If there’s one thing you can count on with human beings, it’s our innate desire for things to improve. We want today to be better than yesterday, and tomorrow to be better than today. For organizations with a zeal for innovation and continuous improvement, that should be very good news. Just tap into our DNA, right?
But not so fast. Truth is, people are a curious mixture of colorful contradictions that makes improvement less natural and more challenging than avid innovators would like. On one hand, we’re just like all other living creatures on the planet – marching to the beat of the program that dictates what we do to ensure our survival. The highest priority in the animal world is doing what’s safe and predictable, not exploring new worlds and taking the risks that are inherent in striving for innovation. Animals only step out of their survival patterns when they’re enticed or forced.
People are Creatures of Habit…and More
On the other hand, humans have a counterbalancing force that makes us want to fly to the moon and beyond. It starts with free will, our singular human power to ignore our animal program and choose to do something altogether different. Along with that ability, we also possess the unique quality of imagination – the capacity to conceive of things that exist only in the mind and not in the natural world.
Taken together, those two extraordinary gifts – imagination and free will – make up a compelling force that propels human beings to amazing feats of creation. It’s also the main driver behind our intrinsic desire for things to be constantly improving.
BUT … that special spark only flourishes as long as it doesn’t jeopardize our survival. That comes first, and the way we tend to guarantee survival is through predictable processes that have kept us safe in the past. In the end, humans are creatures of habit like other animals – and for good reason. Going back to cave man days, we rely on those habits to keep us alive.
Striking the Right Balance
So here we are with this puzzling duality. We desire innovation on one hand … status quo on the other. Differentiation on one hand … conformity on the other. Adventure and discovery on one hand … safety and security on the other. It’s a constant tug-of-war that’s both thrilling and threatening.
When it comes to individual human beings, every person decides how much of those two competing forces they can manage in their lives. We are continually striving to strike the optimal balance across the wide spectrum between unbridled exploration and drone-like repetition.
For organizations, things become more complicated. The need for processes and habits to ensure predictability, consistency and control is even more vital for a group’s survival. Otherwise, chaos can set in. Innovation and continuous improvement are also essential, or you run the risk of being left behind making buggy whips while your competition is building a spacecraft. So how do you manage those dual demands and do both at the same time? It comes back to habits and processes.
Break a Habit with a New Habit
The renowned scientist and inventor, Buckminster Fuller, once said, “Don’t fight forces, use them.” So if humans are naturally creatures of habit, here’s the key. In order to get people engaging constantly in innovation and improvement, you need to create a habit for breaking the habit of doing things the same way over and over again. You have to overlay existing work processes with a meta-process that leverages the energy of imagination and free will through an imbedded routine of constantly challenging the status quo.
If you want to learn more about how to do that, check out our free webinar that describes two core processes for making continuous improvement as routine as turning on the light switch or cranking up the machinery.
Whatever method you choose to use, it’s imperative to beware of the fatal “program trap.” You can’t use a one-off suggestion program or periodic activity that merely “encourages” employees to come up with new ideas. It has to be systemic, intentional, habitual and built into the fabric of day-to-day operations. Otherwise, the animal in our nature will keep us from ever realizing the full potential of what we can accomplish when we’re free to be fully human.
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