Supportive leadership is a decisive factor unlocking potential of highly creative ideas by employees and turning them into innovations.

KNOWLEDGE @ BI: Leadership and creativity

Innovation processes include several stages. First, and perhaps foremost, creativity, formally defined as the generation of novel and useful ideas is the obvious point of departure for innovation to take place.

Another important phase, however, is selecting and implementing the chosen alternatives. Creative-idea generation is widely accepted as the necessary antecedent of innovation implementation at the individual level.

Such a distinction enables a deeper and more nuanced insight into the innovation process, which could help the managers provide knowledge of how to stimulate idea implementation from idea generation, as it is this final step that provides a tangible value for the firm.

From creative idea generation to their implementation

If organizations fail to implement highly creative ideas, this would mean sunk costs because they fall short of contributing to the business case. Despite the importance of transforming highly creative ideas into implemented solutions, knowledge of the specifics of this process and of the role of leaders is still developing.

A recent study (Škerlavaj, Černe, & Dysvik, 2014) using both field (165 employees and their 24 direct supervisors from a manufacturing firm in Study 1) and experimental (123 second-year undergraduate student participants in lab Study 2) data found that perceived supervisor support acts as a key enabler of higher levels of idea implementation from creative-idea generation.

Too much of a good thing

The study first shows that excessive creative-idea generation (in terms of both frequency and creativity of ideas) can lead to diminished returns with regard to idea implementation. In other words, there is a ‘too-much-of-a-good-thing’ effect present when implementing highly creative ideas.

Second, the study finds that higher levels of perceived supervisor support dampen the curvilinear relationship between creative-idea generation and idea implementation.

Accordingly, perceived supervisor support seems to provide employees with access to resources and support needed for idea implementation, making highly creative ideas more implementable.

Trade-offs in implementing creative ideas

Majority of creativity and innovation research to date has hypothesized and tested linear associations between creative-idea generation and implementation. Such a focus fails to account for the so-called “too-much-of-a-good-thing” effect in management.

Our study found this effect in the context of implementing creative ideas. Highly novel or highly frequent creative ideas were less utilized than moderately creative ideas. We explain this with a resource allocation framework that highlights the fact that resources are finite and, at times, organizations must make trade-off decisions regarding resource allocation.

We have empirically tested an inverse u-shaped relationship between creativity (idea generation) and innovation in the form of idea implementation, where moderate levels of creativity (both in terms of the quantity and level of creativity of ideas) have been shown to be most beneficial for idea implementation.

The time, energy, and attention they devote to generating novel and potentially useful ideas may prevent them from implementing their ideas. Highly novel ideas are more difficult to implement than moderately novel ideas due to their out-of-the-box, risky nature. One needs more resources (time, energy, support, etc.) to implement them, as is also the case with frequently generating creative ideas, which in turn may lead to a detrimental effect for such ideas.

How can be leaders supportive in creative-idea implementation?

Our study also examined potential leadership remedies to the untapped potential of highly creative ideas. We did so by investigating the moderating role of perceived supervisor support i.e., the degree to which supervisors value employees' contributions and care about their well-being.

By recognizing usefulness and accepting novel ideas generated by highly creative individuals, immediate supervisors act as resources at the interpersonal level and can provide other resources necessary for implementing these ideas.

For those supervisors interested in being more supportive in creative-idea implementation among their employees, we offer some practical advice.

  • First, acknowledge the presence of individual differences among your employees in terms of their self-esteem, self-efficacy, knowledge, skills and abilities.
  • Next, provide behaviors they perceive to be supportive on the basis of these differences. For some employees, providing five novel ideas is easy, whereas for others, providing one idea is a hallmark achievement.

While these recommendations are not particularly difficult to understand, they are by no means less important. And, as we recognize, they are not always easy for supervisors to achieve in work settings where standardization and not individual consideration is emphasized.

Reference:

Škerlavaj, Miha, Černe, Matej, Dysvik, Anders (2014). I get by with a little help from my supervisor: Creative-idea generation, idea implementation, and perceived supervisor support, The Leadership Quarterly (2014).

This article is published in BI Leadership Magazine 2014/2015 (Link to E-Magazine).
BI Leadership Magazine is a Science Communication Magazine published by the Department of Leadership and Organizational Behavour at the BI Norwegian Business School.

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