The case for inspiration

Breathe fresh life into your work by stripping away the myths around what it means to be inspired.

Burnt out. Languishing. Disengaged. Exhausted. Hopeless. Stuck. These are the words that have dominated workplace conversations over the last few years. Teams are struggling. With each passing day our employees’ energy is further depleted, their productivity slows, and their dedication wavers – even as our investments in their engagement have steadily increased.

What if the antidote to this era of discontent is not to hunker down or increase current investments, as has been the typical response, but rather to lift our heads and help our teams to be more inspired by the world around them?

If the modern American company were a family, inspiration would be the forgotten middle child. Derived from the Latin inspirare, ‘to breathe in’, inspiration is quite literally the motivational process by which someone absorbs the creative energy or insight of one object or experience and uses it to bring something new, different, better, or more meaningful into the world. Inspiration catalyses the development of your employees’ most creative ideas into the actions and initiatives that become your company’s most successful innovations. Nothing new or transformative or sustainable happens without it.

But inspiration doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Indeed, it doesn’t exist at all without your people. It is they who determine if something is inspirational; they who need to be inspired so they can do inspiring things – for themselves, for their leaders, for the company, for the world. In an inspired state, employees go from being simple cogs in the execution engine of a company, to being invaluable contributors to its mission – expanding market share, improving products, and finding novel ways to surprise and delight their customers.

In the process, inspired individuals see more new possibilities, they are more engaged, they are more receptive to outside influences, and they feel more energized and motivated day-to-day.

Everything you thought you knew about inspiration is probably wrong

Have you ever had the pleasure of watching an artist at work during a moment of profound creation – a painter in their studio, a potter at their wheel, an athlete on their chosen playing field, a chef in their kitchen, a furniture maker in their workshop, or an entrepreneur sketching out an idea on a whiteboard? It’s pure energy and excitement. The almost unquenchable desire to bring something new, better, different, or more meaningful into the world is palpable. You feel it.

It is an experience that produces equal parts awe and jealousy. We are awed by the possibility that someone who does not seem so different from us has found something meaningful that consumes them. And we are jealous, either because we don’t believe we are the kind of person who can be inspired like that, or we don’t feel we have the chance to even try.

There’s a reason for this. In business circles today, many have come to believe that inspiration is something you are chosen for or gifted. It is delivered in a lightning strike out of the ether by a force we can’t explain, to a chosen few – the unicorn founder, the innovative chief executive, the creative product designer. The waters are further muddied by the way inspiration has become interchangeable with terms like creativity, innovation and engagement.

This misunderstanding of the term and its origins has resulted in the inconsistent application of inspiration’s true force in our daily lives, both at home and at work, and has produced a number of enduring myths that have been near-impossible to dispel.

Inspiration is not divine intervention

For many, inspiration is a spark, a moment of divine intervention, an invisible force compelling us forward. In fact, it is none of those things. Inspiration is a motivational process, like a complex stimulus-response where higher output is achieved through a set of consistent, sequential steps. Given that it is a process, it is repeatable, and it can be taught.

Inspiration is not creativity

Among social science researchers, inspiration is thought to be the conduit between creative ideas and creative action – not the creativity itself. In other words, inspiration is a mental state in which individuals are compelled to take action towards bringing their creative ideas to life; producing new, different, better and more meaningful work in the process.

Inspiration is not willpower

If you put inspiration into the context of a skill or a craft, it becomes much clearer how it differs from an increase in effort, motivation, or the ‘just push through’ mentality that has been our default approach to solving problems and driving growth in modern companies. Imagine you are a writer working on a manuscript or series of articles. An increase in sheer output, or what we call perspiration, will likely help you hone the technical elements of writing – punctuation, sentence structure, citing sources, editing text. However, an increase in inspiration will allow you to see the project differently and open you up to new, different, better or more meaningful ways to make your point – innovative story arcs, novel concepts or characters, a unique voice, and a creative use of language. More effort gets you a sharper version of what you already have or know how to do. More inspiration doesn’t reshape or reorganize: it expands the potential of what was thought possible.

Inspiration is not engagement

The prevailing business philosophy of the last few decades has been ‘performance through engagement’. Companies have thrown billions of dollars at beautiful offices, exemplary pay, flexible work arrangements, hotel-quality amenities and extravagant extras. The thesis was that abundant perks yield higher levels of engagement, which result in deeper commitment and, in turn, more productivity, creativity, novel ideas and innovation. Yet despite those investments, the share of the workforce that is fully engaged has held steady or fallen over the last decade – currently at 32% in the US, according to Gallup – with a resulting productivity loss estimated to be about $8.1 trillion. It is a damning indictment of a decade of unparalleled effort toward this singular objective. The difference is clear: while engagement may result in a feeling of connection that presumably spurs employees to do more for their respective companies, inspiration directly results in more creative acts and actions that drive higher levels of innovation and growth.

Inspiration creates a nearly insatiable need within employees to bring something to bear – something that is new (never-before-seen innovation), better (a significantly improved-upon idea), different (an alternative solution to a previously-solved problem) or more meaningful (a deeper, more purposeful version of what has previously been done). In other words, an investment in inspiration has a much more direct line to the outcomes companies care about while providing the same brand of commitment and connection they have long sought to extract from their teams through engagement initiatives.

Inspiration can be built and is repeatable

Though inspiration has been a hidden creative force inside companies for as long as they have existed, accessing it consistently has remained elusive. Over the last decade, our work at Inspir, a creative change and growth agency, has focused on making inspiration more tangible and accessible by helping leaders and their teams understand inspiration as a discipline that can be harnessed to create more energy and forward momentum towards new, different, better, and more meaningful solutions.

The discipline of inspiration is both a process (a way to move a group or organization from being inspired to having more inspired ideas) and a practice (a daily personal commitment by employees to being more fully open to the inspirational potential of the people, things, and experiences available to them every day.) Like any process, there are sequential steps, tools, pitfalls, and pro tips. Like any practice, there are rituals, routines, moods and mindsets.

To start down the path towards achieving more inspiration in your teams, we have three simple suggestions for leaders.

1 Get up, get out, and step into the new

Put yourself in a position to be inspired by creating new moments and exploring new places. Engage in new conversations, in new environments, with new networks. See and experience new perspectives of the world around you, with new frames and different lenses. Fundamentally, it’s not about more time away, but about changing the shape and texture of the time you have. For instance, fill the beginning of your creative sessions with ‘edge cases’ or examples of a group or person who solved a similar issue in a different context – or commit to visiting one new place or space in your local community every Sunday. The point is to access non-routine sources more frequently to broaden your view.

2 Think more, ask more, talk more, translate more

The famed psychologist Viktor Frankl once wrote: “Between the stimulus and the response there is a space. In that space is our power.” In the context of inspiration, that space is where we get to interrogate what we’ve just seen and experienced; to clarify how and why it is meaningful to us, to our teams and to our company. That means lengthening the reflections, extending the conversations, and going deeper with more powerful questions about any new experience. For instance, when in the presence of a source of inspiration, hold the space for your team. Help them to think a little harder about what they saw or experienced, and how it could relate to the big questions you are trying to solve.

3 Create the space, place and permission

Take an inspired idea and give yourself and your team the permission to explore it. Create a compelling story around it. Build a short sprint or experiment. Wall off a space where you can build, test, and play in short bursts, to envision what could be. Pull others in and let your inspired idea be the inspiration for someone else.

How inspiration can be the spark for better days

“I believe in creating a personal practice for inspiration because it truly has the power to change perspective,” says Mike Marcellin, the chief marketing officer of Juniper Networks. “However, the larger promise of inspiration lies in deploying it collectively, through carefully curated inspiration moments.”

In their work with Inspir, Marcellin and other leaders from Juniper have been trendsetters in this space. They’ve taken on big questions about brand, strategy and culture by feeding their inspiration through a variety of formats, including curated immersions – bite-sized doses of virtual inspiration for changing behaviour, in the form of 90-minute sessions that incorporate a source of inspiration and guided conversations that support in-depth exploration. ‘Inspiration lounges’ provide deep dives on a subject or question with peers, taking the form of an extended day or even multiple days of live inspiration, curated around a single issue or problem. And bespoke inspiration excursions have helped build leadership capability, such as a trip to the Tribeca Film Festival to explore storytelling from the very best.

“Inspiration is all around us and the more we learn to access it for ourselves and with our team, the better business we create,” says Marcellin. “As counter-intuitive as it may seem in our busy lives, by taking the time and creating the space to make inspiration a part of how we do business, we become less burdened and constrained. The impact on our global marketing team and the company as a whole has been extraordinary.”

We are tired and we are fraying under the strain of it all. We are looking for more meaning, hoping for a little more hope, and longing for better days. We are in need of new, better, different, and more meaningful solutions to everything from sustainability to the supply chain, from how we work to how we educate our kids, from better products to more purposeful companies. Inspiration might not be the answer to all that ails us, but it could be enough of a spark to help us take the most important first step forward.

Dr André Martin is a Partner at Inspīr and the ex-CLO at Google, Target, Nike, and Mars. The author thanks Andy Stefanovich, Founder of Inspīr, for his contributions. This article draws on research from Dr Todd Thrash.