Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 277
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Creativity and Service

Research reveals new understandings of creativity and adherence to standard procedures in a service setting.

The next time you use your photocopy machine, imagine this scene:

Your machine has died. You needed a copy, so you pressed start. The machine sprang to life, lighting up and whirring. Then it went �bump,� and all of the warning lights started flashing at the same time. You turned the machine off and on again, and nothing happened. It died. Sooner than you expected, a technician arrived to fix the machine, and now you�re watching him get to work.

You have two choices.

Technician A gets busy right away. He arranges his tools, opens the machine and exposes the innards. Then he picks up a screwdriver and an oddly shaped brush and starts to work. Technician B opens the machine too, but instead of getting right to work, he gets down on his knees, sits on his heels, folds his arms across his chest, and stares intently at the mechanism. You watch. He pokes a finger here and there, and then he gets out his cell phone and has a conversation using unfamiliar words. Finally, he notices you watching him and he seems a little uncomfortable.

As a customer, which technician seems to be providing the best service, Technician A or B? Now let�s carry the scene a little further. Imagine asking each technician to explain what he�s doing.

Technician A tells you he�s following a standard diagnostic/service routine, and when he�s finished, your machine should operate normally. Technician B tells you he�s trying to figure out how to keep it from ever again going �bump.�

Now, has your opinion changed? Which repair do you suppose will last the longest?

These two technicians are following different work procedures. The first is following a standardized routine; the second is employing a creative, problem-solving approach. Each is doing exactly what his supervisor has told him to do and what his co-workers have encouraged him to do.

If you chose Technician A when you answered the first question and Technician B when you answered the second, then your perceptions mirror the findings of a study conducted by Lucy Gilson, from the University of Connecticut. She studied the customer reactions and performance effectiveness of groups of copy machine service technicians. She was particularly interested in the effects of a work environment that supported creativity verses an environment that stressed an adherence to standardized routines. Interestingly, she found that teams with the most supportive environment for creativity also scored the highest on her measures of team effectiveness. These were practical measures of importance to people in this industry: machine reliability (number of copies made between service calls), response time, and parts expense. Conversely, she found that teams that strictly adhered to standardized work routines scored the highest on her measures of customer satisfaction.

Professor Gilson�s study reveals an ongoing dilemma for supervisors in all kinds of service environments. Do you support creativity or an adherence to established routines?

Many people in management have answered this question by insisting that both can be stressed. Proponents of this belief explain that empowered teams are smart enough and flexible enough to apply either creative problem solving or established routines as the needs of the situation dictate. Are they right?

Gilson�s study examined 90 empowered work teams. These groups were charged with the authority to apply either creative problem-solving or adherence to routines as situations dictated, so Gilson had a unique opportunity to measure the effect of each emphasis on the other. She found that high work standardization stifled the influence of creative team environments, but low standardization facilitated the impact of creativity on performance. She also found that creativity did not influence customer satisfaction if standardization was high, but if it was low, then creativity significantly hurt customer satisfaction.

What does it all mean? Gilson has some suggestions for us.

Creative people are hesitant to try new things in front of people who are evaluating them, but creativity leads to the highest performance, so Gilson thinks collecting customer reactions may be a bad idea. Unfortunately, ignoring this information may also be a bad idea. She suggests we train our teams to follow routine procedures in front of customers to buy time while they think creatively about the problem at hand. She also believes we should train our people to manage customer perceptions and customer relations throughout the service encounter. The goal is to get the benefit of creativity without incurring the penalty of creativity on customer reactions.

Reference: Gilson, Lucy, John Mathieu, Christina Shalley, and Thomas Ruddy (2005) Creativity and Standardization: Complimentary or Conflicting Drivers of Team Effectiveness? Academy of Management Journal, 48(3), 521-531.

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