Innovation demands that we escape the echo chamber

Frederik Anseel discusses the risks of finding yourself in an echo chamber and why feedback is useless if staff are in the wrong place to digest and respond to it.

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An untapped but possibly crucial key to creativity and innovation is seeking external feedback on new ideas from a diverse set of people.

But even though getting out of the comfort zone has become useful for entrepreneurs – who have realised that innovative products and services come from quickly engaging with potential customers to test ideas and get feedback – being innovative is not just for start-ups. It has become a mantra in all organisations.

To prevent potential disruption by outsiders, companies are calling on the innovative potential of all of their employees, encouraging them to come up with breakthrough ideas. This has often been lauded as a hallmark of a successful company remaining competitive, but getting employees involved and come up with radical, innovative ideas has proven tough.

Employees often do not dare to speak up if they have good ideas. They may also become demotivated if they feel that no one listens to their ideas or picks up their product innovations.

Previous research has shown that the way to develop employee-driven innovation is to nurture a climate of psychological safety and supportive leadership, where people are not worried that their ideas might be ridiculed and trust their managers to be supportive.

However, these strategies focus on the motivation and nurturing climate in the organisation to keep employees engaged in the innovation process. They do not help people much with improving the quality of the ideas.

Organisations most value radical new ideas that can disrupt entire business models. But even incremental innovations that change how a service is delivered or small tweaks that make the production process more efficient can be valuable to the company.

The way to help employees get better at coming up with innovative ideas seems deceptively simple: get out of the office.

Sounding out

My new study at King’s Business School, led by professor Roy Sijbom from the University of Amsterdam, provides evidence for a particularly successful strategy: get employees to seek feedback from diverse sources, including friends, family, customers, suppliers and office colleagues. It reduces the impact of one of the main risks in developing new ideas, namely that people become stuck in the echo chamber of their own thoughts and biases.

The problem is we all have a natural tendency to seek confirmation for how we see things. It is something that I have seen through years studying the motivating principles that determine why and how people contribute to an organisation’s success.

“Feedback should not only be sought on new business ideas outside company walls, but it is useless without time to act on it”

Repeatedly, employees playing around with new ideas seek feedback from allies and colleagues with similar ideas, confirming pre-existing assumptions. This sort of self-reinforcing environment typically does not help create innovative ideas.

We even see it on social media. People seek out connections on Facebook and Twitter with similar backgrounds and profiles. The risk in doing this is that you see the same information over and over, until you are convinced that there is nothing else out there. That is not how innovation works.

A recent study published in MIT Sloan Management Review suggests employees with a diverse Twitter network – one that exposes them to people and ideas they do not already know – tend to generate better ideas. People need to be challenged in their views and conceptions to become creative. Hence, it is imperative to get out of offices and seek different input.

Our study examines this strategy in two very different contexts, looking at over 1,000 people working in consulting and almost 200 in healthcare. Exactly the same patterns emerged in both.

The findings were published in the Journal of Organizational Behaviour. These results provide evidence on how organisations can create environments that will help or encourage people to seek, as well as integrate, different views to come up with better ideas and be more innovative.

Wall of sound

One noteworthy finding is that we observed this pattern in a healthcare setting, with most of the participants being nurses. Many people would not consider this the best setting to study innovation and may not expect nurses to be creative.

But creativity is essential and occurs daily in interactions between the patient and carers.

For example, we observed that participants in the study frequently make suggestions to improve work schedules, install new healthcare interventions, adjust procedures for specific patients – including patients’ transport within the hospital or improving the transfer of patient information from one carer to another.

The crux is feedback should not only be sought on new business ideas outside company walls, but it is useless without time to act on it. We found that there was no effect of seeking external feedback if people were under constant time pressure.

Managers who demand constant action from their teams therefore prevent new ideas from being generated and implemented. For feedback to spark creativity, employees must work under adaptable performance standards and have the time to digest fresh suggestions.

Under these conditions, we found that creative performance increased exponentially, a pattern seldom seen in academic studies.

Essentially, people need the opportunity to consider and reflect. It might be the case that employees are successful in seeking feedback from a variety of sources, but if context hinders them from giving it attention, the fact that the feedback is from diverse sources is less important because it is less likely used. This is a conundrum for most feedback interventions.

Learn to listen

What about when people are given feedback but they do not change their behaviour and do not improve their performance? The reason lies in psychology. Feedback is not easy to digest.

People need to get over their immediate emotional reaction to go on and deeply process the feedback. This means asking what the feedback means, how it can be used to improve things, and how it can be reconciled with what others have said.

“Creativity is not just a task exclusively reserved for typical creative occupations like engineers or R&D professionals”

The combination of getting out of the everyday environment and avoiding time pressures means that feedback can be fully used. Simply, feedback will only enhance employee creativity if the work environment allows and encourages this.

In terms of how can organisations start putting this into practice, one option is for companies to set up feedback workshops to encourage employees to reflect and to equip them with strategies on how to incorporate feedback into their daily work.

Managers should also motivate their employees to cultivate relationships with potential feedback sources both within and outside the organisation, as well as providing the vital time to process any opinions obtained. The result is a work environment that encourages motivation and opportunity.

After all, creativity is not just a task exclusively reserved for typical creative occupations like engineers or R&D professionals. In fact, employees in most occupations at any level might exhibit some creativity by providing ideas for improving the company’s existing practices or their immediate tasks.

The notion that obtaining feedback on ideas is essential for increasing creativity is deeply rooted in society. Entrepreneurs look to potential customers, academics attend conferences for feedback on their research results, and more companies are realising the innovation potential of their employees.

But the implicit assumption is that individuals who have obtained feedback will also use it. It is about time we recognised measures need to be in place to make that true.

Frederik Anseel is professor of organisational behaviour and vice dean of research at King’s Business School

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