I believe that innovation can’t be taught. It must come naturally, as part of a lifestyle. This became clear to me recently when I was given an opportunity to experience a work process outside of my day-to-day routine. Not that my job as a lubrication scientist on Shell’s Aviation Technology team in Houston is boring. I’m involved in a range of interesting activities, from working on aircraft engine oils and hydraulic fluids for high-tech jets to researching what makes the whitest, brightest smoke for stunt aircraft.
However, when Shell offered me an opportunity to work with the X PRIZE Foundation—an educational nonprofit that uses prize concepts to drive game-changing innovations across many fields—I saw innovation in a new light. It happened first when I realized that just by being in the X PRIZE offices near Los Angeles, I had more freedom to think. When presented with problems, I found it easier to identify solutions I wouldn’t normally have considered.
But why? The answer hit me one day in the facility’s large kitchen area.
The X PRIZE kitchen offers a vast choice of food for staffers, including candy and snacks, healthy foods, fruit and enough drinks to open a juice bar. It’s restocked weekly by the pallet-load, with new selections each time. Thus, whenever I visited the kitchen, I could try something new. And that was it: I realized that every day in that office was different from the one before. Not only were my food options different, so was my office location, my co-workers, even our meetings, one of which was held outdoors by a fountain.
These things made my normal life at home in Houston—based on my own comfort-zone routines—seem rhythmic and monotonous. They also made me appreciate the elements of my professional life that do challenge the routine. These include Shell’s Hunters Network, for example, a group I’ve joined that “hunts” new technologies and ideas (not game) for our potential use. Shell also sponsors Project Better World, a conservation and sustainable-development organization that deploys hundreds of employee volunteers around the globe annually to support exciting conservation projects.
A senior Shell leader calls an opportunity to take part in Project Better World a “hidden gem” of personal development. It may seem odd for a manager to recommend that his staff leave their jobs for two weeks to research rainforest soil erosion in Borneo, but his view highlights my point: The experience puts people outside their comfort zones and allows them to develop new skills and explore professional and personal limits. When they return to their jobs, they can apply what they’ve learned in ways that may not have occurred to them, and view projects from a new perspective.
To be sure, not everyone can embark on a life-changing expedition, eat a different lunch each day or even hold group meetings around a fountain. Still, in our typical 9-to-5 environments, why not try to break the monotony caused by the normal human condition that embraces the familiar?
How can you think outside the box if you live entirely inside a box? To be truly innovative and to think beyond standard solutions, it’s necessary to break out of that cycle, lose the regularity, mix things up and get your mind and body used to the unconventional, every day. The question is, how do you, as a leader, inspire your team(s) to innovate? MT
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The opinions expressed in this Viewpoint section are those of the author, and don’t necessarily reflect those of the staff and management of Maintenance Technology magazine.