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Rice University research determines the best way to promote innovation in the workplace

New ideas can be crucially important to businesses, driving innovation and preventing stagnation. Recognizing those ideas, though, isn't always easy. Getty Images

Whenever the late surgeon Michael DeBakey opened a human chest, he drew on a lifetime of resources: the conviction that heart surgery could and should be vastly improved, the skill to venture beyond medicine's known horizons and the vision to recognize new ideas in everyone around him, no matter how little formal training they had.

Appreciating new ideas is the heartbeat of business as well as medicine. But innovation is surprisingly hard to recognize. In a pioneering 2017 article, Rice Business Professor Jing Zhou and her colleagues published their findings on the first-ever study of the traits and environments that allow leaders to recognize new ideas.

Recent decades have produced a surge of research looking at how and when employees generate fresh ideas. But almost nothing has been written on another crucial part of workplace creativity: a leader's ability to appreciate new thinking when she sees it.

Novelty, after all, is what drives company differentiation and competitiveness. Work that springs from new concepts sparks more investigation than work based on worn, already established thought. Companies invest millions to recruit and pay star creatives.

Yet not every leader can spot a fresh idea, and not every workplace brings out that kind of discernment. In four separate studies, Zhou and her coauthors examined exactly what it takes to see a glittering new idea wherever it appears. Their work sets the stage for an entirely new field of future research.

First, though, the team had to define their key terms. "Novelty recognition" is the ability to spot a new idea when someone else presents it. "Promotion focus," previous research has shown, is a comfort level with new experiences that evokes feelings of adventure and excitement. "Prevention focus" is the opposite trait: the tendency to associate new ideas with danger, and respond to them with caution.

But does having "promotion focus" as opposed to "prevention focus" color the ability to see novelty? To find out, Zhou's team came up with an ingenious test, artificially inducing these two perspectives through a series of exercises. First, they told 92 undergraduate participants that they would be asked to perform a set of unrelated tasks. Then the subjects guided a fictional mouse through two pencil and paper maze exercises.

While one exercise showed a piece of cheese awaiting the mouse at the end of the maze (the promise of a reward), the other maze depicted a menacing owl nearby (motivation to flee).

Once the participants had traced their way through the mazes with pencils, they were asked to rate the novelty of 33 pictures – nine drawings of space aliens and 24 unrelated images. The students who were prepped to feel an adventurous promotion focus by seeking a reward were much better at spotting the new or different details among these images than the students who'd been cued to have a prevention focus by fleeing a threat.

The conclusion: a promotion focus really does create a mental lens through which new ideas are more visible.

Zhou's team followed this study with three additional studies, including one that surveyed 44 human resource managers from a variety of companies. For this study, independent coders rated the mission statements of each firm, assessing their cultures as "innovative" or "not innovative." The HR managers then evaluated a set of written practices – three that had been in use for years, and three new ones that relied on recent technology. The managers from the innovative companies were much better at rating the new HR practices for novelty and creativity. To recognize novelty, in other words, both interior and external environments make a difference.

The implications of the research are groundbreaking. The first ever done on this subject, it opens up a completely new research field with profound questions. Can promotion focus be created? How much of this trait is genetic, and how much based on natural temperament, culture, environment and life experience? Should promotion focus be cultivated in education? If so, what would be the impact? After all, there are important uses for prevention focus, such as corporate security and compliance. Meanwhile, how can workplaces be organized to bring out the best in both kinds of focus?

Leaders eager to put Zhou's findings to use right away, meanwhile, might look to the real-world model of Michael DeBakey. Practice viewing new ideas as adventures, seek workplaces that actively push innovation and, above all, cultivate the view that every coworker, high or low, is a potential source of glittering new ideas.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Jing Zhou is the Mary Gibbs Jones Professor of Management and Psychology in Organizational Behavior at the Jones Graduate School of Business of Rice University.

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Building Houston

 
 

Here's your one-stop shop for innovation events in Houston this month. Photo via Getty Images

Houstonians are transitioning into a new summer month, and the city's business community is mixing in networking and conference events with family vacations and time off. Here's a rundown of what all to throw on your calendar for July when it comes to innovation-related events.

This article will be updated as more business and tech events are announced.

July 10 — Have a Nice Day Market at the Ion

Stop by for a one-of-a-kind vendor market - #HaveANiceDayHTX - taking place at the Ion, Houston's newest urban district and collaborative space that is designed to provide the city a place where entrepreneurial, corporate, and academic communities can come together. Free to attend and free parking onsite.

Have a Nice Day is a creative collective with a goal of celebrating BIPOC makers, creators, and causes.

The event is Sunday, July 10, 4 to 8 pm, at The Ion. Click here to register.

July 12 — One Houston Together Webinar Series

In the first installment of the Partnership's One Houston Together webinar series, we will discuss supplier diversity an often underutilized resource for business. What is it and why is it important? How can supplier diversity have long-term impact on your business, help strengthen your supply chain, and make a positive community impact?

The event is Tuesday, July 12, noon to 1 pm, online. Click here to register.

July 14 — Investor Speaker Series: Both Sides of the Coin

In the next installment of Greentown Labs' Investor Speaker Series, sit down with two Greentown founders and their investors as they talk about their experiences working together before, during, and after an equity investment was made in the company. Attendees will get a behind-the-scenes look at one of the most important relationships in a startup’s journey and what best practices both founders and investors can follow to keep things moving smoothly.

The event is Thursday, July 14, 1 to 2:30 pm, online. Click here to register.

July 15 — SBA Funding Fair

Mark Winchester, the Deputy District Director for the Houston District Office of the U.S. Small Business Administration, will give a short intro of the programs the mentors will discuss. There will be three government guaranteed loan mentors and two to three mentors co-mentoring with remote SBIR experts.

The event is Friday, July 15, 10:30 am to 1 pm, at The Cannon - West Houston. Click here to register.

July 16 — Bots and Bytes: Family STEAM Day

Join the Ion for a hands-on learning experience to learn about tech and robotics and gain insight into the professional skills and concepts needed to excel in a robotics or tech career. This event will be tailored for 9-14-year-olds for a fun STEM experience.

The event is Saturday, July 16, 10 am to 1 pm, at The Ion. Click here to register.

July 19 — How to Start a Startup

You have an idea...now what? Before you start looking for funding, it's important to make sure that your idea is both viable and valuable -- if it doesn't have a sound model and a market willing to pay for it, investors won't be interested anyway.

The event is Tuesday, July 19, 5:30 to 7:30 pm, at The Ion. Click here to register.

July 20 — Perfecting Your Pitch

Join the Ion for their series with DeckLaunch and Fresh Tech Solutionz as they discuss the importance and value of your pitch deck when reaching your target audience.

The event is Wednesday, July 20, 5:30 to 6:30 pm, at The Ion. Click here to register.

July 21 — Transition On Tap: Investor Readiness with Vinson & Elkins LLP

Attorneys from Greentown Labs’ Gigawatt Partner Vinson & Elkins LLP, a leading fund- and company-side advisor for clean energy financing, will present an overview of legal considerations in cleantech investing, geared especially toward early-stage companies and investors. The presentation will cover the types of investors and deals in the cleantech space and also provide background on negotiating valuation, term sheets, and preparing for diligence.

The event is Thursday, July 21, 5 to 7 pm, at Greentown Houston. Click here to register.

July 28 — The Cannon Community 2nd Annual Town Hall Event

Partner of The Cannon, Baker Tilly, has played an integral part in the success of Cannon member companies. Join the Cannon community for The Cannon's 5-year anniversary celebration!

The event is Thursday, July 28, 4 to 7 pm, at The Cannon - West Houston. Click here to register.

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