It sounds like an oxymoron… how can a person be both wildly overwhelmed and insanely busy, while still being filled with an underlying sense of boredom? There is no question that our top people have more than enough work to do. In these times where competitive pressure is high, technological advances are accelerating, and businesses are being (over)stretched to do “more with less”, our top people are not only being challenged with extra work… they are being disproportionately counted on to carry an ever-increasing workload. As managers, it is natural to look to our top people when the latest “crisis of the day” emerges- they have proven their talent, agility, work ethic, and passion so as to be relied upon to deliver with excellence. But in doing so, are we doing a disservice… not only to the individuals but to our businesses as well? What are the long-term opportunity costs in overreliance on our top innovators to carry the burden for shorter term crises?
This is not to say that we shouldn’t challenge our top people… in fact, I am saying the exact opposite. These top innovators, without question, should be the most challenged individuals in our organizations. The trick is to insure that we provide the right kinds of challenges to the right people, and that our top innovators are working on the hardest problems. And by “hardest problems” I am not referring to the most urgent but rather to the most important. Not the highest quantity of deliverables but the highest quality. Not the biggest workload in our groups but the biggest impact. Conceptually, this sounds easy but in actuality requires an enormous amount of discipline. As managers, there is an immense amount of pressure to focus on short-term results… and annual performance reviews, financial incentives, and resource allocations are designed accordingly. And while the challenges are real and the pressure is warranted, we need to be careful that in investing heavily in the present, we are not mortgaging the future.
Clearly, we cannot ignore our short-term crises. Failure in the present may result in there ultimately being no future to support. That being said, there must be a balance… over-investment of our top people on crisis management and an under-investment in long-term innovation will lead to smaller and smaller programs, necessitating the initiation of more of these short-term interventions, leading to even smaller programs… and so on and so on the cycle will continue. And while the business impact of this cycle is immediate and apparent, the effect on our organization’s top innovators is even further detrimental over the long-term. Ultimately, not only will these innovators likely burn out, they will also become intellectually bored along the way. When the puzzles to be solved become more about how to manage an over-zealous workload as opposed to solving a profound innovation challenge, the innovators will eventually tire of this cycle and seek challenges elsewhere- whether in another organization or outside their “day job”. Either way, these individuals can and will not bring their best efforts into work and our organizations will pay the price. So what can we do about it? The crises and short-term challenges are not going away, so how do we insure that while this critical work is getting done it is not at the long-term expense of our innovators themselves?
1) Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. It is a natural instinct to throw our most critical and urgent challenges at our top, experienced innovators and not at our junior, inexperienced employees. It may even seem counter-intuitive to entrust these junior people with a crisis when you have battle-tested “warriors” at your disposal. The result of this decision… not only do your top innovators take the brunt of the crises, but your junior people miss out on opportunities to get their own battle-testing to become the warriors of tomorrow. (Not only that… these junior folks, by default, often end up leading the “future” innovation work that your experienced innovators ultimately yearn to do!). What if instead of this default position, we instead threw our hungry, junior innovators into the short-term fires with the coaching, but not the active engagement, of our experienced innovation leaders? While there will be some risk and apprehension for managers in this situation, the overall benefits can be profound. Your junior innovators get the battle-testing they need and the skills to grow their own mastery and leadership, while your experienced innovators get to focus on the bigger, more profound innovation problems… while teaching the future leaders as well.
2) Emphasize work that is not just “filling” but is “fulfilling”. This one is less concrete but probably the most important of all of the points. Top people want to contribute as much as possible and will invest an immense amount of effort in helping the organization succeed. These individuals see challenges and opportunities everywhere and want to help solve as many as they can. So… when they are feeling under-utilized, for whatever the reason, they will often look to fill this void by taking on extra work- essentially looking for fulfillment through quantity instead of quality. This ultimately will be detrimental not only to the organization but to the individual as well, as the excessive stretching and “box checking” can become the adrenaline rush or the drug to replace the seeking of true job satisfaction. Are your innovators proud of the work itself or are they substituting physical stretching of their capacity for true intellectual stretching and growth? Living on snacks, appetizers, and fast food can be filling for awhile, but in the long run serves to be very unhealthy.
3) Watch for signs that the work itself is no longer “reward enough”. Some may disagree with me here, but in my experience, the truly sought after reward for innovators is not the money, promotion, or recognition… it is the work itself. Sure, we all want to be successful and to provide for our families. And, yes, we want to be recognized for our work. However, we don’t want to seek these things- we want them to come naturally as the effect of our doing something that we love, and doing it well. When a talented, innovative individual starts becoming (sometimes irrationally) obsessed with a raise or a promotion, I have found that the root cause typically is an overall dissatisfaction with his/her job. Essentially, the work is not rewarding them, so they are seeking this reward elsewhere. When this situation arises, try to find ways to enrich their work plans, even if you cannot enrich their pockets. What do they want to STOP, START, and CONTINUE doing as part of their jobs… and how can you work with them to make their day-to-day role more fulfilling? Also, are there places where you can give the gift of time or money to a “side project” that they might want to pursue? This investment can go a long way in driving job fulfillment, while also enabling some incremental organizational innovation as well.
4) Are your innovators “boldly going where no one has gone before”? Innovators want growth, and growth comes from extending into new frontiers. From a work standpoint, are we challenging our innovators to take risks and to try new approaches or are we asking them to repeatedly go from point A to point B? Beyond the work, what about our cultures? Are we supporting fearlessness or promoting fearfulness? Do our reward structures value and recognize risk taking and even failure or do they punish for mistakes. Our innovators want to take risks and to boldly pursue “impossible” problems and to make them possible… but at the same time they don’t want to fail in their careers. If boldness and exploration ultimately do not support success in our organizations, then individuals likely will move away from these behaviors. I once talked to a top innovator who was working on what was, by far, the most important and challenging program in her organization. This person was doing great work but the nature of it was such that there was a high probability of failure. Her management, instead of encouraging her risk taking and creative work, recommended that she take on additional, “safer” programs so as to hedge her bets… to make sure that something she worked on succeeded rather than to put all of her eggs in one “risky” basket. The message to her… success on something small and safe was valued more than risking failure at something big with a high “degree of difficulty”. The result- diluted effort on the “new frontier” work so as to work on the safer bets. While the intention was good in the short-term so as to protect and support this individual, in the long-term it will ultimately lead to “boredom” and dissatisfaction.
5) “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy…” Are our innovators enabled to take a “recess” during the day? To spend a few hours a week on a fun side project or on exploring new ideas within their existing projects? To have conversations and brainstorming with individuals outside their teams and their industries to look for new ideas and approaches? It seems that most of us are so busy that there is no longer time to stop for lunch, much less to stop and “play”. Innovators love to solve problems, to try new things, and to explore new ideas. Are we supporting, encouraging, and enabling this time to “play” or are we focusing too much on efficiency, tracking and allocating each hour for each individual, every day? This commitment to “play” will, on paper, look like it dilutes work on primary objectives… in actuality it will make us much more effective. We will have a far more empowered workforce, will generate new ideas and approaches, and strengthen our current programs through renewed passion and creativity.
I ran into a colleague last week, who was obviously stressed and flustered, and asked him how he was doing. He answered, “Well, I’m definitely not bored!”. I honestly don’t know if that was true. We often mistake activity for progress, and are often running so fast and furiously that we fail to realize that we are trapped in the “hamster wheel”. We need to insure that our top innovators are inspired, growing, and working on our top challenges… and not just frantically stuck in the endless cycle of short-term “crises”. When our business is over-stuffed with busy-ness, our innovation will suffer and our innovators will become overwhelmed and underutilized.