Many companies get along fine by doing exactly what they have always done—using the same people, the same ideas, the same tried-and-true approaches.
The question is, how long can those companies stay competitive? They may survive without innovating, but can they thrive?
Many business observers don’t think so. Employee creativity and organizational innovation are increasingly recognized as key factors separating the companies that soar from those that plummet. There’s even a scholarly journal, Creativity and Innovation Management, dedicated to the concept. While not every company can be the next Apple—consistently ranked as Bloomberg Businessweek’s top innovator—there are steps managers can take to encourage novelty, experimentation, and risk (the good kind).
Kogod faculty are researching exactly how managers help and hinder innovation. What they have learned might surprise you.
Creating Conflict on Purpose
Assistant Professor Robert Edgell is also co-founder of Ameursian, a management consulting firm that helps organizations improve creativity and social responsibility.
Edgell traces his interest in creativity to his early career as an architect, when he observed the conflicts that arose in the process of building design. He noticed that, while some disagreements caused trouble, others led to a positive outcome. Curious about what accounted for the difference, Edgell began considering the nature of conflict, eventually leading to his doctoral dissertation examining the ways individual differences affect organizational outcomes.
What Edgell found is that “conflict” isn’t a dirty word. That goes against the grain of what most business students learn in school, he said.
“Part of the problem is we’re taught that we should not engage in trying to create conflict; we should try to smooth everything out and not have conflict because ‘I want to optimize my profit,’” Edgell noted. But if you eliminate all conflict, you also get rid of the tension that generates new outcomes.
To boost creative thinking, one of the smartest approaches managers can take is to recognize that conflict comes in different stripes. Edgell even suggests that managers encourage conflict—no matter how counterintuitive that may seem. The key is encouraging the right kind of debate, not the kind that leaves your team retreating to separate corners in a huff.
“Everyone knows conflict is a weird thing, and sometimes you have to go a little bit deeper to understand it,” Edgell said. He explains that two types of conflict are unproductive, while a third type is beneficial.
In Relationship Conflict, Worker A doesn’t like something intrinsic about Worker B. Maybe Worker A bristles at women or Yankees fans or redheads. It’s the knee-jerk “I look at you, and I just don’t like you” kind of reaction.
Process Conflict occurs when Workers A and B disagree about how the group should be structured. Both want to be in charge, so they bicker—or worse—over how they will function together.
Leaders should minimize those conflicts in favor of the third, and potentially fruitful, kind: Task Conflict. Here, conflict arises from differing ideas about the content of what the group is trying to achieve.
“The research is pretty clear: If you are engaging in conflict about task or content, you’ll probably have a much better outcome, especially if you can minimize the other two,” Edgell said.
His research shows that the best way to lower “bad” conflict is to make sure everyone on the team has similar values—beliefs about what they consider important. “You want diversity in expertise and background and personality… but where you don’t want diversity is in values.”
As important as it is to create a team with shared values, it’s equally important that your team members do not approach problem solving homogeneously.
To explain, Edgell uses the example of handing someone a brick and asking how much it weighs. A convergent thinker will narrow down the possibilities to just one answer. Now suppose you give someone a brick and say, “Tell me all the uses for this brick that you can think of”: that’s divergent thinking. The most creative teams, Edgell argued, are those in which divergent and convergent thinkers are equally represented.
For an organizational leader seeking to boost innovation, Edgell said the first move should be to examine the makeup of his or her senior management team.
But fixing any imbalance can be easier said than done. Typically, a team already is in place without the desired mix of traits, since “thinking style” has little to do with the reasons people ascend to the top ranks.
“That’s why if I said to you, ‘I’ve analyzed your senior management team, and they’re all convergent thinkers, and that’s your problem,’ what are you going to do about this?” Edgell said. “It’s a difficult situation because that’s not how we move people into those positions.”
A manager can nudge staff in the right direction by trying to understand individuals’ cognitive styles and, if needed, diversifying the team with new members.
Edgell’s finding about “different, but good” thinking styles rings true to Elaine Kennedy, who earned her MBA from Kogod in 1995. She is now the founder and managing director of Diventa Consulting in Washington, DC, which provides strategic planning, business development, and marketing services.
Kennedy, a self-described convergent thinker, said she once struggled mightily with a divergent colleague. But over time, she learned that their combination of talents yielded a better result. As a manager, she now deliberately pairs employees with disparate skill sets.
“If you put divergent thinkers into very goal-oriented, time-sensitive projects, that can often be a disaster because their minds are thinking of all the different permutations,” she explained. “But when I would couple someone who thinks like that with someone with my skill set, we would usually come up with amazing solutions and it was a great collaboration.”
That also echoes Edgell’s observations about conflict, she noted: instead of avoiding the friction that arises from distinct personalities, use it to the company’s advantage.
One Size Does Not Fit All
Assistant Professor Xiaomeng Zhang also studies creativity, particularly how it relates to leadership and employee motivation. She defines creativity as the generation of novel, useful ideas for products, services, methods, and processes.
“Employee creativity often provides a starting point for organizational innovation and is essential for effectiveness and success,” she said.
Zhang points out that playing to individual strengths is a valuable leadership skill.
“To promote creativity from employees, it is important for managers to make sure they assign the right task to the right employee. That is, task-intrinsic motivation is key to the creative outcome,” she said. “If someone is not interested in the task, it’s almost impossible for him or her to generate very creative outcomes.”
Delegating, or empowering employees to make decisions, is one way to increase their engagement and creative output, Zhang added.
Handing over responsibility was initially a challenge for Kennedy. Like many leaders, she found it tough to trust the work would get done to her satisfaction. But learning how to do so has been a great change for her staff, she said.
“Early in my career, I didn’t delegate that much. I would find one or two people that I really trusted and who, in all honesty, probably thought a lot like me. What happens is you get limited results,” she said. Her right-hand people were happy, but the rest of her team felt underutilized.
Kennedy found ways to delegate within her comfort zone: if a task must be done a certain way, she is more prescriptive. But if there’s room for improvisation, she gives employees the goals, timelines, and key considerations and lets them figure out how to execute. Frequent check-ins ensure that the project stays on target.
“People tend to really blossom when you trust them,” she said, “but they still have enough direction to know they will succeed.”
Profit or Potential?
Managers also create barriers to creativity when they emphasize profit to the exclusion of everything else, according to Edgell. When that’s the only measure for judging performance, employees have no incentive to flex their creative muscles on innovations that don’t hit the bottom line. Managers also err in using monetary rewards to motivate employees, he said.
“Research shows that extrinsic awards, such as bonuses, discourage innovative thinking, so you’re actually shooting yourself in the foot [if you use them],” Edgell added.
According to Zhang, if managers want to foster innovation, they should recognize employees who generate creative ideas. If managers focus only on results and ignore the process, they may actually discourage bold, novel thinking. In other words, when employees believe every idea has to be practical, they shut down the no-holds-barred brainstorming that delivers truly creative gems.
“It is important to get some crazy and very creative ideas first, generate as many alternatives as possible, then narrow down to the ideas that have both creative elements and practical elements,” Zhang said.
But, she added, managers also must overtly communicate that employees’ efforts are safe and supported.
“A safe environment means if someone failed because she or he tried some creative approaches, the employee will not be punished and then discouraged from engaging in the creative process in the future,” she cautioned.
Company culture goes a long way when it comes to comfort with creativity, Kennedy said. In a risk-averse culture, managers may have to work extra hard to convey that creativity is valued. She also points out that, in many companies, innovation may not show up as a flashy new product; it may be a new way of engaging with customers or improving processes.
“If the whole company culture is about not putting people at risk, you have to find a safe way for people to do that,” she said.
One of the most effective ways managers can promote creativity, Edgell said, is to make it a more visible part of the process.
“I think it starts with the senior management team being willing to engage in adopting a new language, to talk about and have a discourse around creativity in organizations and what it means to be creative,” he said.
Otherwise, he continued, the tendency is to get so caught up in putting out daily fires that there is no time left to innovate.
“In the process of doing that, we may manage ourselves out of business. We may manage a wonderful situation, but not lead ourselves into new areas.”
Currently, Edgell is pursuing a new line of research with colleagues from Stanford University, studying innovations that inadvertently caused harm (for example, Ford’s infamous Pinto of the 1970s, whose poorly designed gas tank led to fatalities in car wrecks). The researchers believe certain factors increase the likelihood that innovations will have negative consequences, such as a company’s corporate governance model and the degree to which it prioritizes ethical concerns along with financial ones.
For contemporary examples of potentially harmful innovations, look no further than firms engaged in genetic testing, or the “innovative” financial instruments that contributed to the mortgage meltdown.
“The underlying assumption of innovation is that it always yields benefits. If I say ‘innovation’ to you, that produces a nice, warm, fuzzy assumption that it helps the world,” he said. “So we were curious to see what might cause it to go awry.”