How Emotion Propels Innovation, and What that Means for Companies
How Emotion Propels Innovation, and What that Means for Companies

Completing three doctoral-level degrees by the age of 30, Idriss Aberkane discovered what makes humans learn, innovate, and stay hyper-motivated in what they do. He is passionate about using his knowledge to make companies more successful and to make their people flourish.

Are both of these goals achievable at the same time? Yes, Idriss argues: it is a misconception that innovation must entail sacrifice and that productivity and joy are mutually opposed. Idriss’ “Love Can Do” philosophy holds that, if our motivation stems from positive emotions, we will pass that on to our employees, and we will outpace the competition.


You can hear Idriss and other influential thinkers at the MERIT Annual Summit in Seville on 5-6 February 2020.


How can we use the “Love Can Do” principle to instil a mindset of innovation in our organisations – especially if love is hardly the main emotion our people feel at work? In an interview with MERIT, Idriss gave a number of practical tips – some derived from leading companies like Apple and LinkedIn, some from the US Army, and some from unexpected sources like ancient history and videogames. With his passion for learning, Idriss demonstrates in practice how love creates innovation.


Culture first: how “love” propels innovation

If it seems like an audacious claim that “love” can drive sales and win market shares, Idriss reminds us how Apple won the digital music race against Microsoft in the 2000s. The iPod performed worse on some measures – but its creators and customers loved it. In 2019, who still remembers Zune, Microsoft’s mp3 player? It was considerably cheaper, but the iPod still outsold it. In other words, “love can do.”

This principle is crucial at a time when, over and over again, disruption rather than steady reliability determines business outcomes. As Netflix is displacing traditional TV networks and new education models are encroaching on universities’ markets, among myriad other examples, innovation is the only guarantee of success. And innovation, Idriss believes, depends on emotional commitment. That is because, if you love what you do, you are driven to keep working on it and “you are able to withstand disappointment and pain” – a key feature of agile businesses which see failure as part of their process.

Emotional attachment is also the bedrock of corporate cultures that foster creativity and innovation. “Many CEOs completely fail to understand that they can achieve a cultural victory over their competition,” Idriss said. “Apple beats Microsoft culturally. It doesn’t mean Microsoft does crappy products, because they don’t, but they haven’t put enough culture in their products. And you see it by the margins, by the sales numbers, by the market shares systematically.” The brand’s emotional value has enabled Apple to win “cheap victories” and displace competitors.

One reason most companies are struggling to utilise culture to drive innovation is that MBA programmes do not emphasise that enough, said Idriss, who has taught in Mazars’ executive MBA programme. Therefore, the task often falls on HR and L&D to lead change and create a mindset of innovation.

In a continually disrupted environment, innovating by working on what our teams love – and, conversely, making sure they love what they do – is even more important than benchmarking competitors, argued Idriss. “When you see the core strategic decisions that were made by Apple and by Tesla, they were cultural decisions. If they were purely strategic, they would never have made them.” Love is the most valuable skill and the greatest added value we have.

If love is necessary for innovation, then how does this translate to learning, development, and corporate culture initiatives? How can we generate emotion around our brand?


Using “viral rituals” to build culture and tackle negative emotions

The majority of people do not work towards their childhood dream in the proverbial Silicon Valley garage. The reality is that stress and fear, rather than love, often define our jobs. A climate of negative emotions needs to be proactively addressed to make room for a mindset of innovation.

Emotional distress and mental illness constitute a full-blown epidemic in the contemporary world. The World Health Organisation notes that depression “is a leading cause of disability worldwide”; mental health issues, in general, are “on the rise globally.” Idriss compared this situation to the medieval Bubonic plague when poor sanitation and lack of scientific knowledge caused tremendous human loss.

Nowadays, the same barbarity – because it really is some kind of barbarity – is that of emotional hygiene. Nobody checks it,” Idriss said. We do not have a coherent strategy for mitigating emotional distress. As we ignore the problem, it grows and spreads. “Pent-up feelings will accumulate,” Idriss said, “and they will end up hurting other people.” Emotions may seem elusive to us, just like microscopic pathogens did to medieval people – but they have real, sometimes destructive consequences.

Yet, feelings are normal, and “they can be used to foster action.” Ritualised activities allow people to express their feelings in a socially acceptable way and create a healthier emotional environment. Idriss gave the example of the original Olympic Games, which channelled antagonism and created cohesion between rival Greek city-states. Similarly, the Saturnalia revelries in ancient Rome acted as a safety valve for pent-up frustrations and made people feel part of a greater whole. Idriss also highlighted the role of American football in the history of the US military. This rather aggressive sport was a way to manage negative emotions and create a team spirit, he argued.

The takeaway for corporations is that they need to break up day-to-day work with recurring, shared activities that make space for feelings to come out. These “rituals” can be tailored to each organisation based on its history and culture. They can be initiated by C-level executives or HR and, by example, “become viral.” Options include sports or games that are sufficiently different from actual work, put people in a new context, and allow for wide participation. This scalable tactic allows us to transform negative emotions into a source of identity and attachment. The key is to be proactive: it is magical thinking to assume that, if we ignore pent-up frustration, it will go away on its own.


Self-driven learning: how L&D can create an innovation mindset

Another intervention that mitigates negative emotions and leads people to love what they do is self-driven development. Idriss recommends LinkedIn’s practice of allowing people to work on a personal project which may be unrelated to their day-to-day job.

Pent-up feelings come from unsatisfied yearnings,” Idriss said. For example, an employee may be harbouring an unfulfilled dream to be a musician and regretting that they can’t do that because of work. To flip negative emotions into positive motivation and encourage people to learn and innovate, we can set a time when they can practise something they care about. “This works quite well, especially more so if it becomes social,” Idriss said. Employees should “present to others what they’ve been learning and how it’s fertilising their regular practice.” Lessons learned in a seemingly extraneous field – like playing the guitar – tend to foster creativity in everyday tasks. At the same time, sharing an activity you love with your co-workers directly puts the “Love Can Do” philosophy into practice.

As an additional L&D strategy, Idriss recommends regular positive feedback that keeps people engaged. In videogames, a “microsuccess” – a small action that creates a positive response – occurs “every one to ten seconds”, he said. An example is the glowing rings Sonic the Hedgehog from the eponymous 90s videogame collects on his path. A sophisticated “award architecture” ensures that these small attainments cluster into bigger ones so that the game builds a deeper sense of fulfilment. “Award architectures” can be applied to any number of work processes, from learning to project management. The importance of even minor positive feedback should not be underestimated: giving employees a regular sense of “microsuccess” is hugely motivating. And, as people come to love what they do, they become more innovative.


By creating “rituals” to address pent-up emotions, giving people opportunities to grow on their own terms, and devising “award architectures” at work, we can gradually build an innovation mindset. Frustration and inertia cause a great loss of human potential. “Love Can Do” offers ways to leverage people’s strengths, increase satisfaction and wellbeing, and score business successes that may be unthinkable otherwise.


To learn more about emotions’ impact on innovation, you can hear Idriss Aberkane’s keynote at the MERIT Annual Summit in Seville on 5-6 February 2020.