Houston Voices

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.

------

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.

Trending News

Building Houston

 
 

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Samantha Lewis of Mercury Fund, Barbara Burger of Chevron, and Lauren Bahorich of Cloudbreak Ventures. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In the week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three female innovators across industries recently making headlines — all three focusing on investing in innovation from B2B software to energy tech.

Samantha Lewis, principal at Mercury Fund

Samantha Lewis, principal at Mercury Fund, joins this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Mercury Fund

When Samantha Lewis started her new principal role at Houston-based Mercury Fund, she hit the ground running. Top priority for Lewis is building out procedure for the venture capital firm as well as finding and investing in game-changing fintech.

"(I'm focused on) the democratization of financial services," Lewis says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Legacy financial institutions have ignored large groups of our population here in America and broader for a very long time. Technology is actually breaking down a lot of those barriers, so there are all these groups that have traditionally been ignored that now technology can reach to help them build wealth." Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures

Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures, spearheaded by Barbara Burger, has announced their latest fund. Courtesy of CTV

Chevron Technology Ventures LLC's recently announced $300 million Future Energy Fund II builds on the success of the first Future Energy Fund, which kicked off in 2018 and invested in more than 10 companies specializing in niches like carbon capture, emerging mobility, and energy storage. The initial fund contained $100 million.

"The new fund will focus on innovation likely to play a critical role in the future energy system in industrial decarbonization, emerging mobility, energy decentralization, and the growing circular carbon economy," Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures says in a February 25 release.

Future Energy Fund II is the eighth venture fund created by Chevron Technology Ventures since its establishment in 1999. Click here to read more.

Lauren Bahorich, CEO and founder of Cloudbreak Enterprises

Cloudbreak Enterprises, founded by Lauren Bahorich is getting in on the ground level with software startups — quickly helping them take an idea to market. Photo courtesy of Cloudbreak

Lauren Bahorich wanted to stand up a venture studio that really focused on growing and scaling B-to-B SaaS-focused, early-stage technology. She founded Cloudbreak Enterprises last year and already has three growing portfolio companies.

"We truly see ourselves as co-founders, so our deals are structured with co-founder equity," Bahorich says, explaining that Cloudbreak is closer to a zero-stage venture capital fund than to any incubator. "We are equally as incentivized as our co-founders to de-risk this riskiest stage of startups because we are so heavily invested and involved with our companies."

This year, Bahorich is focused on onboarding a few new disruptive Houston startups. Click here to read more.

Trending News