· 5 min read · Features

The spark of innovation


The latent energy in companies needs to be ignited in order to create a fulfilling work life for every employee, says Lynda Gratton

My research has shown that most people spend less than 20% of their working lives feeling energised, engaged, and innovative. But each one of us deserves to live a fulfilling work life and to do this we need to create a great environment for ourselves and for our colleagues. We need to Glow - to radiate positive energy that fosters a great working experience that excites and ignites others through our own inspiration and delivers superior value through our work.

People who glow have mastered three distinct areas of their life: they have built deeply trusting and co-operative relationships with others (a co-operative mindset); they have extended their networks beyond the obvious to encompass the unusual (jumping across worlds); they are on an inner quest that ignites their own energy and that of others (igniting latent energy).

In order to maximise the potential within yourself (and by association, your organisation), you need to be able to ignite the latent energy, to create real innovation that is of value. When I asked people who glow what it meant to ignite the energy around them, this is how they described their experiences: "I felt as if the whole place was buzzing"; and "I am proud that my colleagues and I crafted a task that sparked energy in lots of people and drew people towards it".

Contrast this with how people described being in a situation when their energy had not been ignited: "I felt content but incredibly bored"; "Sometimes I found myself almost asleep at my desk"; and "I never felt truly engaged".

When sparks fly: the one-lakh car
One clear example of a man who glows brightly is Ratan Tata, the chairman of the Tata Group in India. I was in India when the Tata Group launched a new car called the Nano. The question Tata asked of his colleagues was deceptively simple: ‘"How do we create a safe, affordable, all-weather form of transport for a typical family of four, for the price of one lakh?" That's 100,000 rupees, the equivalent to about $2,000 - and an incredibly low price for a car.

As a result of this igniting question, Tata Motors' engineers and designers gave their all for about four years to realise this goal. What Ratan Tata had done was to reach inside himself to an issue and question that he felt really passionate about. In doing so, he also ignited the passion of thousands of those around him.

When I spoke to the engineers about their feat, their sense of pride was palpable. As one of the engineers told me: "It seemed like an absolutely impossible question. No one could believe we could do it. There was a lot of cynicism - but we were determined to do it. It meant going back to basics, reengineering many of the parts, working closely with our component suppliers, and fundamentally questioning the way we do everything."

Sparking latent energy
Clearly, if you want to glow, you have to find something in your daily work that excites and intrigues you and has the possibility of sparking the energy of others. How are you going to do this?

I have found that there are two important ways you can support the principle of igniting latent energy:

1 You can ask questions that spark energy, that engross and interest others as well as your own curiosity. These could be specific questions such as ‘how can we build a one-lakh car?' to broader questions like ‘how could we make a real difference in our community?' to truly enormous questions like ‘what does this mean for world hunger?'

2 You can create a vision of the future that others find exciting and compelling. Tata's vision was this: "Imagine a world where rural communities can access the transport infrastructure so crucial for their development." These are visions of the future that you and your colleagues can buy into, that encourage others to imagine the future and to become excited about being involved in that future.
For Tata and his colleagues it was the combination of a vision (bringing commerce to rural India), an audacious question (‘why can't we create the one-lakh car?'), and a complex task (reconceptualising a vehicle in its entirety) that together ignited a hot spot of energy and innovation at Tata.

To glow you need to tap into your own personal source of igniting vision; to access your courage, convictions and values to bring your own nascent vision to the fore and communicate it in a compelling way. Visions are about the future, and a good way to begin to frame your thinking about the future is to ask yourself ‘what if' questions. Since ‘what if' questions are about events that have never taken place, you have to move beyond your conscious mind to access your ideas about possible future scenarios and create a vision of what could ignite your energy.

Thinking about the future is a much less analytical and rigorous task than thinking about the past. So rather than accessing your rational and analytical mind, as you do when you are asking questions and engaging in disciplined debate, you are engaging your imagination and accessing your dreams.

Great ideas and visions are part unconscious insight, part external inspiration. It is the back-and-forth between insight and inspiration that serves as a basis for refining your ideas and using stories to weave dreams. Sometimes the greatest source of insight will come from something you have heard, an idea you have seen, or an emotion you have felt. Pieces of unusual information - I call them information treasures - can be taken together to build on your unconscious ideas or provide other avenues for action.

You can keep your energy alight by spinning the dreams that became your vision for how your work can develop. When you glow, you capture the imagination of others with your ideas, your visions or your stories. People are drawn to those that resonate with themselves. They want to hear the ‘real you' rather than a made-up, fabricated you. Authenticity is natural; you don't have to work at it. If your vision does not reflect your own values and beliefs, you will jettison it at the first sign of difficulty. And if your vision does not reflect your values, others will also abandon it at the first sign of trouble.

To create resonant questions and visions, you have to connect them with your values and beliefs, and this means that you need to make that connection clear and actively build your self-awareness.

People like Tata, who have created a future vision that others find compelling, often use stories to ignite and inspire others. These stories can take many forms ¬- they could be about how the idea will be developed, how it will look when it is completed, or what it will feel like to others as they become involved. The more engaging, inspiring and interesting the story, the more likely others will be drawn to it and prepared to engage their energy. When you build a story about the future, you allow and encourage others to engage in your narrative. People begin to see themselves in your story of the future and weave their own dreams as you weave yours.

As we have seen - there are three actions you can take right now that will really help you formulate a vision that engages others and ignites latent energy: you can ask the ‘what if' questions to get you thinking; you can ensure you are tightly connected to your own values and beliefs as sources of energy; you can use stories to weave dreams.

Remember that beyond the questions and the vision of a great project like the one-lakh car is the day-to-day reality of working on a series of igniting tasks. These tasks could be as specific as rewriting the owner's manual or working with suppliers to reengineer a particular part or redesigning the interior. The creation of the Nano car was simply the result of countless smaller igniting tasks.

Learning the habits and competencies to Glow are important at any time - but right now they are critical. Without change we all face the possibility of being made redundant, but we can create value for ourselves and others even in the toughest of times. To do so we have to learn how to deeply co-operate with others, to bridge to those who are uniquely different from ourselves and to ignite energy with interesting questions and compelling visions. These habits and competencies are crucial now and a marvellous foundation for the future.

Lynda Gratton is a professor at London Business School and author. Her new book ‘Glow: How You Can Radiate Energy, Innovation and Success', is published by FT Prentice Hall and Berrett-Koehler. www.hotspotsmovement.com