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More demanding targets make employees more innovative – and they actually enjoy it

Datum:17 oktober 2018
Setting the bar high helps employees to enjoy their work, and actually enables them to be more creative
Setting the bar high helps employees to enjoy their work, and actually enables them to be more creative

If you want your company to become more innovative, it makes sense to set demanding targets for your employees. Setting the bar high helps employees to enjoy their work, and actually enables them to be more creative. It also pays to create a culture in which creativity is expected, supported and rewarded. Line management plays a vital part in this regard.

These are just some of the many remarkable results obtained from our Innovation Scan. In the first half of 2018, we carried out intensive surveys among 23 medium-sized organizations based mainly in the north of the Netherlands. In this blog, we present the initial results of these unique surveys.

In-depth survey from top management to the shop floor

The Innovation Scan gives organizations a grasp of their actual creative and innovative abilities and of the underlying factors involved. The organizations surveyed ranged from IT companies and media companies (e.g., The Factor.e, various departments within KPN, and NDC Media Group) to technology companies (e.g., Resato, DMT, and Innocore), construction (e.g., Mobilis) and archaeology (RAAP).

What makes this type of survey special is that data is collected throughout the company, from top management to the shop floor and everywhere in between. In addition to showing how management views creativity and innovation, this reveals employees’ feelings about these issues. The two groups can sometimes be radically different in this regard. To date, 23 organizations have participated in the Innovation Scan. In the course of this work, we have collected data among 25 top managers, 25 middle managers, 14 HR managers, 216 line managers, and 1,476 employees. Our initial conclusions are presented below

1. Rose-tinted spectacles at the top?

We asked top managers about the level of creativity in their organization. We also asked line managers, such as team leaders, to assess the creativity of their employees. When we then compared the responses of these top managers and line managers, we found that their assessments did not match. Top managers were more positive than line managers about the organization’s perceived creativity. In addition, the top managers’ views bore little or no relationship to what the line managers saw on the shop floor.

The responses to questions about exploration and exploitation showed a similar picture. Exploration is all about opening up new avenues. This can involve experimenting with new products and services, for example, or seeking and seizing new opportunities. Exploitation, however, involves improving the aspects that already work well. This may involve higher efficiency targets, or relatively minor improvements to existing products and services. In this regard, top managers said that their organizations were roughly equally focused on both exploration and exploitation. But when we asked the line managers about this, things seemed a little different. On average, they tended to feel that there was a greater emphasis on exploitation than on exploration.

Do some (or all) top managers view the world through rose-tinted spectacles, causing them to overestimate their organizations’ innovative strength? Or, is it just that they are aware of things that their sub-managers or subordinates cannot properly assess? One thing that is clear, at any rate, is that top managers do not base their assessment of the organization’s creativity and innovation on the average level of creativity or innovativeness among their employees and managers.

2. Nothing motivates people quite as much as demanding targets

One pivotal finding of research into creativity is that, as people become more intrinsically motivated, they also become more creative. Intrinsic motivation means that you do the job because you enjoy it and because it gives you satisfaction. This, in turn, ensures that people are motivated to think creatively and to do so for longer time periods, even if their creativity does not immediately yield any results. But, what triggers intrinsic motivation?

Rather paradoxically, the data obtained from Innovation Scans show that employees’ intrinsic motivation actually increases if the external targets are more demanding and if they are required to be creative. It seems that more demanding targets help employees to enjoy their work, and actually enable them to be more creative. In short: if you want more creativity among your employees, don’t set up a cosy space for brainstorming activities. Instead, just demand creativity from your employees – they’ll actually enjoy it

3. The organizational culture makes a difference

The Innovation Scan reveals how organizational culture can influence the creativity of managers and employees. The results highlight at least two ways in which this can happen. They also show that line managers (e.g., team leaders) are very important in this regard.

The first situation involves a culture where creativity is encouraged and expected. Here, both managers and employees feel there is more support for creativity. For instance, they see that creative work is encouraged and appreciated. This, in turn, leads to more creative behaviour. The second situation involves a policy in which creativity is demonstrably rewarded and acknowledged. This approach helps to boost the intrinsic motivation of managers and employees. As described above, this then results in increased creativity.

The role played by line managers in this regard is particularly interesting. It appears that organizational culture is passed on via line managers. A culture of creativity boosts the line managers’ intrinsic motivation which, in turn, leads to higher intrinsic motivation among their subordinates. So, it pays to create a culture in which creativity is expected, supported and rewarded.


Top managers and employees do not always perceive creativity and innovation in the same way. Despite this, it is essential to create a culture in which the importance of creative, innovative and cooperative thinking permeates the entire organization. A useful first step in this direction is to help organizations appreciate their own capacity for creativity and innovation. The Innovation Scan can be of great assistance in this regard.

About the Innovation Scan

The Innovation Scan is funded by The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). It is free of charge, and is available to medium-sized organizations (with a workforce of roughly 40 to 1,000) in the profit and non-profit sectors. Participating organization will receive reports and have free access to activities such as workshops. The data gathered will be incorporated into the reports issued to participating organizations. It will also be used for the purposes of scientific research.

You can register by completing the form at or by contacting the researchers involved:

  • Bernard Nijstad: b.a.nijstad
  • Dr Bart Verwaeren: verwaeren