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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

 
 

"There's something magical happening in Houston, and [VCs] want a piece of it." Photo via Getty Images

Houston's seen a growth in startup and venture investment — even amid the pandemic — and a group of Houston innovators sat down for a virtual event to discuss what's lead to this evolution.

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted an installment of its Houston Industry Series focused on Digital Tech on Thursday, September 24. The panel of experts, moderated by Krisha Tracy of Google Cloud, discussed how they've observed the paradigm shift that's occurred in Houston over the past few years — and why.

Missed the discussion? Here are some significant overheard moments from the virtual event.

“I think there really is an interest for venture capital here, both locally and also welcoming it from outside of Houston. … There’s something magical happening in Houston, and [VCs] want a piece of it. I think that magical piece is a renewed interest in collaborating.”

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of Houston Angel Network and co-founder of The Artemis Fund. "I think a lot [of this progress] is due to the GHP, Houston Exponential, and the founding of the HX Venture Fund to bring those venture funds to Houston to say, 'what's happening here?'" Campbell adds, saying that this connectivity and collaboration that's happening in Houston VC is unique.

“I think there’s a misconception around all we do is oil and gas and life science in Houston, but when you think about what VC-backable companies look like, they’re tech, they’re B2B SaaS, they’re highly scalable, and they don’t tend to be capital-intensive types of things we see corporate venture backing.”

Campbell says, adding "the connectivity and the interest in VC is really taking off. It's an exciting time to be in Houston and Texas in general."

“Plug and Play’s ventures team is based in Silicon Valley and one thing they enjoy about meeting Houston-based founders is valuations tend to be more reasonable than in the Bay Area."

Payal Patel, director of Plug and Play Tech Center in Houston. "There are gems to be found," she adds.

“I don’t know what it is — if it’s something in the water or just Texans being very friendly, but the investors here share deal flow. It takes a village, and I think we all understand a rising tide lifts all boats."

Patel says on the collaborative nature of Houston. "It's really magical."

“What you’re witnessing is a city that has been waiting for industrial innovation to reach the point where it can be adopted at a really high scale, and that happened around 2017.”

Jon Nordby, managing director at MassChallenge Texas in Houston. Nordby adds that MassChallenge in Houston hasn't been keen on consumer tech, or the "grilled cheese delivery apps," as he describes. "We like companies that are in love with problems, not so much in love with solutions. … We build really meaningful tech."

“Over the last year or two, we’ve seen that sleeping giant get awoken. Open and external innovation is newly adopted by more legacy industries where it wasn’t before — and that’s just created a mountain of opportunities for startups and investors alike.”

Nordby says on the shift toward this meaningful, problem-solving technology, which Houston is full of, as he observes.

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