Bringing innovation into the workplace
In today’s business world, every executive leading a team, no matter its size or scope, is constantly on the lookout for ways to enhance individual and collective performance.
That made the latest in the popular series of [email protected] lunchtime presentations, which took place in Central on March 14, especially pertinent. Taking the theme of “Creativity and effective collaboration in the workplace”, it was a chance for two respected academics to share recent research-based findings with members of the wider community and to offer new perspectives on issues which can have a marked impact on productivity and profitability.
Leading the way, Professor Yaping Gong, Head of Department of Management, HKUST Business School, outlined key factors that promote or inhibit employee creativity within the work environment.
He noted that a Boston Consulting Group study in 2015 found 79 per cent of corporate respondents viewed innovation as a top-three priority. However, organisational strategies, structure (size), and capability all influence the extent to which good ideas are actually put into practice. Too many get lost somewhere along the way.
“In smaller organisations, there is usually a better information flow, and creative ideas are more likely to catch the attention of those at the top,” Gong said. “But in general, something is missing. The question is how to design work and a working environment to help employees be more creative.”
His recommendation was to look at three key drivers: intrinsic motivation, creativity skills, and building the necessary expertise and domain knowledge. When people work on something they find interesting, exciting, challenging and meaningful, they will be inspired to come up with new or better ways of doing things. When divergent or out-of-the box thinking is taught and actively encouraged, employees are more likely to consider old problems in a new light. And when they have developed broad-based skills and experience, it becomes easier for them to make unusual connections and leaps of intuition.
Gong explained that “an innovator’s DNA” comes from observing, questioning, networking, associating, and experimenting.
“These are the five key skills that characterise people who are creative,” he said. “They intensively observe, and pick up things that others don’t about products and customers. They identify problems and needs. They will question and challenge assumptions, asking “what if?” to trigger unexpected insights. They network with people from different backgrounds and bridge gaps in social networks to get new ideas from different areas.” They associate seemingly unrelated ideas. The iPhone is a good real-world example of how this associating skill led to groundbreaking innovation. The iPhone is a combination of an iPod, a phone, and an internet. And finally they experiment by embarking on something new, taking things apart physically or intellectually, and pilot- testing ideas. But, to promote a culture conducive to creativity, organisations need a certain tolerance for failure, accepting that not all ideas will work. Tolerance of failure is particularly important for employees with a performance goal orientation that commonly characterizes the workplace. And they have to realise that time pressure, tight deadlines and a heavy workload make most people less, not more, creative.
Approaching the main topic from a different angle, Sam Garg, assistant professor in HKUST Business School’s Department of Management, drew on his experience of young, entrepreneurial firms and the Silicon Valley mindset to show why effective collaboration between the CEO and board members is not always smooth sailing.
The various stakeholders may all be go-ahead individuals keen to see the venture succeed. But managing the relationship and getting the best out of everyone can present major challenges – and take up a lot time, which might otherwise be spent in more productive ways.
“Creativity is great, but it doesn’t automatically lead to a profitable business,” Garg said. “A creative idea is an important seed, but that’s not where it stops.”
He noted that, in the entrepreneur community, one rarely heard about internal challenges and CEO/board dynamics. There was, though, often a “disconnect” between directors and those responsible for day-to-day management, with one respected observer even voicing the opinion that 70 to 80 per cent of venture board members add negative value to a start-up in their advisory capacity.
There are several suggested reasons for this. Outside directors may give only limited time, making it difficult for the CEO to tap into their promised expertise. They may be involved with other firms, causing a conflict of interests. Or it may simply be tough keeping up with all the changes in such a fast-moving environment.
However, based on extensive research from meetings, interviews and surveys, Garg believes certain steps can help venture CEOs work with their boards for more effective decision making. These include having less formal one-on-one interactions with board members, with each made responsible for different topics based on their respective expertise. This changes the group dynamic, draws out better advice, and makes for better firm performance and outcomes.
Also, any discussion should lead to single formal alternative, not multiple options all meriting further consideration. And any “strategic brainstorming” should be restricted to one agenda item only to prevent things dragging on endlessly and veering off track.
“Cognitive switching is limited and emotional spillovers are avoided, leading to more creative input on strategy,” Garg said. “Doing this also increases the CEO’s power and creates a more competent image.”