A Recipe for Innovation: A Proven Oxymoron

It may seem as though having a researched, data-driven recipe for creating innovation in the workplace is an oxymoron of sorts.  Is there such a way of utilizing quantitative research to enhance such an abstract and free-flowing idea as innovation? A meta-analysis done by Hülsheger, Anderson, and Salgado (2009) showed that there were numerous studies that supported a logical set of methods that managers could use to foster innovation in the workplace.

Innovation itself encompasses two stages: generating new ideas and implementing those new ideas.  Within organizations, work teams usually propose and pursue new ideas toward generation and implementation.  Therefore, innovation researchers have identified several team-level variables that might help or hinder innovation in organizations.  Two team-level categories were used to classify these variables: input and process.  Input variables are those that include team composition and structure, such as team size and team diversity.  Process variables refer to team cohesion and communication patterns, such as vision and support for innovation.

Two centrally important findings for managers came out of this meta-analysis.  The first finding was that the team input variables of goal interdependence, job-relevant diversity, and team size only showed small links to innovation.  The second finding was that the team process variables of external and internal communication, vision, support for innovation, and task orientation showed substantially larger links to innovation.  What exactly each of these variables means will be discussed in more detail in the following sections, followed by how these variables can be used in practice.

Important Team Input Variables

As mentioned above, the team input variables that were related to innovation were goal interdependence, job-relevant diversity, and team size.  Goal interdependence is when individual goals require each other’s completion and was found to be the most influential team input variable for innovation.  Goal interdependence can be achieved through providing collective rather than individual goals, providing group feedback, and linking performance evaluations and rewards to team goals.  Job-relevant diversity refers to the heterogeneity of team members with respect to job- or task-related characteristics.  This kind of diversity may contribute to team innovation because diverse members have a broad range of expertise, skills, knowledge, and backgrounds, allowing for complex tasks to be solved or new products developed through an incorporation of these divergent perspectives.  As team size – or how many members make up a given team – increases, a variety of knowledge, skills, and abilities also increases.  These have been vital to team innovation when a team has to complete difficult tasks.

Important Team Process Variables

The team process variables that were related to innovation were external and internal communication, vision, support for innovation, and task orientation.  Communication, both internal and external, allows individuals to foster social relationships with people outside their core work team.  This increases their exposure to new kinds of information and generates fresh ideas.  Vision and task orientation allow employees to see a clear goal for their team, thus providing an endpoint of how completing their own work could help achieve that goal.  Support for innovation means that employees are free to try out different approaches to solving a problem without fear of repercussions from higher management.  Since they are not afraid to fail, employees are more likely to try out creative solutions to a difficult problem, thus maximizing their chances for an innovative and useful outcome.

Takeaways for Your Practice

To foster an innovative environment, managers should focus on creating a workplace that is open to change and unafraid of errors.  This could include having an incentive program for new ideas.  An innovative environment should additionally have clearly stated, shared, and visionary goals.  Managers can have a meeting each month to clarify these goals for employees, with such a meeting serving the additional purpose of building camaraderie among team members. 

Communication should be of the utmost importance for goal achievement, and networks should be built and maintained within teams, between departments, and between other organizations.  In terms of feedback, employees of all ranks and job-types should strive to find a balance between supporting each other in implementing new ideas and critically appraising each other for future growth.  Employees should be interdependent in reaching their individual objectives, but also have incentives for group accomplishment of goals.  Yearly performance appraisals should, therefore, focus on both individual goals and team-oriented actions.
Based both on your own managerial experience and the information in this article, what else could you do to foster innovation in your own company?  Embrace those creative solutions!

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Hülsheger, U.R., Anderson, N., Salgado, J.F. (2009). Team-level predictors of innovation at work: A comprehensive meta-analysis spanning three decades of research. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(5), 1128-1145.

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