How to lead people who think we should eat bugs? challenges professor Miha Škerlavaj.

KNOWLEDGE @ BI: Creativity at work

Imagine you work as a leader at a food-processing factory. One of your employees got an idea that you should develop a line of food based on insects. How do you react to it?

Mostly probably with disgust and refute it fiercely: ‘Our consumers would never eat anything like this!’. Or do you suspend your initial judgment, make a research into the entomophagy industry to discover its multiple benefits, and then think of how to capitalize on such a crazy idea?

The innovation paradox

While most of the ideas do not sound as crazy as eating bugs in the Western hemisphere in the year 2016, we know that especially highly creative ideas do suffer form so called the innovation paradox.

Innovation requires both creating and implementing novel ideas. However, the same conditions favoring creation of novel-ideas often impede the idea-implementation process. Our earlier study (Škerlavaj, Černe, & Dysvik, 2014) showed 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. How do we lead in a way to utilize the potential of highly creative ideas?

Capitalizing on creativity

This was a question that occupies many around the globe and we set to gather research evidence, thoughts and experiences in recently published book called (Škerlavaj et al., 2016). In a collaborative project involving 42 researchers from 18 institutions (including BI Norwegian Business School and Stanford), 12 countries and four continents, we have learnt that capitalizing on creativity is nothing like traveling down a one-way street filled with a sequence of glorifying moments where ideas travel unaltered from their birth to their realization.

The journeys are far messier because ideas seldom stay the same when people connect with them. Resolving innovation paradoxes is no trivial task for leaders. In fact, the stakes could be as high as those experienced by LEGO in 2003 that almost got broke when creativity gone wild.

Despite the evident 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.

Four key lessons

Our book identified at last four key lessons for leaders. Capitalizing on creativity requires supportive leaders, proactive employees, understanding of innovation process as a multi-player game, and mastering idea championing and change agency skills.

The degree to which employees believe their supervisors value their contributions and care about their well-being contributes strongly to the implementation of highly creative ideas. The support can be both task- and relationship-oriented. Observing many leadership cases from varying industries, we identified three ways how leaders can be supportive in capitalizing on creativity.

Supportive leaders

First, leaders can provide employees with access to resources needed to implement ideas (right amount of time, advice, connections to experts and implementers, funds, and equipment).

Second, leaders can provide motivational support by stimulating employee perceptions of competence and relatedness. Third, leaders can serve as role models and challenge employees by actively innovating themselves (especially in the domain of managerial and organizational innovations).

Proactive employee behaviors are strong predictors of both creativity and idea implementation. Our book demonstrates three cases from automotive industry, where leaders play and active role in shaping systems and practices that stimulate employees going an extra mile for the company.

Above and beyond taking right people on board, they include design thinking workshops, smart thinking rooms, 20 keys for workplace improvement, cross-functional lean workshops, daily audits (e.g. scrums sessions), extensive use of visualizing tools to increase transparency and collaboration, dedicated innovation roles trained as internal coaches, trainers and facilitators, as well tangible support for the top.

Multi-player game

Capitalizing on innovation is also a multi-player game where novelty meets attitudes, perceptions and interest of different stakeholder groups. Due to its socio-political nature, understanding relational and change agency skills is priority.

Leaders role is to rely on peer-experts to estimate the potential of such ideas (by resisting the temptation of judging themselves) and support those extra-ordinarily committed team members that stand-out of the crowd in their willingness to convince colleagues and users that eating bugs is a great idea. Sometimes the internal agents of change, corporate smugglers, stealth innovators do incredible and even borderline things to capitalize on ideas they strongly believe in. Do you have what it takes to lead them?

References:

  • 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), 25(5): 987-1000.
  • Škerlavaj, Miha, Černe, Matej, Dysvik, Anders, Carlsen, Arne (2016, Eds.): Capitalizing on creativity at work: Fostering the implementation of creative ideas in organizations, Edward Elgar.

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