and certificates. If that is the case, the good news is that, as individuals, we can drive our own build-measure-learn growth inside of most organizations.
Two Ideas for Driving Innovation Through Wellbeing by Design
Below I am going to discuss to personal experiences where growth and contribution provided the conditions for wellbeing and how that created a culture innovation.
#1 How Pursuing My Growth Drove Wellbeing
When I worked for IBM, my “day job” was quite stressful and unfortunately toxic at times. Only considering my day job at IBM, I would have never stayed as long as I did. However, while networking with some people outside of my team, I learned about an internal community focused on unleashing the power of coaching into the organization. This relatively small group of people were working hard, on this internal side-hustle, to drive a culture of coaching. I quickly got involved and soon started coaching IBMers and teaching others how to become coaches. The opportunity to serve as a coach to executives and young professionals brought me a great deal of happiness and fulfillment. No company or job is perfect, but having the opportunity to pursue something I am passionate about while serving others helps a great deal!
Taking My Own Ideas from Concept to Creation
This inspired me to take some of my own ideas and turn them into side-hustles at the company. I started developing my own keynote talks and workshops that I pitched to other IBMers and leaders in the company. Eventually I started booking internal speaking gigs around the world, including our European HQ in Ireland, offices in NYC, Barcelona, Bucharest, Austin, San Francisco, Raleigh, and even for our participation CES in Las Vegas. All of this was on the side of a day job for an organization working through challenging leadership issues.
All along the way, I tested my own ideas for keynotes and workshops through the build-measure-learn framework. Every week was loaded with fulfillment through growth and development. I believe, that to some extent, IBM created the conditions for this to happen because mine was not the only story. There were many more IBMers who created new value for the organization through experiments in their growth and development.
That said, I believe there is an opportunity to design and provide the conditions for this to happen. Simply recognizing these contributions would go a long way. This is where IBM’s culture fell short. If you weren’t contributing this type of value directly up through your own part of the org chart of leaders, then it didn’t really count. Serving others outside of your part of the org chart didn’t score you any points and could even hurt you. This adjustment in the culture of innovation at IBM could unlock a wave of wellbeing and innovation throughout the company. This is how a company the size of IBM embraces its employee roster of 300,000+ to drive innovation.
Growth and Contribution Made Getting Laid Off a Fulfilling Experience
In 2020, I became part of the Covid layoffs at IBM. If you have been laid off before, you know this is a significant hit and challenge to your wellbeing. If you have not, I’m sure you can imagine. Inspired by a mentor, I decided to host workshops and masterminds internally to all of those being laid off in order to support them during this difficult moment. I tested new material on the topics of resiliency and reinvention – topics that were critical to overcoming a layoff. Not only did these experiments led to the idea to start building The School of Reinvention after my layoff, but it also provided me with a flood of fulfillment during my final 30 days at the company.
Helping me just as much was the abundance of fulfillment that came from contributing to and serving my fellow IBMers (some estimates put the number laid off at close to 20,000) when they needed it most. Growth and contribution saved me during my layoff. Imagine what it can do for your organization.
I think it’s important that companies design a way for people to express themselves through their passions and interests as a way to create greater mental and emotional capacity to solve the problems of imperfect companies and jobs.
#2 Creating a Culture Contribution By Design and Modeling the Way
I experienced wellbeing by way of contribution done best at MBNA, which eventually merged with Bank of America. At MBNA, I saw one of the most serious commitments to local community involvement. Employees were assigned a local community organization to serve for a full workday about every month or so. Talk about putting your money where your mouth is!
How One Company Made Giving Back a Must
By design, MBNA empowered people and charted the path to regularly give back to the local community where they were based. Leaders can empower people to give significantly more of themselves to those who need it, when the path is charted and the way is clear,. And this results in a great deal of fulfillment that fuels our mental and emotional well-being. This contribution becomes part of what it means to be from that company and it starts at the top. MBNA’s founders and executives were the first ones in line to do everything they expected of us.
How Google Empowers Their People to Be Learners and Teachers
Contribution can also occur internally by creating the conditions for people to have the space and freedom to support one another. Google does this through their peer-to-peer learning program where they empower Googlers to contribute their experience and knowledge to others in the form of workshops and training sessions. Taking this one step further and putting their money where their mouth is, Google empowers their people with the ability to reward that behavior by extending small thank you bonuses to the Googlers that teach workshops. By design, Google has created the conditions for people at Google to contribute. This also creates a platform for Googlers to grow and develop (the other ingredient to fulfillment and wellbeing) by either teaching or participating in the sessions.
If your company doesn’t have these types of programs or initiatives, always remember you can choose to give of yourself in your own special ways. This idea motivated me to contribute even after being told I had 30 days left at IBM.
Super Short Summary
Two ideas for driving wellbeing and innovation by design.
#1 Empower people to flex and express their passion internally. Not only does this drive fulfillment but it creates a powerful and infectious energy that only comes from people doing something they love. That energy is the lifeblood of an innovation culture.
#2 Design and create the platform and path for contribution. Eliminate friction and make it an expectation to contribute both internally and externally.