PSFK’s Interview with Steve Faktor: Fostering Innovation In The New Workplace [Future Of Work]

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This is a reprint of the original interview I did with the popular innovation blog from consultancy PSFK. 

We talk to innovator, futurist, and author of the book ‘Econovation’ about how impermanence, gamification and sensory stimulation are crucial in today’s developing office culture.

As part of our Future of Work Series, PSFK reached out to experts to get their take on the changes we’ve identified that are currently going on in the workplace. We recently chatted with Steve Faktor (@ideafaktory), author of Econovation (Wiley), founder of the IdeaFaktory incubator, and former Vice President and head of the American Express Chairman’s Innovation Fund. Following Steve’s popular series of articles on work and happiness in Harvard Business Review, we asked his thoughts on how social, generation gaps, and what jobs we do will change the workplace.

Is there a difference in the way the workplace operates now as opposed to 5-10 years ago?

Lately, yes. And it’s just beginning. There are macro and micro forces just starting to change what we do and how we do it. In my book “Econovation”, I explain how the macro economy will mandate a shift from consumerism to what I’m calling “producerism.”   It will create a very different mix of opportunities from the credit-juiced economy of the last 20 plus years. On a micro-level, the economics of abundance created by cheap digital tools are eliminating entire professions, but empowering a producer or creator‑driven economy. As a result, the workplace will need change dramatically. To motivate this generation of workers, employers will have to “Sell Actualization.” That’s the name of the Maslow-inspired chapter I dedicated to this opportunity.

How are businesses beginning to leverage social platforms and big data to help them understand how people are communicating?

Social media is creating this huge data pipe. Turns out there was this pent up supply of communication. People were bursting at the seams to generate content, from brilliant thoughts to awful cat photos. And they’ll share even if no one is listening. People keep posting on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus even if they get no response. Now that we have clues on how socialize online, we’re exiting the “storming” stage and entering a “norming” stage. That’s when companies, governments and other institutions start to structure, organize, and find uses for all that data. The true value won’t be in understanding how people are communicating, but in applying it.  We’re seeing some of that in customer service and marketing applications. But we’re not there yet. Soon this global mind will inform who companies hire, where to open stores, what products to make, and how to diagnose mental conditions.

How do you see gamification influencing the workplace?

Gamification is a more tactical way to say “psychology”. People have always responded to a variety of carrots on sticks. What’s happened is the value system has changed. There’s a greater variety of things you can use as carrots or sticks. It’s no longer just cash or vacation time. Now, inside a game or social network, you can use magic swords or potions to get people to do things in the real world.

More wealth, more leisure time and more technology have changed our priorities. There’s a perpetual longing for connectivity and entertainment and fame that never existed before. In my book I call it “Famification”. People like me will write articles to get “likes” or followers. On Foursquare, people want to be mayors of things that have no formal government structure. That gives others more levers to control what you’ll do.  And phones are the perfect, targeted delivery mechanism for those treats.  Though we’ve mostly seen carrots. Few companies have successfully tried sticks. Gympact comes to mind. Their users pay into a pool and can win money by sticking to their exercise plan. If they don’t, they lose money.  But as a business, Gympact is betting you’ll choose brownies over sit-ups.

How do the differing value systems of younger workers and older workers manifest themselves in the workplace?

It goes back to psychology and the life cycle. When you have fewer responsibilities, your priorities are going out, having a good time, and entertaining yourself. You’re not as concerned about feeding a family or the condition of your 401K or your liver.

Your work priorities and motivations are also different. Those two generations are butting heads because one craves idealism and change, while the other is like, “Don’t f**k it up for me!” In the past, that meant junior employees made copies or stapled things. Today, they present to C-level executives. The main reason is fear. Older workers fear that the new generation has something they need – a native understanding of digital and social technology. It’s a temporary imbalance of power. For the next few years, that insecurity will be a bargaining chip. It’ll make some young workers rising stars and others insufferable, depending on which side of the LOL you’re on.

How can companies bring these two generations together and get them to enable one another?

Burberry is one company that created an interesting marriage between the two. Younger workers are told, “Dream big. Act unconstrained. Tell us what the big ideas are.” Then they have an older, more seasoned execution committee that tries to figure out how to make those ideas work in the real world. It’s an interesting two‑tier approach.

There are a lot of very smart, industrious young professionals who still need help with some of the heavy lifting and polish. Things like business models, consistent execution, networking, credibility, and professionalism. That’s what gives prospective customers confidence you’ll deliver on time. And it’s not their fault. It comes with seasoning. But seasoning also dulls the edges. This new generation has no time for that. They have swagger and big expectations. And that digital bargaining chip temporarily gives them unprecedented access and clout.

Is there a way to evolve those roles into something more than a relationship of checks and balances between the seasoned workers and the newcomers?

Definitely. But there’s no universal formula. Each company’s culture is the single biggest reason something succeeds in one company and flops in another. Plus, every company has a different starting point. Some have no mechanism to properly deploy or challenge young, smart, ambitious people. Others aren’t attracting them in the first place. Sometimes, it’s the nature of the industry. Other times, it’s geography or management style or bad word of mouth. Some top grads and interns have gone on interviews and told me, “I felt like there was no air in the room.” That stifling feeling doesn’t just hurt your younger workers, but it hurts innovation and productivity across the board.

Changing the culture of an organization is a monumental effort. But changing culture to accommodate young workers isn’t what I’d recommend. It should always start with your mission or vision. Then, the path for engaging young workers will become clear. It’s the same exact thing as relationships. As a guy, I know women are attracted to men with purpose and ambition. Similarly, young workers are attracted to companies with purpose and ambition. Define that purpose, communicate it well, and you will become a magnet for others who want to be a part of the energy you generate. If you build it, they will come.

How has social recruiting changed the ways companies find employees who are good cultural fits? 

Many big companies still use byzantine web portals that if they were cars, they’d have a crank and make sparks. Some companies use social media as a filter to see what a candidate’s social persona says about them. More creative companies know that the people submitting resumes aren’t necessarily the ones you want to hire.  They’ll use blog posts, videos, or software people have already created as the resume. In my book, I call it “Auditioning 2.0”. It’s where you actually start doing the job before you’re hired – or before there is even a job. Days after Google Instantcame out; a Stanford student built the same feature for YouTube. He got a Tweet from the President of YouTube telling him to quit school because he has a job. We’ll see more and more of that as our lives become public and people can easily create and publicize their creations.

So, the ‘new’ workplace needs to be a place that fosters collaborations while also rewarding a varied and malleable skill set?

You need to have people who are adaptable because the tasks will change. You need people who can learn quickly to do X or Y.

I wrote about impermanence in my book. I think that needs to be baked into everything. Everything should be built with an expiration date in mind, with an option to renew, whether it’s a project, a product, or a new business unit. In order to have life, you have to have the conception of death. That’s a good thing, because that’s renewal. It forces you not to rest on your laurels and anticipate the changes you need to make to stay alive. Our current system of guaranteed renewal is what makes organizations and workers stagnate.

You recently wrote in Harvard Business Review about How Office Dwellers Can Become Doers. What does that mean and how can that motivate employees?

There are three things that are usually missing in digital office jobs. Companies that can best provide or simulate them will have happier, more motivated workers. The first is tangibility. Can you show that the world is different when you leave at the end of the day, or at the end of the project, or at the end of the year? Can you see the impact of your work?

The second is sensory stimulation. Office environments are sensory deprivation chambers. I think that people, in the absence of sensory stimulation get depressed. Interactivity is important, activity is important, physicality is important. Experiencing things through all of the senses is important and sorely lacking in most companies.
The third thing is contributing or helping people. You want to feel like you’re helping the world or the community or customers. That’s probably the greatest source of satisfaction in any job.
There is a huge, unmet opportunity to connect employees to the final product – no matter how far in the back-office they might work.

Thanks Steve!

You can find Steve Faktor at IdeaFaktory, Google+Twitter, & Facebook.


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Provocative predictions & prescriptions on where innovation, economics & culture will take us. Fearless. Funny.