The Tao of Innovation

Insights for the modern business samurai

Sexual Response, Motivation and Innovation

The neurophysiology of invention and creativity...

Where exactly does the motivation for innovation come from? Is the act of inventing buried deep within our evolutionary context? Is there an "invention gene" that makes certain people better at inventing fire, steam engines, iPhones and social network engines? How are the brain functions for creativity and procreativity - aka sexual response - similar?

More importantly, how can one use the answers to these questions, to find a way to achieve a state of mastery in innovation, so ideation becomes a meditation, like for a zen master at the archery range?

These questions are difficult to answer because in spite of the vast research performed on the subject, motivation is not well understood. Why? Because to understand motivation is to understand human nature itself. However, these questions are vital to ask, because some understanding of human nature is the prerequisite to effective employee motivation in the workplace and therefore the key to effective management and leadership.

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The simplest way to understand the current understanding of motivation is to relate the Theory X/Y/Z model.

Traditional theory X is attributable to Frederick Winslow Taylor, who invented the practice of scientific management. It's pretty reductionist - according to his system, a worker's motivation is solely determined by pay, and therefore management need not consider psychological or social aspects of work. In essence, scientific management bases human motivation wholly on extrinsic rewards and discards the idea of intrinsic fulfillment. As a result, theory X assumes that people are lazy; they hate work to the extent that they avoid it; they have no ambition, wish to take no initiative and usually avoid taking any responsibility; and all they want is security. To get them to do any work at all, they must be rewarded, coerced, intimidated and punished. This is the so-called 'stick and carrot' philosophy of management.

Fortunately, modern management theory has evolved beyond this initial model. In one of the most elaborate studies on employee motivation, involving 40,000 employees, the Minneapolis Gas Company sought to determine what their potential employees desire most from a job. This study was carried out during a 20 year period from 1945 to 1965 and revealed that most considered security, not pay, as the highest rated factor. The next three factors were advancement, the type of work, and to be at a company they could be proud of, indicating that financial gain is not the deepest motivator.

This led to the development of theory Y, in which psychologist Douglas McGregor proposed that people prefer to earn rewards not so much in cash payments, but with the freedom to master challenging work by themselves. Thus, the managers job is to dovetail the human desire for self-improvement into the organization's need for maximum productive efficiency. The basic objectives of both are therefore met and with imagination and sincerity, enormous potential can be tapped.

Following successful results emanating from experiments to validate Theory Y, Abraham Maslow developed Theory Z. Maslow totally rejected the reductionist approach of Theory X, and became the founder of the humanistic school, or the "third force", which revolves around the meaning and significance of human work.

Maslow's theory of human motivation is based on a hierarchy of human needs, that span from physiological needs (lowest), through love and esteem, and all the way to self-actualization needs (highest). The highest state of self-actualization is characterized by integrity, responsibility, magnanimity, simplicity and naturalness.

Now, how does all of this relate to innovation?

Innovation potential could be considered to be a function of inventiveness and motivation, thus:

         Innovation = f(inventiveness, motivation)

Both of these factors have intrinsic and extrinsic components. For example, inventiveness is partially based on inherent creativity, which you are either blessed with or not, but that innate potential can be realized and expanded by education and training, which is externally driven. Similarly, motivation itself is based on an inner capacity of indefatigability, as well as external motivators like compensation, career advancement, and so on.

Incidentally, one clever external motivational tool is Instant Motivator, a service which sends text message reminders to fight negative thoughts (eg, ruminating thoughts that kindle depression) with positive thoughts can create new neural pathways in your brain. Those new positive pathways now have a chance to dominate in your brain, due to the personal coach in your pocket. The company notes that effects can be seen in as little as a few weeks.

However, it's intrinsic motivation is the most fascinating part of the puzzle. It's based on rewards inherent to a task or activity itself - the enjoyment of solving a puzzle or the love of playing a piano or even sexual pleasure, for example. One is said to be intrinsically motivated when engaging in an activity "with no apparent reward to the external observer except for the activity itself".

My personal theory is that invention is an organic and biological act. And like all other biological activities that release endorphins into the brain, there are distinct phases associated with that act. For example, the sexual reaction cycle can be divided into four general phases: the arousal phase, the plateau phase, the orgasm phase and the relaxation phase. The act of inventing something should probably follow the same process and structure as sexual response.

Thus, for innovators, the arousal phase starts with that first inkling of an idea, that germinates and itches in your mind. The plateau phase consists working possible solutions in your mind, constructing a mental map of the solution in your mind. This is where you work it in your head, over and over, in and out, back and forth... until you reach the Eureka! phase and start shouting.

Finally, there's the relaxation phase... until you realize that with your invention, world domination just might be possible.

More than just an analogy

But seriously, it's actually more than just a funny analogy. The brain works the way it works for a reason. Neurohormones require time and a certain activation process to work, as well as stimulation and climax processes... followed by a refractory period before you can do it again. There are clearly similarities between creation and procreation, and the similarities are so similar, you wonder why psychologists and neuroscientists haven't looked at this sooner. So this leads us to ask, what other similarities can we derive between the processes of say, invention and sexuality?

Well, first off, both are pretty fun. And when you come up with a great idea, there's that sweet burst of pleasure, when your brain is suddenly awash in norepinephrine. This little carrot is clearly an evolutionary adaptation that insures we use our brains regularly. Also, it usually turns out more fun if you don't take yourself too seriously. Those who can laugh while doing it, usually enjoy themselves more and do a better job of it too. And finally, if you're innovating as a team, communication is vital if you want to achieve that simultaneous Eureka! But what else? How far can we push this analogy?

I believe that a lot about the art of innovation can be learned by studying the art of tantra. Yeah, you read that right. Think about it, who is more likely to really understand sex, tantric masters (like Sting, reputedly) - who are able to make love for eight hours at a stretch - or some university professor armed with a plethysmograph?

However, there aren't too many places to study tantra in depth, online. New age spirituality sites like Belief.net and intent.com tend to shy away from sexuality, and offer only a few random blog posts. I think that the best source for teachers, discussion and case histories is probably OneTantra.com, which is attempting to become the definitive portal for tantra education online. [Disclosure: I'm a minority stockholder in this company... but that's where I got this idea.]

If you enter this tantric learning community/social network, you'll find that tantra practitioners generally pursue a penultimate, ecstatic sexual experience so meaningful, that it is eventually imbued with a sense of deep meaning and spirituality. It's as if the sexual response becomes so expanded, that practitioners begin to have religious experiences during lovemaking. Another factor that's interesting: for these tantra masters, it's not about racking up notches on the bedpost, it's really about being present and in clear communication. These tantric practitioners are like Zen archers, seeking a state of deep meditation and connectedness through sexuality. But hitting that, ahem, bullseye every time.

This has always made sense to me, because most of the great inventors and innovators I've met are kind of like Zen masters - deeply present, great communicators of vision, and the reason they're into it isn't for the money- it's because the pursuit has transcended to an art, to a passion, to a priesthood. When doing their work, great masters of invention and innovation are usually deep in a state of play, deep in a state of flow and peak performance, and deep in a state of presence. All the neurohormones are flowing at full speed. Ideation becomes meditation. Brainstorming becomes an ecstatic dance. 

Post Theory Z Models for Motivation

This new approach might lead us to a new perspective - a post Theory Z view of motivation - specifically for stimulating innovation. Instead of using carrots and sticks and focusing on the extrinsic factors, perhaps management theorists and psychologists should look at the neurophysiology of invention and creativity. Maybe instead of coffee and donuts, maybe we should stock the fridge with smart drinks? Maybe we should encourage acupuncture, qigong and meditation to keep the hormones and internal energies flowing? Maybe we should encourage innovation as an inner pursuit, for expanding the intrinsic potential for creativity and inventiveness? Maybe we should look at kundalini as the biological basis for genius? Would this lead to a new Theory Omega for motivation? It's like a friend of mine says, "The most interesting areas are where science and wuu wuu collide."

With this in mind, here are some initial practices that can help move your culture toward one where innovation is becomes an inner game, an inner pursuit, a meditation for product breakthroughs. Six initial practices toward a martial arts of business creativity and innovation:

1. Value Every Employee's Ideas
Managers who are aggressive about eliciting the ideas of their staff will find that getting everyone involved as innovators will have an amplification effect overall on innovation at the company. This weaves a tighter, more cohesive, more loyal organization.

2. Teach Everyone How to Innovate
Managers should make it a clear mandate in everyone's work requirements to take a hard look at the overall operation and make recommendations for improvements. But at the same time, they should provide meaningful training in innovation skills to everyone.

3. Pervasive Customer Insight
Another mechanism managers can use to elicit great suggestions is to have every employee participate in an ethnographic expedition to see customers using your product, in the field. This will increase agility from the grass roots level.

4. Give People Time to Think
If at possible, give people time to think up ideas. The bottom line is that you can't do any quality thinking if you're, for example, in meetings non-stop. (One way to create more time is to look at how you run meetings, and create a "smart meetings" culture, that minimize expensive meeting time. The average number of meetings per day, for the typical middle manager is three. What's your average?) Dedicate that time saved to quality thinking time, or even better... quality time for NOT THINKING, like during figure drawing, yoga or tai chi classes.

5. Reward Energy with Energy
It is also important to find a way to reward or recognize employees on an ongoing basis, whose suggestions help improve the operation. One option is to establish a Killer Idea Award and give the recipient a customized certificate, as well as a small prize. But better yet, instead of only cash and recognition, energize them by maybe giving them access to the innovation lab, or more thinking time, like Google did with that free day every two weeks.

6. Don't Forget the Implementation
A crucial part of this equation is the actual implementation of the great ideas generated by employees. Without follow-through, the organization simply ends up with a long list of unused suggestions - and an even longer list of frustrated employees. And put the person who suggested a great idea in charge of the implementation. The initiator of an innovative idea usually has a sense of ownership and will usually do whatever it takes to see their idea become successful.

If you have thoughts about a new theory of motivation, please contact me, it's a fascinating subject!

Moses Ma, a partner at Next Gen Ventures, is co-author of the forthcoming book Agile Innovation.

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