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Vici: conquering creative challenges

Date:30 August 2022
Professor Bernard Nijstad (photo: Reyer Boxem)
Professor Bernard Nijstad (photo: Reyer Boxem)

Bernard Nijstad, professor at the department of Human Resource Management & Organizational Behavior, received a prestigious Vici grant by the Dutch Research Council (NWO) in 2016. The grant enabled him to delve deep into the topic of creativity and study how people come up with creative ideas and explore how creativity can be man-aged within organizations in such a way that it can actually be used to create profitable innovation. As his Vici project comes to a close, he shares his main findings and looks to the future.

Vici project: background

“The Vici project was about creativity and innovation in organizations. It is clear that these are related phenomena: creativity refers to the generation of new and useful ideas and innovation to their actual implementation in new products or processes. However, the scientific literature about creativity and innovation are very separate. The idea behind the Vici project was that creativity and innovation are related phenomena that operate across different levels of analysis, and are characterized by important tensions. For example, at the individual level, we know that creativity benefits from freedom and autonomy, but also sometimes from pressure and constraints. At the team level, we know that teams must cooperate to be creative, but also that some conflict and friction within the team can be good. And at the organizational level we know that organizations must exploit their current capabilities, but must also develop new ones.”

Individual level findings

“Gerben Tolkamp, one of the PhD students who worked with me in this project, examined creativity-relevant processes at the individual level. In one study, in press with the Journal of Business and Psychology, he looked at how freedom - in the form of employee autonomy –  and pressure – in the form of high supervisor expectations - are related to different creative activities that individuals perform, and how these activities are, in turn, related to creative outcomes. Gerben found that autonomy stimulated creativity because it leads employees to engage more in problem construction. Autonomy creates ownership of problems, and this leads employees to think more deeply about them. In contrast, external pressure was mainly associated with the production of ideas, but not with problem construction. Engaging in problem construction, in turn, was especially important to achieve radical creativity, ideas that are very different from previous ideas, rather than only incremental creativity, which refers to small adaptations of existing ideas.”

Team-level creativity

“Suqing Wu, another PhD student who was part of the project team, worked on team-level creativity. She examined creative role differentiation. Different people in the team may focus on different creative activities: one member may focus on problem construction, another on idea generation, and a third on idea implementation. In an interesting study, which we have just submitted for publication, Suqing examined this in a hackathon setting involving teams that had to generate IT blockchain solutions for societal problems in a 48-hour timeframe. She found that high functional diversity in teams – with members having different areas of expertise - was associated with creative role differentiation. Yet, this was only the case when team members had a very good idea of who was good at what. In turn, role differentiation was positively associated with performance in this high-pressure context: teams that had higher role differentiation were ranked higher in the hackathon contest.”

Creativity-to-innovation

“Bart Verwaeren, the postdoc who was part of my team, and I examined the creativity-to-innovation relation. We found that the relation between team creativity and team innovation depends on the market conditions under which an organization operates. In dynamic markets, characterized by quick changes in technologies, products and customer preferences, this relation was actually weaker than in less dynamic markets. In dynamic markets, teams were relatively innovative but this was not dependent on their own, internal creativity; in less dynamic markets, teams were only innovative when they were also highly creative. Market competitiveness, in contract, had the opposite effect. The relation between creativity and innovation was especially strong in highly competitive markets, but less strong in less competitive markets. Apparently, high market competitiveness helps teams to turn their ideas into innovations; as if they use all available ideas to beat the competition. We also found that having a shared vision in an organization may be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, having a shared idea of important goals is good for the creativity and innovation of employees, especially when an organization also clearly communicates that creativity is desired and appreciated. However, we also find that a shared vision constrains managers in their explorative behavior, such as finding new customers and developing new competencies, because they make less use of the creative input of their employees.”

Implications

“This research project has highlighted that managing creativity means managing tensions. Creativity inherently involves some tensions. It requires novelty, variety, experimentation, but also usefulness, convergence and eventual implementation. It requires deep thinking about a problem, but also that something is eventually accomplished. It is about harnessing diverse points of view, but also about achieving a common goal. To some degree, this involves stimulating – rewarding and encouraging - apparently contradictory behaviors.

The project has also made clear that we should not equate creativity and innovation, but should manage the relation between creativity and innovation. An idea is not an innovation, and many creative ideas are never implemented. Also, sometimes internally generated creativity may not be very useful for innovation, for example because ideas are readily available in the market and there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Therefore, it is important to recognize when creativity is needed and when it should be used to innovate, and when not. This is what I mean by saying that the relation between creativity and innovation also needs to be managed.”

Impact

“Many of the important societal issues that we face require creativity and innovation. It is clear that some of the major problems and challenges in the past, for instance high mortality rates due to diseases and communication over long distances, were solved through creativity and innovation. It is likely that our current problems will also benefit from innovation. There is an important caveat, though, which is that innovations often solve some problems, but may also create new ones. For example, although solar panels reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, the production of solar panels takes much energy and resources. In a new interdisciplinary PhD project we will look into this, and propose that innovation does not always need to involve the introduction of something new, but may also involve to quit doing something.”

Looking to the future

“I already mentioned the idea that innovation can also imply quitting something. We are going to investigate the idea of subtractive change - or subtractive innovation. More in particular, a recent paper found that people have a clear tendency to solve problems by adding something, and this is called the ‘additive bias’. We would like to find out under which conditions people - and organizations - are likely to have a weaker additive bias, and also consider subtractive change. I believe that this could be important for the future of our planet.”