How to Innovate More Effectively: Say Thanks, Practice Gratitude

Gratitude practices have been a mainstream personal improvement trend for almost 20 years, since psychologists began testing the role of gratitude to positively impact mental health and boost happiness. Science shows that consistent gratitude practice–taking time out to recognize and say thanks for the good things in our lives–has a host of personal benefits, including increased happiness and positive mood, less experience of burnout, better sleep, and more patience, humility, and wisdom.

But did you know that organizations and leaders who practice gratitude at work are more effective innovators? 

A very recent 2021 study conducted by an international cohort of researchers in organizational psychology and behavior suggests that gratitude boosts innovation by helping leaders better understand their teams’ values, strengths and weaknesses, and thus, more effectively involve team members in innovation processes. The researchers found that leaders who exhibited gratitude encouraged their teams’ innovation efforts through humble leadership behaviors, including asking for help, being open to continued learning, and becoming comfortable with mistakes. This helped encourage team members to feel valued and safe enough to propose new ideas and take risks. 

This is why gratitude is a key behavior in our LEAP framework for cultivating fearless product innovation. In fact, of all the components in our LEAP system, P: Practicing Gratitude should be considered the most essential, because feeling grateful makes it easier to Listen to your intuition, Expect less than perfect, and Ask for help.   

In this article, we discuss the power of gratitude for product innovation by describing:

  • How gratitude supports two components of fearless product innovation: abundance thinking and ongoing learning, 
  • Easy tools–what experts call positive psychology interventions–for practicing gratitude as a product innovation leader, for your organization and yourself. 


Gratitude Reveals the Existing Abundance of Skills, Resources, and Time

Among gratitude’s many psychological and physical benefits, two stand apart as especially important for productizing service firms. 

First, gratitude shifts our mindset from scarcity to abundance. Gratitude is associated with awareness and recognition of our own and others’ strengths and weaknesses, which means that we are better able to see the potential in the skills, competencies, resources, and intellectual property we already possess both personally and within our teams as a whole. When we take the time to name the things that we are grateful for, we are better able to debunk fears of not having, being, or knowing enough, and instead, can better see what we need. And gratitude also makes it easier to ask for the help we may need to make up for what we do lack. 

Organizationally, a strengths-based approach to strategic planning and management requires both gratitude and attention to abundance. Recent research from Gallup shows that workplaces that celebrate and cultivate their employees’ strengths–as opposed to attempting to improve perceived weaknesses–are more productive and more likely to retain employees. These strengths-based workplaces have:

  • 15% higher employee engagement
  • 7% higher customer engagement
  • 29.4% higher profit
  • 72% lower attrition

My successful clients have a very strong understanding of their strengths, and they focus on building them. When generating new product ideas based on a SWOT analysis, for example, they focus on the potential of their strong technical acumen and distinctive intellectual property rather than on a gap in product management talent or the upcoming launch of a direct competitor. Doing so helps teams better solve problems, as opposed to dwelling on obstacles. 

It is important to note that strengths-based workplaces don’t ignore weaknesses. To successfully productize, organizations do need to understand their teams’ weaknesses and potential competitive threats. In management interactions, however, consistently noting and expressing your gratitude for your teams’ best strengths helps them stay focused on innovating and growing. According to the Gallup survey, employees who spend most of their time working in the areas where they exhibit strengths achieve more than those who spend the most of their time upskilling areas of weakness. 

Gratitude may also help productizing firms develop the patience they need to see several product iterations successfully to market. David DeSteno, an author and professor of psychology at Northeastern University who studies the intersection of emotions and morality, offers an interesting case study in Harvard Business Review. DeSteno notes that gratitude improves helpfulness and loyalty to others, increasing teams’ ability to pursue challenging tasks through uncertainty. Interestingly, DeSteno notes that gratitude improves our ability to split profits and be patient in seeing return on our investments as well. He writes that people experiencing gratitude are “twice as willing to forgo an immediate smaller profit so that they can invest in it for a longer-term gain.”

What this insight says to me is that practicing gratitude may improve a team’s ability to innovate and productize, but to do so with perseverance over time. When an organization is willing to be patient in seeing returns on product investment, products are more likely to find the sustained funding and support they need not only to be launched, but successfully iterated. Just look at Collage Group, which split the ratio of consulting new business to subscription new business from 50/50 in 2019 to 10/90 in 2020 by patiently and consistently prioritizing product sales. 


Gratitude Makes Us Better Learners

Secondly, gratitude helps us become stronger learners. Grateful people are better able to perceive and appreciate learning experiences in a variety of forms–including those that might first appear to be failures. Organizational leaders who practice gratitude are no exception: they demonstrate less defensiveness and greater ability to seek out new knowledge, ask for help, and remain open to new ideas and input from team members. 

A recent article in The Journal of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, titled “Thanks for your ideas: gratitude and team creativity,” takes it one step further: they observe that gratitude improved not only teachability, but encouraged improved information elaboration, or, “more deliberate and thorough integration of others’ ideas” (Pillay et al 2021, 69). “Teams in the gratitude emotion showed less signs of shallow information processing,” the authors assert (69). 

Their finding suggests that feeling grateful can help teams think about problems in more creative, thorough, and integrative ways, and they recommend gratitude practices as a positive psychological intervention for boosting workplace creativity.

I have written often about how services organizations who are productizing have a lot to gain from adopting an attitude of continued, high-quality learning. We know that teams who adopt a test-and-learn mindset ultimately create and launch more successful products. Practicing gratitude supports a test-and-learn mindset by not only opening our minds to learning from more diverse sources and experiences, but also helping us synthesize what we learn more effectively. 


Tactics for Practicing Gratitude Within Your Organization

Leaders need to practice gratitude at two levels: within their teams, and for their own personal, professional growth. These simple strategies–what psychologists call “positive psychology interventions” –can help you cultivate thankfulness both within your organization and within yourself. 

Schedule Gratitude 

The effects of gratitude are documented to be relatively short-lived. But researchers also find that consistent “booster sessions” of gratitude practice appear to promote continued experiences of happiness. To experience the long-term impact of gratitude within your team, schedule time in personal calendars and meeting agendas to cultivate and express gratitude consistently. 

Make a Daily List of Three–or More–Good Things

Happiness researcher Martin Seligman has been advocating for years–since 2005–for the efficacy of writing down three good things daily to boost feelings of happiness and decrease depressive symptoms long-term. While the “Three Good Things” exercise doesn’t show an immediate boost of happiness, it does appear to have an impact three to six months down the road. I keep a one-sentence gratitude journal–happiness guru Gretchen Ruben makes a good one–and it is great to see what I was grateful for on the same day last year, two years ago, etc. Organizationally, my team gives out ‘gold stars’ every Monday morning in our weekly huddle to recognize wins and great effort from the prior week. 

Does your team consistently develop insightful tests that keep your innovation efforts customer-centric? Has your team generated several remarkable product ideas that position your organization distinctively in the marketplace? Do you have a product manager that is extremely effective at communicating and coordinating the engineering, design, and marketing teams? These are all “good things” to note in your list and share with your team. Add to your list daily, weekly, or monthly, and be sure to review your “Three Good Things” list quarterly: remembering what you have been grateful for rekindles your awareness of the abundance that surrounds you. 

Say Thank You 

It is not enough for leaders to be aware of strengths: they also need to communicate their gratitude to their employees and connections effectively and authentically. 

The simple power of saying thank you is not to be underestimated. One of the reasons why strengths-based workplaces are so resistant to employee turnover is that recognizing good work taps into employees’ need to be effective and to find meaning in what they do. In our last post, A: Ask for Help, we talked about the fact that people are better motivated to perform when they feel effective, rather than when they are materially rewarded or punished: saying thank you is one powerful way to boost feelings of effectiveness. OC Tanner’s recent Great Place to Work survey supports this point: according to the study, 37% of employees stated that they would do more work, better, if they were consistently recognized for their efforts. 

Laura Trices’s recent TED Talk, “Remember to Say Thank You” reminds us that gratitude from others for the work we do is often something that we don’t just want, but that we need. Just like it can be difficult to ask for help, it can be difficult to tell teammates and managers that thanks is needed because doing so “provides critical data about me…where I am insecure…where I need your help,” Trice states. Making it a practice to check in with teams about what kind of thanks they need to hear, and providing thanks authentically, can be one way to better understand and motivate your team as they move through the significant business model transformation that product innovation brings to services organizations.  

Say thank you often: you can schedule thank you note writing into your gratitude calendar block. To boost the impact of your thank you notes, consider delivering them in person when possible: researchers have noted that individuals experience large gains in happiness and significant reductions in depression for a month after. Termed the “Gratitude Visit,” researchers cite it as “the most powerful positive psychology intervention in terms of degree of change” to date (Lomas et al 2014, 8). 

Focusing on the psychology and neuroscience behind innovation, the LEAP series pairs cutting-edge research with practical steps for creating a product-friendly culture. 

Ready to take the LEAP? Join our next Spark Productize Pathway Boot Camp to end the year with: 

  • A designed and fully-tested product concept ready for development
  • An innovation pipeline of prioritized new product ideas that supports your vision
  • A business case for a new idea, including financial impact and resources required
  • Alignment on the strategy and success criteria for making product and product portfolio investment decisions