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.

Allison Williams, who has been working with the Transformational Prison Project for two years, attended Good Measure to consult on the brand development. Alan Nguyen/Good Measure

Houston creatives relaunch nonprofit's brand through a 3-day collaboration

For good measure

What if you could harness the power of a city's top creative professionals to create a brand identity for a nonprofit that otherwise couldn't afford it? Alex Anderson posed that question to some of his colleagues, and Good Measure was born.

"Good Measure exists to broaden the conversation about good in the world and what that means and how people can contribute to good no matter their skill set," says Anderson, who is a senior brand strategist and account manager at Houston-based NUU Group.

Good Measure is a Houston-based nonprofit that hosts three-day creative collaborations with local designers, writers, brand strategists, and more. The goal is simple: Equip a nonprofit with new storytelling tools — like a website, social media, and video communicating the organization's message.

This weekend was the second event Anderson organized with his co-founder, Tres Garner. The nonprofit partner was the Transformational Prison Project, which uses restorative justice in Massachusetts prisons to help incarcerated individuals mindfully use their time in prison to create healing. It's about bringing everyone involved in the criminal justice system to the table to thoughtfully effect change and reinstate humanity in these prisons.

"The Transformational Prison Project understands that no matter what your position is within the criminal justice system that everybody is vulnerable to trauma. So, it's in everyone's vested interest to create more of a system that's reparative and healing than punitive." says Karen Lischinsky, director of TPP, in the teaser video created at Good Measure.

Lischinsky was a vital part of the weekend, as was actress Allison Williams (Girls and Get Out), who has been an advocate for TPP and has led restorative justice sessions in Massachusetts prisons for two years.

"I wish to transform the way that prisons, as we imagine them today, operate and the effects that they have on people," Williams says in the video.

Using their powers for good
Good Measure brought together 40 creatives — designers, developers, strategists, videographers, photographers, writers, stylists, and more — into NUU Group's East Downtown office to develop new branding, web design, and videography for TPP. Filming took place down the street at Primer Grey. Anderson says the point is to break down barriers and bring together individuals who would otherwise not get to work together.

"It's some feedback that we've heard over and over again how refreshing and inspiring it is to work with people across the city," Anderson says. "So, you get to come together and learn each other's processes and have a case study or portfolio piece with someone who's work you admire."

Good Measure volunteers work alongside the nonprofit partners, so Lischinsky and Williams were there every step of the way. It was a learning process for both sides of the equation — the volunteers making sure they understand and express the TPP's mission as well as TPP learning the importance of the brand development process. Anderson says Lischinsky's presence was key to the success of the weekend — as was Williams' who wasn't just a celebrity endorsement. Anderson says he could see her full heart was committed to the program.

"You pull in a celebrity figure, and there's a tactical play. It's advertising," he says. "But what was different about this event is that Allison is not a face. She showed up from the first day of Good Measure to participate and contribute as someone who is on the board of TPP and an advocate for the program."

Creating a movement
Good Measure is planning to double down on its efforts for a New York weekend early next year to serve two nonprofits with 100 creatives volunteering. The organization also expects to return to do another Houston weekend in 2019 as well as a collaboration in Los Angeles.

Anderson says they also plan on hosting a one-day conference in Houston to discuss social good. Williams and Lischinsky are both onboard to attend.

Doing the homework

Alan Nguyen/Good Measure

Actress Allison Williams and TPP Director Karen Lischinsky kicked off the three-day rebranding collaboration with a discussion focused on the organization's goals, challenges, and messaging.

Researchers found that there's still very little conceptual explanation for how individual creative attempts become organizational innovation. Getty Images

Researchers find there's not much data on how creativity becomes change in the workplace

Houston Voices

Innovation and creativity are crucial tools that all businesses need in order to prosper. Research into how these tools work covers a broad area and crosses various disciplines. In the past, much of this research has been divided: One side looked at innovation, which focuses on how ideas are implemented, while the other examined creativity, which focuses on coming up with new ideas. Rice Business Professor Jing Zhou and colleagues addressed this divide by reviewing research going back a little more than a decade, looking for key measures that could be used as guidelines for future research.

Zhou and her colleagues began their work by reviewing the practical and theoretical perspectives of innovation and creativity in the workplace. They then created a framework for future research after identifying prominent theories.

Before getting started, however, they needed clear definitions for both innovation and creativity. Creativity, Zhou proposed, centers on idea generation. It's the first step toward innovation. Innovation, she concluded, stresses the implementation of ideas. This happens at different levels: individual, team, organization, or across multiple levels.

At the team level of innovation, research has progressed significantly, the authors found. They suggest that researchers now focus on other aspects of team-level research, such as team environment, leadership and facilitators of workgroups.

At the organizational level, Zhou and her colleagues found that numerous studies looked at the factors that influence innovation. But, they concluded, there's still very little conceptual explanation for how individual creative attempts become organizational innovation.

The team's review reveals the enormous strides that researchers have made in the field of creativity and innovation in recent years, and clarifies how their studies have been used by different organizations.

Despite advances in the field, however, there are still shortcomings. Many studies, for example, are hampered by problematic research approaches. Some lack theoretical groundwork and few take an inclusive approach to multi-level studies.

Zhou and her colleagues argue that addressing these limitations would be a tremendous leap forward in understanding creativity and innovation in the workplace. Without innovation, companies can't prosper and progress. The same holds true for academic research into these lifelines of business success: It will need to expand and dig deeper or cease to be relevant in practice.

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This article originally appeared on Rice Business Wisdom.

Jing Zhou is the Houston Endowment Professor of Management and Director for Asian Management Research and Education at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.