Fostering Improvement Through Innovation

Lewis Carroll, in his book, Through the Looking Glass, has Humpty Dumpty smugly intone, ‘Whenever I use a word it means exactly what I choose it to mean, nothing more and nothing less.’ Such seems to be the case whenever the topics of improvement and innovation are discussed.

Improvement means whatever the one who wants it to happen wants it to mean. It could mean doing what’s being done now to a greater degree of efficiency or speed or detail. In other words, ‘do what you’re doing now ‘only better.’ It could also mean that something else altogether needs to be done instead of or in addition to what’s being done now. In any case, improvement is closely associated with measurable outcomes that can be compared with previous outcomes to determine degrees of organizational and/or personal development or deterioration.

The means of accomplishing any outcome is called process. It is commonly thought that organizational outcomes are inextricably interwoven with the processes that produce them. Poor processes cause poor outcomes, powerful processes cause powerful outcomes, and so on. As the process goes, so goes the outcome. With this reasoning, all one would have to do to improve the outcome is to improve the process in some way. Although this approach can work, it often takes a long time and gives up as much as it gains in process efficiencies, workplace morale and worker commitment to fully implementing process changes.

This mechanistic view of improvement has been a long time in development. Culturally accepted notions about human nature and behavior have contributed strongly to the idea that improvement in life’s outcomes is causally effected by process ‘ more particularly, the right process. If an outcome is not what is wanted or expected it means that the right process has yet to be discovered. Through persistent and diligent effort, eventually the correct process will be found and the consequent outcomes achieved.

Many readers will be aware of the ‘hierarchy of needs’ (figure 1) developed by the psychologist, Abraham Maslow. In it, Maslow identified what he saw as the incremental needs-based structure of human existence and fulfillment. It began at the bottom with primal needs such as water, air and other survival requirements and moved up to the top which he called, ‘synergy,’ or the need to have things working well in all areas of life. Maslow’s model did not allow for skipping a step in the quest for experiencing deeper levels of humanness. For example, one couldn’t go to the third level without having the first two fulfilled and predictably secured, and so on up the ladder. For Maslow, there was a correct process through which an individual had to go in order to grow and experience greater dimensions of human fulfillment.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs

The upper needs (Esteem, Self-Actualization and Synergy) are more complex, less immediate and therefore ‘weaker’ in their demands on psychic and emotional energy.

The lower needs (Belongingness/Love, Safety and Survival) are less complex, more immediate and therefore ‘stronger’ in their demands on psychic and emotional energy.

Synergy: the need to have things working well in all areas of life

Self-Actualization: the need to develop one’s unique capacities

Esteem: the need to be highly regarded by self and others

Belongingness/Love: the need to be accepted, liked and loved

Safety: the need to be secure and protected

Survival: the need for air, food and water

Just as accomplishing desired organizational outcomes is seen as a matter of going through the correct process so, too, personal fulfillment is seen as a matter of following the right process. Personal and organizational improvement becomes associated with planning, strategizing and manipulating the process.

This is a linear view of cause and effect and doesn’t actively take into account the fact that processes don’t happen all by themselves. People perform processes. People possess power beyond any process that animates behavior toward creative and surprising outcomes. People are the wind, the spirit (in Greek, the same word, pneuma, is used for both wind and spirit) that blows invisibly within and among human organizations and cannot be predicted, channeled or contained.

People can bring the inanimate structures of process to life by breathing into them the spirit of their hopes, dreams and aspirations. Process is merely a skeleton that holds an organization together structurally; it is people who choose either to put flesh on the skeleton and imbue it with vitality, meaning and significance or to allow it to remain a lifeless, empty shell.

If people choose to permeate the organization with life, then poor processes would not necessarily be a hindrance to achieving improved outcomes. While it is true that an able and willing person who is trapped working in poor processes will find it difficult to improve her performance, and therefore organizational outcomes, it is not impossible to do so. Willing and able persons will not allow poor processes to become an excuse for not doing any better on the job. They will actively and creatively seek out ways to improve their performance and outcomes by changing, even if only slightly, the way they think about and do their work. In doing so, they move beyond the processes themselves enriching them with innovative (‘outside the process box’) approaches and applications.

We are now beginning to develop an understanding of innovation. If a change in the process is the only way people are allowed to change their job activities, the wind of the creative spirit will blow to effect changes beyond the process. While improvement has to do with measurable outcomes of a process, innovation has to do with freedom from the implicit and explicit constraints of a process. Process thinking tends to channel thoughts and action along predetermined psychic and behavioral pathways. Innovation occurs when connections are made between self-evident thoughts, ideas or entities and those that are not part of the mental landscape created by the existing process.

By way of example, Forbes magazine is mailing the September 2000 edition to its more than 800,000 subscribers with bar codes on every page where an advertiser’s web site appears. With the magazine they will be sending, free of charge, a scanning pen and computer software that will enable readers to access the specific web page identified by the bar code by sliding the electronic pen over it. This gives the advertiser the opportunity to provide detailed information about their products and services in a way that they could not in the magazine. This is an innovative way of making a connection between two different forms of media (physical and virtual) and merging them technologically into a complimentary system of information delivery. Up to this point, the two forms of media were thought to be in direct competition, mutually excluding each other from their respective goal of developing market share and consumer loyalty.

Innovation occurs most easily whenever people are engaged unselfconsciously in an experience that consumes their concentration by challenging their skills, knowledge, attitude, beliefs, values and/or self-image. Such an experience is enjoyable and fulfilling precisely because it places unusual demands on the faculties and skills of the individual. During such times, one is unaware of personal needs and whether or not they have been or are being met. There is no distraction; no diversion is possible ‘ the only thing that matters is the experience itself. Afterward, the individual becomes more fulfilled and complete with a sense of well being and wholeness. A common term for this optimal experience of life is flow.

In a New York Times Book Review of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s The Psychology of Optimal Experience, (March, 1990), the unnamed author states:

‘As a theory of optimal experience, flow is a big improvement over Abraham Maslow’s notion of self-actualization. Maslow regarded optimal experiences as frosting on the cake of life, possible only after one had met material needs for safety and security. Maslow’s popular idea that basic needs must be met before people can pursue ‘higher order’ needs for self-fulfillment has never been validated by research. On the contrary, many people who endure poverty, tragedy, and abuse nonetheless manage to find contentment and fulfillment.’

Flow experiences result in innovation because they serve to reframe the ‘world as it is’ and recast the meaning and significance of the ‘way things are.’ Oliver Wendell Holmes’ observation was correct: ‘Once the mind has been stretched by a new idea it can never comfortably return to its original shape.’ Flow extends the range of what one sees as possible ‘ and reasonable ‘ to accomplish. It expands the percipient connections between prevailing reality and those things that at first appear to threaten that reality.

During and after a flow experience, a person will begin to see interrelationships between opposites. As an example, a painful memory that has always produced the emotion of hate can now also be seen as having provided an anchor experience for learning how love can overcome hate. Flow allows a perspective removed from the confines of the experience itself and helps the individual to both see and feel a bigger reality ‘ one in which all things have relationships not normally perceived.

Flow can be experienced by anyone at any time under any circumstances. All that is required is a challenging situation for the individual and a willingness to meet the challenge. Such are the only conditions for fostering an environment in which people can readily experience flow in their lives and thereby most easily be visited by innovative thoughts and ideas. The task is to nurture an environment that provides challenges to individuals at their respective levels of skill and competence without overwhelming or frightening them into inaction.

My cousin welds together the iron and steel skeletons of skyscrapers in Chicago. His work is hazardous, to say the least, as it takes him many hundreds of feet above the ground treading on windswept   girders  no wider than a sidewalk. Whenever I’m in a high-rise building, such as the Sears Tower observation deck, looking down on the ant-like world below, I get a tickling sensation all through my body even though I know I’m safe behind reinforced walls and windows. Just thinking about being that high without such security surrounding me fills me with fear and trembling.

I asked him one day how he could do such work without fear of falling. He nonchalantly replied, ‘When you walk on a sidewalk you don’t think about falling off, do you’ When I’m high in the air walking on a  girder , in my mind I’m walking on a sidewalk on level ground. It never even occurs to me that I might fall off.’ I had never thought about his work in such terms. It caused me to think still further about how any of us manage to do difficult things: we do difficult things by not dwelling on the difficulties we associate with actually doing them!

Challenges in the workplace can be exhilarating or they can be terrifying. What my cousin had done to meet the challenges of his job was to mentally ‘recontextualize’ the process of his job. The normal context of his job was high off the ground walking along slender beams of iron and steel. When he was in the process of doing his job, however, he chose to do it within a different mental context ‘ one that allowed him better control over his job tasks by eliminating his fear of failing (falling) on the job. This enabled him to experience a high degree of freedom from the inherent constraints of the processes of his job. In fact, he was able to devise a welding technique that reduced the amount of time it took to safely secure the steel joints of skyscrapers. Innovative consequences result when, in a challenging situation, there are no distractions and no fear of failing. And this can be achieved by mentally re-framing the context of a work process.

Coincidentally, a friend of mine also worked as an ironmonger in another large city. He told me that he and his friends would ‘dance on the I-beams’ while they were on the ground. Puzzled, I asked why they would do such a thing. He said that if they could dance on the I-beams on the ground without falling off, they would have confidence that they could easily walk on them without falling off when they were forty stories in the air.

This is another essential element in fostering an environment of innovative thinking and acting. It encourages and enables process practice and performance visualization. It empowers people to decide how they will act in certain situations before they actually occur.

The things you do that you don’t have to do will always determine who you are and what you’ll be able to do when it’s too late to do anything about it. My friend and his co-workers didn’t have to dance on the I-beams; they didn’t have to spend time preparing to do their jobs safely. But they did and the results were that there were no injuries and projects were completed on time and within budget for as long as he worked in that job.


An organization can foster an environment of continuous improvement by focusing on outcomes and the process changes that can best achieve them. But this approach can only go so far in accomplishing improvement in the organization’s ability to respond to the rapid changes in the marketplace and in customer requirements.

To foster quicker and longer lasting improvement through innovation an organization needs to focus on constantly creating individualized challenges for its people and then providing the resources necessary to meet those challenges. By doing this, it encourages an environment in which flow can be more easily experienced, distractions and diversions reduced and fear of failure mitigated. These are the ingredients that make it conducive for people to create mental landscapes that overflow the bounds of existing processes thereby allowing them to creatively respond to ‘the way things are’ with ‘the way things could be.’

This situation can occur best after the process content is thoroughly understood and deployed. Encourage people to practice the content of the process: when you know you know how to do something, your mind and body are freed to devise ways to do it better and/or differently. Encourage people to reframe the context of the process: when you know that what you know is applicable to other areas of life, you can make connections that others haven’t and pursue new approaches to work and life with anticipation of flowing into personal and professional fulfillment.