The Happy Innovator

Building a better, happier workplace ultimately fosters creativity and innovation

by Peter Merrill

“The Circle,” a 2017 movie starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson, is an interesting commentary on building a better workplace.

Hanks plays Eamon Bailey, a modern-day tech entrepreneur who has built a startup into a global tech giant. He is determined to have a workplace in which people are happy.

Watson, of Harry Potter fame, portrays Mae Holland, an honest and open millennial who gets the job opportunity of a lifetime working for Bailey’s company.

In the background, Patton Oswalt plays Bailey’s right-hand man, Tom Stenton, who proves to be a dark force with an entirely different agenda driven by immediate profit and for whom ethics have little relevance.

The characters represent three classic forces in play as so many of us try to build a better workplace. Most of us want a happier and productive workplace, but there are forces rooted in history that seem to work against this. These forces can reduce creativity and force us to behave like robots.


We left behind many of our opportunities to be creative when we left the fields and forests to join the first industrial revolution nearly three centuries ago. Work became an activity in which men, women and, yes, children suffered physical and emotional abuse in exchange for housing owned by the organization they worked for, and they received payment just sufficient enough to buy food. This revolution was driven by the steam engine, which powered the production of food and clothing.

A century later, Industry 2.0 saw the harnessing of electricity and the arrival of the machine age. People were adjuncts to machines, and we witnessed the rise of “work study” aimed at making people even more like machines. I remember my first summer job in a bakery. At 7 a.m. each morning, I stood for an hour transferring bread rolls from one conveyor belt to another. I learned how much the job shrank my mind to the point that I could barely read a newspaper. I also learned how important my workplace friendships mattered to retain my sanity. I learned why revolutions started. Henry Ford made this all into a science with the “division of labor.” As a result, people were asked not to think. They just did their job.

Industry 3.0 in the 1960s introduced automation as people were replaced entirely by machines. In many ways, this was good. At the same time, the quality movement emerged. People like Philip B. Crosby talked about a culture of quality in which we no longer were to “leave our brains in the locker,” and people’s minds became engaged.

The past 15 years has seen an increased focus on engagement. ISO/TC 176 created ISO 10018, which offers guidance on people involvement. Post year 2000, the UK government tasked the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development with developing guidance on people engagement to reduce the industrial strife that had existed for decades.

As we enter Industry 4.0, we are at another reset in the way we work. Technology has given us far more openness as we “Reply All” to emails. Phone cameras provide real evidence of events, but also raise questions of privacy. We saw this in the movie “The Circle,” in which Bailey developed a low-cost lapel camera that could capture everyone’s actions, but also share that footage immediately with the world.

Happiness is the challenge

I’ve described some of the dark forces of the past, and we now understand how these were so counterproductive and certainly worked against our own personal and workplace happiness. The happiness movement is gaining momentum, and while the dark forces don’t go away, we are learning how to overcome them.

Martin Seligman, widely recognized as the guru of happiness, sees happiness happening when a person achieves something worthwhile. Self-fulfillment is what makes us happy. That goes right back to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in which self-fulfillment is top of the list. Edward Diener finds the highest levels of happiness when people have strong friendships with friends and family. Michael Argyle found money and possessions contribute little to happiness, and that positive relationships are vital to happiness. He found that “challenging or absorbing” activities gave people long-term happiness

Not unlike the Holland character in “The Circle,” years back I joined an organization with an amazing culture. It was Philip Crosby Associates (PCA), and Crosby had been determined to leave behind the politics and mistrust of corporate life. I also had just left corporate politics when I joined PCA. There, I found great friendships. We worked really hard, and we always helped one another. This is the workplace we all want.

More human interaction

So, taking these key happiness factors into account, we now see major workplace trends. In the past decade, we have hibernated to virtual meetings, often driven by cost reduction. I used to enjoy my monthly section executive get-together with real people. Now, it’s become “voices on the phone” for most of the meetings.

If we are operating nationally or in a municipality, we should not lose high value person-to-person knowledge exchange to achieve short-term cost savings. One of the major lessons we have learned about better workplaces is that leaders enable face-to-face interaction.1

There is a major move to more human interaction. Remote working programs are being terminated and workplaces are being designed to encourage random “bumping” and the building of friendships. This, in turn, can lead to the bonus of more creativity and new ideas. Interestingly, research shows that Gen Z, whose members are sometimes accused of spending their lives staring at phones, prefer in-person conversations over using technology.

In my book, Innovation Never Stops, I quote the research of Ross Dawson years back that shows the bandwidth of knowledge transfer face to face completely outweighs reading a document.2 Recent research by M. Mahid Roghanizad and Vanessa K. Bohns showed one face-to-face conversation can be worth 34 exchanged emails.3

However, there is a caveat here. Not everyone thrives in an open office. I have a bumper sticker I picked up at NASA in Cape Kennedy, FL. It reads, “I Need My Space.” That is true for many of us. A workplace must allow for the quiet people, especially those who are creative. Some thrive on the noise of others, but for many, noise interrupts their thought train. There is also the issue of privacy. Especially in our connected and digital world, privacy can be invaded so easily. People need their space, and they also need their privacy.

Do what you do well

A core factor in happiness is self-fulfillment. But to achieve this, you must master competencies. In 2015, Alan Ross showed in The Future of Industry that 65% of the jobs in 2025 do not yet exist.4 The idea of the three-year degree is crumbling, not least of all due to cost. We need agile learning for the agile workplace, and we all learn differently. I learn by reading and writing. Plato and Alexandre the Great learned through dialogue. Blended learning recognizes the differences. And while it is evolving fast, it has a long way to go.

Don’t you hate videos that force you to watch 90% of their content in which you have no interest and where they try to sell you something you don’t want? Fortunately, the technique of the segmented video is overcoming this. Good organizations understand their people and how they learn differently. What we learn is also critical. I’ve mentioned in past columns the World Economic Forum report “The Future of Jobs.”5 Yes, science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) is vital, but we mustn’t overlook emotional intelligence and creativity, which will be essential competencies for complex problem solving.

Mastering AI

A major impact on the competencies we need will be artificial intelligence (AI). Machine learning is just beginning, as I wrote in a previous column.6 Use it to your advantage, but beware: It can be amazingly stupid.

I am training my laptop in voice recognition, and it’s like training a dog. For example, I just said the simple word “dog” to my laptop nine times after I wrote, then dictated this article and the software failed to understand me. I hope Microsoft is listening. The software also appears to have, like a dog, its bad days.

I am sure Microsoft will blame me for the problem. The software fails to understand critical words, and this can totally change the message in your document. You must read your resulting document carefully because you won’t catch all the errors.

On this point, chatbots are OK—but remember that statistic about 34 emails being the equivalent of one face-to-face conversation. Beware of AI.


Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the perversity of happiness and the workaholic. Technology has removed the boundaries of working hours. Often, people must be reminded of work-life balance, but also how to take a break.

Going back to my time at PCA, our courses in Winter Park, FL, broke every hour for 10 minutes, and every day for a real lunch. At the end of five intense days, including evening work, everyone was amazed at how fresh they were.

Occasional heroism is fine, but it should never become routine. Burnout will be inevitable.

What does this all mean for innovation?

I have, in fact, been describing the attributes of a workplace that will enable innovation. People who are networked digitally and physically have a high bandwidth of knowledge transfer. A workplace in which people have their skills and abilities continually developed to leverage new technology fuels innovation.

Most importantly in this workplace, people are able to achieve success through collective knowledge, not in a zero-sum game by beating others. Success comes from doing what we ourselves do well in a workplace of friendships where we share knowledge and are happy.

I experienced this at PCA, and it is becoming more and more the norm. I don’t pretend this is easy, but it is absolutely worth striving for.

One last thought I want to share: My favorite definition of innovation is “Something new that makes people happy.”


  1. Dan Schawbel, “10 Workplace Trends You’ll See In 2018,” Forbes, Nov. 1, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/fortune-workplace-trends.
  2. Peter Merrill, Innovation Never Stops, ASQ Quality Press, 2015.
  3. M. Mahid Roghanizad and Vanessa K. Bohns, “Ask in Person: You’re Less Persuasive Than You Think Over Email,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 69, March 2017, pp. 223-226.
  4. Alec Ross, The Industries of the Future, Simon & Schuster, 2017.
  5. World Economic Forum, “The Future of Jobs: Employment, Skills and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” January 2016, www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Future_of_Jobs.pdf.
  6. Peter Merrill, “Let There Be Light,” Quality Progress, July 2018, pp. 54-57.

Peter Merrill is president of Quest Management Inc., an innovation consultancy based in Burlington, Ontario. Merrill is the author of several ASQ Quality Press books, including Innovation Never Stops (2015), Do It Right the Second Time, second edition (2009), and Innovation Generation (2008). He is a member of ASQ, previous chair of the ASQ Innovation Division and current chair of the ASQ Innovation Think Tank. Merrill also is head of delegation for his country to ISO/TC 279 Innovation Management.

--Alex, 01-19-2019

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