Better early than late: how leader handoffs affect innovation projects
New research from Stanford looks at the impact changing leaders has in bringing new ideas to market
There is extensive literature on innovation, covering many facets of what innovation is and how it works. However, among the topics not typically addressed in this field are the handoffs that often occur during a creative or innovation development process. This omission is odd because almost every creative or innovation development effort requires different people to lead different stages. Even movie production — which most people think is guided from start to finish by a single director — is, in reality, a multi-stage process, with writers, editors, and producers often leading important sections of a project’s evolution. Handoffs are even more common in R&D, product innovation, and long-term innovation efforts in corporate settings, where it is usually the case that multiple leaders take an innovation from its early stages to completion.
There is a gap, then, in research around the role that handoffs play in innovation efforts. This gap is addressed in a new study from Stanford GSB’s Justin M. Berg and Alisa Yu. In a recent paper, they look at the impacts that innovation handoffs have at various stages to determine how they affect innovation development and the innovators themselves.
To start with, they divide the innovation lifecycle into three stages:
Early: Idea generation (“generating a rough initial idea”)
Middle: Idea elaboration (“fleshing out the initial idea into more detailed plans”)
Late: Idea implementation (“building the final product”)
They then ask the following question: “Are implementers more effective when they drive all three stages, or can they take over after generation or elaboration without sacrificing creativity?”
To answer their query, they describe four types of handoffs that can occur in innovation projects:
First, late handoffs occur when the implementer is handed a mature idea after someone else drives the generation and elaboration stages, meaning the implementer only drives the implementation stage. Second, no handoffs occur when the implementer drives all three stages, from generation through implementation. Third, early handoffs occur when the implementer is handed an initial idea after someone else drives the generation stage, meaning the implementer drives both the elaboration and implementation stages. Fourth, serialized late handoffs occur when the implementer is handed a mature idea after the generation and elaboration stages are each driven by separate individuals (whereas late handoffs are from one individual who drove both generation and elaboration).
Their first analysis looked at a group of 5,676 films projects and categorized each project according to the handoff taxonomy noted above:
Films were late handoff if another person drove both generation and elaboration before the director then drove implementation (28.26%). Films were no handoff if the director drove all three stages (49.70%). Films were early handoff if another person drove generation before the director then drove both elaboration and implementation (8.51%). Lastly, films were serial late handoff if one person drove generation—then a second person drove elaboration—before the director then drove implementation (13.53%).
They then looked at the ratings each of the films received upon release, with a special focus on how the movies ranked in terms of creativity as determined by online review rating data.
In a second study, they recruited 600 people who were asked to develop an advertisement for a new product headed to market (a soft pretzel, in this case). This project had several distinct stages and was designed to mirror how ads are developed in agencies. The participants followed four different scenarios, in groups of 120 people, in line with the four handoff categories noted above. When the ads were complete, an additional 600 consumers were recruited to review the finished product of each of the four groups and rate it for creativity and effectiveness.
After analyzing the results of their two studies, the researchers concluded that in situations where handoffs must occur to get an innovation to market, the best option is to have the handoff occur early in the process. This conclusion is based on analysis of two major drivers of successful handoffs: psychological ownership and product coherence.
Psychological ownership refers to the ability of the handoff receivers to see the project as their work. The later the handoff, the less likely it is that a given receiver will feel this type of ownership, no matter how much control they may have once the handoff is complete. As the authors note, “compared to no and early handoffs, late handoffs may prevent implementers from developing psychological ownership over the emerging product prior to the implementation stage.”
Product coherence refers to the ability of receivers to understand all the dimensions of the innovation. To the extent that one person has driven a project to a late stage, the odds that their initial conception of the innovation will be coherent to a receiver is low, which puts the receiver in a disadvantageous position.
Interestingly, of the remaining two scenarios — late handoff and late serial handoff — the preferable scenario is the latter. This conclusion is based on two reasons. First, someone taking over an innovation project in which several other leaders have been involved can develop psychological ownership more easily than in a one-to-one transfer, because individual ownership stakes have been diluted through previous handoffs. As the authors note:
...ownership over the idea may seem more “up for grabs” to recipients of serialized late handoffs than recipients of late handoffs. This may make it easier for recipients of serialized late handoffs to develop psychological ownership—and reap the corresponding motivational benefits—early in the implementation stage.
Second, since multiple individuals have shaped the innovation, a late-stage recipient is more likely to find a connection point that facilitates product coherence. The authors speculate that a leader given an innovation shaped by more than one person is more likely to see her contribution as one part of a whole and not just as a last moment “spin” on someone else’s work. This idea is a valuable and subtle hypothesis, if true: we are more likely to integrate our concept of an innovation into a group’s conceptualization than if we must “marry” it to that of one other person.
This research should be considered by anyone running creative and/or innovation projects that move through multiple stages under different leaders. As the authors note, if you must have handoffs, better to have them sooner in the project. If that is not possible, better to have several handoffs of more or less equal importance than to have most of the development done by one person who then lets one other person finish the job. This approach may be novel thinking to managers. Nonetheless, the authors advise that “if handoffs need to occur late in the creative process to leverage employees’ specialized skillets, the results on serialized late handoffs suggest that adding an earlier handoff—and highlighting this to implementers—may facilitate their creativity.”
As for the person receiving an innovation or creative task, “implementers may want to err on the side of jumping in early than risk being too late.”
Justin M. Berg and Alisa YuGetting the Picture Too Late: Handoffs and the Effectiveness of Idea Implementation in Creative Work. Academy of Management Journal, April, 2021 Vol. https://doi.org/10.5465/amj.2019.1330