Adam Smith and Mike Robinson argue that understanding and enabling people is at the core of innovation
The capability to bring innovation successfully to market is a crucial competitive advantage in any sector or field. Peter Drucker wrote the first book to present innovation as a purposeful and systematic discipline in the mid-1980s and it’s fair to say that many text books, research papers and management books have been written about the importance of managing innovation since. In more recent times, innovation has moved to centre-stage in strategic plans, organisations values and even economic policy making. CEO’s, leaders, politicians and consultants are drawing upon all of the great ideas and thinking that has been written about the structure, processes and the skills need for innovation.
The characteristics and behaviours of innovative people
Even with all of this great writing and management systems, why do organisations still struggle with innovation? Innovation requires talented staff with the right processes and structure to support them but there is far more to it than the systematic management of innovation. At the heart of innovation you will find focused, purposeful employees. If motivation, openness and a proactive nature are lacking in your employees, the rest of their qualities will not produce the results you need. It’s the ‘how’ you want your staff to behave that is the end goal, it gives the purpose for process, structure and organisational development activities. Without a good understanding of what types of characteristics and behaviours lead to innovation, organisations are managing their employees in the dark.
A research paper was produced for NESTA (an independent charity that works to increase the innovation capacity of the UK) by the City of University London and the Work Psychology Group. Its key aim was to understand the characteristics and behaviours of innovative people in organisations. Below is an attempt to summarise the three key categories of innovative employees; motivation, personality and behaviour:
Innovators display high levels of motivation and absorption in their work. A study by Sauermann and Cohen (2008)3 found that extrinsic rewards, such as pay, were not as important as certain aspects of intrinsic motivation such as curiosity, feelings of mastery, and enjoying self-expression. The question for organisations is this… How can they encourage the feelings that motivate their employees without the use of extrinsic reward?
Here are two examples of how organisations can encourage the single most important ingredient of individual innovation – intrinsic motivation:
A study by Shin and Zhou (2003)4, reported that the transformational leadership style promoted intrinsic motivation in employees, a laboratory-based study, Sosik et al (1997)5 linked this leadership style with ‘flow’ (the perfect balance between concentration and enjoyment). Essential if leaders can motivate and inspire their employees, in the right way, it has a direct influence on the creative performance of their employees.
This is good news for organisations as transformational leadership is a well-documented concept that can be taught. According to Bass and Avolio, transformational leadership is characterised by the following (4 ‘I’s):
- Idealised influence: They become role models, they put employees’ needs above their own and their behaviour is consistent with the values of the group
- Inspirational motivation: They motivate by providing meaning and challenge and help employees develop a vision for the future
- Intellectual stimulation: They do not criticise mistakes but encourage employees to question assumptions, reframe situations and approach old problems from new perspectives (This stimulates idea generation – an essential facet of innovation)
- Individualised considerations: They foster personal development and provide learning opportunities and a supportive environment for each individual.
In summary, transformational leaders are described as holding positive expectations for employees, believing that they can do their best, they care about their employees and focus on their personal needs and development.
Goal orientation and problem-solving
When an organisation engages its employees in problem-solving as part of their daily work, it generates motivation. Employees come to see their job in a different light. They are no longer hired to do as they are told. Their role is to improve the way they work and own the processes they use every day.
Goal orientation is important in problem-solving because it guides employees’ intrinsic motivation. Goal orientation refers to an individual’s desire or purpose when solving problems. According to goal orientation theory, there are two contrasting goal orientations: a learning goal and a performance goal. A learning goal focuses on learning and understanding, whereas a performance goal orientation focuses on employee efforts to demonstrate his/her ability or competence, often in relation to others (Linnenbrink & Pintrich, 2002).
Studies have found that when a learning goal was highlighted, employees opted for challenging tasks and tried to learn new skills, even when they made mistakes. On the other hand, when the value of performance goals was highlighted, employees gave up attempts to find more effective solutions and attributed the mistakes to their lack of ability. Strategies to increase the amount of problem-solving done by employees, especially with a learning goal orientation, therefore encourage employees’ intrinsic motivation, one of the key aspects to innovative behaviour.
So what? Inspire and collaborate with your staff
Both of these two important elements point towards line managers as having the largest scope for affecting motivation. They need to be able to inspire individuals, foster curiosity, self-expression and a feeling of mastery and pride in their work. At the same time, these line managers need to manage and effectively set tasks, focusing goals on learning or performance dependent on the situation. This directly impacts on two critical aspects of an organisation.
Firstly, the learning and development strategy needs to help all line managers high or low in the organisation become transformational leaders. For some organisations, this can be a huge change in the way they approach training. In our experience, any training in transformational leadership is usually reserved for upper management with watered down versions slowly rolled out to the middle layers of the organisation. If you want to release the intrinsic motivation of all your staff you need to inspire at all levels.
Secondly, the performance management strategy needs to be built to create less pressure and more freedom to motivate people. Staff can bring many unexpected and less tangible benefits to the organisation. How do you recognise and reward staff for the things they have tried to do or learn rather than just what they have achieved?
In 1961, Ernest Tupes and Raymond Christal8 put forward an idea that there are five personality traits or dimensions that could be used to describe human personality. Since then researchers have worked independently for decades on this problem and have generally identified the same five factors – openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. Out of the five factors, the report for NESTA found that extraversion and neuroticism cannot be directly linked to innovation activity and are likely to be context dependent9. This leaves openness (positive effect), conscientiousness (negative effect) and agreeableness. Agreeableness has been found to have a negative effect just on the implementation stage of innovation.
Openness to experience
Openness is the most important of the five factors in predicting innovative behaviour. Research suggests that openness enhances an individual’s intrinsic motivation towards novelty10
(King et al 1996).
Individuals showing high levels of conscientiousness are more resistant to change at work and are more likely to comply with current organisational norms. Studies have shown that the elements of conscientiousness that are associated with a lack of innovation are being methodical, ordered and dutiful11 (Robertson et al, 2000)
Agreeableness is negatively associated with creative achievement but not with creative thinking. This is because the implementation stage is likely to be a group effort which involves social pressures and discarding the norm.
So what? Don’t fit a square peg in a round hole
Every organisation will have many different personalities and just recruiting for one type of personality may be unwise. The opposite of consciousness for example is negligence or nonchalance, maybe a risky talent management strategy. How do line managers reconcile the need for innovative individuals who display traits that are traditionally viewed as difficult to manage and the need to select agreeable individuals who are likely to fit within the team?
With that said, are there any negative aspects to hiring only people that are open to new experiences? People with low scores on openness tend to have more conventional, traditional interests. They prefer the plain, straightforward and obvious over the complex, ambiguous and subtle. Closed people prefer familiarity over novelty; they are conservative and can be resistant to change. In some more high risk environments, we may prefer the known over the unknown, but of course this will not bring you innovation.
We think the take away message for this is one of valuing diversity and recognising what others have to bring to the workplace. Line managers need to be aware that they may need to hire people that do not fit the typical mould for their team. They need to understand how to recognise strengths and not fit a square peg in a round hole.
So let’s say that your organisation has highly motivated employees that are open to new experiences, creative and willing to do things differently to their peers. How do leaders want this motivated personality to behave in the workplace? Firstly, you want your employees to work together but, more importantly still, you want to make sure you don’t get in their way. Discretionary employee behaviour is the most powerful innovation tool an organisation can have.
The main concept in contemporary research on proactivity is called personal initiative or PI. It is defined by three main facets that have been positively linked to innovation – self-starting, proactivity and persistence. These three facets reinforce each other and tend to co-occur in an individual. This concept of personal initiative has been used at an organisational level with findings suggesting that organisations with pro-initiative climates are more innovative and profitable.
In order to innovate, employees often need to relate and interact with other individuals both inside and outside the organisation. It’s vital that employees are able to communicate and make connections with others, articulate their ideas and have the skills to network effectively.
So what? Enable don’t manage
For a long time, organisations have understood how important collaboration is but how much time has been spent empowering your proactive employees? If you have motivated people with the right tools and skills to work together, it is the organisation’s job to not hinder their creativity or energy. Not all your employees will be proactive but the ones that are might be the key to an important change, innovation and in some cases the key to your future survival.
With that said, how do you ensure that all of these employees’ projects are pulling in the same direction? How do you provide consistency to goals and objectives? The answer is a strong organisational narrative; not the type of narrative that is inward facing, common to many companies. A narrative needs to be about the people an organisation is trying to reach and move. A powerful narrative can focus a much broader community on an exciting opportunity that can spur innovation in unexpected directions. Narratives encourage people to take initiative – properly framed, they can unleash a wave of experimentation and exploration that can lead to accelerated learning and insights from unexpected quarters. While all the time bringing some consistency and sense of direction to the organisation as a whole.
Impact on organisational design and development
There are many important aspects of innovation that both consultants and organisations are
- The creative skills needed for idea generation
- Knowledge management systems and enabling technologies that allow ideas to be spread
- The line manager skills needed to give their staff the rattle room they need
- The overall culture of an organisation
- Systems of governance and process that can be used to deliver innovation.
The problem is if an employee is not motivated to innovate or has no desire to do so, all of the above could be a huge waste of time and money.
When it comes to innovation, we are looking for unknown outcomes and deliverables because of this you cannot rely on structured process or a clever organisational design. By looking at the types of behaviours and character traits that lead to innovation, organisations can start to design their organisational development and design with the end in mind. As with all research papers, new information and research can come to light that makes us reinterpret data differently. But what makes the research paper for NESTA interesting is the focus on the individual rather than the systems and management of innovation. If an organisation can understand the type of people it needs and what to do to enable them, it gets to the very core of what innovation is all about – having original ideas and extracting value out of them.