Innovation Courtesy of Inspiration: An Interview with Jim Elvidge


Jim Elvidge attributes the last thirty years of fun that he's had in his career to the same qualities teams should be built with today. Innovative products come from teams who are inspired to reach their full creative potential, and getting your employees there may be easier than you think.

Noel: You've mentioned that you can't just tell your team to "be innovative" and that you must have a "solid understanding of what motivates people." How difficult can that be to figure out what motivates people, and where should team leaders look first?

Jim: It isn't too difficult to figure out. Although everyone has different values and is thus motivated by different things, there has been plenty of research and good practices that illuminate some key motivators. A good place to start is Dan Pink's book Drive and the underlying research. Key motivators from that source are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Autonomy comes from trust and can be promoted by good empowerment practices, which are natural to agile teams, but not so much to leadership. Catalytic leadership methods will help leaders develop their servant-leader skills. Mastery comes from giving teams the time it takes to do things right and to have creative discussions. Purpose comes from always keeping in mind the "why" behind what you are doing. Simon Sinek's Start with Why is a good place to start for that one.

Noel: You've also expressed the need to improve team empowerment and the benefit of creating an environment where it is "safe to fail." If developers and testers feel like that fear of failing comes from those above them, what's the best way for teams to approach those that have the authority to change that kind of negative air about the environment?

Jim: One of the best ways is instant transparency. One of the problems that is common in the enterprise is the "filter," as in we only tell our managers when something is truly burning and hide the rest of the issues. Managers follow the same practice to their managers. So when those few critical issues bubble up to some level, they suddenly get a laser-like focus on them. Meetings are called, phone calls made, email bombs—all sorts of unbalanced focus on these few issues. If, instead, every single issue is bubbled up, those at higher levels who feel like it has to be their job to solve problems now have too many problems to solve and track and so recognize that their best course of action is to let their teams solve and be supportive. Total transparency is initially difficult for environments that aren't used to it, but I say "Rip the Band-Aid off." :)

Noel: I love that your bio doesn't point out that you have more than thirty years of "experience," but thirty years of "fun." How much of that fun would you attribute to the "unleashed creativity" that you point out adds to job satisfaction? So many people gauge their job satisfaction by salary, benefits—more traditional job plusses. I feel like things like the opportunity for unleashed creativity may go under-appreciated.

Jim: Absolutely. Time and again I find that people who find jobs that satisfy their true values are much happier than those who select jobs due to small differences in salary or commuting time. Find a company that can feed your passion. Then find places within that company that feed your passion. It will be a win-win for everyone. Sometimes, people don't even know their core values because they don't take the time to introspect and examine them. You can do it on your own—find twenty values (health, freedom, financial security, fame, creativity, etc.) from your favorite Google search and write them on stickies. Force rank them by asking yourself tough questions: Would I rather have a job that completely satisfies this and not that, or vice versa? Then ask yourself what opportunities you have where you work or where you would rather work that best satisfy those top values.

Noel: How much weight do you put into the actual physical environment that seems to be all the rage, especially amongst startups? I feel like everyone is trying to outdo each other with beanbag chairs, pets at work, people riding skateboards down the hallway—do you ever feel like more time is being spent on the innovation of an office's architecture than is being spent on the innovation of the work done by the actual employees?

Jim: It is actually really important. The bean bag chair doesn't make you more innovative. But the camaraderie that is developed by sharing the excitement with others in your team about small elements in your environment is invaluable in terms of the esprit de corps and trust that is built within the team. That trust leads to open communication, fun, and a true brainstorming spirit, which of course is critical for creativity. I have seen teams trial open collaborative environments, watched them jell tremendously and quickly, and then fall back into patterns of malaise when the trial was over and they had to return to traditional, sterile cube environments.

Noel: Lastly, when you mentioned the need to remove "impediments to innovation," it got me thinking. What about teams who perhaps do feel empowered and innovative, but perhaps simply want to add to that innovation? Where might they look for room to improve even further?

Jim: In the spirit of the talk, they might first examine the question "Why do we not have the innovation at the level we want?" An exercise of "five whys" and using an analysis tool like a current reality tree should lead to root causes. Remove those root causes. For example, let's say the answer to the question is "We don't have time." And the answer to the next 'why' is "Because we are delivering fixed scope in a fixed time." And so on. The solution may be to adjust the way projects are initially budgeted, or the level of detail attached to the "business justification." I would be careful of simply trying to add "innovation" to the existing culture. Something has to give. Quick wins are innovation days, innovation games, applying lean startup principles to backlogs, etc. But each of those things has a cost associated—time, or time to educate, usually. The organization desiring to be more innovative must commit to it, the same way they would commit to, say, quality. Then, the time will be found.

Jim Elvidge has had more than thirty years of fun in the web, new media, eCommerce, financial, communications, and entertainment industries. He began his career as a digital signal processing specialist and holds four patents in that area. In 1999 Jim co-founded RadioAMP, the first private-label web radio company. As VP of technical operations at Vicorp Interactive Systems and VP of customer engineering at Watercove Networks, he led large software development and professional services teams in delivering complex communications systems to customers worldwide.

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