Happy, Healthy, and Hard at Work

Every election brings with it odes to the “job creators” and long-winded discourses on importance of entrepreneurship, and this one was no different. After all, we know that entrepreneurs create jobs, and that employment figures drive election results. And although it turns out those are both partial truths, it IS true that entrepreneurship is good for the economy. But is entrepreneurship good for entrepreneurs?

It’s an interesting question that scholars like Chuck Eesley (in my research group) and others are working to unravel. It’s been established, for instance, that the financial returns to entrepreneurship are negative relative to more traditional employment. In other words, entrepreneurs would do better to take a job than to create one. At the same time, research also finds that people don’t necessarily enter entrepreneurship for the money: concerns such as autonomy and bringing ideas to life tend to top the list. But while being your own boss certainly sounds nice, entrepreneurship also brings a tremendous amount of stress. A common mantra among entrepreneurs is that “there are no weekends”, and a coworker once joked to me that “the best way to ruin a marriage is to start a company.”

So what’s the net impact on entrepreneurs? A recent study by Michael Dahl and colleagues at Denmark’s Aalborg University tried one novel way to find out. They linked Danish Labor Market data with the comprehensive Danish Prescription database to find out what impact starting companies had on the health of entrepreneurs and their spouses. In particular, they tracked (prescription) psychotropic drug use among 6,221 first time entrepreneurs and their 2,381 spouses from 2001-2004. The result? Entrepreneurs were significantly more likely to fill prescriptions for sedatives and hypnotics than non-entrepreneurs, presumably because the high stress associated with running their ventures caused anxiety and sleeplessness. At the same time, entrepreneurs were substantially less likely to fill prescriptions for antidepressants than their wage-earning counterparts. In other words, entrepreneurs may be more stressed, but they’re also (probably) happier.

Continue reading

Making Creativity Come True

What does it take to turn a creative idea into reality? It seems like a simple question, but truly creative ideas are tricky critters: they don’t fit well with existing ways of doing things, they create conflicts between people, and they can even cause companies to go under. And the worst part is, truly creative ideas usually fail. After all, it’s their novelty and uniqueness that make them creative in the first place, so it’s no surprise that they don’t always work. Companies (and people) famously abhor change for exactly these reasons. Sure, that idea sounds great – why don’t YOU try it out and let me know how it goes?

So what makes a particular creative idea likely to be implemented, and when are you likely to be able to see your idea turn into reality? A new study by Markus Baer of Washington University in St. Louis asks exactly that. The motivation for his research, which appears in October’s Academy of Management Journal, is the observation that people and companies generate far more ideas than they actually implement, and that it isn’t the most creative or best ideas that usually filter to the top. After all, we all remember Windows ME and the KFC Doubledown (okay, maybe that one was pretty good).

Here’s the punchline: Baer finds that ideas are most likely to be implemented when the people pushing from them are motivated (i.e., they believe in the idea) and when they have strong networks of peers and supervisors. No surprise there. What’s interesting is how the variables all come together. When an idea is particularly creative, the person pushing it has to really believe in it in order to see it realized. On the other hand, if they have strong support from their peers and supervisors, personal motivation doesn’t matter too much: even far-out and risky ideas are likely to be implemented, even when the person who came up with it doesn’t see a ton of value in pushing it forward.

The upshot is that the value of the idea might not be as important as how everyone in the company perceives it. The best ideas might not see the light of day simply because they never found the right advocates, and mediocre ideas might make it all the way to the top just because they don’t rile too many feathers along the way. So next time you’re wondering how the Back-Up Bedside Gun Rack (“Reach your shotgun from the comfort of your bed!”) made it to market, just remember: they probably had other ideas too.

And ’cause it would be too good not to share, here’s the Huffington Post’s compendium of the Stupidest Products Ever. Enjoy.

The Most Creative Game

Or, Why Studying Math Is The Best Thing You Can Do

In the hallway the Academy of Management conference last week I ran into a colleague who mentioned that he’s been following CRTVTY (hurray!). But he was surprised. “You’re a math guy,” he said. “What’s a math guy doing with a blog on creativity?” Well, aside from all of the research linking math to music and art, this brings up an interesting question: can math itself be a creative exercise?  Continue reading

How Not to Make a Catapult

With a soaring twenty-foot throwing arm, a hulking wooden frame, and three hundred pounds of sand hanging pendulously in its belly, our catapult made for an impressive school project. Mike and I had been working for weeks, but despite the machine’s fearsome appearance there was still plenty of work to be done. The latch that released the projectile was in particular giving us no end of trouble, alternately flinging its payload into the ground at our feet or sending us scampering for cover as potatoes and cantaloupes rained down from above. We put in countless afterschool afternoons and no small amount of engineering effort, but in the end were defeated.

Where had we gone wrong?  Continue reading

What is Management, Anyway?

In the grand scheme, the goal of academic research is to advance the state of human knowledge. While this necessarily entails diving into some fairly esoteric weeds, I won’t pretend that management scholars have it too tough in that regard (at least compared to chemistry). At the same time, our field is somewhat unique in that few people know what it actually means to study management (at least beyond an MBA). For years, people have been asking “so, you’re getting a PhD in how to make money?

That’s a fair question, but pursuing a PhD isn’t usually a ticket to fame and riches. Instead, academic research in management explores topics such as innovation, entrepreneurship, organizational behavior, and strategy. And because you’re now thinking, “those don’t really sound like real scientific pursuits either,” it’s probably worth digging a bit deeper.

The field has its roots in economics and sociology. Adam Smith was writing in the late 1700s, and sociologists such as Max Weber in the late 1800s, but management didn’t really emerge as a discipline until the early 1900s. Around that time, Chester Barnard drew on his experience at AT&T to lay out a comprehensive theory of how organizations and executives behaved, and Frederick Winslow Taylor began conducting rigorous comparisons of various production systems. The first dedicated MBA was offered in 1921 at Harvard, at which point scholars and practitioners were interested largely in how to effectively and profitably manage businesses. As time passed, however, the field expanded and evolved: scholars began to explore how organizations change and adapt to their environments (Lawrence & Lorsch, 1967), what makes industries different and firms successful (Porter, 1980; Barney, 1991), and how organizations learn, interact, and grow (Henderson & Clark, 1990; DiMaggio & Powell, 1983; March, 1991). Today, the field covers innumerable topics from the role of cognition in decision-making to the structure of social movements to the origins of creativity. And while I know some of CRTVTY’s readers are far more qualified than I to describe the formal boundaries of the field, that’s a good summary of what our work is all about.

The big question is, why does any of it matter? Fundamentally, all of these topics relate to how the building blocks of the human world (economies, societies, and technologies) grow and change. Management scholars want to understand why the world we live in looks as it does: why is Silicon Valley such an innovative powerhouse, why do analog watches still exist, why did the wind industry take off but solar didn’t, and why do people make better decisions when they’re given less time to think? By examining those “little” questions, we are slowly shining a light onto more fundamental issues regarding our economy and society. My research, for instance, is motivated by a desire to understand how new industries and technologies come to be, so I’m exploring how electric vehicle companies collaborate with their partners and decide which products to build. My coworkers study topics as diverse as what makes government-sponsored science parks effective, how entrepreneurs identify opportunities, and how social movements have shaped the history of the biodiesel industry. All in all, it’s pretty fascinating stuff, and offers a lot of promise for shaping the world around us by creating dynamic economies, relevant technologies, and successful businesses. Or, of course, for making money.

Hey Crowd, Who’s Feeling Clever?

Let’s say you run a research lab, and you’ve got a really tough problem. I mean a real doozy – your best scientists have been working on it for years and they haven’t been able to figure anything out. But you still need an answer, so how are you going to get one?

Enter a new phenomenon: Open Innovation. You’ve probably heard of companies relying on the “wisdom of the crowds” for things like the latest Doritos ad campaigns, Threadless T-shirt designs, and the world’s largest encyclopedia, but you may not know that firms are also turning to crowds with their really high-tech conundrums. A number of platforms have sprung up to connect problem seekers with problem solvers, of which Innocentive (founded 2001) is probably the most famous.

I’ll go more into Open Innovation (and it’s cousin, Crowdsourcing) in a later post, but the basic idea behind Innocentive is that companies can post problems and associated rewards on a website where individual scientists can sign up to view them. If someone thinks they might be able to answer a problem, they connect with the company and send in a solution. The company then determines the best solutions and gives (big) rewards to the solvers – up to the tune of $100,000. Keep in mind, though, these are complex research problems. Examples include designing an injectable suspension placebo with no pharmacological or biological activity, or synthesizing a food grade polymer delivery system. So then the big question: does it actually work?  Continue reading

Grab a Drink: It’s Time to Get Creative

What did Beethoven, Poe, Hemingway, and Jackson Pollock all have in common? First, they’re considered to be among the most prolific and creative minds in history. Second, they all had more than a bit of a fondness for the drink. And that’s probably not a surprise to many people: “altered cognitive processing”, brought on by insanity, sleep state, or substance use, has long been linked to creativity in artists and problem solvers. But will grabbing a beer really help you or me tackle tasks more creatively?

That’s exactly what three researchers at the University of Illinois recently set out to test. Their paper, titled “Uncorking the Muse” and published earlier this year in the Journal of Consciousness and Cognition, has got to be one of the funnest studies ever printed. Here’s the punchline: intoxicated individuals solved a test of creative problem solving more completely, and in less time, than their sober counterparts. They were also more likely to have confidence in the creativity of their solutions.

To test the effect of alcohol on creativity, the authors recruited a target sample of forty male social drinkers aged 21-30 through Craigslist and the University community. The subjects were “administered” a succession of Smirnoff vodka cranberries and shown the movie Ratatouille. Once they reached peak intoxication, the participants completed a battery of creative problem solving tasks known as the Remote Associates Test (RAT), while also undergoing occasional breathalyzer tests. The control subjects did the same routine, minus the Smirnoff.

Not only did the intoxicated subjects complete a greater portion of the RAT items, but they did so faster and more creatively. The underlying intuition is that alcohol reduces ones ability to mentally focus and control attention. Laser focus may help a lot on structured analytical tasks, but actually inhibits creativity by discouraging associational, divergent, and nonlinear thinking. By limiting the ability to keep one’s thinking straight, alcohol can therefore encourage creativity. In this sense, it acts just like grogginess or sleep deprivation, as I discussed in an earlier post.

Now, this doesn’t mean that getting smashed is going to make you more creative, but it does suggest that having a beer before your next project might not be a terrible idea. And hey, it’s Friday.

Check out the paper here. Thanks to Brooking for the heads up!