Want people to believe innovation applies to their role? Give them a reason to care

Among the many innovation myths businesses take as givens, I believe the most common and disruptive one is “innovation doesn’t apply to my role”. When this is the case in most organizations, and when just one-fifth of employees report believing that their workplaces strongly value them; it’s worth asking,  “Is innovation everyone’s job?” And what would make employees feel they are innovators?

In a traditional organization, innovation isn’t everyone’s job. But in a maverick organization, it’s a given that everyone sees his/herself as an innovator.

Take the late Commerce Bank, a maverick organizations of the highest order. At this bank, born of a strategy named retail-tainment that focused on making it fun for customers to do business in an industry that was devoid of personality, employees saw themselves as performers for customers. Not as bankers. As such, they created an emotional attachment to their customers.

On every single dimension of what a bank is supposed to be, Commerce Bank operated differently. During its rise to prominence, the bank introduced one unheard-of innovation after another: seven-day-a-week service, free coin-counting machines that were hugely popular with customers, “Red Fridays” in which employees wore special outfits to work. 

Here’s the rub: Traditional organizations define themselves by the product or service they provide to a set of customers. Maverick organizations define themselves by their opinions; their purpose. What they want customers to become; not necessarily what they need.

Instead of putting people into boxes, innovative companies make use of people’s full potential. They innovate human capital by changing the way their employees look at their job.

Give people a reason to care

From first hand experience, I’ve experienced this myself. Here’s a quick story about how when as a teenager I enabled my colleagues to be more productive and happy at work by simply giving them a reason to care about the work they did…

As an 18 year old I had a huge impact while working at FedEx Ground. Usually when you take on physically demanding jobs you don’t really get a big picture view of how what you do fits into the larger scheme of things. To make a long story short (you can learn more about this story here); I defined my role for myself.

Technically, I was a loader and then a splitter. But I figured that for me to be motivated to do what I was doing on a daily basis I had to look at it differently. So, I saw myself as being the advocate for the customer inside FedEx. That translated into activities that benefited both the customer and FedEx. And my first task was to conceive of ways of the getting the customers’ package to its intended recipient in the quickest and most clean way possible.

To figure out how I might accomplish those outcomes, I spent three weeks deconstructing the whole sort process. Pretty soon I found “stupid rules” that impeded the recipient from receiving their package quickly and in perfect condition.

My ideas and techniques were focused on enabling customer outcomes. And as I thought about my job in a more meaningful way, I communicated this to my colleagues and soon they too started seeing themselves less like loaders and more like customer advocates.

That created a more exciting and engaged work environment!

So, how do you make people to care about the work they do?

Simple, it’s about having a point of view, perspective and strong opinions. For example, you will succeed when you stop seeing your job as the Chief Innovation Officer and the guy who has all the ideas but rather the guy who is obsessed with enabling employees to create value.

As an exercise, take a step back and ask yourself: In the big scheme of things, what are we really trying to accomplish as an organization?

It may sound simple, but innovation begins in the heart; give people a reason to care and they will go above and beyond the call of duty.

Bottom line: To change the way people work, we have to inspire people to think differently about their jobs; in a more meaningful way. That starts at the top.