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Are innovators heroes or villains?

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As frequent readers of this blog will be aware, I’m a big fan of the systemic approach towards creating a social business.  I don’t think it’s possible to encourage collaboration or innovative behaviours simply by buying a piece of software, when so much in the workplace encourages the opposite.

Whilst this blog isn’t looking purely at things at a systemic level, it will be looking at innovative or creative behaviours, and how organisations can so often subtly discourage them.

Exhibit A is a study conducted by Wharton a few years ago.  It looked at the perception of creative and innovative thinkers in the workplace, and far from finding them widely appreciated for their fresh ideas, they found the complete opposite.  It emerged that when people voice creative ideas, they are viewed by others as having less leadership potential.

That’s particularly true in times of economic uncertainty. The data suggest that, when the going gets tough, people crave the security that comes from having leaders who preserve the status quo.

Exhibit B goes as far as to suggest that the mere idea of wanting creative and innovative ideas is a load of rubbish. The research team found that we have an inverse relationship with creativity.  They found that new things can make us feel uncertain, and this uncertainty makes us feel uncomfortable, which of course makes us wary of innovation.

As a result people often reject new and innovative ideas in favour of ideas that are purely practical and have been tried before.  Familiarity is preferred to innovation.  Sadly no amount of objective evidence seems to change this mindset, and the bias is often so subtle that most of us aren’t aware that we even have it, and as we know, if you don’t know something exists you can’t set about changing it.

Uncertainty drives the search for and generation of creative ideas, but “uncertainty also makes us less able to recognize creativity, perhaps when we need it most,” the researchers wrote. “Revealing the existence and nature of a bias against creativity can help explain why people might reject creative ideas and stifle scientific advancements, even in the face of strong intentions to the contrary. … The field of creativity may need to shift its current focus from identifying how to generate more creative ideas to identify how to help innovative institutions recognize and accept creativity.”

Of course, being rejected is not always a bad thing, with researchers from Johns Hopkins University showing that certain types of people are at their most creative when they feel ostracized from the group.

All of which may explain why many innovative ideas within organisations come from almost semi-autonomous skunk works style groups who feel and act as though they are independent of the main corporate body.

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