Thinking Styles Causing The Innovation Paradox

Thinking Styles Causing The Innovation ParadoxA recent research study published by the Academy Of Management identified an inherent organizational contradiction the authors called, “The innovation paradox” (Miron-Spektor, Erez, Naveh). This paradox states that while teams which are dominated by creative people may produce many novel ideas, it is questionable that these people can actually implement their ideas. This research focused on the impact of three key human cognitive styles which are found to predict the idea generation and implementation behaviors of individuals and teams, and how these behaviors affect the success of an innovation effort. The key leadership issue is to balance these three styles to more effectively direct the outcomes and performance of innovation teams. Defining the strategic intent of delivering radical versus incremental innovation will have a great impact on establishing the proper balance of individuals on the team.

Many radical (i.e. transformational) innovation efforts fail mainly because people don’t factor in practical matters of implementation, and disregard market and organizational constraints.

Team composition and the impact of individual personality attributes have been found in research to be better predictors of team performance over time rather than demographic variables such as educational backgrounds, experience, age, and company tenure. Academic research has indicated that the personality attributes associated with idea generation and creativity have shown no effect, and even negative effects on the implementation of ideas into the market. Idea implementation requires pushing ideas through accepted channels, prototyping, testing and integrating a new idea or concept into an organization.

The three key styles are creativity, conformity to rules and the group, and attention to detail. The question addressed in the study is the appropriate proportion of each style on an innovation team to achieve the highest level of radical innovation. The research identified the team configuration associated with the highest level of radical innovation.

Each of us has a preferred thinking style to solve problems. Various thinking styles differ in their focus on idea generation versus implementation. Creative people tend to identify and reframe problems and develop many original solutions but are less focused on the idea’s usefulness. Conformist thinkers seek consensus and work best when complying with established rules and functions. Conformist idea generation is more likely to be accepted within an established organization. Attention-to-detail people are systematic and precise, and are very attentive to the implementation of ideas, but as a result can block the development of radical new ideas.

As an aside, two excellent and long-standing human innovation assessment tools are the Kirton Adaption-Innovation Inventory, as well as the Basadur Creative Problem Solving Profile, which can help identify the thinking preferences of individuals.

The findings of this study showed that having more creative people on a team improves team creativity, but these types of people also create more conflict and don’t tend to adhere to standards. If a team is dominated by creative people, the team is more likely to fail at implementing their ideas. Creative people are independent thinkers and may provoke conflict, whereas conformists rarely disagree with the group and change their actions and thoughts in response to group pressure.

People with high levels of attention to detail will interfere with the group’s ability to generate ideas. These types of people are not willing to compromise on perfection and are overly focused on small details. They urge their teams to hold to tight standards and therefore limit the team’s ability to take risks and challenge organizational norms.

What is important to realize from the research is that there are both conformists and people who are extremely detail oriented, and in creating a team it is important to understand these two styles are different from one another. Conformity has a positive effect on a team’s ability to innovate in that these people are implementers and get the organization to adopt new ideas. Conformists help provide the structure necessary to get things done. Attention-to-detail thinkers, however, are sticklers for perfection, following rules, and avoiding risk at almost all costs which is very detrimental to the creative process.

The study suggests that when creating an innovation team focused on radical innovation there should be a high number of creative people to form an innovative team culture; a large number of conformists to support team harmony; and a very small number of detail-oriented people. In addition, it is likely that conformists and attention-to-detail thinkers will be more focused on incremental innovation efforts than more radical/transformative projects. Conversely, when focusing on delivering more incremental innovations it would make sense to reduce the number of highly creative people and increase the number of conformists which better utilizes the strengths of each thinking type.

Leading an innovation effort requires a firm grasp of strategic intention and understanding the desired end-state (i.e. radical versus incremental innovation) and purposefully creating a team with an appropriate blend of thinking styles to deliver on the intent. Leverage and balance the make-up of the team to both create and implement ideas, and understand that every human has a preferred thinking style. Trying to get conformists to envision extreme solutions is an exercise in futility, just as is expecting creative and free-thinking people to go along with a group just because they are told to do so. Use the right tool for the job and get the results your company requires.

Source: Miron-Spektor, E., Erez, M., Navehj, E. 2011. “The effect of conformist and attentive-to-detail members on team innovation: Reconciling the innovation paradox”. Academy Of Management Journal, Vol. 54, No. 4, 740-760.

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You Can't Prove the Future - You Can Only Create ItRoy Luebke is an innovation expert focused on discovering new, customer-driven opportunity areas to help define the future of a company. He is inspired by knowledge and learning, and applying structured tools and methods at the crossroads of strategy and innovation to achieve business growth.

Roy Luebke




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  1. Ed Bernacki on August 22, 2014 at 8:54 pm

    Hi. I saw this article and found it interesting as it reflects the paradox of this work. Who ever said those who create ideas should implement them? We need to keep raising the concept over and over again.
    Here is a case study where I changed a Canadian Govt public sector report.
    Ed Bernacki

    Case Study – Creating awareness of cognitive diversity in Government Recommendations – Canada 2010

    The Canadian Comprehensive Auditing Foundation (CCAF) was asked to develop a discussion paper on innovation in the public sector. The initial working title was: Taking Chances: Finding Ways to Embrace Innovation, Risk and Control in the Public Sector Organisations.
    Ed Bernacki was asked to review the document. He critiqued a comment made a senior government official who suggested that the problem with innovation is people who create the ideas and never seem to implement them. Ed challenged the implications of this comment.
    The final report changed the comment and referred to the work of cognitive diversity:

    “Some may believe that a single project manager and team should conduct innovative work from the original idea to the end state. This comforting idea is likely wrong. Because people have different thinking and problem solving styles, some are well suited to idea generation, while others excel in the follow-through required to complete a task. Innovative thinkers tend to question everything, have a strong desire for change, and excel in generating ideas.
    But once the idea moves to a project design and testing stage, innovative thinkers should give way to people who solve problems in a more adaptive way. In effect, project managers should engage both innovative and adaptive styles of thinking – but in different mixes at different stages of the innovation cycle. If the mix is wrong, the project will be stressed.”

    A reference was made at the back of publication:

    “See M.J.Kirton, Adaption-Innovation: In the Context of Diversity and Change (Routledge, New York: 2003). Kirton’s Adaption- Innovation theory posits that people approach problem solving in two distinct ways: adapters thrive in a structured setting, while innovators do well with less structure and boundaries. (This goes to the heart of how peoples’ brains process information. It is important to note that no individual fits one model or the other, rather any person can be positioned on a continuum between the poles.)
    Managers should recognize that innovation depends on finding and mixing people who are strong in both of these problem-solving approaches to varying degrees. Innovative thinkers are often willing to work with little structure and much ambiguity. Adaptive thinkers prefer precision, reliability, discipline, safety and soundness. No creative idea can progress successfully without the problem solving abilities that both of these thinking styles bring to the table.
    CCAF thanks Ed Bernacki for drawing our attention to the importance of this factor.”

    Ed Bernacki

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