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  • 16th Apr 2024

Why Hiring Creatives Won’t Solve Your Innovation Challenge

Remember when phones were just for calls? Now, they’re our cameras, entertainment hubs, personal assistants, and more. The smartphone revolution ​​is a prime example of overcoming a cognitive bias called functional fixedness. This bias limits our ability to see alternative uses for familiar objects, like phones, and can act as a barrier to innovation. 

Innovation and creativity aren’t just desirable; they’re essential for business success. By fostering a culture of innovation, businesses gain a competitive edge, ensuring they stand out in crowded markets and stay ahead of evolving trends. 

Take the contrasting examples of Kodak and Netflix.

Kodak’s journey from industry giant to bankruptcy serves as a stark reminder of the dangers of rigid thinking. Former CEO George Fisher’s admission that the company was entrenched in the “Kodak business, not the picture business” sums up their fatal flaw: failure to adapt. On the other hand, Netflix is an example of continual reinvention. From mailing DVDs to streaming and now content creation, it’s a textbook example of staying ahead of the curve.

So, how can you help your teams innovate and ensure that you don’t fall behind? 

While creativity is often perceived as an individual trait, the influence of the workplace environment on shaping behaviour and fostering innovation is arguably even more critical. After all, we can all fall prey to biases and mental shortcuts (like functional fixedness) that inhibit creativity and innovation. By understanding how the workplace environment and routines influence behaviour, you can shape the environment to cultivate habits that encourage creativity, problem-solving and innovation in your teams.

There are a number of targets for using behavioural science to optimise for creativity. Here are two small examples of workplace habits or routines that you can reshape to nudge your teams towards innovation.

1: Using framing strategies to encourage innovation in your teams

In a 2022 study, two groups of participants ran a virtual lemonade stand. One group was tasked with maximising profits, the other was encouraged to focus on their strategy. The idea was that drawing attention away from profit would allow the second group to be more innovative. The result? Both groups were equally conservative. Both of the ways in which team objectives were framed jeopardised innovation. 

Whether the focus was on profit or strategy, both groups were made aware of their output and their attention was drawn to risk. We know that people are prone to risk aversion, and what’s more risky than trying a novel approach when you have a tried and tested ‘safe’ strategy available to you? 

When trying to innovate, broadening the solution space is critical. A key way to do this is to lift constraints and blockers for your team to encourage out of the box thinking. If you want staff to truly innovate, lower the risk involved in creative tasks through framing. You could:

  • Tell staff that no one will see the output of the session unless they have an idea they would like to share
  • Tell staff to innovate under imaginary conditions, for example if they had unlimited resources 
  • Tell staff that they have to come up with at least one ‘bad’ or different idea for how to solve a problem.

These framing strategies can help staff generate diverse ideas for potential solutions. In a second step, every business will of course need to then bring the ideas back into reality. Prioritisation along key criteria that contain both measures of risk and potential for ground-breaking innovations can help infuse pragmatism into new ideas and visions.

2: Structuring meetings, workshops and brainstorming sessions to overcome common biases 

Collaboration sessions are rife with opportunities for a number of cognitive biases to play out. For example, initial contributions to a discussion can strongly sway the opinion of the group. This means that whoever speaks first can have an outsized impact on the outcome of a group decision. Research also shows that when people share opinions that align with the majority, those opinions are reinforced and become firmer. This effect is magnified when those views are shared by someone in a position of authority, such as a leader. 

During collaboration, social conformity, confirmation bias and groupthink can prevent the sharing of outlandish suggestions that deviate from business as usual, which are an important part of the innovation process. Here are some new habits you can introduce to help your staff overcome these biases:

  • Have the most junior person share their ideas first to prevent them from being influenced by the opinions of their superiors. As a leader, you can also conduct an audit of your question-to-statement ratio and, if needed, ask more questions to prevent your team settling on a solution that is too heavily influenced by your opinion.
  • Conduct a Red Teaming session. This involves allocating members of your team to be critical and poke holes in a solution or idea. In a military context, Red Teaming is used to help identify weaknesses in a strategy or defence. In the workplace, it can help you to tackle groupthink by creating the psychological safety required to express dissenting opinions.
  • Introduce ‘Think Groups’ as an antidote to the social pressure to conform during decision-making. A play on the term ‘groupthink’, Think Groups are used for providing anonymous ideas, so they can be assessed purely on merit. One way to implement this is to use the anonymous features of collaborative documents (such as Google Docs). Team members will be more willing to share ideas that might go against the grain and more willing to provide feedback on others’ ideas when they don’t know who raised them.

Behavioural insights offer powerful strategies for shaping an organisational environment that fosters creativity and innovation

The power of behavioural insights is that small changes can have an outsized impact on our behaviour, and that includes creativity. If you want to create an innovative workplace, it is critical that you look at your workplace environment. That includes the social environment, which is filled with habits, routines and biases that have a bigger influence on behaviour than you might think. 

The two sets of strategies shared in this article are just the tip of the iceberg – there are many more opportunities to embed behavioural science into the way you structure your workplace to bring out the best in your teams. For example, we worked with the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) to deliver a compressed behavioural insights project in the form of a 5-day-long Empowerment Academy. The Academy focused on changing the habits and routines used to address staff problems. Rather than focusing on adjusting leadership styles or bringing leaders into a room to develop solutions, the Academy supported 28 teams across the MOD to identify barriers and develop their own solutions. Over 90% of participants reported that they would implement the recommendations they developed.

Want to learn more?

Get in touch with us to learn more about how our global team of experts can help you shape your workplace environment to foster creativity and innovation. If you’re based in the UK, you can also join our one-day executive programme in behavioural science for business leaders on 23 May 2024.