School of Innovation – 67 Gems of Business Wisdom

School of Innovation  - 67 Gems of Business WisdomSchool of Innovation – An exclusive interview with Professor Adrian Furnham –

Professor Adrian Furnham leads the way with his forthright views on the psychology of business and leadership, backed with a meticulous accuracy in the analysis that supports his provocations, compared with the usual suspects in this area.   A rare breed:  master academic, raconteur, prolific author and columnist.

I have followed Adrian’s work over many years and had the pleasure of sharing a platform with him at the 7th International HR conference in Greece last year.  On returning to London, we set up an interview to get his thoughts on innovative people management strategy and practice, drawing on the past in order to examine the future.  Whilst our interview focused on the people dimension of innovation and HR’s role in that, his thoughts are applicable right across the leadership and management spectrum.

Furnham on innovative people management strategy

AF : One of the problems with the people dimension of innovation is that if HR strategy is not linked to company strategy, it will fail.  Most HR people don’t sit on the board because they don’t deserve to sit on the board a lot of the time.  HR will talk about being strategic but unless that strategy follows the business plan, it will go nowhere.

Professor Furnham discussed the different types of innovation:  Product / technical innovation and internal process innovation.AF: HR people are famous for process and procedures. My feeling is that HR follows rather than leads most of the time.  As a broad exaggeration, most American CEO’s come from marketing, most UK CEO’s come from accounting/finance, because they are the people that really understand the business.  Some HR people do, but more often than not, they ‘tax’ the organisation, which most people don’t like.  They are a cost centre in every sense of the word, not a profit centre.

Some HR people can be very imaginative and innovative at helping to agree restructuring or implementing technology, but nearly always in my experience they are the implementers of other people’s changes.

Furnham on how HR practice helps or hinders high performance

AF : Good HR is if HR makes your job easier, more effective and efficient.  For instance, they help managers select more wisely, so they come up with a simple process that helps you get the people you want, they do a good job.  If they make payroll easier, they do a good job.   But HR are well-known for their strategies which people resist.  The famous example is that of appraisal.  Nearly everybody hates them, because all the systems are designed to punish people who won’t do it as opposed to reward people who will do it.  The HR people get bolshy by putting in excessive demands as to what is required.  Then you get a conspiracy between the manager and the appraisee to ‘knife’ HR – For example : ‘You tick the boxes and I’ll send it off to HR’.  That’s bad news when HR seem to always be imposing things.  The question good HR people always ask is: What effect will this have on the bottom line? Is there any proof that appraisals increase either job satisfaction or productivity?

The problem with performance management is that if you make pay part of it, people think it’s a performance-for-pay system and that’s all it is.  The problem with that is that it makes people very extrinsically motivated.  We’ve known since 1922 that when you can measure the performance of people at work, by and large the top 10% of people produce two-and-a-half times more than the bottom 10%.  The implication is that you should pay the top 10% two and a half times more than the bottom 10% but it never happens like that.  So you go through a lot of pain and suffering for a relatively undifferentiated set of benefits.

HR need to get people to understand that there other rewards at work other than pay – job swaps, training, sabbaticals and so on.  The more intrinsically rewarded you can make jobs, the less there is need for the extrinsic stuff.  It’s why academic staff are so badly paid, because we have so much fun on the job! J

Author’s note : A visit to Professor Furnham’s office is proof positive of this.  I have rarely experienced an office in a university, which just reeks of the idea that work IS serious play!

Furnham on differences between public versus private sector

AF : It becomes much harder to track the link between effort and performance in public sector organisations.  This is because it is difficult to accurately and reliably measure actual outcomes and performance. Sometimes in an attempt to do so some very funny things happen For example I travel to work by bicycle unless it’s very wet when I catch the bus.   Last time I did this, lots of people were putting their hands up to stop the bus but the bus didn’t stop as the driver’s performance is measured on time.  He got his performance measures right – he just forgot about (i.e. ignored) the passengers!  The worry with some measurement is the necessity to find criteria even if they are not relevant to performance.  The private sector is characterized more by risk-taking, innovation and courageous management that the public sector

Furnham on the relative importance of creativity versus innovation

AF : It’s important to start with some definitions.  Creativity is coming up with a novel idea that is also useful.  Innovation is putting a novel idea into practical use.  People say we need more creative people in their organisation.  No, I often argue, we don’t.  Real, as opposed to self-defined creatives are difficult to manage.   You want more creative ideas and innovations in the organisation.  The question is that if you have creative ideas, you need to then innovate the ideas to produce a return on them.

Take, for example, airlines.  The Ryanair boss, Michael O’Leary has changed the world by turning some amazing ideas into everyday practices.  He makes people run onto airplanes because they have no seats booked.

The first airline to introduce beds on planes was Air Philippines.  Other people copied it.  So you see a good idea and then bring it into your organization.  So, you don’t have to be creative.  You have to spot ideas that are useful and will work.   The question is persuading people to do it.  One way is to reward those that follow behaviours that are innovative.  For example, suppose we want people to work on the way to work.  How do we do that?  We give you a laptop and measure how much work you do between 7 am and 9 am.

Furnham on measurement and innovation

I followed on my asking Adrian, whether innovation be measured at all?  If it should, what sorts of measures should be applied to innovation?

AF : The problem with having just one criterion is that you can jump to the criterion. For example:  My bicycle was stolen.  So I went to the Police Station.  The policeman didn’t want to record my complaint because it was a metric he did not like.  Because both he and I knew the crime would not be solved so it would be a black mark against him.  Therefore what he didn’t want to do was record it.  He would like to measure certain types of crime but only ones that are solvable.   Now the worry here is when you have a single criterion, then everybody jumps to fulfill that (and only that) criterion.  If you have multiple criteria then it’s different.  If bus drivers were rewarded for getting there on time as well as how much money they took and how few cyclists they killed, they would drive differently.   So, I think that measuring performance is important, but you have to be careful about the law of unintended consequences.

Furnham on creativity training

AF : The language of creativity-cultivating workshops is particularly interesting. There seem to be five related models:

The muesli model – People need to unblock their creativity. They are in some curious way constipated and unable to let go and express themselves. In this sense creativity courses may be seen as laxatives.

The dominatrix model – Here we are told to unleash our creativity. Somehow one has been bound up, tied down, physically constrained from that most natural and normal of tasks namely being creative. So courses are liberators.

The arsonist model – Creative consultants and trainers aim to spark ideas and light fires. They see people as dry tinder just waiting for the right moment. Their job is to find ways of facilitating fire-setting ideas.

The kindergarten model – The problem appears to be that we have all forgotten how to be playful. Playfulness is apparently not only a lot of fun but it is also very productive. So our trainer helps us regress to a time when we were happy and quite unabashed to draw pictures, sing songs, etc.

AF : Yes – The gaol-liberator model – The problem, you see, is that we have all been boxed in a sort of cognitive gaol that has stopped us…..wait for it…thinking outside the box! And here, our happy consultants throws open the doors of our prison and out pops our creative jack-in-the-box.

PC : So, is there a 6th model?

The talent and perspiration model – Each of the five creativity-cultivation models assume that somewhere and somehow our natural creativity is suppressed. Quite contrary to all that we know about individual differences and human abilities, the assumption is that creativity is not normally distributed: everybody is (potentially) very creative, but I will come on to say more about why creativity may not be a sufficient condition for innovation.

Furnham on innovative leadership

PC : If you were speaking to a large group of CEO’s and Directors seeking to make their workplaces more innovative, what things would you say to them:

AF : The Japanese have this concept of Kaizen – making, continuous, small improvements etc.  The issue is about someone who does the job coming up with a better way of doing things.  It’s not some manager sitting in an office.  It’s the person doing the job.  People should be rewarded for coming up with little ways to make things better.  This also means that you should be allowed to fail.  What we know about successful entrepreneurs is that they’ve all gone bankrupt at least once.  If you want to get an innovative culture you need to put up with failure because you will start something and it will go badly wrong.

Secondly that these ideas need to be put into practice, knowing that some of them will fail and that you are not going to be enormously punished for these failures.

PC : Can you characterise the sorts of companies that are good at innovation?

AF : They will be characterized as being startups, young people, technology / IT – clever  / imaginative people who see work as play rather than  to make money.

PC : What about size?  Does that matter?

AF : Once an organization gets too big it’s really difficult to maintain the sorts of behaviours that are required.   It’s also about the type of organization.  For example, you are not going to find these things in your local council.  They are not selected for it.  They are not rewarded for it.  If anything, they are punished for it.  If you are in sales and marketing organisation, they are up for creative ideas.  If you are in pharmaceuticals, they are creative but it’s much slower and cautious.  If you are in an administrative organistion, by and large its bad news.  People all say they want creativity and innovation, but as soon as they see it, they withdraw.

PC : Can elephants learn to dance?  In other words, can larger enterprise organize things such that they remain nimble and responsive to their customers and markets?  Can you bring any examples to mind?

AF : Yes they can but it takes effort? And may take the dynamism of a person like Steve Jobs. Clearly not an easy person but a determined one who know that in his world the only way to thrive and survive is to innovate all the time and have very high standards.  Young elephants learn better than old ones; and they dance better if there is both joy in the activity and a nice reward for doing so.

Furnham on the future

PC :  Can you say something about HR fads versus those that in your opinion have a sustainable future?

AF : Let me give you an example that is both.  The whole thing about emotional intelligence really took off – it is now manifest in the word engagement.  We used to talk about job satisfaction, then job involvement, then commitment, now we use the word engagement.

We all want engaged staff, because they don’t have to be managed so well, because the joy is in the activity.  What puzzles me is the following.  The emotional intelligence movement say that the emotionally intelligent manager is a better manager – they are able to understand and engage their staff better.  However, the research says that the people who get on in business are able to ‘kick ass’.  What that means that rather than being empathic, they are in some senses the opposite.  What they are able to do is to confront poor performance and there is nothing worse than having a manager who lets everyone off the hook.  I’ve done a study on this.  Do you want your boss to be High on IQ, Low on EQ or High on EQ and Low on IQ?  In other words, do you want them to be smartish and warm or clever, tough and cold?   Well, if you ask men, they say bright, tough and cold.  If you ask women they are a bit divided about this.  The problem comes when an organisation needs tough decisions to be taken and sometimes people with high EQ fail to address the bottom line, in other words the Darwinian nature of the whole thing.

PC :  One problem with EQ is that you can be surrounded by feedback and fail to take the organization forward?

AF : The 360 movement is famous for giving people multi-source feedback but it is only useful if you know what to do with it. Having an insight into what others think about you can be worthless if you don’t know what to do to improve, change or develop.

The best HR managers understand the business and have often had a line role.  They always ask the question “what effect does this stuff have on the bottom line?”   Not “will it make people feel better?” and so on.  That sounds very hard and mean but it’s what you’re in business for.  And all HR is a cost centre or a tax on the organization.

PC : Are there things that leaders can do that will make innovation more frequent and more probable?

AF : I’d say three things.  One of the issues around innovation for leaders is the question of integrity.  Nearly all leaders say they want creativity and innovation and then they punish it.  Some don’t want it at all, they want to be in control.  So, if you want innovation, you have to put up with ideas that will not work.  The Hawthorne experiment was a good example of this.  Whilst you cannot risk the enterprise, you can risk a part of it and be known for open-ness to experimentation and risk taking.

Next, I do think that youth is attractive – Young people are less risk averse, have less to lose and to have a youth mentality is a good approach.  I was with an organization where the average age of the board was 63 – this is not good.  So, look for and hire people that are imaginative and curious.  But expect that some things will not work; and some ideas are simply wacky

The alternative is to come in as number two.  Some organisations are rather good at watching carefully what their competitors do and as soon as they have a success formula, they follow fast and learn quickly.  Words like the agile organisation.  Now the bigger the organisation, the older the organization, the more difficult this is to do.

PC : What is the role of organizational playfulness in all this?  What can leaders do to engender a climate where innovation efforts are balanced by a sense of absorbed fun?

AF : Playfulness is a good word. I search out people with curiosity and courage and ability. And a bit naughty: risk-takers, mavericks. They know about play. And the more you make work like play the more intrinsic motivation you get. I say to people I have never done a day’s work in my life, because I so enjoy what I do, and never want to retire. Despite my puritan up-bringing I think I have a capacity to play.  And I search out those who do likewise.  They know playfulness is paradoxically, the source of many good ideas.

Furnham’s top creativity tips

Given that creativity may be necessary but insufficient for an innovative enterprise, I asked Professor Furnham for his top tips to encourage personal creativity at work, learning and play:

AF : Here are ten simple but important ideas:

  1. Sleep on it:  Come back to problems and issues.  Let them fall fallow for a bit; stew; incubate.  Revisit them when it suits.
  2. Read widely: Talk to all sorts of experts.  Get outside your box. Talk to people who think about things differently from you.
  3. Don’t give up:  Persistence is the key.  Most attempts fail.  Breakthroughs are rare.
  4. Take a Risk: Fear of failure, humiliation, teasing and abuse are natural enemies of creativity.  Go on – play with hunches and tentative ideas.  Break the rules.  Take courage.
  5. Piggy back:  Take others’ work and take it further.  Put things together which do not fit.
  6. Identify peak times and conditions:  Work out when and where you are at your best for idea generation and refinement.  Set aside these times for those activities.
  7. Record your flashes:  Have a place and method to record all ideas – some worth revisiting and incubation.
  8. Build your particular expertise/skill/knowledge: creativity is always skill based.  Get to the cutting edge of your chosen area…..there is no substitute for this.
  9. Question and Probe the obvious:  Take little for granted; turn things upside down; celebrate similarities and differences.

10.  Lighten up:  Be playful; use humour; have a sense of the absurd and the ridiculous.

image credit: Adrian Furnham and Palgrave Macmillan

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Peter Cook is Rock’n’Roll Innovation Editor at Innovation Excellence.  He leads Human Dynamics and The Academy or Rock, and provides Keynote speaking, Organisation Development and Business Coaching. and  You can follow him on twitter @Academyofrock

School of Innovation  - 67 Gems of Business WisdomAdrian Furnham was educated at the London School of Economics where he obtained a distinction in an MSc Econ., and at Oxford University where he completed a doctorate (D.Phil). He has subsequently earned a D.Sc and D.Litt. Previously a lecturer in Psychology at Pembroke College, Oxford, he has been Professor of Psychology at University College London since 1992. He has lectured widely abroad and held scholarships and visiting professorships at, amongst others, the University of New South Wales, the University of the West Indies, the University of Hong Kong and the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He has also been a Visiting Professor of Management at Henley Management College. He has recently been made Adjunct Professor of Management at the Norwegian School of Management.  He has written over 1000 scientific papers and 70 books.  More about his work at

Peter Cook




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