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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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A Rice University scientist will be working on the team for NASA's latest Mars rover. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

A Rice University Martian geologist has been chosen by NASA as one of the 13 scientists who will be working on a new Mars rover.

Perseverance, the rover that launched in July and is expected to land on Mars in February. It will be scouting for samples to bring back to study for ancient microbial life, and Kirsten Siebach — an assistant professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences — will be among the researchers to work on the project. Her proposal was one of 119 submitted to NASA for funding, according to a Rice press release.

"Everybody selected to be on the team is expected to put some time into general operations as well as accomplishing their own research," she says in the release. "My co-investigators here at Rice and I will do research to understand the origin of the rocks Perseverance observes, and I will also participate in operating the rover."

It's Kirsten Siebach's second Mars rover mission to work on. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Perseverance is headed for Jezero Crater, a 28-mile-wide area that once hosted a lake and river delta where, according to scientists, microbial life may have existed over 3 billion years ago. Siebach is particularly excited hopefully find fossils existing in atmospheric carbon dioxide dissolved in water — which usually exists as limestone on Earth.

"There are huge packages of limestone all over Earth, but for some reason it's extremely rare on Mars," she says. "This particular landing site includes one of the few orbital detections of carbonate and it appears to have a couple of different units including carbonates within this lake deposit. The carbonates will be a highlight of we're looking for, but we're interested in basically all types of minerals."

Siebach is familiar with rovers — she was a member of the team for NASA's Curiosity rover, which has been exploring Mars since 2012. For this new rover, Siebach knows what to expect.

"Because there is only one rover, the whole team at NASA has to agree about what to look at, or analyze, or where to drive on any given day," Siebach says in the release. "None of the rovers' actions are unilateral decisions. But it is a privilege to be part of the discussion and to get to argue for observations of rocks that will be important to our understanding of Mars for decades."

Siebach and her team — which includes Rice data scientist Yueyang Jiang and mineralogist Gelu Costin — are planning to tap into computational and machine-learning methods to map out minerals and discover evidence for former life on Mars. They will also be using a Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, or PIXL, to analyze the materials.

The return mission isn't expected to return until the early 2030s, so it's a long game for the scientists. However, the samples have the potential to revolutionize what we know about life on Mars with more context than before.

"Occasionally, something hits Mars hard enough to knock a meteorite out, and it lands on Earth," she says in the release. "We have a few of those. But we've never been able to select where a sample came from and to understand its geologic context. So these samples will be revolutionary."

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