July 26, 2007

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Innovation Is Not "Work"

The media is somewhat to blame for the dysfunctional work ethic that afflicts much of the developed and developing world.

We are continually being fed aspirational images and other marketing messages that try to convince us that busy = important = happy. Culturally, we have projected an expectation of the kind of enthusiasm and commitment of people who genuinely love what they do onto everybody else, no matter how dull and inconsequential their job is.

NASA scientists and engineers might gleefully work long into the night because what they do is both very important and genuinely very, very interesting and challenging. Hollywood actors and film directors might happily work 15 hour days to complete a picture that will be seen by millions, and will probably make them millions, too.

The guy who puts the jam in the jam donuts, on the other hand, can't really be expected to lose himself in his work and display the kind of selfless commitment to his job that we'd expect from an actor or an astronaut.

But the media has been programming us every day to associate an actor-like or astronaut-like work ethic to just about every kind of job going. It's particularly visible in offices, where even the guy who makes the tea is now expected to attend breakfast briefings and to spend his weekends running around some remote forest somewhere firing brightly-coloured blobs of paint at his colleagues in an absolutely horrific ritual we've come to know as "team building".

It's not enough anymore to just be good at your job. These days you must love your work and completely surrender yourself to it.

What we tend to forget, of course, is that for many NASA scientists, astronauts and Hollywood actors, it doesn't feel like work.

If our employers and clients genuinely want that kind of commitment, then they must give us jobs that are actually worth it.

In the high tech industries, it ought to be a win-win. Genuine innovation - I mean real creativity - doesn't feel like work. It's exploration. It's play.

When innovation feels like work, then maybe we're doing it wrong? Innovation feels like taking a different route to work, to a different office, to a different job, all day, every day. It's novel. It's exciting. It's unpredictable. It's fun. When it's not, then that's not innovation. That's "work". Something is not necessarily worth more just because you didn't enjoy creating it.

And its value certainly shouldn't be measured by how many hours it took you, or how many school sports days you had to miss.

Until business leaders and value creators get this, though, we will be stuck with a dysfunctional work ethic that is largely about projecting the right image and has little to do with actually delivering value.
Posted 13 years, 11 months ago on July 26, 2007