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Rice research: Getting too comfortable affects innovation in the workplace

According to new research, building strong bonds between a firm and its employees can be both helpful and harmful for business. Photo via Pexels

In the relations between a company and its workers, is there such a thing as too much love?

Sadly for those enamored by affection, according to professors Balaji R. Koka and Robert E. Hoskisson from Rice Business and professor Eni Gambeta of the University of Cincinnati, the answer is yes.

In a study of innovation efforts across 271 U.S. manufacturing firms, the researchers found that how strong or weak the relationship was between a firm and its employees had a direct impact on not just the amount of innovation, but also the type. When relations were strong, innovation did increase — but only as long as that innovation happened within the business with, say, line extensions. More radical changes, ones that might upend the company culture, were less likely.

The notion of innovation prospering alongside good bonds between a firm and its people seems, of course, to make perfect sense. Happy workers aren't a bad thing. Past research shows that trust, workplace security and a system of rewards for imaginative solutions all affect in-house innovation the way food, vitamins and exercise function on human muscle. That is, they make it stronger.

But what about "distant search" innovation — ideas that aren't created in-house, but brought in from outside?

Though local innovation thrives amid rich company-worker bonds, these same relationships might erode efforts at finding innovation from external sources, the researchers hypothesized. In a culture with low turnover, as is likely the case in a happy firm, a homogenous information pool and a partiality for institutional knowledge could lead to the quest for innovation turning too far inward.

Why does this matter? Well, as the history of business has shown, being too comfortable can be a signal of decline. Radical, culture-changing innovation may be disturbing, but it can also lead to greater strength in the long run.

In the 271 firms the researchers studied, they found that, as they expected, strong company-worker bonds correlated to less exploratory innovation. And as external searches for innovation dwindled, local innovation efforts grew. Simply put, in the happy firms innovation that was unfamiliar and disruptive was less likely. Meanwhile, the firms with the weakest company-worker bonds had four times as many instances of distant-search innovation as those with the strongest bonds.

So what do these findings mean for company leaders?

A supplemental analysis, the researchers write, showed that while stronger employee-company bonds enrich a firm's overall productivity in innovation, they appear to harm a company's long-term valuation. Meanwhile, stronger employee-company relationships have a spillover effect onto other stakeholders (such as stronger customer-firm relationships), which leads to an even stronger focus on local innovation and less emphasis on exploring more disruptive innovation elsewhere.

Valuable distant-search innovation, in other words, appears to be at risk when company culture is healthiest. So how should leaders respond?

Not by returning to feudal work practices, the researchers stress. Intentionally treating employees badly, they note, eventually poisons all avenues of innovation. Instead, thoughtful leaders should keep treating workers with decency, knowing that a healthy culture is the bedrock of a firm's longevity.

But at the same time, the research suggests, managers of harmonious work cultures should anticipate soft spots in the search for outside ideas, and compensate for that. Being comfortable is good; being too comfortable is not. Being open to truly new ideas, even if disruptive, is worth encouraging.

It's not unlike trying to keep up muscle tone after leaving grueling manual work for professional life. No one really wants to go back to breaking rocks or grubbing for tubers. Better to make up for any lost strength by adding something new, like yoga or tai chi, to train new muscles and sharpen concentration at the same time.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom. It's based on research by Balaji R. Koka is an associate professor of strategic management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University, and Robert E. Hoskisson is George R. Brown Emeritus Professor of Management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University


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Building Houston

 
 

Emily Cisek, CEO and co-founder of The Postage, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss tech optimizing after-life planning, B-to-C startup challenges, and a national expansion. Photo courtesy of The Postage

Anyone who's ever lost a loved one knows how stressful the process can be. Not only are you navigating your own grief, but you're bombarded with decisions you have to make. And if that loved one wasn't prepared — as most aren't — then the process is more overwhelming than it needs to be.

On top of that, Emily Cisek realized — through navigating three family deaths back to back — how archaic of a process it was. Rather than wait and see if anything changed, Cisek jumped on the market opportunity.

"I just knew there had to be a better way, and that's why I started The Postage," Cisek, co-founder and CEO of the Houston-based company, says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "My background had historically been in bringing offline businesses online, and I started doing some research on how I could make this space better. At the time, there really wasn't anything out there."

The tech-enabled platform allows users of all ages to plan for their demise in every way — from saving and sharing memories when the time comes to organizing pertinent information for the loved ones left behind. And, as of last month, users can no generate their own last will and testament.

"We launched the online will maker — it wasn't in my roadmap for another six months or so — because every single person that was coming in was looking at something else on our platform, but then going to the will part and asking, 'Hey is this something I can create here?'" Cisek says.

Recognizing that this was a good opportunity to generate new users, Cisek quickly added on the feature for a flat $75 fee. Then, members pay $3.99 a month to be able to edit their will whenever they need to and also receive access to everything else on the platform.

Cisek saw a huge opportunity to grow with the pandemic, which put a spotlight after-life planning. The silver lining of it all was that more people were discussing after-life planning with their family members.

"We're having more open dialogue about life and end-of-life planning that I don't see any other scenario really bringing that to light," she explains. "In some ways, it's been positive because having the conversation with people has been easier than it had been before."

While anyone can access The Postage's platform, Cisek says she's focused on getting the word out nationally. Following some imminent funding and partnerships, national marketing and growth campaigns are on the horizon.

Cisek shares more on her career and he unique challenges she faces as a B-to-C entrepreneur on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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