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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.

Rice University and the University of Houston top lists for best graduate and undergraduate entrepreneurship programs. Photo by skynesher/Getty Images

In Houston, a little bit of friendly competition between two universities goes a long way, but each gets a win according to a recent ranking.

The University of Houston's Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship within the C. T. Bauer College of Business claimed the top spot on the 2020 Princeton Review's top 15 programs for undergraduate entrepreneurship studies. Meanwhile, Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business claimed the top spot on the graduate schools list.

Both schools have appeared on the list before, but it's the first time either has topped their categories.

"Entrepreneurship and the creation of new businesses and industries are critical to Houston and Texas' future prosperity and quality of life," says Rice Business Dean Peter Rodriguez, in a news release. "Today's ranking and our decades-long leadership in entrepreneurship education and outreach is a testament to our visionary and world-class faculty, the enormous success of the Rice Business Plan Competition and of our commitment to our students and the community we serve."

The Rice program, which in 1978, has appeared on the top-10 list for 11 years in a row, and it's the fourth time for the program to make it into the top three. According to the Princeton Review release, Rice grads have started 537 companies that went on to raise over $7 billion in funding.

A UH news release also calls out the fact that UH has seen more than 1,200 alumni-founded businesses, which have amassed over $268 million in funding over the past decade. UH's program, which began in 1991, has appeared in the top 10 list since 2007, and rose from the No. 2 position last year.

"The Wolff Center is the catalyst, but entrepreneurship goes beyond that to the entire Bauer College, including RED Labs, social entrepreneurship, energy, health care, arts and sports entrepreneurship, among many other programs," says Bauer Dean Paul Pavlou. "We're an entrepreneurial university, and innovation and the startup ecosystem we want to promote for the city of Houston starts with the Wolff Center and Bauer."

The ranking considered more than 300 schools with entrepreneurship studies programs and factored in over 40 data points. Some of the factors considered include: the percentage of students enrolled in entrepreneurship courses, mentorship programs, the number of startups founded and investments received by alumni, and the cash prizes at university-backed business plan competitions. The rankings will be published in the December issue of Entrepreneur magazine.