#240 from R&D
InnovatorVolume 5, Number 10
to Get Innovation
Shalley is associate professor of organizational behavior and
human resource management in the DuPree School of Management,
Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta.
Dr. Locke is professor of management and organization in
the College of Business and Management University of Maryland,
Innovation is a
key method by which organizations gain competitive advantage in
the marketplace. Innovation
requires creative thinking. But
how do you get it? Our
surprisingly simple answer is:
Set goals for it!
theory, developed by Edwin A. Locke and Gary Latham, is the most
thoroughly validated motivation theory in the field of management.
Here’s what goal setting researchers have discovered:
People accomplish more when they’re trying for
performance goals which are both difficult (challenging, even
impossible) and specific (clear) than when they’re trying for
any other type of goal (such as “do your best” or “work
Goals are most likely to be attained when people are
strongly committed to the goals and are given feedback showing
their progress in relation to the goals
People are most likely to set high goals and be committed
to them when they have high self-efficacy (task-specific
Goals regulate action directly by affecting what people pay
attention to, how hard they work, and how long they work
Goals affect action indirectly by motivating people to
discover and utilize task strategies which will facilitate goal
Incentives must not discourage risk-taking, such as trying
for nearly impossible goals
In a series of
studies examining how organizations can structure jobs and the
work environment to stimulate employees to be more creative,
Christina Shalley found that setting creativity goals leads to
higher levels of individual creative performance.
Furthermore, creativity goals can be effectively assigned,
along with other types of goals, such as productivity goals.
But if goals for creativity are not established, and goals
are assigned for other aspects of performance, creative
performance is significantly less likely to occur.
In a recent study, it was found that the highest levels of
creativity occurred when individuals were assigned goals to be
creative, worked alone (free from monitoring and interruptions),
and expected their performance to be evaluated constructively (so
there was both support and accountability).
and Stanley Gryskiewicz obtained similar results from an interview
study they conducted with R&D professionals. They found that a critical factor for high creativity is
management setting clear overall goals while allowing individuals
to have operational freedom in achieving those goals.
Also, they found that low levels of creativity occurred
when it was unclear what was desired by management and no goals
Based on these
research studies, it seems that the best practice to encourage
creativity would be for managers to set clear goals for creativity
and then provide freedom, with appropriate support, for employees
to accomplish their goals. Furthermore,
management can facilitate creativity by providing the right
environment where employees are free to work away from
distractions and where they can expect to receive constructive
feedback on their progress toward goal attainment.
validate what Tom Peters said some years ago in Thriving on Chaos. If
you want more innovation, ask for it.
This advice is not idle chatter.
3M Company, which has a long record of successful
innovation, requires that 25% of each year’s revenue come from
products that did not exist five years ago.
And, usually, they get it.
specifically, how to apply goal-setting principles to the sphere
of creative achievement.
Set clear, hard goals and deadlines for what needs to be
accomplished (e.g., 10 new products in the next year; a new
product that’s better and cheaper than the best of our
competitor’s by the end of the year; 25 significant improvements
in existing products over the next 6 months, etc.).
By defining what you want your employees to accomplish
specifically within an exact time span, you’ve done two things:
helped your employees know clearly what needs to be done
within a certain time frame so that they can strategize and work
accordingly, and also, clarified your thinking on the issue.
Get commitment by making it clear why the innovations are
important (e.g., they increase profits, upgrade employee skills
and competencies, open up new opportunities for company and
employee growth, enhance job security and yield pay bonuses). Since it takes a great deal of hard work to be creative,
without goal commitment you cannot expect to have high levels of
Make sure creators track their progress over time so they
can see if they’re ahead of or behind schedule.
Feedback on goal progress and goal attainment is critical.
However it must be stressed that creative work doesn’t
always proceed in a linear fashion— it often goes in spurts or
fits and starts. Thus,
progress may be rapid at certain times and very slow at others.
Slow progress may be a signal to intensify effort or change
strategies. Therefore, creators should be encouraged, and trained,
in how to gauge their progress on a project and keep themselves on
Specify how performance will be measured and rewarded.
For creative performance to occur, typically some level of
risk-taking is required. Employees
need to know that it is okay to fail (particularly in the
beginning stages of a project), and that risk-taking (within
certain bounds) will not be punished, while creativity will be
Measure performance in terms of results or outputs not
inputs (e.g., time spent). Urge employees to spend whatever time and effort it takes to
get the job done. (At
Microsoft and EDS the younger employees sometimes sleep under
their desks in emergencies).
Creativity sometimes involves bursts of thought, where
trying to keep to the more traditional 9 to 5 work schedule may be
unrealistic and counterproductive.
Essentially, when creators feel a breakthrough has been
achieved (or is about to come), they should be encouraged to go
with it -- continuing until they feel like their ideas and effort
are spent. At other times, it might be best to quit work early and get a
fresh start on the problem the next day.
And still at other times, long hours may be necessary just
to get a grasp on defining clearly what the problem is that needs
to be worked on.
When there is more than one performance goal, rate the
goals as to their importance so that goal priorities are known and
example, if employees are given one goal of creating 10 new
products in the next year, and another goal of reducing costs in
their area by 25% in the same year, are both goals equally
important? If one
goal is achieved (e.g., the reduction of costs) and only 2 new
products are created is that as desirable as attaining the goal of
10 new products in the next year but with only a 4% reduction in
costs in the area? By
having a shared understanding of goal priorities, especially when
there may be some goal conflict, creativity is more likely to
If time and effort aren’t doing the job, urge creators to
try different approaches (e.g., new strategies).
Encourage them to think “outside the square.”
This is especially critical if the goal seems impossible,
because standard operating procedures simply will not work.
Often, it is helpful to provide training in creative
thinking techniques. Another technique that can work is encouraging staff to take
time off from one project, and switch to another for a short
while. The creative
thought process can benefit by incubation (when the mind is not
actively working on the problem but subconscious processes are
still operating). Frequently,
after a period of incubation, individuals will experience a
Inspire and build employee confidence.
Only pick the best people for the toughest jobs and make
sure they know why they were picked.
Assuming the employees are carefully selected and
well-trained, tell them that you believe them to be highly
efficacious and fully expect them to succeed.
Help employees to determine coordination requirements.
If achieving goals depends on cooperation or contribution
of others, then coordination is needed; otherwise, there’s a
potential for conflict. Although conflict, at times, can be beneficial for
creativity, the manager’s job should be that of a goal
manager should help resolve any coordination problems that could
lead to unnecessary or dysfunctional conflict.
Use incentives, but be careful.
Friendly competition between two groups working on the same
task can be motivating; give a reward to the winner.
If both groups have a partial solution, combine their ideas
as appropriate and reward both. Make sure nobody is always in a losing group unless you want
them to quit. If
success is an all-or-none affair (e.g., either it works or it
doesn’t), give bonuses only for success but never punish a good
try, show appreciation for the effort.
If success is on a continuum (e.g., the quality improvement
goal is 150% but they attain only 110%) reward them for getting
close to the goal. Use
recognition in addition to monetary incentives. Use other incentives as well, for example, allowing
outstanding performers to spend time on projects of their own
CEO’s are pressuring R&D groups to make their functions more
practically oriented. Enabling
employees to be creative and innovative is critical in adding
value to the organization. Managers
frequently complain that their creative people are difficult to
manage. This is, in
part, because the creative process is difficult to manage.
But also, creative people tend to be very independent.
Creative people don’t want to be micro-managed, they
desire autonomy, and want to participate and make decisions with a
minimum degree of supervision -- they want to have the opportunity
to test their own ideas. Furthermore,
creative people can easily become bored and distracted.
Goal setting can
serve a critical role in stimulating innovation because goals help
to keep creative people challenged, keep them on the right path,
and provide a sense of purpose -- which, together, should
stimulate creativity. Goals
help direct attention to what needs to get done, and influence
several of the cognitive activities needed for creativity.
For instance, search for viable alternatives must be
focused and not random in order to be effective.
Goals help determine where to search for information and
how to evaluate the information obtained as to its usefulness.
Creative people will respond to assigned goals from
managers as long as they are committed to the goals and empowered
with respect to how to go about achieving the goals.
Creative people need to have a goal to work towards no
matter how impossible or unattainable -- they don’t mind working
hard as long as they are challenged.
Many managers can
relate to the experience of assigning a goal that seemed nearly
impossible and having their creative people work hard and
effectively to attain it. So
managers should assign challenging goals and then step back and
allow employees to decide how to meet them.
Ultimately, if the corporate culture values independent
thinking and risk-taking, supports and rewards hard work and
creativity, and encourages commitment to challenging goals, while
reducing barriers that stand between employees and the attainment
of those goals, innovation should flourish.