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Rice Business study finds that a daily routine can foster creativity in the workplace

Having a routine can help foster creativity, a Rice University study found. Getty Images

Think of a routine: your morning workout, walking the dog, making your bed. It's hard to imagine these as creative pursuits. After all, Leonardo da Vinci may have made his bed every morning, but it's probably not what inspired him to paint the Mona Lisa.

So it's no surprise that workplace analysts have long considered routines to be the antithesis of creativity. But it turns out that the relationship between the two is more complementary than previously believed. Scott Sonenshein, a management professor at Rice Business, studied just how this relationship works. What Sonenshein wanted to know was, how can an organization achieve creative outcomes through routine?

For the answer, think of da Vinci again. Certain repetitive aspects of style make his work recognizably his. It's how we can instantly see that The Last Supper, St. John the Baptist and the Mona Lisa are all the work of his hand. In that sense, they are both repeated patterns and feats of genius.

For Sonenshein, some retailers are, in a sense, the da Vincis of suburban America. Sonenshein examined data from a fast-growing retailer that operates a chain of roughly 400 clothing, jewelry, accessory and gift stores across the U.S., and was fascinated to see how it could surprise its customers each season while maintaining a brand image that makes the retailer easily identifiable. Sonenshein realized that the retailer was effectively routinizing creativity.

When he interviewed corporate managers and store employees at the retailer he calls "BoutiqueCo," a pattern emerged. Sonenshein discovered something he calls "familiar novelty" in the way the retailer designs its stores. While most stores use a rigid floor plan for the display of merchandise, BoutiqueCo instead adopts a set of flexible guidelines.

These rules of the road are explicit enough to ensure that each store is readily identifiable as a BoutiqueCo outlet. But because the display rules afford a great deal of flexibility, they allow space for creative employees to come up with their own ideas. If merchandising were a musical score, Sonenshein observed a dynamic that is less like marching band music and more like jazz. Employees are encouraged to riff off of the main themes of the chain to regularly create something unexpected.

Of course, creating novel effects doesn't come naturally to everyone. It takes a certain kind of individual to achieve it, especially in the highly visual area of merchandising. Store managers told Sonenshein that they actively look for employees who are willing to take visual risks and engage creatively while still keeping to the rules of the company road.

Finally, creativity is routinized in the stores' feedback systems. This takes place both among employees, who frequently discuss and even debate their work with each other, and in the more formal setting of managerial feedback. Managers actively encourage creativity, urging employees to put their personalities into the work of the store, to the point where brand identity and individual identity intermingle.

So what does the experience of one outlet tell us about the relationship between creativity and routines? Sonenshein suggests that there is a strong role for personalization of routine tasks in the creative workplace. When employees bring their own preferences to routine performances, it can elevate them from mundane to novel.

Of course, it's unlikely that a window dresser will create the next Mona Lisa while promoting the spring line. Genius like da Vinci's may only come along once in a millennium. But if we put a little soul into our work under the guidance of managers who allow us to riff off of the corporate sheet music, remarkable things become possible.

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This article originally appeared on Rice Business Wisdom.

Scott Sonenshein is the Henry Gardiner Symonds Professor of Management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

Firms looking to expand globally need to ensure that their organizational resources are adaptable to new markets. Getty Images

When foreigners invest in emerging markets, the prospect for those markets' local businesses looks bright. The payoffs for a country's companies can range from injections of foreign capital to better managerial talent, technological sophistication and international know-how. But does foreign investment ever push local firms to venture into international projects of their own?

Rice Business professor Haiyang Li looked closely at the ripple effects of foreign investments, and concluded it all depends on the local businesses' adaptability. That — and their appetite for risk.

Together with Xiwei Yi of Peking University and Geng Cui of Lingan University, Hong Kong, Li launched a large-scale study of Chinese manufacturers to better understand how multinational investment in domestic companies influences the global market.

The subject was ripe for analysis. Over the past decade, more and more companies in China and other emerging markets have been testing the waters of direct investment in other countries in sectors as varied as food and beverages, apparel, electronics and transportation equipment.

Li's team hypothesized that these emerging market companies were leveraging benefits that foreign investment had ferried into their home markets. This investment, the researchers theorized, had brought in useful resources and skills, which helped ease the local companies into international business markets.

To confirm this, the team needed to test whether the converse was true: Might information gained from foreign investors actually dull a local firm's interest in branching out overseas? Maybe the risks of that type of venture — which are higher for firms in emerging markets — would seem too stark.

To find out, the researchers first vetted the literature on inward and outward investment activities. How, they wanted to know, did domestic firms interact with foreign players in the technology or product importing process? In equipment manufacturing? In franchising and licensing, mergers and acquisitions and activities such as setting up subsidiaries?

Working with a global research company, Li and his colleagues next surveyed 1,500 Chinese businesses in the food, clothing, electronics and vehicle industries. (Firms in finance, banking, natural resources and business services were ruled out because of their government ties, and also because such organizations usually use fewer resources, which made them harder to evaluate.)

Each company that took part in the survey rated how much they engaged with foreign investors in activities such as importing products and services or forming joint ventures. They also indicated if dealing with foreign direct investment had brought them foreign capital, advanced manufacturing know-how, managerial experience or competitive insight into overseas business.

The researchers also measured the "fungibility" of these firms' resources — in other words, how easily could their organizational, cultural and technological resources be adapted to various geographical settings?

Finally, managers rated how risk-prone they thought their firms were.

After Li and his coauthors processed the answers, they found several links between foreign investment in domestic firms and local companies' internationalization efforts.

First, there was a positive relationship between the local gains from foreign investment and a firm's interest in internationalization projects. While this effect was indirect, it was amplified when foreign investment gave a firm new capabilities that made it more adaptable. In other words, the Chinese companies whose contact with foreign multinationals made them more adaptable in general were better positioned to prosper in ventures abroad.

This stands to reason, the researchers note. That's because by its very nature foreign investment sparks awareness of new opportunities: every business trip, plant visit or negotiation with foreign partners is a hands-on lesson in international trade.

But the researchers also uncovered a significant downside to foreign investment for local Chinese firms. When a project was considered high-risk, such as a merger or establishment of a wholly owned subsidiary, the local firms were less prone to venture abroad. This adverse effect was worse for firms that labeled themselves risk-averse, probably because exposure to foreign investors only made the risks of internationalizing clearer.

These findings add important detail to the way foreign investment can affect their local partners' own international plans — for good and ill. Already, businesses in emerging markets are used to optimizing resources, wrangling diverse idioms and artisans and adapting logistically to get their products to market. That nimbleness, Li and his colleagues propose, should also be seen as a globalization tool. For businesses in emerging markets, the researchers conclude, day-to-day technical ability is actually less important than cultural and organizational flexibility — and applying lessons learned from foreign investors to their own projects abroad.

In other words, for firms in emerging markets, globalization is not just a path to new markets. It's a way to study interactions with foreign firms while on their home turf – and learn how to apply those lessons abroad.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Haiyang Li is Area Coordinator and Professor of Strategic Management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.