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Help Employees Innovate by Giving Them The Right Challenge

In a 2007 meta-analysis, Samuel Hunter, from the University of Oklahoma, and his colleagues set out to understand which variables had the biggest impact on innovation culture. Their comprehensive research study analysed data from 42 different research papers on the drivers of innovation culture and revealed a list of 14 variables that mattered.

Many of those variables are challenging for frontline employees or even individual managers to influence on their own – like the perception that top managers support creativity and innovation, or creating a culture where risk-taking is accepted and encouraged.

However, there were some things that individuals could influence more directly. The top-ranked one of these was a sense of challenge.

Further research has confirmed the importance of challenge in driving innovation. In a 2014 review of several meta-analyses, Silvia da Costa, from the University of the Basque Country, and her colleagues examined the difference in creativity for those in challenging versus non-challenging roles. The researchers found that if people are put in a role that challenges them, 67% will demonstrate above-average creativity and innovation in their performance. In contrast, only 33% of people in ‘easy’ jobs show above-average innovativeness.

To help foster the kind of challenge that spurs innovation and creativity, focus on three things.

1.  Find the challenge sweet spot

The relationship between how challenging individuals find a task and innovation performance is not a linear one. People’s innovation output doesn’t simply increase as the challenge increases. Instead, the relationship looks like an inverted U-shape. Just as the Yerkes-Dodson law indicates that both very low and very high levels of stress decrease performance on complex tasks, when people are faced with a challenge so big that they feel they don’t have the skills or resources to tackle it, innovation performance also declines.

The converse is also true: when people feel as if they can do their work with their eyes closed, that is, with no sense of challenge, innovation outputs will be few and far between.

Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi has also discussed this in his concept of finding ‘flow’. The two pre-conditions for flow are a high degree of skill in the task you are doing and working on a task that you would define as challenging. People fall out of flow (or the sweet spot), when they don’t have the skills to rise to a challenge.

The challenge with challenge (as it were) is to find the right balance. This involves working on projects that are demanding, but also offer a good match between your skills and the resources you have available to solve the challenge, such as the time in which you have to tackle it.

2. Remember that challenge trumps capacity

I’ve seen it over and over again: when most managers have a new project or task to delegate, the question that they naturally default to is, ‘Who has capacity for this?’ Sometimes this simply means, ‘Who could do this task easily and quickly?’ Sometimes, like a taxi dispatcher, they’re simply trying to direct the work to the person who has the most free time. But by defaulting to efficiency, these managers are disregarding the fact that innovation thrives when people feel challenged by the tasks and projects they are assigned.

A far better question for managers to start asking when delegating projects is, ‘Who would feel challenged by this project and yet has the capacity to rise to the challenge?’ By asking this question, managers will receive significantly better innovation outputs from their projects.

3. Aim for 70%

A barrier that can get in the way of setting great challenges and, in turn, driving innovation, is setting the bar too low due to fear of failure. And given that people’s performance metrics are often linked to their compensation, the incentive to set big challenges and potentially fail is not especially motivating.

At Google, which adopted the use of objectives and key results (OKRs) as an alternative to traditional key performance indicators (KPIs), employees are encouraged to achieve somewhere between 60% and 70% success. Importantly, OKRs are not linked to pay, unlike KPIs, and when employees hit closer to 100%, the reaction from management is more likely to be ‘you should be aiming higher’ as opposed to ‘well done’.

Aiming for 70% success with challenges you set or take on ensures that you won’t play it too safe, which is an innovation killer. So, when thinking about goals you want to work towards over the next year or quarter, make sure that there is at least one in the mix that gets you out of your comfort zone and pushes you enough to make you unsure whether you can achieve it. Just make sure the challenge is aligned with your skill set and thus hits the sweet spot.

AUTHOR l Amantha Imber is the founder of Inventium, an innovation consultancy. Her latest book, The innovation formula, tackles the topic of how organisations can create a culture in which innovation thrives