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Challenges Spur Innovation

By Rita Zeidner  6/29/2010
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Dr. Iris Firstenberg, Ph.D. of UCLA.
Photo by Steven Purcell.

SAN DIEGO—Managing in turbulent times is challenging, to be sure. But turbulent times present organizations with a unique opportunity to question long-standing assumptions that get in the way of creative thinking, according to cognitive psychologist Iris Firstenberg.

Presenting during a Masters Series session June 28, 2010 at the Society for Human Resource Management's (SHRM's) Annual Conference & Exposition, Firstenberg, an adjunct professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California-Los Angeles, told her audience that organizational innovation is often stymied by either of two common dynamics: closed thinking—which she called “bounded rationality”—and fear.

Firstenberg described bounded rationality as the limitations of what we all believe to be true. “Twenty percent of perception is based on what’s out there,” she said. “The other 80 percent comes from inside your head.” She challenged her audience to reverse the ratio by breaking down organizational silos that often constrain creative thinking.

She illustrated her point with a real-life case study involving a Mexican cement manufacturer that was notorious for missing deadlines. On the brink of bankruptcy, the company sought advice from outside organizations known for delivering on time and acting quickly, such as FedEx, Domino’s Pizza and 911 emergency assistance. By leveraging outside expertise, she said, the company was able to improve its situation and is now one of the largest and most successful players in its industry.

She encouraged organizations to seek out opportunities to alter contexts, including changing where and how people do their jobs. “Different environments can trigger new ideas,” she said. “Shake things up. Move people around.” 

In addition, organizations might be constrained by the assumption that it is possible for workers to focus on more than one thing at a time. She urged organizations to scrap that faulty notion. She drove home her point with a simple exercise. First, she asked her audience to write down the letters of the alphabet, a task that took about seven seconds. Second, she asked the audience to jot down the numbers 1 to 26, a task which took about the same time. Third, she asked her audience to switch back and forth between the two tasks—1,a,2,b and so forth. Most people took more than a minute to complete the exercise and made many more errors.

“The brain cannot pay attention to more than one thing at a time,” she said. People who try, she said, invariably make more mistakes, take more time and experience far more stress.

Since innovation can be stymied by fear, she recommended that organizations remove the No. 1 obstacle causing fear among employees: repercussions from failure. She praised Cincinnati manufacturer Procter & Gamble for promoting creativity with its philosophy: “Fail early, fail fast and fail cheap.”

“It’s an attitude that says ‘do a lot of small experiments,’ ” she said. “That philosophy promotes an attitude of experimentation.”  

Lastly, she urged organizations to communicate a common sense of purpose and to foster the relationships that support a common goal.

“Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” she said. “You have to engage the head and the heart of every single one of your employees.”

Rita Zeidner is a senior writer for HR Magazine.

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