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?

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