#128 from R&D Innovator Volume 3, Number 11          November 1994

R&D Creativity: Manager's Relationship with the Researcher is Key
by Raja Basu, Ph.D., and Stephen G. Green, Ph.D.

Dr. Basu is assistant professor of management at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, and director of Educon Inc., an international educational consulting firm.  His research and consulting interests are in leadership, team building, organizational culture, and organizational creativity.  Dr. Green is professor of organizational behavior at the Krannert School of Management, Purdue University.  He writes, lectures, and consults in technology and innovation management, leadership, organizational socialization, and motivation.

Creative output is, and always has been, the seed of organizational affluence and economic growth.  Certainly, the world is more convenient and prosperous because of the creative genius of people like Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers, George Eastman, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, and Bill Gates.  Heretics of their time, they were able to alter our world by the sheer courage of their ideas, and the willingness to translate them into salable products and services.

Although intellectual curiosity no doubt prompted Edison and the Wrights to engineer the electric bulb and the airplane, we believe external motivators can make the creative process even more fruitful.  Among these motivators are material rewards like pay raises, promotions, and overseas travel.  But beyond material rewards, there are other catalysts for creativity.

Our research, conducted in a Fortune 500 company, highlighted several characteristics of the creative process, particularly the way in which project teams can be designed to enhance creativity and serve as a catalyst for innovation.

Favorable Relationships with the Manager

One of our key findings was that R&D personnel are more likely to be creative when they have favorable relationships with their manager.  Why?  Because this relationship confers non-material benefits that enhance researcher creativity.

First, excellent relationships with managers typically yield greater autonomy for scientists and engineers.  In our study, they reported more freedom to try out new ideas, undertake non-routine tasks, and even work on personal projects.  They also were permitted to exchange non-proprietary information with colleagues outside the company which, in turn, fostered innovation.

Second, successful researchers reported greater managerial support, in the form of emotional and administrative assistance, particularly for unconventional and risky projects.  When they faced technical obstacles, these employees also saw their managers as more motivating and encouraging, quicker to act on paperwork and financial requests, and less likely to penalize failure.  Again, we found a strong correlation between relationship quality, managerial support, and process and product innovation.

Finally, R&D personnel with excellent relationships were more committed to the organization; they reported more inner drive, higher work satisfaction, better attitudes towards innovation, and more willingness to engage in activities that would help the organization.  This higher level of motivation and involvement also translated into greater creative output.

What are the implications of this research for team building in R&D laboratories?  First, since good relationships make it physically, emotionally, and politically easier for scientists and engineers to be creative, project leaders and staff must be compatible.  R&D personnel in poorer relationships were less likely to take risks, engage in unconventional thought, and garner resources necessary to the creative process.  In fact, project leaders could do little to motivate scientists and engineers who did not see their managers as allies. 

Second, we may need to sacrifice some technical knowledge for the sake of harmony—since, in the end, individual brilliance means little if team members don’t cooperate.  In that respect, a hot-shot R&D group differs little from a championship basketball team.

Charisma Versus Technical Competence

Our research indicates that effective personal relationships between leaders and members result primarily from three factors, which can be used to select the ideal team. 

First, charismatic leaders forge more meaningful relationships with team members, and thus awaken the best in their reportees.  So it makes sense to ask charismatic people, rather than technical superstars, to lead project teams.  This is not to denigrate the importance of technical expertise, which R&D personnel insisted was important among managers--but not as essential as the ability to inspire, motivate, and energize.

Second, these charismatic leaders are excited, inspired visionaries.  Interpersonal attraction is important even in technologically intensive areas, and these managers create a sense of urgency among the scientists and engineers who report to them.  In turn, these scientists and engineers adopt more positive attitudes towards innovation and the need to be more innovative in the future.  These leaders also foster creativity by generating higher levels of commitment, among subordinates, towards the company.

Third, these team leaders are able to establish strong relationships because they are positive role models:  it’s “hip” to resemble them. 

Finally, some common ground is necessary for the development of relationships.  Our research indicates that team leaders are often more compatible with employees who have similar education levels and beliefs about the dignity of work, the need for growth, and the role of rewards.  Apparently, similarities of work values and education give leaders and subordinates a “common language” on which to base relationships.

Diversity?

Certainly, the above analysis seems to flout the popular notion that diversity is necessary in R&D teams--a notion which has emerged from previous research.  However, we believe this contradiction is more apparent than real, if we understand the multi-stage nature of organizational innovation.  Scientific breakthroughs aren’t valuable to companies until they’re translated into tangible products and services, a process which frequently involves building compromise, ignoring egos, and distributing rewards equitably.  Only when team leaders and members are compatible can we have a climate of cooperation that allows R&D success.

Compatibility doesn’t necessarily imply homogeneity, but it does suggest agreement on fundamental issues, values, and goals.  Otherwise, R&D teams are unlikely to be successful.  It seems, in that respect, R&D is a bit like marriage.

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