Don’t Force It

By: LT Dave Nobles

work-productivity-blog

As I’ve been sitting around in lay-up for the past couple weeks, I’ve opened up the ‘ol laptop quite a few times trying to figure out the next post, but nothing had come to mind nor fingers.

So, I whined to my wife about the lack of creative inspiration, and she told me simply, “Don’t force it.” Clearly, she was giving the Heisman to my incessant moaning, but what she said not only highlighted a problem that I was having for this post, but also summed up some of the issues we have with ideas in the fleet.

Too often, when it comes to innovation, we force it. And we shouldn’t.

Now, I’m not trying to say that we shouldn’t schedule out brainstorming and design thinking sessions, or challenge a group to find solutions to a specific problem. What I mean is that we shouldn’t direct or attach incentives to the generation of new ideas. The unnecessary pressurization of the otherwise open activity of idea generation tends to cause people to force it, and the results could be ugly.

In his book Drive, Dan Pink references a study by researchers at MIT, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Chicago on the topic of incentives and performance. The study used three tiers of bonuses, offered to individuals based on their performance in cognitive tasks as well as physical tasks that didn’t require much thought. In both cases of the experiment, one conducted at MIT and one conducted in rural India, the results were the same: Bonuses had an inverse effect on performance for cognitive tasks whereas the rewards led to better performance for those rudimentary, mechanical, wrench-turning tasks. Pink gave an awesome TED talk about it, check it out here.

Since idea generation is a cognitive exercise, if we pressurize the process we can expect the same negative correlation. In the example of the study, it was rewards that pressurized the process, but an order can have the same effect because of the stress it creates. This is a phenomenon that’s been explored time and time again by sociologists, psychologists and economists.

Dan Ariely uses several examples in his book, The Upside of Irrationality, to illustrate that people actually behave less rationally the harder they try. Though some innovative ideas can seem a little bizarre at first, introducing irrationality into the idea incubation process is just asking for trouble.

Green Day Portrait Session

In the words of rockers and guys-who-look-like-they-stayed-up-all-night-watching-anime Green Day, “You can’t go forcing something if it’s just not right.”

That’s why The Athena Project is not, nor will ever be, a mandatory event. Not to attend, and certainly not to present. By keeping it open, only the passionate people who actually want to contribute do, and the results are pure and usually a higher quality because of it.

The Athena Project belongs to all of us, and it’s open. If an initiative like The Athena Project was a directive, then it would transform from an event where Sailors share ideas because they want to into a mandatory event in which Sailors “mail in” thoughts because they are required to.

LT Dave Nobles is a Surface Warfare Officer currently assigned to USS BENFOLD (DDG 65) as Weapons Officer. He is also a member of the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell.

You can like Athena on Facebook: www.facebook.com/athenanavy or follow us on Twitter: @AthenaNavy.

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One thought on “Don’t Force It

  1. Dave, Spot on, give your wife a BZ for me, and great team work! Not only do I like your approach to not forcing it, but finding a team mate for all activities is crucial for efficiency and success. I really could not agree more about the forcing function of any type of creativity. I could never be a song writer because I put too many measurements upon my activities and would try and force efficient song production. I did not watch the Pink TED talk yet, but I am sure he talks about people being the same and not responding well under any type of measurement to be creative. Check out this link for some very creative Sailors: http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=77655. Keep up the great work! R/sbj

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