More Than Reward

I’ve just read Bruce Nussbaum’s latest blog entry (and along with it a recent entry over on Innoblog) and it seems to me that in all the academic innovation-as-algorithmic-process method-list madness that’s being hyped, packaged and sold to companies nowadays, someone has forgotten something. It’s that mysterious missing ingredient from Nussbaum’s hypothetical “secret innovation sauce”. And it’s omission is troubling.

If I see one common ingredient among innovators like Apple’s Steve Jobs, Ikea’s Ingvar Kamprad and now Google’s Brin and Page that isn’t listed in either blog entry, it’s that these people are passionate. And this fact is important.

Industrial designers understand this passion. How can they not? Industrial Design is mostly a dead end career often undertaken in spite of pleas from worried parents to pursue “safer” studies. It’s because of passion that I would argue designers more often connect with consumers than other product development team members (yes, even marketing types). Consumers frequently make purchase decisions based on desire, not need. Well, Industrial designers have just as much concern for connecting with consumers on that level as they do manufacturing product within the company’s cost and manufacturing constraints.

Unfortunately, as a general rule, passion doesn’t really win many points in most rigid corporate hierarchies. Ever wonder why some companies segregate designers from the rest of the workers? And then others make a big point to integrate them? I have. I still don’t understand it. I’ve known companies that can’t make up their mind and move their designers back and forth every couple of years or so. Sometimes they want to cloister designers away to let them do their mysterious thang, and other times they want to rub all that unfathomable, bewildering creativity over the rest of the company cube farm. It’s both sad and laughable. More importantly, this odd behavior on the part of senior management indicates some level of confusion or conflict. Or both. How on earth can there ever be any of either in this situation within a truly successful, forward-thinking company?

Remember the old Edison quote, “Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration”? That perspiration is usually fueled by both passion and an expectation of reward. Seems everyone’s got the Reward part figured out, but they’ve somehow forgotten the Passion. Maybe because it can’t be quantified and is as bewildering to management (and listmakers) as the designers hired to give companies some kind of competitive edge.

Which brings us back to Google, a company lauded for its catalytic effect on innovation (both inside and – in some ways more importantly – outside the company) and for founders who inspire legions with their “Don’t Be Evil” mantra. A company known for opening up their software to “hooks” which allow people – some motivated by reward but very likely an equal number motivated by passion – to experiment and feed their ideas back into the system for the good of all. But as Richard Epstein so brilliantly argued last June (discussed previously), our highly-successful economic system is based on Reward. How far will Passion fuel innovation without it?

Interesting to me that the element that’s been so misunderstood and marginalized is now the thing that may fuel so much upheaval. And all we need, imo, is some balance.