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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Looking back: Top 5 most-read Houston research-focused stories of 2021

2022 in review

Editor's note: As 2022 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. In many cases, innovative startups originate from meticulous research deep within institutions. This past year, InnovationMap featured stories on these research institutions — from their breakthrough innovations to funding fueling it all. Here are five Houston research-focused articles that stood out to readers this year — be sure to click through to read the full story.


Texas nonprofit cancer research funder doles out millions to health professionals moving to Houston

These cancer research professionals just got fresh funding from a statewide organization. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Thanks in part to multimillion-dollar grants from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, two top-flight cancer researchers are taking key positions at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine.

Dr. Pavan Reddy and Dr. Michael Taylor each recently received a grant of $6 million from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

Reddy is leaving his position as chief of hematology-oncology and deputy director at the University of Michigan’s Rogel Cancer Center to become director of the Baylor College of Medicine’s Dan L. Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center. Dr. C. Kent Osborne stepped down as the center’s director in 2020; Dr. Helen Heslop has been the interim director. Continue reading.

Rice University deploys grant funding to 9 innovative Houston research projects

Nine research projects at Rice University have been granted $25,000 to advance their innovative solutions. Photo courtesy of Rice

Over a dozen Houston researchers wrapped up 2021 with the news of fresh funding thanks to an initiative and investment fund from Rice University.

The Technology Development Fund is a part of the university’s Creative Ventures initiative, which has awarded more than $4 million in grants since its inception in 2016. Rice's Office of Technology Transfer orchestrated the $25,000 grants across nine projects. Submissions were accepted through October and the winners were announced a few weeks ago. Continue reading.

Houston researchers create unprecedented solar energy technology that improves on efficiency

Two researchers out of the University of Houston have ideated a way to efficiently harvest carbon-free energy 24 hours a day. Photo via Getty Images

Two Houstonians have developed a new system of harvesting solar energy more efficiently.

Bo Zhao, the Kalsi Assistant Professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Houston, along with his doctoral student Sina Jafari Ghalekohneh, have created a technology that theoretically allows solar energy to be harvested to the thermodynamic limit, which is the absolute maximum rate sunlight can be converted into electricity, as reported in a September article for Physical Review Applied.

Traditional solar thermophotovoltaics (STPVs), or the engines used to extract electrical power from thermal radiation, run at an efficiency limit of 85.4 percent, according to a statement from UH. Zhao and Ghalekohneh's system was able to reach a rate of 93.3 percent, also known as the Landsberg Limit. Continue reading.

Texas A&M receives $10M to create cybersecurity research program

Texas A&M University has announced a new cybersecurity-focused initiative. Photo via tamu.edu

Texas A&M University has launched an institute for research and education regarding cybersecurity.

The Texas A&M Global Cyber Research Institute is a collaboration between the university and a Texas A&M University System engineering research agency, the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station. The research agency and Texas A&M are also home to the Texas A&M Cybersecurity Center.

The institute is funded by $10 million in gifts from former Texas A&M student Ray Rothrock, a venture capitalist and cybersecurity expert, and other donors. Continue reading.

Houston research organization doles out $28M in grants to innovators across Texas

Houston-based Welch Foundation has awarded almost $28 million in chemical research grants throughout Texas this year. Photo via Getty Images

Chemical researchers at seven institutions in the Houston area are receiving nearly $12.9 million grants from the Houston-based Welch Foundation.

In the Houston area, 43 grants are going to seven institutions:

  • Baylor College of Medicine
  • Rice University
  • Texas A&M University
  • Texas A&M University Health Science Center
  • University of Houston
  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston
  • University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston

The Welch Foundation is awarding almost $28 million in chemical research grants throughout Texas this year. The money will be allocated over a three-year period. Continue reading.

University of Houston powers up first robot food server in a U.S. restaurant

order up

The University of Houston is taking a bold step — or, in this case, roll — in foodservice delivery. UH's Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership is now deploying a robot server in Eric’s Restaurant at its Hilton College.

Booting up this new service is major bragging rights for the Coogs, as UH is now the only college in the country — and the only restaurant facility in Houston — to utilize a robotic food delivery.

These rolling delivery bots come from the state-of-the-art food service robot called Servi. The bots, created by Bear Robotics, are armed with LiDar sensors, cameras, and trays, and automatically return to their posts when internal weight sensors detect a delivery has been completed.

Not surprisingly, these futuristic food staffers are booting up plenty of buzz at UH.

“People are excited about it,” says Dennis Reynolds, who is dean of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership and oversees the only hospitality program in the world where students work and take classes in an internationally branded, full-service hotel. Launching robot waitstaff at UH as a test market makes sense, he notes, for practical use and larger implications.

The Servi robots deliver food from the kitchen to the table. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

“Robotics and the general fear of technology we see today are really untested in the restaurant industry,” he says in an announcement. “At Hilton College, it’s not just about using tomorrow’s technology today. We always want to be the leader in learning how that technology impacts the industry.”

Bear Robotics, a tech company founded by restaurant experts and tech entrepreneurs, hosted a Servi showcase at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago earlier this year. After seeing the demo, Reynolds was hooked. UH's Servi robot arrived at Eric’s Restaurant in October.

Before sending the bot to diners' tables, the bot was prepped by Tanner Lucas, the executive chef and foodservice director at Eric’s. That meant weeks of mapping, programming, and — not surprisingly — “test driving” around the restaurant.

Tanner even created a digital map of the restaurant to teach the Servi its pathways and designated service points, such as table numbers. “Then, we sent it back and forth to all of those points from the kitchen with food to make sure it wouldn’t run into anything," he adds.

But does having a robot deliver food create friction between human and automated staff? Not at Eric's. “The robot helps my workflow,” Joel Tatum, a server at Eric’s says. “It lets me spend more time with my customers instead of just chasing and running food.”

Once loaded, the kitchen staff can tell the Servi robots where to take the dishes. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

Reynolds believes robots will complement their human counterparts and actually enhance the customer experience, even in unlikely settings.

“Studies have been conducted in senior living facilities where you might think a robot wouldn’t be well received, but it’s been just the opposite,” Reynolds says. “Those residents saw the change in their lives and loved it.”

To that end, he plans to use Servi bots in other UH venues. “The ballroom would be a fantastic place to showcase Servi – not as a labor-saving device, but as an excitement generator,” Reynolds notes. “To have it rotating through a big event delivering appetizers would be really fun.”

Critics who denounce robot servers and suggest they will soon displace humans are missing the point, Reynolds adds. “This isn’t about cutting our labor costs. It’s about building our top-line revenues and expanding our brand as a global hospitality innovator,” Reynolds says. “People will come to expect more robotics, more artificial intelligence in all segments of hospitality, and our students will be right there at the forefront.”

Servi bots come at a time of dynamic growth for Hilton College. A recent rebrand to “Global Hospitality Leadership” comes as the college hotel is undergoing a $30 million expansion and renovation, which includes a new five-story, 70-room guest tower. The student-run Cougar Grounds coffeehouse reopened this semester in a larger space with plenty of updates. The neighboring Eric’s Club Center for Student Success helps with recruitment and enrollment, undergraduate academic services, and career development.

“To be the first university in the country to introduce robotics in the dining room is remarkable,” Reynolds adds. “There are a lot of unique things we’re doing at Hilton College.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston innovator on seeing a greener future on built environment

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 162

An architect by trade, Anas Al Kassas says he was used to solving problems in his line of work. Each project architects take on requires building designers to be innovative and creative. A few years ago, Kassas took his problem-solving background into the entrepreneurship world to scale a process that allows for retrofitting window facades for energy efficiency.

“If you look at buildings today, they are the largest energy-consuming sector — more than industrial and more than transportation,” Kassas, founder and CEO of INOVUES, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. “They account for up to 40 percent of energy consumption and carbon emissions.”

To meet their climate goals, companies within the built environment are making moves to transition to electric systems. This has to be done with energy efficiency in mind, otherwise it will result in grid instability.

"Energy efficiency goes hand in hand with energy transition," he explains.

Kassas says that he first had the idea for his company when he was living in Boston. He chose to start the business in Houston, attracted to the city by its central location, affordable labor market, and manufacturing opportunities here.

Last year, INOVUES raised its first round of funding — a $2.75 million seed round — to scale up the team and identify the best markets to target customers. Kassas says he was looking for regions with rising energy rates and sizable incentives for companies making energy efficient changes.

"We were able to now implement our technology in over 4 million square feet of building space — from Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York City, Portland, and very soon in Canada," he says.

Notably missing from that list is any Texas cities. Kassas says that he believes Houston is a great city for startups and he has his operations and manufacturing is based here, but he's not yet seen the right opportunity and adaption

"Unfortunately most of our customers are not in Texas," "A lot of work can be done here to incentivize building owners. There are a lot of existing buildings and construction happening here, but there has to be more incentives."

Kassas shares more about his growth over the past year, as well as what he has planned for 2023 on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.