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Unleashing “Aha” Moments by Eliminating Extinguishers

By Raoul Davis Jr., Paul Eder, and Kathy Palokoff

When Ellen Kullman, former CEO of DuPont, was recently interviewed for the book Firestarters: How Innovators, Instigators and Initiators Can Inspire You to Ignite Your Own Life, her answer to what extinguishes innovation in organizations came fast and furious.

“Organizations get bogged down by ‘I won’t. I can’t. We’ve never.’ You have to unleash teams that leave the past behind and stop focusing on the way it’s always been done. You have to get them excited to try new things. That means engaging them and making it safe by minimizing their personal and professional risk.”

One way to engage individuals and make innovation safe is to minimize the factors that freeze action and prevent movement in a desired direction. We call those factors “extinguishers.”  

While the environment or culture of an organization plays a huge role in fueling or keeping innovation going, the ignition of an idea often starts with the individual. Helping that individual avoid and overcome extinguishers is essential in business transformation.

What Triggers “Aha” Moments

Before examining what extinguishes innovation in an individual, it is important to first look at five factors that ignite or trigger “Aha” moments:

  • Freedom in the moment. The ability to determine your own path and how to pursue it.
  • Tapped Talent. Capitalizing on abilities that you and those around you possess.
  • Mastery Mindset. Confidence that drives you toward success.
  • Driving Passion. Enjoyment, interest, and action in what life offers.
  • Global Introspection. Thinking strategically about yourself, and what motivates you to be more effective and productive.

Igniting innovation in individuals involves a person-by-situation interaction.  The most effective innovators are not distinguished by a desire to ignite everything they see. Rather, they are selective, choosing to focus on what is most likely to have an impact. They are experts at finding and discerning the most appropriate situations to unleash their strengths.

What Discourages “Aha” Moments

When individuals do not have the freedom to determine their own path,  they are less likely to be innovative. Highly controlled organization can stifle passion and undermine the motivation to innovate. Studies have repeatedly shown that if an individual does not have control and choice within a challenging situation, then feelings of autonomy are stifled and well-being is degraded.

Individuals can fail to tap into their own talent or those around them. Sometimes this comes from a belief that they are “not good enough.”  Others hide their talent to fit into the organization both professionally and socially.  Having a mastery mindset is not possible, unfortunately, if an individual does not act or holds him or herself up to dysfunctional and unachievable standards.

Threats also extinguish an individual’s desire to innovate.  When individuals feel pressured to achieve a certain level of action or outcome with an “or else” contingency, their focus becomes the external constraint rather than the internal drive. For those naturally inclined towards riskier or creative behavior, outside-the-box actions are inhibited by too much compliance and oversight.

Finally, negative feedback kills innovation as opposed to positive feedback, which encourages action and motivation in individuals.  To propel innovation,  leaders need to motivate persistence rather than take punitive and  negative actions.

Creating a Culture of Supporters

One of the key ways to eliminate extinguishers in an organization is to create a culture of supporters. Innovators should align themselves with supporters in order to avoid the crushing blow of extinguishers.

Through our research and interviews, we identified four primary types of supporters:

  • Nurturers listen and allow ideas to flourish. Innovators need listeners because ideas unspoken rarely materialize. Innovators don’t change the world in a vacuum. Nurturers are needed to vet their ideas, poke holes, and help to finalize them with additional strength.
  • Motivators focus on others’ passions and work to grow their influence. Motivators provide the push needed to ignite ideas. Many times, people possess  capabilities that have yet to be shown to others. Motivators help them to unearth this potential, direct their passions, and focus on their goals.
  • Illuminators shed light on hard-to-grasp concepts to improve ideas. An individual’s idea is a wonderful thing, but when strengthened by the force of others’ informed input, its potential blossoms. Illuminators make things better. They help people learn, discover, and recognize how their innate talents can influence the world.
  • Protectors accept individuals’ eccentricities and defend them against others who aren’t as accepting. In the Ironman and Avengers movies, Tony Stark is a genius businessman and inventor,  and  Pepper Potts is his protector. She defends and protects his ego from threats, even at the expense of her own best interests. Protectors appear selfless in ways that others cannot mimic. They view the other person’s achievements as their own.

Leaders can create a culture of supporters that nurture the differences,  strengths, and quirks of individuals within their teams. A culture of supporters does not provide a rubber stamp on ideas, but rather serves as an incubator for the growth of ideas.

Rodney Adkins was one of the people instrumental in the creation of Watson, and the first African-American to attain a senior vice president position at IBM. He explains in Firestarters:  “I always wanted a team with debates, arguments, and polarized points of view. If you have polarization, it forces you to see things differently. If everyone on your team is homogenous and all agree, you may miss out on something significant or tremendous.”

Raoul Davis Jr.
is a partner at Ascendant Group, which helps CEOs, retired athletes, and executive leaders dramatically increase their visibility through CEO branding. Find him on Twitter: @CEO_Branding

Paul Eder, PhD is a Lead Consultant with The Center for Organizational Excellence, Inc. He advises organizations on optimization of organizational structures, technology, data practices, and work environments.

Kathy Palokoff is a founder and partner at CUSTOMERicity, Joe Squared, and goFirestarter. She is a marketer, entrepreneur, and educator helping individuals and organizations ignite, fuel, and accelerate their growth.  Find her at

Together, they are the authors of the new book FIRESTARTERS: How Innovators, Instigators, and Initiators Can Inspire You to Ignite Your Own Life