Everyone becomes an “Innovation Officer”

If you want to stimulate high-quality original thinking within an organization, the key is to get more people talking.

To be clear, innovation comes from a company’s original culture and from employees’ original thinking. If all employees think in the same way and stick to conventions, the company will inevitably stagnate. To break inertia and effectively drive innovation and change, leaders need to cultivate original thinking skills within the organization and establish a culture of disobedience.

From my nearly 10 years of research experience, this is not as difficult as expected.

First, leaders must give employees enough opportunities to encourage them to constantly come up with new ideas and allow employees at different departments and levels to think more deeply about issues.

Equally important is to arrange the right people to evaluate these innovative ideas. This work requires not democracy but objective judgment because some ideas are obviously more meaningful.

Finally, to continuously generate and select innovative ideas, organizations must find a balance between maintaining cultural unity and encouraging creative dissent.

Explosion of Innovative Thinking

Many people believe that doing less is the key to doing things well. But empirical research has reached the opposite conclusion: doing more actually increases your originality because the more you work, the greater the likelihood of finding innovative ways. Creative activities in many fields are a process of quantitative change to qualitative change. Even the greatest innovators produce a lot of mediocre ideas while doing their most original work.

For example, Edison invented the light bulb, phonograph, and carbon transmitter within five years, while also submitting over 100 less important patents, including a talking doll that could scare both children and adults.

Of course, the problem organizations face is not knowing how many ideas are enough. How many ideas do you think are needed in the audition phase? Most business executives say they have enough ideas to choose from with 20, but this answer is off by an order of magnitude. Research shows that it is only when more than 200 ideas are generated that quantitative change can reach qualitative change.

Although the principle is easy to understand, many managers still find it difficult to put into practice for fear that spending a lot of time thinking about innovation will distract employees and reduce efficiency. Fortunately, there are several ways to allow employees to freely contribute innovative ideas while ensuring daily work efficiency and avoiding loss.

Think like a competitor.

Research shows that companies often stagnate because they adopt a defensive posture in the face of competition. To get employees to come up with new ideas, managers should require employees to adopt an offensive mindset.

Collect ideas from individuals.

Decades of research have shown that people are more creative when working in independent spaces than when brainstorming together. In group discussions, many of the best ideas are not shared. A few people dominate the discussion, some remain silent to avoid embarrassment, and conformity completely prevails.

Evidence suggests that this problem can be solved by “brainwriting”: simply allowing each person to independently come up with their own ideas and then submitting them for group discussion will not miss any creativity. In addition, since employees are more likely to hide unconventional ideas in group situations, managers can also arrange some quick one-on-one exchanges.

Resetting the suggestion box.

Nowadays, suggestion boxes are often objects of ridicule. But research has found that suggestion boxes can actually be very useful because they provide a large number of ideas.

One important benefit of suggestion boxes is that they bring more and more diverse types of creativity and open up more avenues for innovation. The biggest problem is that it is difficult to find truly valuable suggestions from a large number of suggestions.

Managers need to establish mechanisms for evaluating and selecting suggestions, rewarding the best ideas and studying their feasibility in depth so that employees feel their suggestions have been heard.

Cultivate keen discernment

It is important to stimulate and collect a large number of ideas, but it is equally important to find the best suggestions and solutions. So how can leaders weed out bad proposals and adopt truly good ideas?

Use proven evaluation metrics.

Many leaders use democratic procedures to select innovative proposals, but not everyone’s opinion is equally valuable. Following public opinion is not the best strategy; carefully selected small groups may have a keener sense of potential creativity. To determine the weight of each person’s opinion, managers should pay attention to the judgment shown by employees in the past.

In psychologist Philip Tetlock’s research, predictive behavior was evaluated based on accuracy of outcome and probability accuracy. Once strong predictors were found, leaders could give their opinions greater weight.

So who has the strongest predictive ability in companies? Not managers or innovators themselves; research shows that original ideas are best evaluated by other innovators: because they are evaluating other people’s ideas, they will be fairer; at the same time they are more willing than general managers to consider radical ideas.

Create a competitive atmosphere.

To select good ideas, leaders can organize competitions where employees submit their ideas through suggestion boxes or on-site. If the innovation competition is well designed, you will get a large number of initial ideas that can be focused on a few major issues without being too broad.

Participants spend a lot of time preparing proposals and may therefore produce high-quality ideas; at the same time innovation proposals are usually completed at once within a specified time without repeatedly occupying employee energy.

After comprehensive evaluation, mediocre creativity will be eliminated. The evaluation work is usually carried out by a group of experts and innovators from various fields who evaluate innovation proposals based on novelty and practicality and make suggestions for improvement. If suitable judges can be found, innovation competitions can not only leverage public creativity but also enhance public wisdom. Those who propose and evaluate creativity can also learn from others’ successes and failures.

In the long run, the organizational culture will change, allowing employees to contribute their views more confidently and have a deeper understanding of what “quality” is. Successful innovators are recognized and rewarded, motivating everyone to participate. Therefore, managers can first collect ideas, such as solutions to a problem or a market strategy, and then introduce a strict evaluation feedback process. Promising proposals can enter the next round, and the final winning proposal can enter the implementation phase and receive the corresponding human and material resources.

Balancing “harmony” and “difference”

If you want to build a culture of disobedience, organizations must first learn to collect and evaluate innovative ideas. To maintain originality within the organization, leaders need to constantly overcome conservative forces. We used to blame conformity on a strong organizational culture, but that is not the case.

Research on high-level organizational decision-making shows that cohesive teams do not place more emphasis on consensus, ignore dissenting opinions, or fall into groupthink. In fact, organizations with strong cultures make better decisions because members communicate smoothly and can express different opinions without unnecessary worry.

We should see that a strong and unified organizational culture has a dark side: if left unchecked, organizations can easily become homogenized. If leaders continue to attract, select and retain similar employees, the diversity of opinions and values within the organization will be damaged. A dominant culture makes it difficult for people to stand apart.

In environments with high certainty, a unified culture is an advantage, but in rapidly changing industries and markets it is a problem. A dominant culture may be bound by itself and unable to respond reasonably to external changes. In such organizations, leaders are not good at recognizing the need for change, considering dissenting opinions, learning new knowledge and adapting to external environments.

To balance a dominant organizational culture, leaders need to leave room for critical thinking. Even wrong opposing opinions are very useful because they can break unthinking consensus, stimulate original thinking, and help organizations find new solutions to problems. Simply put, leaders should make expressing dissent a core value of the organization. The organizational environment should support employees in openly expressing critical opinions and being respected for it.

Unified culture and dissent seem contradictory, but combining them can foster innovative ideas and prevent dominant organizational cultures from sliding into fanaticism. Leaders can transform the tension between the two into creativity based on the following principles:

Clarify value orientation.

Leaders can design a framework that requires employees to choose between opposing views so that the best ideas emerge. If a company cannot clearly prioritize its values, its performance will suffer. But the organizational values proposed by leaders cannot exceed four; the more they exceed, the more likely employees are to interpret them differently or focus on different values. Organizational values should be ranked in order of importance so that when faced with conflicting choices employees know what is more important.

After clarifying value orientation managers should constantly review and reflect. When new employees disagree with existing value order they should be encouraged to express dissenting opinions. New employees have not yet been absorbed by the system and have fresh perspectives; if they do not express their thoughts before becoming familiar with organizational culture they may gradually come to accept mainstream voices.

Collect problems rather than solutions.

Leaders all hope that employees will provide solutions but this inadvertently brings about a consequence: insufficient research.

If you are always required to have a ready answer you will attend meetings with predetermined conclusions thus losing the opportunity to understand situations from multiple perspectives. If different people in the team have different information it is wise to first collect problems together before looking for solutions.

Do not designate contrarians.

Research by Charlan Nemeth at UC Berkeley shows that assigning designated contrarians does not overcome confirmation bias (i.e., over-focusing on information that supports one’s own views or decisions). People say they consider opposing opinions but ultimately stick to their own views.

To change this situation opposing opinions must come from within rather than for show; teams must also believe that contrarians are sincere. In this case teams will look for more information that is unfavorable to mainstream opinions and be more cautious about initial preferences. Opposing opinions offered for procedural reasons are rarely strongly supported or taken seriously; only real differences can stimulate thinking. Sincere dissenters will inspire teams to create more and better solutions to problems.

Lead by accepting criticism.

Many managers end up promoting obedience culture because their egos are fragile. Research shows that insecurity leads managers to be unwilling to seek opinions and adopt defensive postures towards suggestions. Employees will immediately understand the situation so they remain silent to avoid trouble. To overcome this obstacle managers can encourage others to give them feedback in public settings. To encourage employees to question managers can also take the initiative to admit their weaknesses first.

If you really want to establish an originality culture, employees must be able to express their craziest ideas without restraint. But even if no one has ever been punished for speaking out, employees are often afraid to speak up.

To fundamentally eliminate fear, managers can reward employees who make suggestions even if their suggestions are not adopted; managers can also share their own unreliable ideas. If the organization does not have a certain degree of tolerance for wrong ideas, obedience culture will rise.

In short, if you want to stimulate high-quality original thinking within the organization, the key is to let more people speak. Of course, if you encounter setbacks at the beginning, you will know that your goal is actually quite high.

Adam Grant | Text

Adam Grant is a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

This article has been edited. The original text can be found in the March 2016 issue of Harvard Business Review Chinese Edition “Innovation Comes from Originality Culture”.

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