Does Traditionalism Help or Hurt Innovation?

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Wharton's Laura Huang discusses her research on the impact of traditionalism on innovation.

The pace of change in today’s business world is so rapid that it seems as if there’s no room for tradition. Innovation is a hungry machine that requires a constant stream of new ideas. But research from Wharton management professor Laura Huang suggests there are situations in which tried-and-true traditionalism can be a help, not a hindrance. She and co-authors Cristina B. Gibson of the University of Western Australia, Bradley L. Kirkman of North Carolina State University and Debra L. Shapiro of the University of Maryland explore the topic in their latest paper, “When Is Traditionalism an Asset and When Is It a Liability for Team Innovation? A Two-study Empirical Examination.” Huang recently discussed their findings with Knowledge@Wharton.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: Your research looks at something you call traditionalism. What does that mean?

Laura Huang: Traditionalism is the tendency to want to do things in the old ways, in the ways that things have always been done. It’s this tendency to say, “Why fix something that’s not broken? If it’s worked in the past, why shouldn’t we keep doing it this way?”

Knowledge@Wharton: You’re looking at traditionalism as it applies to team dynamics when those teams are trying to innovate. What inspired this research?

Huang: Traditionalism is not just a quality of individuals, it’s also a cultural value. Some cultures are more likely to want to preserve the old ways of doing things. Some cultures are much more likely to be innovative and want to try new things. One thing we were looking at was, just from a cultural perspective, are there certain types of people, certain types of cultures that are more likely to want to preserve these old ways of doing things? Now that we’re in an era where innovation and technology, and new ways of doing things are given so much credence, we wanted to see how traditionalism would impact teams that were tasked with innovation exercises or goals.

Knowledge@Wharton: My first thought of traditionalism was someone who has been there forever, someone who is deeply entrenched in a company. What you show in the paper is that it’s not necessarily how long you’ve been there, it’s more of a mindset.

Huang: That’s right. It’s certainly the case that those who are in organizations for a really long time may be those who want to preserve the old ways of doing things. But it’s not always like that. There are definitely individuals who just feel more comfortable with not changing things all of the time. There are other individuals who have a new idea every day or want to change the way things are done. When we think about innovation, we tend to think about it as wanting to do things in a different way. But we found that there is a more complicated relationship between traditionalism and innovation.

“Traditionalism is not just a quality of individuals, it’s also a cultural value.”

Knowledge@Wharton: You break down innovation into two parts for this research: idea generation and implementation. Talk about the difference between those parts and how traditionalism impacts them?

Huang: I think that’s probably one of the more interesting parts of this research, which is that we tend to think of innovation as one big bucket of things, but the skills that are required to generate novel and new ideas are very different from the skill sets that are needed to see whether the idea is a useful one. Can we actually implement this? Can we actually execute this? When we lump these skill sets together, we may be missing out on ideas that are truly innovative. We may be coming up with ideas that are radical and novel but don’t go anywhere because we haven’t thought about how to implement them. Or we may be missing out on some really cutting-edge stuff because we’re thinking too hard about the execution and the practicalities of taking that idea forward.

In this research, we break the two apart, just as lots of scholars have done, to understand what innovation is really about. We find that traditionalism helps in some instances and it hurts in other instances based on what type of innovation you’re trying to bring forward.

Knowledge@Wharton: You tested this both in a company in the aerospace industry and also among MBA students. Once you got those two groups together in their separate field studies, what did you find when they started working on their projects?

Huang: What we found was that diversity is a great thing in terms of generating ideas, having lots of different perspectives, lots of different opinions. People drawing from diverse experiences, diverse functions, things that they have done. But in terms of idea implementation, that functional diversity and experience-based diversity is not always going to be an asset. Because in terms of implementing something, things need to move rapidly sometimes. We need to take things forward, and we don’t necessarily need lots of opinions in order to take something from point A to point B. Traditionalism can actually be an asset in terms of implementing ideas, in terms of thinking about how diverse do we want teams to be in this thought process.

I think the main finding is to think about what type of innovation you’re trying to bring forward and whether you want high average levels of diversity or if you want variants in terms of diversity that you’re looking to bring into the team.

Knowledge@Wharton: You pointed out in this research that a lot of times when innovation fails, it is often because of a team dynamic issue that has nothing to do with the idea. It has everything to do with the people.

Huang: Absolutely. An average of 65% of startups or ventures are failing because of people-based issues. In a business school environment, we spend a lot of time talking about marketing and strategy and financials and accounting. But two-thirds of the reasons why companies fail are because of team dynamics and people issues, and power and status issues, and all of the things that have to do with the people rather than the product or the market or the financials.

“We may be coming up with ideas that are radical and novel but don’t go anywhere because we haven’t thought about how to implement them.”

Knowledge@Wharton: Should companies start testing traditionalism in the way that maybe you did in this study? If not, what else could they do?

Huang: I think it’s more about getting a sense for who your employees are and their individual differences. Traditionalism is certainly an important one, specifically as it relates to innovation because of this focus on new versus old and how we can re-jigger the old to form something new. It becomes a quality that is specifically important. But I think in general when we are forming teams, think about what is the outcome that we want to take out of this team? What is the outcome that we’re expecting this team to produce? We should do our best to form these teams based on those skill sets.

Might this be an instance where diversity of thought is important, versus might it be an instance where diversity is not important? We sometimes tend to confound diversity in terms of gender or race ethnicity with diversity of thought. It may always be good to have diversity in terms of gender, race and those sorts of things, but we sometimes lose the fact that the importance of that is because of the differences in viewpoints and thoughts and experiences. Rather than putting a singlehanded label on something, we should really be trying to link what those business objectives are to how is diversity helping us, how is diversity allowing us to go forward with this?

Knowledge@Wharton: This makes it more complicated to form an ideal team because you’ve got to consider many things that come into play.

Huang: Absolutely, especially in today’s day and age where teams are not always co-located. Sometimes there is diversity in terms of geographic disparities, so forming these teams and thinking about these individual issues is all the more difficult because of these realistic logistical challenges that we face in organizations today.

Knowledge@Wharton: In an ideal world, it would be great to have one group work on idea generation and one group work on implementation. But when you’re looking at traditionalism, is there a way to train employees to think about themselves in terms of this quality and then apply that to create a better team dynamic?

“The skills that are required to generate novel and new ideas are very different from the skill sets that are needed to see whether the idea is a useful one.”

Huang: I think so. I think it’s making people aware of these differences. We have our strengths and we have our weaknesses, and some people are naturally going to be better at the idea generation piece of it. Some people are naturally going to be better at the idea implementation piece of it. To the extent possible, really taking what people are good at and making them great at it is often a lot more effective than taking people’s weaknesses and trying to make them average or good at something.

But there are realistic constraints. When we recognize that we’re putting these teams together, make sure that we know why everyone is a part of this team. Perhaps make sure that people know that we’re bringing you on because we’re really hoping that you’re going to provide this perspective in terms of generating ideas. Or bring somebody else on and say, “We’ve seen you succeed in all of these other projects where you’ve really been able to help us execute and take this idea forward, and we’re hoping that you can help us think about the constraints and the logical ways that we can take this forward.

Knowledge@Wharton: Is there also a hiring aspect to this? Can we ask job candidates certain questions that tease out what part of innovation they may be good at?

Huang: I think you’re touching upon two really important things there. The first is that when we think about organizations and what they’re trying to produce, everybody wants to be innovative. But a lot of these organizations have their bread and butter. They have what they’re good at, and they can’t always just innovate and do new things because they have to maintain that base and that core.  One of the challenges for a lot of these organizations is, how can we continue to maintain our core functionality, our core assets, while still exploring these other areas?

“Taking what people are good at and making them great at it is often a lot more effective than taking people’s weaknesses and trying to make them average or good at something.”

The second piece is really around, how do you bring people in to support not only what we did in the past but also where we’re going in the future? That is where diversity does matter. It’s about hiring people that can help us with what our organizations are doing now but also where our organizations are going in the future. We may not always know where those organizations are going in the future, and sometimes it’s too late to bring people in that are just thinking in one mindset. When we do bring in people with diverse experiences, diverse functions, they’re able to think in different ways that allow us to, as Wayne Gretzky said, skate to where you think the puck is going rather than skating to where the puck is. They can skate to where they think the puck is going.

Knowledge@Wharton: What’s next for this research?

Huang: In general, my research looks at perceptions and cues and how people make decisions. This paper is really taking a look at how this cue, this aspect of this individual dynamic around traditionalism, impacts how we innovate. I’m going to continue taking this forward in terms of looking how entrepreneurs and investors think about innovation and their decisions, and how there are lots of subtle signals and cues that are driving our decisions outside of just the economic factors.

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