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Nurture the link between helping and innovation

Updated: May 28, 2020

Can helping help you? That's a question I posed in a webinar recently—thinking about how to make the most of helping at work.

The short answer is yes, and one of the longer answers is because helping can foster innovation.

At its most basic, help solves a problem or meets an unmet need. In the rush of work, the problem is solved or the need is met by what has been described as one of the:

countless acts of co-operation without which the system would break down. We take these everyday acts for granted, and few of them are included in the formal role prescriptions for any job. (Katz and Kahn) 

Firstly, I challenge you to notice those everyday acts of co-operation, and how much they help with tasks, connection, and morale. If you manage people, pay attention to the help they give beyond their job description. What has changed, been left undone, or broken down that requires them to provide this help? And if the help is necessary, why isn’t it captured in a position description?

These acts of co-operation—helping—keep things going and maintain the status quo. But they risk making helpers the givers of knowledge, and people being helped as passive recipients of that knowledge.

Secondly, I challenge you to take a bigger picture view of why the help is needed and how it can be given. Think of the problem or the unmet need as a knowledge gap. As we work through the Covid-19 pandemic, we're confronting new gaps in knowledge all the time. Those gaps can't always be bridged by what you did before; they often require innovation.

So this is the right time to be deliberate in the way you ask for and give help—and allow for the possibility that the exchange can lead to entirely new solutions.

If you ask for help: do you want someone to show you how to follow an existing process, or do you have a novel problem for which the solution is unknown?

If you give help: clarify what problem you are solving or what need you are meeting. Give yourself time to consider whether you can use existing knowledge, or if you have to create new knowledge. What might happen if you resisted the urge to do what you've done before, and engaged the other person in the process?

Another element of this is to create a culture in which people feel safe asking for help. For some, asking for help is a barrier because they fear being seen as incompetent. Author Wayne Baker points out that a well-framed request for help sends a message that you are smart enough to know you need help, and that you respect what the other person has to offer.

Shift your perspective on help. If you keep thinking of it as mundane, you not only overlook what people are contributing, you miss the potential it offers for creating something new.

For more on this, watch or listen to the webinar


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