Smith Brain Trust: Can Traditional Thinkers Help Spur Innovation?

SMITH BRAIN TRUST – Conventional wisdom says innovation flows from the minds of mavericks, not protectors of the status quo; and teams comprised of rule-breakers as well as traditionalists are likely to suffer process challenges when their values clash. Such thinking, if true, ought to worry global organizations that rely on people from different cultures to solve complex business challenges. But new research from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business finds that innovation is aided when teams include both traditionalists and forward thinkers from diverse backgrounds.

“Traditionalists place great importance on preserving old ways of doing things,” says Smith School professor Debra L. Shapiro, co-author of a new paper in the Journal of International Business Studies. “They emphasize propriety, thriftiness, conservatism and restraint of actions that might disrupt the social order.”

These cultural values might hinder progress when teams come together to generate novel ideas. But the same mindset turns into an asset during the second phase of innovation, which involves implementation. “Great ideas die on paper without execution,” Shapiro says. “And this is where traditionalists excel.”

Shapiro, the Clarice Smith Professor of Management & Organization, says teams that score high in traditionalism tend to do better at identifying feasible ideas and converting them into tangible deliverables. They also do better at articulating vision, an important aspect of implementation because resources dry up without buy-in from senior leaders.

“Selling behaviors often include upward influence tactics aimed at enhancing the perceived value of creative ideas through rational persuasion with a focus on idea feasibility,” Shapiro and her co-authors write.

Traditionalism typically ranks high as a cultural value in agrarian societies, which partially explains the urban-rural political divide in the United States. Traditionalism also ranks high in Chinese-origin societies, which include Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and mainland China. But Shapiro and her co-authors warn about making assumptions based on demographics. “Within any nation or group — and not only between nations and groups — there is variance in cultural values,” they write.

To assess the extent to which varying levels of traditionalism across team members affect team innovation, the authors conducted two studies. First, they collected data from 266 engineers working on 56 teams in the aerospace industry. As part of this study, team members answered surveys that assessed, among other things, the importance they place on the cultural value of traditionalism.

“Although our focus is on cultural values, rather than demographics, the sample was diverse in terms of age, tenure, functional background and nationality,” the authors write.

In a follow-up study the authors collected data from MBA students doing a team project in the United States.

Both studies found, as the authors predicted, that teams with greater idea generation (the first phase of innovation) tended to have more (rather than less) diversity in traditionalism, and teams with greater idea implementation (the second phase of innovation) tended to have a higher average-level of traditionalism. Also as predicted, both studies found that greater variance in traditionalism among team members tended to fuel debates, discussions and disagreements that enhanced the teams’ idea generation but impeded the teams’ idea implementation.

An astute manager, therefore, might create separate teams for idea generation and implementation. But Shapiro says such an approach is not usually feasible. As a variation, a manager might adjust team composition when moving from one phase of innovation to the next.

Read more: When is traditionalism an asset and when is it a liability for team innovation? A two-study empirical examination is featured in the Journal of International Business Studies.

This article was first published on the Smith Brain Trust on March 19, 2019