Soichiro Honda on Enjoyment and Innovation

"Each individual should work for himself. People will not sacrifice themselves for the company. They come to work at the company to enjoy themselves."  – Soichiro Honda

That Honda the company is a champion innovator is due in no small part to the culture created by Honda the founder.   

What I find so interesting about this quote from Mr. Honda is his focus on the concept of enjoyment.  When was the last time you heard any industry magnate, let alone a Japanese one, say it’s all about individual enjoyment, not about the greater good of the company?

Many business thinkers write about managing innovation, as if innovation were a thing.  But innovation is ultimately the expression of a set of behaviors originating in the individual.  So rather than focusing our energy on understanding the output of those individuals (innovation), we should think instead about how to lead those individuals so that they can be as innovative as possible.  Could creating a culture of innovation be as simple as cultivating a culture of enjoyment?  Mr. Honda says "yes": If you’re at Honda, then, the central task of leadership is about creating work that leads to enjoyment, and innovation will follow.  It’s not unlike the leadership philosophy of Bobby Cox.

But what does enjoyment mean?  Is the implication that work needs to be "fun", as in dot com fun?  Is it about air hockey tables and free M&M’s?  Should employees be walking around with inane smiles on their faces?  I don’t think so.  My guess is that Mr. Honda believed in the kind of enjoyment which leads to a state of flow.  Csikszentmihalyi (the originator of the concept of flow) wrote this illuminating discussion of enjoyment in his book Good Business:

The experience of happiness in action is enjoyment — the exhilarating sensation of being fully alive… Enjoyment, on the other hand, is not always pleasant, and it can be very stressful at times.  A mountain climber, for example, may be close to freezing, utterly exhausted, and in danger of falling into a bottomless crevasse, yet he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else…  At the moment it is experienced, enjoyment can be both physcially painful and mentally taxing; but because it involves a triumph over the forces of entropy and decay, it nourishes the spirit.

Nourishing the spirit.  Experiencing the thrill of triumphing over adversity.  Happiness in action. When was the last time you heard those words associated with managing innovation?  Next time someone in your workplace couches innovation in terms of by-the-numbers processes, jargon, and esoteric management theories, just ask them this simple question: how do you plan to enable people to enjoy their work? 

4 thoughts on “Soichiro Honda on Enjoyment and Innovation

  1. We’re certainly kindred spirits in this regard, Diego. I’ve written, and consulted, about the connection between engagement and innovation. I believe we’re on the cusp of a significant realization: the either/or thinking that separates productivity and love is about to give way to a recognition of a deeper connection between the experience of creating something wonderful, and the experience of want to purchase that thing.

  2. Thanks for a cool quote, and I agree completely. I have looked at this a lot – I’m the Chief Happiness Officer of the Happy at Work Project in Copenhagen, Denmark (no, really: The best way I’ve seen to promote this, is to commit to it as a company. Some very succesful companies have done so:
    Southwest Airlines
    Semco (in Brazil)
    Kjaer Group (in Denmark)
    They basically say: Happiness at work is the top priority for us and act accordingly. It’s not rocket science :o)

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