Pride and the Pressure Cooker

Last night I watched Morning Glory, a cute movie about a plucky, underdog tv producer who makes her dreams come true.

All in all, it is not a terrible metaphor for innovating new products. She succeeds by applying creative thinking, willingness to take risks, good management, metrics-driven feedback loops, and sheer hard work. However, she doesn’t step up her game until her back is against the wall and her show is about to be cancelled.

I wanted to dwell on that last point for a moment.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” goes the saying, and there is nothing like burning the boats behind you to increase the need for success.

The lack of a safety net is one reason why startups often beat bigger incumbents. It does more than enable risk-taking; it pushes people to their limits.

Most people are capable of far more than they realize, but few have the ability to get there on their own. Something needs to bring this uber-excellence out of them, and it is often a combination of pride and a pressure cooker. This can come in the form of a startup, or a leader like Steve Jobs.

Entrepreneurs bear with the pressure cooker of a startup because they are owners of the business, and they revel in the independence and the hunt for triumph (within which I’m dumping changing the world, glory, riches, etc).

Big corporations looking to innovate need a slightly different formula, but the essential ingredients are the same.

To be clear, as with all things, one needs to find balance. If you are too starved for resources, or you are perpetually in dire fear of the sky falling, productivity can plummet.

It brings up interesting questions to ask yourself: are you stretching as far and hard as you can? are there untapped levels of excellence for which you should strive? and how can you set up a work context so that this is happening on a more regular basis?

Note:
For an interesting read on motivating creative/knowledge workers, check out Daniel Pink’s book Drive or his TED talk.