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Amid technological turbulence, teams willing to learn and reorganize innovate best

Xiao Ping Chen

Xiao-Ping Chen

These are turbulent times for anyone attempting to innovate, as fast-emerging technologies disrupt every aspect of modern life. So, it’s no surprise that corporations are more reliant than ever on their research and development, marketing and consultancy teams to gain some competitive edge.

Such teams, though, may find themselves unable to innovate successfully if they cling to the old rules of engagement, according to new research by Xiao-Ping Chen, a professor of management and the Philip M. Condit Endowed Chair in Business Administration at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

Chen’s study finds that teams of knowledge-workers must be willing to learn about emerging technologies and to redistribute power to members with relevant expertise, regardless of their experience.

This works best in an environment of autonomy and empowerment.

“When teams are allowed a high degree of autonomy and discretion within the organization,” Chen says, “they are better able to align the power dynamic in response to changes in the value of expertise and knowledge caused by external technological turbulence. This, in turn, promotes team innovation.”

Learn + adapt

To learn how innovators can best cope with external technological disruptions, Chen and her co-authors—Tingting Chen of Lingnan University, Fuli Li of Xi’an Jiaotong University, and Zhanying Ou of Guangzhou University—examined teams of knowledge-workers who provided new product development, marketing and consulting for a variety of organizations.

They first discerned whether these teams recognized the challenges in the outside technological environment. These challenges could include new social media, telecommunications, cloud computing, machine learning, mobile apps—just about any emerging or evolving technologies that could impact their ability to innovate.

Then the researchers measured to what extent the teams were willing to learn new skills and install a new power structure that could shift authority from traditional leaders to team members with the greatest knowledge of the technological landscape.

Finally, they surveyed higher-level supervisors to validate the success of each team to innovate.

What they found was a clear causal relationship: teams that dedicated themselves to learning and reinvented their structure around the perceived external challenges found success.

“Teams that perceived the external turbulence and made internal changes to address this created more innovative products and ideas,” Chen says. “There is a causal link, with team autonomy as a catalyst. If you perceive turbulence but lack autonomy to make changes, innovations are hard to come by.”

In practice

Chen says that organizations should identify the teams most essential to navigating the ever-changing technological landscape. These could be teams charged with research, new product development, sales, marketing, even manufacturing.

Within these critical teams, Chen advises leaders to foster a shared understanding of the challenges created by the changing environment. They also should facilitate the learning of new knowledge from external sources. And they should endorse and facilitate the realignment of power, encouraging team members to reduce their dependence on established team experts and the old ways of doing things.

This is best accomplished through a highly autonomous and empowering work environment.

“If we want our knowledge teams to be successful, their power structure needs to be flexible,” Chen says. “Once an autonomous climate is established, knowledge-worker teams will be able to effectively manage their processes to meet the challenges of the external environment.

“Knowledge expertise is paramount in these kinds of teams. Even if some of the members are young and naïve, we should not only let them participate in the decision-making, but value their input.”

In other words, appreciate your Millennials.

Innovate or die: How should knowledge-worker teams respond to technological turbulence?” is published in the November 2018 issue of the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.