The trick for building innovation bench-strength

There has been much discussion lately about disruptors, present and future, to the hospitality industry and what this means for leaders and strategic planning.

What measures should an organisation take to position itself to compete in this ‘continuously disruptive’ environment? A quick answer that comes to many is ‘better use of technology’ – to digitally transform the business. However this begs a more fundamental question – does your organisation have the appropriate talent to drive this transformation?

Today’s definition of ‘talent’ must expand beyond salient and traditionally-valued characteristics such as ‘emotional intelligence’, ‘behavioral integrity’, ‘resilience/grit’, ‘humility’, and ‘service orientation’ to include ‘innovative thinking’. How can we find talent who are actively engaged with, continuously exploring, and adapting to their surroundings? What is this characteristic called and most, importantly, how can we identify it? Experts in the area of work psychology have indicated that this specific ability is increasingly critical for individual and organisational success.

There are examples of innovation we can point to in the hospitality industry – and there will be more to come. Some of these innovative practices revolve around the use of technology (mobile check-in), others around food and beverage concepts (ethnic pop-ups), and even others around sources of finance (crowdfunding.) Some companies will outsource their “innovation” to one of many groups out there who specialise in thinking out of the box and reaching the millennial demographic For example, Farenheit 212, engaged by Marriott to breathe new life into its food and beverage offerings. YOTEL, an already innovative hotel concept, brought innovation into the development phase for its San Francisco property with its strategic partner, Synapse, using crowdfunding for a portion of its equity raise. This was an innovative way to engage the community in which the property will be built – giving them an opportunity to invest in the hotel they will be socialising in.

With the millennials exhibiting traits that are quite different from the rest of the traveling population – digital natives and not necessarily brand loyal, how do leisure (hospitality, travel and restaurant) companies capture this market? If you take a deep hard look at brand proliferation in this industry – it’s a first blush answer to grab more market share within the same market. However, that is not necessarily innovation. Some, controversially may even see that as desperation. So how do these companies manifest a culture of profitable innovation?

If the goal is to leverage in-house resources to generate product, service and brand innovation in the face of ever-changing market conditions, then arguably the new reality for businesses is to build bench-strength by recruiting and training specifically for what we call “curiosity”.
The science

According to the latest studies, not just any type of curiosity drives innovative thinking and creative solutions. Social scientists often talk about ‘trait epistemic curiosity’ but this broad trait actually involves two basic and separate forms. One is called diversive curiosity, which is less goal-directed and interest-motivated, whereas the other is specific curiosity, which is more targeted and competence-motivated. Trait epistemic curiosity predicts creative performance, but this effect is due primarily to the influence of specific curiosity. This is an important detail, as diversive curiosity is often aimless and hedonistic in nature, and hence tends to be unproductive, or in some cases, a counter-productive byproduct of our natural curious tendencies. Specific curiosity is goal-oriented and problem-focused. Look at it this way, and consider which type of employee you would want on your team: the equivalent of a bored teenager flipping among television channels, or someone who thinks and acts like a scientist searching for solutions to problems? Specific curiosity is akin to the scientist, and this is the trait that drives innovation bench-strength.

Assessing specific curiosity

My partners, Keith Kefgen and Jim Houran, Ph.D., reported on a three-year study in the 2016 book, Loneliness of Leadership. They psychometrically profiled 156 leaders in the global hospitality industry (primarily CEOs and COOs) with the 20|20 Skills assessment that measures Execution, People and Cognitive Skills using ten core competencies predictive of workplace success. They found leaders to be strong generalists, but with notable peaks in the areas of Humor and Creativity. In other words, this study found that leaders need not be top in class across the board. Rather they exhibit exceptional balance and proficiency across a range of competencies, yet their peaks in Creativity and Humor provide them marked vision and perspective.

Furthermore, the validation research on the 20|20 Skills assessment corroborates the role of “trait epistemic curiosity”, and more importantly, “specific curiosity” in identifying the best creative thinkers and innovative problem-solvers. For example, the mathematical and hierarchical scale that defines the creativity dimension of the assessment reveals that high scorers (> 85 on a 100-point scale) show marked proficiency in three critical areas inherent to “specific curiosity”: (a) they initiate new perspectives, (b) they strive for innovation, and (c) they routinely use independent, innovative problem solving (i.e., they do not rely on old solutions when facing new challenges). These attitudes go beyond and effectively complement being “smart” and having a high IQ in a traditional sense. It is the difference between right-brain and left-brain thinking.

Whose responsibility is innovation?

Whose responsibility is it to drive innovation within an organization to not just brace for what the future may hold, but to be one or many a step ahead of the curve? Does it come down to one person? Or, as in a team sport, is it the talent of the whole bench that is important? We would venture to say that of course, your leaders must exhibit specific curiosity, but why not your middle management and line employees as well? The culture of innovation manifests from within every part of the organization.

Every part of the organisation must embrace the spirit of innovation. Do you have the right talent to effect positive change?

The trick

Organisations who use standardized psychometric testing in order to help identify those with the foundation to be forward thinking and seeing patterns and connections where others do not, will be one step ahead of the curve. Not every assessment is designed and validated to do this, but it is a valuable competitive advantage for those who incorporate one into their due diligence and training programs. There has been a tendency for hiring managers to rely on gut instincts and subjective feelings as opposed to more reliable data gathering. AETHOS believes that effective and accurate evaluations for candidates must take into account both technical and culture fit, and this is best done using a combination of standardized testing, behavioral interviewing and proper reference checking.

When it comes to spotting candidates with strong “specific curiosity”, the trick is to ask questions about and seek real-world evidence for characteristics and attitudes such as whether the person:

• Likes solving problems
• Handles ambiguity and chaos constructively
• Loves trying new things
• Enjoys philosophising and challenging assumptions
• Has a passion for learning in general

Findings from the Loneliness of Leadership study implied that creativity – and particularly “specific curiosity” – is neither exclusive to artists nor leaders and can be found in virtually every profession and level of position. The good news is that this ability is part innate and part developed, so recruiting can focus on both aspects when building bench-strength. Regardless of where companies precisely look for these individuals, identifying and hiring them is arguably among the most pressing priorities of today’s organisations. Specific curiosity is the one evidence-based trait that speaks to successful organisation evolution and innovation in this new reality of chaos and dynamism.

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