Take 5: How to Empower Employees to Be More Creative
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Innovation Strategy Aug 3, 2017

Take 5: How to Empow­er Employ­ees to Be More Creative

Cre­ativ­i­ty is a potent engine for busi­ness. Nur­ture it with­out let­ting office divas run the show.

Workplace entitlement demonstrated by an opera diva.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Most com­pa­nies strive to har­ness their employ­ees’ cre­ativ­i­ty. Whether it is an archi­tec­ture firm look­ing to design a strik­ing opera house or a fac­to­ry look­ing to improve morale, the tough­est prob­lems require the most cre­ative solutions.

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But cre­ativ­i­ty can be dif­fi­cult to nur­ture — and some­times dif­fi­cult to tame. 

Kel­logg School fac­ul­ty have researched the intri­ca­cies of cre­ativ­i­ty, from how it func­tions in teams to how per­sis­tence enhances cre­ative suc­cess. Their research demon­strates how cre­at­ing the right con­di­tions is key in fos­ter­ing inno­v­a­tive ideas.

Want an Office Diva? Treat Them Like One.

The sto­ries are leg­endary: enfants ter­ri­bles whose rep­u­ta­tion for cre­ativ­i­ty is only matched by their crum­my behav­ior toward those around them, be it a rock star trash­ing hotel rooms, or Enron exec­u­tives pulling off a mas­sive fraud. 

So how can such bad behav­ior among cre­ative types be curbed?

Research shows that putting cre­ative employ­ees on a pedestal increas­es the like­li­hood that they will do some­thing questionable. 

If you feel you deserve more than oth­er peo­ple, when you are in a tempt­ing sit­u­a­tion, that feel­ing frees you to engage in more self-inter­est­ed behav­ior,” says Maryam Koucha­ki, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and organizations. 

Kouchaki’s research shows that when peo­ple are told they are cre­ative but that cre­ativ­i­ty is com­mon, there are no adverse effects on behav­ior. But when they are told that they are unique­ly cre­ative, bad behav­ior ensues. 

Koucha­ki there­fore advis­es com­pa­nies to send the mes­sage that cre­ativ­i­ty is the prove­nance of all employ­ees, not a select few. 

You want to encour­age a cul­ture of cre­ativ­i­ty,” she says, rather than a spe­cial treat­ment of cre­ative people.” 

Adding Struc­ture Can Open the Door to Cre­ative Teams

It may be tempt­ing for lead­ers to sim­ply set their best peo­ple loose on a prob­lem and give them the auton­o­my to come up with the most cre­ative solu­tions pos­si­ble. It’s the our rule is we have no rules” theory. 

But it’s more com­pli­cat­ed than that. Leigh Thomp­son, a pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions, explains that cre­ative teams will func­tion bet­ter if they take the time to first come up with an explic­it writ­ten char­ter that lays out their ground rules — ide­al­ly in one sentence. 

This can elim­i­nate the down­fall of many cre­ative teams, where every­one waits for some­one else to take action. 

Teams that devel­op a char­ter end up being more nim­ble, hav­ing more proac­tive behav­ior, and achiev­ing their goals more than teams that don’t both­er,” says Thompson. 

When to Stan­dard­ize and When to Innovate

Most chain restau­rants have a rep­u­ta­tion for same­ness — you walk in with an idea of how the bread­sticks will taste, or what the wait staff will be wearing. 

But one chain has delib­er­ate­ly forged a rep­u­ta­tion for culi­nary cre­ativ­i­ty. Let­tuce Enter­tain You Enter­pris­es’ suc­cess is built on know­ing what aspects of their oper­a­tions to cen­tral­ize and what to leave in the cre­ative hands of each restaurant’s lead­er­ship teams. 

This means that ele­ments such as human resources are cen­tral­ized, while the design and menu at each restau­rant are unique. It also means the chain has not built a cen­tral­ized sup­ply chain, instead opt­ing for customization. 

The lead­er­ship gives a lot of auton­o­my to the indi­vid­ual restau­rants,” says William Oca­sio, a pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions. So while cus­tomers may not rec­og­nize the umbrel­la orga­ni­za­tion, employ­ees cer­tain­ly think of them­selves as work­ing for Let­tuce Enter­tain You.” 

This has led to loy­al­ty among indi­vid­ual chefs and man­agers, who are less like­ly to strike out on their own since they enjoy many of the advan­tages of the chain while being able to put their stamp on the restau­rants they run. 

With that orga­ni­za­tion­al archi­tec­ture in place,” Oca­sio says, they are free to experiment.” 

Wiz­ards and Work­hors­es

Much has been made about the advan­tages of assem­bling teams with diverse skills and knowl­edge that can cre­ative­ly recom­bine their strengths in advan­ta­geous ways. 

But it turns out that teams with diverse skillsets are often not as suc­cess­ful as their homo­ge­neous coun­ter­parts. For diver­si­ty to help teams gel, rather than frag­ment, there has to be a bal­ance between diver­si­ty and similarity. 

Too much diver­si­ty can under­mine itself, but too lit­tle diver­si­ty and you’re not like­ly to get any unique view­points,” says Ned Smith, a pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions. There’s no novelty.” 

Using more than 20 years of data from the Nation­al Bas­ket­ball Asso­ci­a­tion, Smith and a coau­thor stud­ied how design­ing a team around redun­dant het­ero­gene­ity” can draw peo­ple with unique skill sets into a cohe­sive whole. 

Teams ben­e­fit from match­ing their core play­ers with sec­ondary play­ers who have a sim­i­lar style of play (as deter­mined by their col­lege con­fer­ence), while at the same time main­tain­ing a diver­si­ty of style among both the core play­ers and among the sec­ondary team. This is what the researchers dubbed redun­dant heterogeneity.” 

So, if you are a gen­er­al man­ag­er, you may want to sign a start­ing pow­er for­ward and his back­up from the Big Ten con­fer­ence, while your start­ing line­up may con­sist of play­ers from the Big 12, Atlantic 10, PAC 10, and the ACC

We think when teams have redun­dant per­son­nel, it allows peo­ple to remem­ber and pre­serve their unique­ness,” Smith says. And often­times the best ideas, the most inno­v­a­tive solu­tions, come from the recom­bi­na­tion of unique bits of knowl­edge, which we can only get from peo­ple with diverse expe­ri­ences and backgrounds.” 

If at First You Don’t Create …

In the best of cir­cum­stances, being cre­ative can feel exhilarating. 

Yet it can also feel exhaust­ing. When is it okay to sim­ply throw up your hands and say you are out of good ideas? 

Prob­a­bly lat­er than you think, accord­ing to research from Loran Nord­gren, a pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and organizations. 

Peo­ple just give up too eas­i­ly,” says Nord­gren. They’re rob­bing them­selves of their more inter­est­ing ideas by giv­ing up too soon.” 

Nord­gren and a coau­thor con­duct­ed exper­i­ments to deter­mine what hap­pens when peo­ple per­sist in cre­ative tasks, such as brain­storm­ing new ideas. They found that peo­ple often under­es­ti­mate how many new ideas they will gen­er­ate if they keep at it. 

Part of the rea­son we give up is that cre­ativ­i­ty is not linear. 

Think of it this way: After spend­ing five min­utes doing long divi­sion, you prob­a­bly have a good idea of how many more prob­lems you could solve if giv­en an extra five min­utes. But it is much hard­er to pre­dict your tra­jec­to­ry of achieve­ment on a cre­ative task, which makes the ben­e­fits of per­se­ver­ing less clear.

Nord­gren sug­gests sti­fling the inner voice telling us to throw in the towel. 

That feel­ing that you’ve kind of run out of ideas is inac­cu­rate and, in a sense, shouldn’t be lis­tened to,” he says. There’s good rea­son to believe that there are bet­ter solu­tions out there.” 

Featured Faculty

Maryam Kouchaki

Associate Professor of Management & Organizations

Leigh Thompson

J. Jay Gerber Professor of Dispute Resolution & Organizations, Professor of Management & Organizations

William Ocasio

John L. and Helen Kellogg Professor of Management & Organizations

Edward (Ned) Smith

Associate Professor of Management & Organizations, Associate Professor of Sociology (Weinberg College, courtesy)

Loran Nordgren

Associate Professor of Management & Organizations

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