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Avoiding innovation outcasts

Posted on by from HEC Paris

How to harness talent within your own organisation.

For many organisations innovation and adaptability has become the key to remaining competitive in an increasingly turbulent market place. HR directors often translate this challenge into a need for recruiting and developing more innovative employees. It’s no longer just the right skill set but also the right mind set that’s in high demand. Individual characteristics such as creativity and openness to new experiences, on top of excellent skills, promise employers the human capital that a modern organisation needs to succeed in stormy times. 

Integrating talent

But how well do people with these promising traits integrate into the organisation and their teams? According to our research on intra-organisational networks: not that well. 

Using techniques of social network analysis (SNA), my colleagues and I analysed the informal relationships within work teams in various organisations and industries. The results are unsettlingly consistent; team members who are creative and open to new experiences are asked less frequently for information and advice by their teammates, they develop fewer close ties such as friendships and they have more difficult relationships with their teammates than their less-creative colleagues. The results also prove consistent across different ways of assessing a person's creativity and open-mindedness, including diagnostic questionnaires, objective creativity tests, and peer ratings. 

Many study participants were not surprised by our results. Even if they acknowledged the creative mind set of their colleagues and understood the importance of innovation for their organisations in the long term, they found it difficult to work with creative and open-minded team members on a daily basis. Such individuals are commonly perceived by their colleagues as throwing a spanner into the works or re-inventing the wheel. One participant explained: "If you need to finish a team presentation at midnight, you do not welcome suggestions such as 'why don't we look at the whole problem from a completely different angle!" As a consequence, creative and open-minded employees tend to be marginalised and pushed to the periphery of the team and organisational networks. This makes them less effective, less engaged, and more likely to quit their jobs. 

So how can employers ensure that their creative and open-minded employees are better integrated, so that their organisations can leverage their creative potential? Three approaches are worth mentioning:

1) Develop creative niches within the organisation

Cross-functional project teams, task forces within organisational functions, and corporate think tanks are just a few ways of fostering innovation through specialised groups. The idea is to create an environment where creativity can be encouraged and nurtured whilst being shielded from the day-to-day operations. Creative and open-minded employees can meet their own kind and work together without the imposition of short-term results and efficiency. However, these groups should not be too remote from the regular organisational processes, as this would make it more difficult to successfully implement their innovative ideas across the organisation. 

2) Foster a creative team climate

The team plays an important role as it is the direct environment in which collaboration takes place. Techniques such as brainstorming, role switching and playing devil's advocate can help to unlock the team's creative potential and enable them to value the innovative contributions of individual team members. But even more important is the role of the team leader in creating a climate of psychological safety – a climate in which team members feel free and comfortable to express their ideas and are open to divergent viewpoints. A leader who welcomes contributions that are out-of-the-box will be key in fostering the team's appreciation of such contributions, and the acceptance of creative team members. Moreover, the team composition is important to consider. Teams composed of employees with diverse backgrounds and capabilities are more likely to integrate divergent members than teams of like-minded employees with one enfant terrible. 

3) Recruit creative people with high social skills

High social skills may offset the disrupting effects of creativity. People with strong social skills are better in selling their ideas to others. They understand how to best reach their colleagues and can be persuasive in their arguments without jeopardizing their relationships. They are more reflective about the impact of their actions on others and thus have a better sense of when it is appropriate - and when it’s not - to propose new ideas to their teammates. As people with high social skills tend to occupy central positions in organisational and team networks, they are also more influential and are more able to leverage their creativity. 


Mathis Schulte

By Mathis Schulte

Mathis is associate professor of management and HR for executive education programmes at HEC Paris business school.

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