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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.

Does your brain have the right components to be an entrepreneur? Getty Images

The entrepreneur strides into a room of potential backers. Swathed in understated grey, she walks with assurance and chats in the cool, easy-going cadences of the leaders she plans to woo. But will an approach like this really affect the fate of her startup? And if not, what will?

A literature review by Rice Business professor Robert E. Hoskisson and colleagues Jeffry Covin of Indiana University, Henk W. Volberda of Erasmus University and Richard A. Johnson of Arnold & Porter offers clues to a vast range of questions about the entrepreneurs' trade. It also outlines where research still falls short. What, for example, most influences a startup founder's success? Is entrepreneurial triumph driven by innate ability or acquired skill? What's the role of factors such as regulatory structures or an entrepreneur's own work environment?

Traditional research, Hoskisson and his associates note, makes it clear that certain cognitive factors really do differentiate people who start new ventures from their more staid counterparts. And recent scholarship has traced how individual entrepreneurs decide to launch their startups and how they spot entrepreneurial opportunities. Still unclear, though, is whether entrepreneurs think differently overall, possess innate qualities that lend themselves to entrepreneurship or somehow become catalyzed by the entrepreneurial role itself.

More research could help answer those questions. Research is also needed to pinpoint exactly how the best entrepreneurs express their plans in order to sound legitimate enough to earn funding and support, Hoskisson's group says. What the scholarship does show is that that the grey-clad entrepreneur with the easygoing patter knows what she's doing: symbolic language, gestures and visual symbols all help create professional identity, emphasize control and regulate the emotions of a viewer. Setting, props, style of dress and expressiveness all count, and the more experienced the entrepreneur the more props she uses.

At the same time, no unified model fully explains how successful entrepreneurs gain their funding. Models range from the hyper-rational analysis offered by game theory to a stimulus-response model in which people react as if they're marionettes. Other mysteries include how the entrepreneurship impulse arises, how it shapes innovation and competitive advantage and how it is translated in individual actions and interactions. More research in these areas, says Hoskisson, would help not only entrepreneurs in the eternal quest for funding, but also the understanding of how to nurture human potential.

Examining institutional differences among countries and how that affects entrepreneurship is also ripe for study. So far, entrepreneurship research has focused on individual attributes. But there's a need, Hoskisson and his colleagues say, for scholars to connect the dots between startup success and political environments, rule of law, regulation and entrepreneurship.

The same goes for work on diverse contexts in emerging economies. In transition economies, China being one example, networks create political and social capital that allows special access and legitimacy. On the other hand, in those same countries ponderous bureaucracies and basic resource limitations can hamper entrepreneurial projects. Detailed understanding of such cultures will only get more urgent as ventures in emerging economies increase and companies that are "born global" proliferate.

Also on the research to-do list about entrepreneurs: the chances of securing funding in given emerging economies and the power — or frailty — of their intellectual property laws. Regulation, especially, plays a pivotal role in these countries, Hoskisson writes. The lighter the regulation, the more entrepreneurship flourishes, according to one study of 54 countries. On the other hand, countries blessed with a strong rule of law offer entrepreneurs more opportunities for strategic entry.

Understanding the entrepreneurial mind, and its interaction with the material world, isn't simple. Consider the late Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot's plan to send gifts to all POWs in Vietnam during the height of the Vietnam War. Unsurprisingly, the Vietnamese government announced that a gift delivery was impossible while Americans were bombing the country. Undeterred, Perot offered to rebuild anything the Americans had bombed. Rebuffed again, Perot chartered a plane to Moscow, instructing aides to deposit the Christmas presents, one by one, at Moscow post offices, addressed to Hanoi.

Amusing as it can be to hear about such entrepreneurial gumption, it may be even more useful to study entrepreneurship systematically. Not everyone can have an entrepreneur's brain, Hoskisson's review of research suggests, but good scholarship might be able to teach people how to walk the walk.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Robert E. Hoskisson is the George R. Brown Emeritus Professor of Management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.