I am excited by the stories I hear from people about how they deal effectively with their work. Beyond all the cynicism about the workplace we see on TV or read in the comics, people really do love their work and they like to share why that is. Nothing seems to make people happier than when they do a good job at their work, especially when they face a challenge. Sometimes these challenges are the kind we make fun of like the micromanaging boss or the setting of unrealistic goals. But even in the face of what seems like unreasonable constraints or expectations, people have shown an enormous capability to be innovative in getting their work done.
One example is a director of facilities I know. He has spent his career trying to help his organization save money and be more efficient. Every year his budget is used up in the first few months due to some equipment or other going out or some other major emergency. This leaves little room to ask ahead of time for major investments in unique energy saving equipment, for example, yet every year he is happier than before as he is able to point to several new innovations he has had a hand in acquiring and implementing.
How does he do this? First, he knows key facts about the major elements that affect his bottom line: what amount of energy the organization uses, the amount of waste it produces, the age and lifetime of the equipment being used, etc. Second, he knows what the options are; that if one piece of equipment goes out, he knows what could possibly replace it. Third, he takes a long-term perspective. He may want to upgrade to the top of the line boiler today but he knows that would be rejected as too costly thus swelling his budget beyond what his administrators would consider feasible. So he takes the long-term perspective by proposing investments over time in phases to get to where the organization should be and by being ready when the unexpected happens like a burst boiler and the resulting forced expenditure.
Another director of facilities I know is also very committed to helping his organization be more sustainable in terms of energy, waste, and saving money. He beamed like a brand new LED when he showed me his office, which looks like something out of Frankenstein—it is literally a laboratory where he tests new products (like lighting, fans, etc.) so that he has an idea how workers will react to changes when they are rolled out. For example, he measured how much light a worker really needs at their cubicle and planned to take out a certain number of bulbs and replace some lighting with CFLs or LEDs. By testing this he could get a specific measurement of lumens and also get a preference for the tint of light wanted by the workers (whiter or yellower). This way his innovations get a positive review and he is able to reduce his bosses’ uncertainty when he proposes investments in something new and sometimes very unique.
Both of these directors face major obstacles with money constraints but their attitude and the satisfaction they get from making unique small changes makes them happy and fuels their pursuit of sustainability for their organization. In fact, their enthusiasm is contagious and has spilled over in other areas at their respective organizations.
When people can find a way
If you want to be a happy innovator there are three takeaways from these examples. First, knowledge of the job and the systems that are at work is crucial. Staying up on what’s new in the industry and knowing where you and your organization are can help you make your case when you are being trusted to deliver in a crisis as well as being able to influence small decisions along the way.
Second, it is important to be politically astute, that is, know what the limits are and know what and how you can ask for what you want. Take the long-term perspective and just like interest on an investment you will be more satisfied with how the incremental changes accumulate and compound over time.
And third, refuse to be limited by the norms of the organization or the industry. This is the number one creative force I found in a research study of sustainability directors adopting sustainable practices.
How to make this happen in your organization?
Two ideas I would offer to owners or managers to foster this kind of innovation and employee engagement: First, let the employee keep the savings (at least one year) for their budget so they can use those to fund the next innovation. This is similar to the idea of gainsharing, which has been shown to be an effective motivator. Gainsharing plans let employees keep savings from innovations as part of their compensation. But many employees are just looking for ways to do their job more effectively by having the resources available to them—why not give them the resources if they have earned it. Second, know that it is your job to set limits, however, don’t communicate in your limits that there is no way around those limits or employees will not try to innovate and you will end up fostering the kind of cynicism we see too often.