Take 5: How to Encourage Innovative Thinking
Skip to content
Innovation Apr 7, 2017

Take 5: How to Encourage Innovative Thinking

Kellogg faculty on what it takes to ensure your new product or great idea takes off.

Successful innovations can sometimes be a hard sell.

Michael Meier

Innovation is often touted as a cure-all for businesses, public policy, and one’s own career path. But some innovations are more successful than others.

Here, Kellogg faculty provide research and insights into what makes an innovation—from a new product to a great idea—take off.

Add Insight
to your inbox.

1. Collaborate

Do innovations need to be completely novel in order to be successful?

In the world of scientific discovery, at least, the answer is “kinda.”

Kellogg’s Benjamin F. Jones and Brian Uzzi, along with colleagues, analyzed the citations of close to 20 million research articles published on Web of Science, a database of scientific papers. They wanted to see whether citations came from a combination of sources that often appeared together, what the researchers call conventional sources, or from novel combinations.

They found that papers that draw from only very conventional or very novel sources had about a 5% chance of being highly successful. Yet, papers that relied mostly on conventional sources but also included some highly novel ones were twice as likely to be a hit.

“It isn’t all about novelty or conventionality. It’s about both,” says Jones, a professor of strategy and the faculty director of the Kellogg Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative.

“Many of these novel combinations are really two conventional ideas in their own domains,” says Uzzi, a professor of management and organizations and the faculty director of the Kellogg Architectures of Collaboration Initiative. “You’re taking established, well-accepted ideas, which is a wonderful foundation—you need that in science. But when you put them together: wow. That’s suddenly something really different.”

2. Incentivize Innovators

Jones tackled a different innovation question in other research: How much do financial incentives matter in motivating innovators? A lot, he found.

He used a natural experiment in Norway to gauge the impact of a government policy that changed the way professors were compensated for innovations.

In 2003, Norway took away “professor’s privilege,” which had allowed university professors to keep full rights to their intellectual property. The new policy allowed universities to keep two-thirds of those rights. Jones and a colleague analyzed the number of startup companies and licenses for technologies that came out of universities before and after the new policy went into effect.

The difference was dramatic.

From 2000 to 2002, university professors began an average of 25 startups year. From 2003 to 2007, when universities received the lion’s share of a professor’s rights, the number of startups begun each year decreased by 56 percent to just 11. The number of professors who applied for a patent in a given year also decreased by 53 percent.

“Broadly, the findings here suggest that you want to push the incentive back towards the researcher and not towards the university,” Jones says. “This creates more innovation for society.” And that is what drives economic growth.

3. Don’t Brag

New! Improved! We love brands that innovate, at least in theory. But when there is something about a product that concerns us, or if we just are thinking about previous product malfunctions, a company’s boasts about innovation can backfire, according to research from Kelly Goldsmith, an assistant professor of marketing at Kellogg.

In one experiment, Goldsmith and colleagues surveyed 266 students, asking one group of participants to write down a few times when products they bought malfunctioned, and asking another group to write down a few things they did the previous week. Both groups then rated a camera equipped with new technology that allows someone to wirelessly upload photos. The group that recalled experiences with malfunctioning products rated the camera as lower quality than the other group.

The researchers also tested what marketers call “low-fit brand extension,” when a brand expands into products it is not known for (think fictitious Haagen-Dazs cottage cheese or Heineken popcorn). To do this, they asked 172 students to read one of two histories of a dress-shoe company that was expanding into running shoes. Students who read a company history that touted a reputation for innovation said they were less likely to buy the running shoes than students who read a history that did not mention innovation. Meaning, that in the case of customers wary due to low-fit brand extension, innovation was a liability.

“It seemed odd that no matter what you read in the popular press, people always say innovation is good and important,” Goldsmith says. “This seems like a very narrow view of innovation.”

4. Innovate from within a Community

Public policy problems like safety, education, and access to health care are hard to solve. Many leaders seek answers via “design thinking”—hiring firms that combine customer insight, technical expertise, and rapid prototyping to quickly offer replicable solutions. Yet design thinking has obscured another method—community development—that’s both effective and durable.

When it comes to social change that benefits a community, the solutions found from within that group or neighborhood are often the best, says Klaus Weber, an associate professor of management and organizations at Kellogg.

“Rather than listing social problems and then coming up with solutions, community developers focus on unique strengths and hidden value,” Weber says. “They try to build from what’s already there.” For example, Solomon Islanders, experts in forestry, helped solve the housing problem there.

Design thinking can still lead to positive change, but it is most effective—and innovative—when paired with a community’s input and solutions.

5. Sell Your Big Idea

Even when you have an innovative idea that could prove beneficial for a company or community, it can be a hard sell. We like what is familiar—a concept psychologists call “status quo bias.”

“People just aren’t naturally oriented towards innovation or change,” says Loran Nordgren, an associate professor of management and organizations at Kellogg. Thankfully, there are steps you can take to convince a firm that your idea is worth pursuing.

For starters, tell people what they would be missing, not what they stand to gain. We all suffer from FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), known in psychological terms as “loss aversion.” In fact, research shows that we feel a loss twice as acutely as we feel a corresponding gain.

“If you tell people that by not doing this, we miss out on an opportunity to appear really forward-looking, that is more likely to succeed,” Nordgren says.

Nordgren also suggests that you make comparisons, even if they are just there to draw attention to the option you would like the company to adopt. It works in restaurants—the most expensive meal makes the second priciest seem more reasonable, but that alternative often has the highest profit margin. And it may well work with selling your idea, too.

Featured Faculty

Richard L. Thomas Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change; Co-Director, Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems (NICO); Faculty Director, Kellogg Architectures of Collaboration Initiative (KACI); Professor of Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences, McCormick School (Courtesy); Professor of Sociology, Weinberg College (Courtesy)

Gordon and Llura Gund Family Professor of Entrepreneurship; Professor of Strategy; Faculty Director, Kellogg Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative (KIEI)

Member of the Department of Marketing faculty until 2017

Thomas G. Ayers Chair in Energy Resource Management; Professor of Management and Organizations

Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer
Susan Cosier is a freelance writer and editor in Chicago, Illinois.
Most Popular This Week
  1. How Much Do Boycotts Affect a Company’s Bottom Line?
    There’s often an opposing camp pushing for a “buycott” to support the company. New research shows which group has more sway.
    grocery store aisle where two groups of people protest. One group is boycotting, while the other is buycotting
  2. 5 Takeaways on the State of ESG Investing
    ESG investing is hot. But what does it actually deliver for society and for shareholders?
    watering can pouring over windmills
  3. Could Bringing Your "Whole Self" to Work Curb Unethical Behavior?
    Organizations would be wise to help employees avoid compartmentalizing their personal and professional identities.
    A star employee brings her whole self to work.
  4. When Do Open Borders Make Economic Sense?
    A new study provides a window into the logic behind various immigration policies.
    How immigration affects the economy depends on taxation and worker skills.
  5. Which Form of Government Is Best?
    Democracies may not outlast dictatorships, but they adapt better.
    Is democracy the best form of government?
  6. How Has Marketing Changed over the Past Half-Century?
    Phil Kotler’s groundbreaking textbook came out 55 years ago. Sixteen editions later, he and coauthor Alexander Chernev discuss how big data, social media, and purpose-driven branding are moving the field forward.
    people in 1967 and 2022 react to advertising
  7. What Happens to Worker Productivity after a Minimum Wage Increase?
    A pay raise boosts productivity for some—but the impact on the bottom line is more complicated.
    employees unload pallets from a truck using hand carts
  8. Why Do Some People Succeed after Failing, While Others Continue to Flounder?
    A new study dispels some of the mystery behind success after failure.
    Scientists build a staircase from paper
  9. What Went Wrong at AIG?
    Unpacking the insurance giant's collapse during the 2008 financial crisis.
    What went wrong during the AIG financial crisis?
  10. Why Well-Meaning NGOs Sometimes Do More Harm than Good
    Studies of aid groups in Ghana and Uganda show why it’s so important to coordinate with local governments and institutions.
    To succeed, foreign aid and health programs need buy-in and coordination with local partners.
  11. 3 Tips for Reinventing Your Career After a Layoff
    It’s crucial to reassess what you want to be doing instead of jumping at the first opportunity.
    woman standing confidently
  12. How Are Black–White Biracial People Perceived in Terms of Race?
    Understanding the answer—and why black and white Americans may percieve biracial people differently—is increasingly important in a multiracial society.
    How are biracial people perceived in terms of race
  13. Podcast: Does Your Life Reflect What You Value?
    On this episode of The Insightful Leader, a former CEO explains how to organize your life around what really matters—instead of trying to do it all.
  14. Immigrants to the U.S. Create More Jobs than They Take
    A new study finds that immigrants are far more likely to found companies—both large and small—than native-born Americans.
    Immigrant CEO welcomes new hires
  15. In a World of Widespread Video Sharing, What’s Real and What’s Not?
    A discussion with a video-authentication expert on what it takes to unearth “deepfakes.”
    A detective pulls back his computer screen to reveal code behind the video image.
  16. College Campuses Are Becoming More Diverse. But How Much Do Students from Different Backgrounds Actually Interact?
    Increasing diversity has been a key goal, “but far less attention is paid to what happens after we get people in the door.”
    College quad with students walking away from the center
More in Innovation