Jennifer Tann tells Ayala Ochert how her research into star performers helped local firms energise their employees
It is not just Hollywood film-makers who want to know what makes a star, it is a question that has preoccupied Jennifer Tann for several years. She is not so much interested in actors like Brad Pitt or Winona Ryder, the stars she has in mind are more likely to work in the local chemist's shop. As professor of innovation studies at Birmingham University's business school, Tann has been examining the qualities that make someone a "star performer" in their field.
"People who were identified as stars were not only doing different things,but doing things differently," she says. Compared with their merely competent colleagues, these leading-edge practitioners, as she prefers to call them, are more likely to exhibit "initiating behaviour", to be proactive rather than reactive. As well as behaving differently, star performers also adopt different cognitive styles. "Certain qualities can probably be found across the board, like the need for personal space. The star performer is likely to be inhibited by rules or notice them and trip over them."
Tann's interest in star performers stems from the recognition that they are more likely than most to innovate. "In the rapidly changing environment that we have now, people must innovate to stay on the spot, never mind increase their competitive advantage," she explains. So when Tann got a phone call out of the blue one Monday morning from the managing director of a large firm with a creativity problem, she felt she might be able to help.
Having heard her talking about "mind-set busting" on the radio the night before, the MD asked if she would come and "mind-set bust" a small team in his company that had "run into the sand". This particular group had failed to come up with any ideas for new products. Tann recalls: "They had the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads and were incredibly anxious."
Yet, after four months of regular visits, the team had come up with three radical product innovations as well as several improvements to their existing product range, and Tann was able to publish the "process methodology" that she developed with them. The process itself involves developing the group as a team who recognise one another's styles of creativity and problem-solving: "I was getting them to understand what was going on inside each other's heads, their cognitive styles, (to appreciate that) a person who likes structure should not be given a free-floating idea to work with. " Then she taught them to become an "action learning set" - a mutually supportive group in which certain behaviours are ruled out. So throughout the four months, and hopefully beyond, the team would not tolerate interrupting or "dumping on other people's ideas".
Within this framework, Tann gave the team a "toolkit" of techniques to aid creativity, including such things as mind-mapping, imaging techniques and morphological analysis. These generated possibilities on which they built practical ideas. The same methodology helped Tann with a small manufacturing company where the managing director said that people were "leaving their brains on the peg when they hung their coats up". She advised the MD to devolve a great deal of responsibility to shop-floor teams. This has since produced many innovations in the company's work practices.
Another company contacted Tann when it became clear that the product it had spent 18 months developing had failed and it would have to start again from scratch. This time the methodology helped the company put its failure behind it and company employees stopped blaming each other for the company's lack of success.
It all sounds a bit like group therapy and Tann agrees that there are many similarities between what she does and what a psychotherapist would do. "Research and practice are very closely linked for me. My research is underpinned by theory, but I do feel there is a role for academics to mediate new literature and new theory for practitioners. But equally, by working and observing, I can gain new insights into how that theory could be modified or maybe a new theory developed," she says.
It is fortunate that she takes this attitude since her work is part of the Innovation Research Programme, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, which makes it a requirement that research must be relevant to "beneficiaries". In this case, the beneficiaries are the companies themselves and, via the Business Link scheme, any other company that asks for advice from the Department of Trade and Industry on how better to run its business.
Another study that Tann is keen to communicate to businesses describes a phenomenon she privately calls the "big cheese syndrome". Entrepreneurial types start up and then run their own small businesses, employing a very small number of staff. All too often, the entrepreneurial style of management that helped get the company off the ground in the first place later acts as a barrier to innovation and inhibits its continued development. As owners see themselves as the only source of creative ideas,the rest of the staff are made to feel powerless and their creativity is underused.
If businesses are coming to recognise the need for creativity and innovation, academics have long known it. So Tann makes sure that she practises what she preaches and often gets out her "creativity toolkit" to work on research problems. "I tend as an individual to go for research problems at the boundaries between fields, while others will look within the paradigm. Both (styles) are creative, but they're differently creative."
It was perhaps this tendency to migrate towards the boundaries that originally led Tann to her interest in innovation. Originally a historian researching the diffusion of technology, she felt that explanations relied too much on purely economic factors to the neglect of social and cognitive factors and the role of human choice. Instead she turned to social science models, which could explain diffusion in a more "holistic" way. She then wondered how these models might apply to technology and innovation. It was a chance conversation with an evolutionary biologist on the possible fate of a yellow-spotted ladybird that inspired her to think about the role of star performers in the process and spread of innovation.
"I happen to think that there's enormous potential for thinking about the role star performers may have in diffusing innovation. There is often a gap between policy and practice, and star performers may help to close that gap." She is now looking at how this principle might be adopted in general medical practice. "If I were trying to get a policy put into practice, I would identify the star performers to get them energised as exemplars. You look to the people who will more readily and more happily accept change and get them to do things first."