By: LT Dave Nobles
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.
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.