Innovation potential is the ability of a person to think in a unique and boundary breaking way. More than just creativity, innovation potential speaks to an individual’s capacity to generate novel and useful ideas that can inspire others and produce growth.
Whether or not someone has the ability to think innovatively is useful in many spheres including in hiring, team-building, strategizing and in achieving an organization's long-term goals. Therefore, fostering practices conducive to strengthening innovation potential in employees is crucial for individual and organizational success.
How is innovation potential linked to innovative behavior?
Before turning to the potential hidden in innovation, it makes sense to consider the best case scenario: innovative behavior that is the result of tapping into innovation potential. Innovation potential is the likelihood that a person will produce particularly innovative results and display particularly innovative behavior.
Innovation potential cannot be measured
A meta-review of innovation indicators by Dziallas and Blind (2018) shows that innovation potential cannot be measured per se, but can only be assessed in terms of its future outcome: the outcome can be good or bad. Therefore, to ensure the outcome is the best possible version, it is necessary to understand who is likely to harbor such outcomes and how to best facilitate the process.
Innovative work behavior is the best case scenario
In management science, innovative work behavior (IWB) is defined as "all employee behavior aimed at the generation, introduction and/or application (within a role, group or organization) of ideas, processes, products or procedures, which are new and intended to benefit the relevant unit of adoption" (De Spiegelaere, Van Gye & Van Hootegem, 2014).
In other words, innovative behavior emphasizes new processes and practices that should benefit and improve the starting point. This could already be considered the best possible version of innovative behavior and corresponds to the five dimensions of innovative work behavior (Tuominen & Toivonen, 2011).
Innovative work behavior has five dimensions
According to this idea, individuals in organizations can be measured according to five dimensions that indicate whether or not the individual exhibits innovative work behavior. These dimensions include:
opportunity recognition - how well are opportunities for growth or change recognized?
generativity - how well are opportunities identified and new ways to tackle them generated?
championing - how well is information on the innovation presented and "sold"?
formative investigations - how well is the implementation of the innovation planned and evaluated?
application - how well is the innovation implemented and the problem solved?
Each of these five dimensions of innovative work behaviour showcases a different aspect of what is typical for people who are considered innovators. The dimensions do not tend to work in isolation but rather reinforce each other (Tuominen & Toivonen, 2011).
The best way to determine how to reach such a level and how to foster the potential to innovate is to turn to the individuals themselves: which traits do successful innovators share?
Which traits characterize innovation potential?
If you want to determine the innovation potential in an employee, a team member or a member of a broader professional group, there are many attributes to look for beyond the ability to think creatively, which seems like an obvious choice.
These traits can be examined using assessments, by personality tests, during a more qualitative interview process, or by examining an individual’s track record on the job. Fortunately, nearly all the factors that are positively correlated with innovation are also organizationally beneficial traits in their own right.
Honest and candid people are more innovative
People who are honest and candid are typically more creative and innovative, perhaps because they are less inhibited (Sellier & Dahl, 2015). Unsurprisingly, people who are open to new experiences are more likely to think in unique, challenging ways (Costa & McCrae, 1992). The Five Factor Model (FFM) also called Big 5 can be used to describe and measure personality traits related to creativity.
Pro-activity and empowerment make an impact
Taking a proactive approach to personal & professional problems is also associated innovation (Jing, Wei, & Jun, 2016). Typically, individuals who see themselves as empowered and capable of determine their own fate are people who use their creativity in impactful, innovative ways (Malik, Butt, & Choi).
Management skills newsletter
Join our monthly newsletter to receive management tips, tricks and insights directly into your inbox!
Brave and self-confident people bring about new ideas
Proposing a new way of doing business, or identifying a problem that has not been recognized before requires a degree of bravery and self-confidence – as a result, risk-taking behavior is positively associated with innovation (Craig, Pohjola, Kraus, & Jensen, 2014).
In addition, innovative thinkers often crave novelty and excitement, and tend to prefer work environments that are dynamic and involve multiple unique tasks (Lu, Akinola, & Mason, 2017). As such, highly innovative team members can become dissatisfied within an organization that does not stimulate them; in organizations and industries where a risks are not well-tolerated, innovative employees may be challenging to work with.
Diversity breeds innovation and paradigm shifting ideas
One of the greatest business advantages of diversity is that it increases creative, paradigm-shifting thinking on a team (Homan et al, 2015). Exposure to a variety of types of individuals tends to boost creativity for everyone involved, though often at the price of increased conflict in the short-term.
Some researchers believe the conflict and discomfort that diversity sometimes introduces contributes to diversity’s innovation-boosting potential (Paulus, van der Zee, & Kenworthy, 2016). Diversity in terms of race, gender, ethnic background, sexual orientation, and disability status are all found to improve creativity and the capacity for innovation with in a team.
Different identity facets help think outside the box
On an individual level, people multiple identities are more likely to think in outside-the-box ways (Gaither, Remedios, Sanchez, & Sommers, 2015). This does not mean that employee must be marginalized in multiple ways – merely that if an individual sees themselves as the member of many different groups, they are more likely to think in a flexible, dynamic manner.
For example, a man who was raised on a farm then lived in a diverse urban area for many years may see himself as having a “city self” and a “country self”; the unique experiences and skills of each unique “self” can be used, when needed, to reframe problems and think creatively about challenges in the workplace.
How to strengthen innovation potential in individuals?
Personality traits are durable and measurable, and they can be nurtured and strengthened. This means that personality is flexible and that certain aspects can be ignited – so to speak – whereas others can be left at bay.
Encouraging autonomy and self-determination
Autonomy is considered one of the basic psychological needs, alongside competence and relatedness. Autonomy is strongly linked to motivation and is a building-block of self-determination theory (SDT) (Deci and Ryan, 2008). SDT posits that people are more motivated to perform well when they genuinely believe they have an impact and can act as they believe is right. In fact, autonomous people tend to engage in creative thinking, deep learning and flexible thinking (Deci, 1972).
This indicates that the stronger the feeling of being able to influence an outcome, the more motivated someone will be, which in turn positively affects creativity, engagement and innovation (see De Spiegelaere et al., 2015). This, however, requires a shift away from micro-management and towards a culture of trust and support instead.
Fostering organizational culture and communication
An organization is the sum of its parts. In other words, the way in which the organization operates has an effect on its employees and vice versa. At its core, organizational culture is a pattern of shared values and beliefs that provides the norms of workplace behavior (Kotter & Heskett, 1992). Organizational culture is key to fostering processes that support innovation (Tellis et al., 2009).
While a lot of power rests with top management to provide an enabling environment, creating an organizational culture that enables performance, trust, psychological safety and good communication depends largely on how employees interact with each other. These factors are interrelated. Good, honest and regular communication positively impacts psychological safety, which helps trust and by extension identification with the organization. The healthier organizational culture, the more room for growth and innovation there is.
Sharing responsibilities in non-hierarchical approaches
Particularly in a VUCA world, there is a shift away from hierarchical organizational models. Instead, ideas of shared leadership and shared responsibilities are gaining more popularity. This has a positive effect on individuals’ potential to innovate: with more responsibility comes more voice, which in turn helps foster innovative behavior.
There are many leadership styles that have non-hierarchical components. Most importantly, there is no one size fits all solution: in fact, research shows that classical transactional leadership has a positive effect on creativity and innovation. Even within the shared leadership model, the leadership style can vary and bring forward different strengths and weaknesses.
Strengthen creative thinking and problem-solving abilities
Arguably, the act of solving creative thinking exercises and tests is a boost for creativity and problem-solving skills, thereby having positive effects on innovation potential. In psychology, creativity is often measured by examining the number of unique responses or solutions a respondent provides to a challenging prompt.
Perhaps the most famous psychological measure of creativity is Guilford’s (1975) “Alternative Uses” test. In this test, respondents are provided with a piece of lined paper, and the instructions to list as many possible uses for an object (typically a brick, but sometimes a paperclip, a newspaper, or another household object) as they can think of in a span of five minutes. The more uses a respondent lists, and the more unusual the uses are, the more creative the respondent is determined to be.
From innovation potential to innovative workplace behavior
Innovation is not a one-time event but is an ongoing process. A useful way to view innovation is by conceiving it as an ongoing practice in which structure and agency converge: an organization’s structure impacts the ability of actors within it to operate, and actors’ ways of interaction and conduct determine the essence and potential of the organization.
When it comes to innovation, this translates to allowing time and room to breathe for measures to take hold. Organizational culture, communication, structures that enable autonomy etc. cannot be implemented in one day. Rather, they are grown characteristics that have the long-term potential to nurture those individual traits that are conducive to innovative workplace behavior. Innovation cannot be forced but must be encouraged to grow, and be provided with space to take root.
Critical appraisal of innovation potential: Solidity rating 3
Based on the empirical evidence for the evidence of innovation potential and its link to innovation, this dossier is assigned a Level 3 rating (based on a 1- 5 measurement scale). A level 3 rating refers to "Measured –Multidisciplinary" with a moderate predictive ability, reliability, and validity. Although elaborate research has been conducted into innovative behavior and innovation indicators, there is little research available on the so-called precursors of such innovation, including individual innovation potential, which cannot be measured directly. The evidence available does show, however, that there is a link between innovation potential and innovative behavior and that there are factors conducive to both.
Key recommendations for professionals
Innovation stems from innovation potential which must be harnessed and encouraged
Innovative workplace behavior is an ideal scenario with multiple facets, all of which must be actively enabled
Personality traits like honesty, pro-activity are conducive to innovation potential, as well as diversity and backround
Innovation potential requires an enabling environment, consisting ideally of autonomy, strong organizational culture and communication, non-hierarchical leadership approaches and creative thinking outlets and stimulation
Innovation cannot be implemented, rather it is grown and therefore requires a holistic approach
References and further reading
Bass, B., & Riggio, R. (2006). Transformational Leadership (2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Costa, P. T., Jr., & McCrae, R. R (1992). Revised NEO Personality Inventory (NEO PI-RTM) and NEO Five-Factor Inventory (NEO-FFI): Professional manual. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.
Craig, J. B., Pohjola, M., Kraus, S., & Jensen, S. H. (2014). Exploring relationships among proactiveness, risk‐taking and innovation output in family and non‐family firms. Creativity and Innovation Management, 23(2), 199-210.
De Spiegelaere, S., Van Gyes, G. & Van Hootegem, G. (2014). Innovatief werkgedrag als concept: Definiëring en oriëntering. Gedrag en Organisatie, 27(2), 139–156.
De Spiegelaere, Stan & Van Gyes, Guy & De Witte, Hans & Hootegem, Geert. (2015). Job design, work engagement and innovative work behavior: A multi-level study on Karasek's learning hypothesis. management revue. 26. 123-137. 10.1688/mrev-2015-02-DeSpiegelaere.
Deci, E. L. (1972). The effects of contingent and noncontingent rewards and controls on intrinsic motivation. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 8, 217-229.
Deci, E. L., Connell, J. P., & Ryan, R. M. (1989). Self-determination in a work organization. Journal of Applied Psychology, 74, 4, 580-590.
Dziallas, M. and Blind, K. (2018). Innovation indicators throughout the innovation process: An extensive literature analysis. Technovation, 80-81( February-March 2019), 3-29.
Gaither, S. E., Remedios, J. D., Sanchez, D. T., & Sommers, S. R. (2015). Thinking outside the box: Multiple identity mind-sets affect creative problem solving. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6(5), 596-603.
Guilford, J. P. (1975). Varieties of creative giftedness, their measurement and development. Gifted Child Quarterly, 19(2), 107-121.
Homan, A. C., Buengeler, C., Eckhoff, R. A., van Ginkel, W. P., & Voelpel, S. C. (2015). The interplay of diversity training and diversity beliefs on team creativity in nationality diverse teams. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(5), 1456.
Jing, L., Wei, W., & Jun, M. (2016). The Relationship of College Students' Proactive Personality, Innovation Ability and Innovation Climate. China Journal of Health Psychology, 9, 011.
Lu, J. G., Akinola, M., & Mason, M. F. (2017). “Switching On” creativity: Task switching can increase creativity by reducing cognitive fixation. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 139, 63-75.
Malik, M. A. R., Butt, A. N., & Choi, J. N. (2015). Rewards and employee creative performance: Moderating effects of creative self‐efficacy, reward importance, and locus of control. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 36(1), 59-74.
Paulus, P. B., van der Zee, K. I., & Kenworthy, J. (2016). Cultural Diversity and Team Creativity. In The Palgrave Handbook of Creativity and Culture Research (pp. 57-76). Palgrave Macmillan, London.
Sellier, A. L., & Dahl, D. W. (2015). The light side of creativity: An honesty mindset can boost creativity. ACR North American Advances.
Tellis, G. J., Prabhu, J. C., & Chandy, R. K. (2009). Radical innovation across nations: The preeminence of corporate culture. Journal of Marketing, 73(1), 3–23.
Tuominen, T. & Toivonen, M. (2011). Studying innovation and change activities in KIBS through the lens of innovative behavior. International Journal of Innovation Management, 15(2), 339– 422.
Wanda works as a researcher at a human rights institute in Austria. She holds an MSc in Political Sociology from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and is currently finishing an MSc in Social Justice and Community Action at the University of Edinburgh. Her research interests revolve around political behaviour, civil society, and organisational sociology. Wanda describes herself as a wanderluster, curious mind and revolutionary at heart!