Working in Zero Gravity

Posted by Heather Thompson on May 2, 2012

A technique used for consumer marketing can spark creativity and drive innovation in mature medical device companies.

In recent years bookshelves have filled up with excellent new volumes on innovation—the core of most every company’s business growth. In Grow from Within: Mastering Corporate Entrepreneurship and Innovation Robert C. Wolcott and Michael J. Lippitz explore various strategies for innovative growth, using examples of some of the industry titans. The book recognizes that radical innovation requires a degree of insulation from existing business units. The authors note that most companies allocate resources to projects that fit neatly in their business-as-usual model, which defines areas that companies understand best.

However, the best innovation comes from collaborative teams of “zero-gravity thinkers” who can operate freely in a truly conducive environment for generating new ideas. As described by renowned psychology professor Mihály Csíkszentmihályi,  this environment creates optimal “flow.” Often referred to as “being in the zone,” this state allows individuals to deal with very complex concepts at an elevated level of cognitive function that encourages clear focus and laser-like concentration.
Innovation leaders therefore need to be shielded from the day-to-day operational doldrums of an existing business. In The Innovation Killer: How What We Know Limits What We Can Imagine—And What Smart Companies Are Doing About It Cynthia Barton Rabe talks about “psychological distance” as a necessity to give creative individuals sufficient runway and creative thrust to achieve breakthroughs. Unfortunately, most of the mature companies that have the financial resources, space, and talent to provide such an optimal work environment tend to operate in a totally counterintuitive way. Why is that?

Psychographic Models

Surprisingly, part of the answer can be found in the psychographics that are commonly used in consumer marketing. Some of the world’s largest consumer product companies use psychographic models in order to leverage fundamental human motivations and engage customers on products and services. There are several models out there, but this article will focus on one that is rapidly gaining traction. Called the Censydiam model of consumer motivations from Ipsos Synovate, the model identifies eight fundamental needs and desires, as follows:

Vitality. Vitality is about adventure, testing boundaries, and discovering new things. It taps into the need to step outside our comfort zones, to explore our environments, and to achieve independence from others. Vitality is all about experiencing freedom, passion, and adventure, buzzing about, expending energy, and feeling very much alive and kicking. The Vitality dimension is individualistic, innovative, and energetic.

Power. Power is about the need to be the best and the desire to be respected, praised, and acknowledged for success. It reflects social status and the need to be an authority and to demonstrate superiority. It demands extreme competence, high performance, high expectations, perfection, self-restraint, focus, endurance, responsibility, and faultless leadership.

Recognition. Recognition is about feeling unique and standing out from the crowd. Recognition is about being proud of one’s own special ability and competence—intellectually, culturally, and materially. The individual with Recognition is knowledgeable, discerning, and judicious. Recognition appreciates intrinsic value, uniqueness, craftsmanship, and longevity. This is the territory of luxury brands.

Control. Control is about keeping things in check, hiding emotions, and being cool, calm, and collected. Control wants order, discipline, and a routine that feels comfortable and safe. It needs a sense of stability and structure, requires fact- and data-driven rational arguments, and focuses on functionality and maturity. This is the territory of scientists and engineers.

Security. Security is about relaxation, tranquility, and safety. The focus is on protection from danger and the prevention of harm in everyday life. The need for a safety net, for trust and meaningful transparency, and for an environment free of complexity and surprises are all aspects of Security.

Belonging. Belonging is about the need to be a part of groups that share norms and traditions. It is about togetherness, family, brotherhood, camaraderie, taking care of others, being take care of by others, and feeling good. It’s about the authentic experience and precious moments that can be enjoyed only face to face.

Conviviality. Conviviality is about the joy of meeting people and sharing good times with loved ones and good friends. It is about opening up, allowing others to be part of one’s life—both online and offline. The key concept is seamlessness, seeking solutions that help combine the best of many worlds in a streamlined, interactive manner as a way to achieve life balance. This is the territory of the tech-savvy, carefree social networker.

Enjoyment. Enjoyment is about maximizing the pleasure one gets out of life without worrying about the consequences. It has to do with overindulgence and the loss of all inhibitions. Enjoyment means spontaneity, living for the moment, impulsivity, excess, or even mania. Instant gratification is a facet of Enjoyment.

Mutual Understanding Needed

How can this consumer-based model be used for medical device innovation? Undoubtedly, these eight different types will immediately bring to mind at least a couple of people. CEOs also fit at least one of these dimensions, which define a person’s motivations, thought processes, actions, the products and services one purchases, and relations with others. Psychographics can also be a powerful tool to understand the dynamics between people and groups. It explains why some relate and why some have difficulty relating to others, even though it should be an integral part of assuring mutual success. This isn’t about yin not understanding yang, or “counterbalancing.” It is about one psychographic type needing to better understand and respect the other. To take it back to our subject, it’s about giving individuals the psychological distance to succeed.

Creative people tend to fall in the Enjoyment and Vitality categories. They have a strong desire for personal expression and are willing to take risks. Driven, entrepreneurial people tend to be in the Power corner. They seek success and are the force behind start-ups. However, most mature companies tend to have leadership that is wedged securely in the Control and Security categories, especially when the companies operate in highly regulated markets. These companies look for control, stability, and continuity. While these are the right characteristics for a mature company, one can immediately see where it becomes difficult, as willing as the organization’s leaders may be, to create an environment that is inviting for the drivers of innovation, the creative thrust that is juxtaposed in the Enjoyment and Vitality segments of this psychographic model.

Zero-gravity, creative thinkers who wonder why senior leadership fails to see the potential of their vision may need to learn more about the Control and Security dimensions that motivate their leaders’ thinking. By definition Control and Security require an unyielding, conservative position. Creative thinkers need to start a dialog by translating their vision into a language that can be understood. This can be done by tying it back to the fundamental needs and desires of the individuals who must be convinced. Unfortunately, Control and Security leaders by nature tend to hire many like-minded individuals who will extend their thinking, so that makes for quite a crowd to win over.

Zero-gravity, creative thinkers need the necessary psychological distance from the skeptical and operationally focused culture that drives day-to-day business. It may well be that the best solution is to separate R&D and marketing entirely from other operational structures. Allow for true incubation through continuous creative exploration. Create an environment that is conducive to optimal in-the-zone flow, even if it is counter to the broader company culture. Drive for results by giving the innovators clearly defined objectives, set a budget, and let them run. And more than anything else, let the team govern itself.

Serge Jonnaert is manager, informatics strategy, at Bio-Rad Laboratories (Irvine, CA) He can be reached at

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