Some time ago, I delivered a keynote address on strategy innovation to the top executives of one of Hong Kong’s most prominent blue-chip companies. The group was eagerly participating in some thinking exercises, driven by the highly energetic and enthusiastic group chairman, one of Hong Kong’s business tycoons who is a shining example of a true business leader although having just entered his seventh life decade. All seemed to go perfectly – or so it seemed. However, my energy sensors told me that I might be in for some trouble. Today’s article focuses on a topic that so far has been widely neglected by the management literature: Energy – and how to use it to succeed in business innovation.

Energy is a forgotten philosophic concept.

In traditional Chinese culture, Qi (気, pronounced as Ch’i) is an active principle forming part of any living thing. It can be translated as “energy flow”, and finds complementary expressions in the Western concepts of energeia or élan vital (vitalism). In many cultures around the world, traditional philosophies contain similar concepts of a flow of energy that sustains all living beings.

Your learning: Energy is an important ancient philosophical concept that is widely ignored in our efficiency-focused modernity; it is based on the belief that everything alive is a flow of energy – the higher the energy, the more alive one is.

Energy is everything.

In The Power of Intention, the best-selling author Wayne Dyer explains that we are all part of a gigantic energy system. “Everything in this universe is a movement of energy. Higher/faster energies dissolve and convert lower/slower energy. Consider yourself and all of your thoughts of being an energy system. The higher your energy, the more capable you are of nullifying and converting lower energies, which weaken you, and affecting in a positive way everyone in your immediate and even distant surrounding.” Physicists agree that we are all a combination of matter and energy. We all have to die, and will leave the matter behind. But ask yourself: What happens to the energy?

Your learning: Realize that energy is everything. Because they operate on extremely high energy levels, top performers have the ability to enter a room full of people and to completely change the sentiment from depressed and down to inspired and uplifted. Just think of people such as Gandhi, Mandela, or Barack Obama. Starting today, consciously choose to operate on higher energy frequencies in order to transform negative into positive energy in your work environment as an important element of a creative culture.

Don’t manage time – monitor your energy levels at work.

Time management books such as Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People have helped countless businesspeople to become more productive and effective at work. But there’s a problem: the effectiveness-centered recommendations do not naturally resonate with the cognitive preferences of at least one out of three people – and typically, these people preferring a more flexible thinking style tend to have a naturally higher affinity to and talent for creativity.

Your learning: If you have experienced problems with time management, consider another approach that is likely to be more in line with your preferred thinking style and work style as well as your natural lifestyle preference. Stop managing time – start to tune into your higher energy frequencies by asking questions like: Does my job energize me or does it drain my energy? What kinds of work activities energize me? Does the activity that I currently work on flow easily – or is it hard work? What do I feel like working on next? Who enjoys doing those tasks that drain my energy?
As much as possible, try to work inside what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “The Flow Zone”, where a work challenge matches your skills and interests. You are more likely to come up with novel ideas and great results if work feels energizing and interesting.

Deal effectively with energy-sapping people.

Let’s return now to my recent innovation keynote talk in Hong Kong. From the very beginning of the event, I noticed the negative energy levels of one of the firm’s board members. Frowning face, arms crossed in front of the chest, disengaged and not willing to participate in any of the group activities, this top manager was a giant living energy drag.

Toward the end of the two-hour event, he interrupted me twice with some unjustified negative judgmental comments (thus violating the first of Osborn’s ground rules of ideation, “No judgment”). To save the success of the group’s ideation efforts, I bit my tongue, finished the divergent thinking exercise and effectively crushed the unjustified critique of this egomaniac naysayer after the exercise by explaining the underlying methodological theory and by documenting that the disputed creativity tool used was successfully applied by Steve Jobs to save Apple from bankruptcy after his return in 1997.

Your learning: One rotten apple spoils the whole bunch, as they say. Stanford professor Robert Sutton dedicated a whole book, The No-Assholes Rule, to the performance-reducing, energy-sagging effect of having to deal with difficult people in business, regardless of whether they are colleagues, superiors, or customers. Avoid such black holes whenever possible, and if you are in the position, protect yourself (and your colleagues) by getting tough on and – if necessary – get rid of such eternal complainers.

Energy is more important than thinking.

The name of our innovation company that I’ve started a few years ago is Thinkergy. Your guess is right: It’s made up of the words ‘THINKing’ and ‘enERGY’. Now which of those two words is more important for successful business creativity? As a seasoned businessperson, you probably opt for thinking. That’s what I thought as well when I started Thinkergy in 2005.

After having gained deep knowledge and practical insights into the mysterious twists of successful business creativity and systematic innovation, I realized to my surprise that energy is more important than thinking to produce breakthrough ideas and meaningful, systematic innovation for two reasons: (1) Thoughts are nothing but a form of psychic energy, thus a subset of energy. (2) The more positive energy an innovation group generates, the higher the likelihood that they collectively produce great results in an idea project.

Your learning: A mantra at Pixar goes: “Art is a team sport.” So is innovation. A team that moves beyond the individual egos, that totally gets in sync, into the perfect flow of the vibrant energies of its living beings, will be able to create breakthrough ideas and innovation. So better quickly get rid of the liabilities in your company or team.

Conclusion: The architectural genius Richard Buckminster Fuller noted: “Real wealth is ideas plus energy.” Start today paying attention to energy as an important aspect to succeed in business and innovation. I believe that the English poet and critic Matthew Arnold is right: “Genius is mainly an affair of energy.”