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VIEWPOINT: CAN FINANCE INNOVATE?

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Contrary to popular belief, the most creative teams do not solely consist of blue sky dreamers. Groups with a variety of cognitive personality types produce higher levels of innovation, say Ella Miron-Spektor, Miriam Erez and Eitan Navah of the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology. In a study of 41 radical innovation teams of a large defence contractor, the researchers found that the teams with the most promising results were made up of 20%-30% creatives, up to 10% detail-oriented members, and 10-20% conformists.

The Harvard Business Review reports a surprising finding: conformists, although they are not the best at generating breakthrough ideas, dramatically increase a team’s radical innovations. Creatives are often the source of radical innovation ideas. However, they can be inattentive to usefulness, may initiate conflict, and are less concerned about rules, so teams too heavily weighted with them may struggle with implementation. Detail-oriented people can help strengthen functions such as budgetary control, but they are skittish about taking risks while conformists are found to support the creatives and boost team confidence.

As many of us are traditionally detail-oriented ‘grey suit’ accountants, we should know that we do have a role in innovation. It’s also important to realise that conforming is a key ingredient in successfully innovative teams. Few managers spend time thinking about cognitive styles or their influence on groups. Moreover, in an effort to meet strict timetables, some companies place many detail-oriented types, such as quality and reliability engineers, on innovation teams. They should beware of overdoing it: large numbers of detail-oriented people can suppress creativity in their eagerness for precision.

The issue that has been concerning me for a while is that when people think of innovative staff in their teams or business in general, finance people are never first to come to mind. As a finance person, I feel it’s time we change this perception and dig deep to be able to help use the financial skills we have to pioneer the future of business innovation. It’s time that we as finance leaders or managers pay more attention to the makeup of innovative teams and ensure that a mix of cognitive styles is represented. As international businesswoman and writer Margaret Heffernan once said, ‘For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument and debate.’

Author: Brett Tromp CA(SA) is CFO of Discovery Health

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