On Wednesday 25 January, Peter Oeij, a member of staff at TNO, was awarded a PhD by the Open Universiteit of the Netherlands for a dissertation entitled ‘The resilient innovation team - a study of teams coping with critical incidents during innovation projects’. In the course of his PhD research, he studied eighteen project teams and their innovation projects. His conclusion? A mindful working environment and innovation resilience behaviour enhance the chances of developing successful innovations.
Peter Oeij’s educational background includes studies in Work and Organizational Sociology and in Organizational Psychology. Since 2001 he has worked at TNO, where he specializes in social and organizational innovation. Dr Oeij explains that “I specialize in topics such as ‘work organization’ and ‘working in teams’. I always wanted to do a PhD, but I just never got round to it. That’s why I decided to design my own project, about innovation management and teamwork, and to carry it out myself.”
Why do teams fail?
Teams that focus on developing an innovation often fail. “I’ve often wondered why this is, so I decided to focus on team behaviour. Could failure be due to members of the team becoming defensive when tension, uncertainty and anxiety arise during difficult projects? In an entirely different area – High Reliability Organizations (HROs) – teams rarely fail.” In the course of his doctoral research, Peter Oeij investigated this phenomenon, to find out what innovation teams can learn from HRO teams. To this end, he studied eighteen teams and their innovation projects at eleven organizations based in the Netherlands, including KPN Consulting, Unilever, Rijkswaterstaat and TNO. Twelve of the eighteen project teams did quite well. Although they were unaware of the fact, their working process actually had a great deal in common with the approach used by HRO teams.
“Mindful working environments facilitate problem-solving team behaviour”
Mindful and resilient
“In the world of security management and crisis management, results are enhanced by the creation of a mindful working environment. The factors underpinning such an environment are psychological safety, learning behaviour in teams, team participation, and complexity leadership. Mindful working environments like this facilitate problem-solving team behaviour. This makes the team resilient, helps them cope with critical incidents, and helps to enhance their chances of success”, Dr Oeij points out. This innovation resilience behaviour is based on five principles: 1) be alert to signs that your project is going wrong, 2) accept no simple answers, 3) eliminate every element of uncertainty, 4) anticipate potential and unexpected failures, and 5) rate expertise above rank. “There are, of course, many more factors that influence team behaviour. However, I have opted to focus on the factors of ‘mindful working environment’ and ‘innovation resilience behaviour’, both of which are important and highly effective in HRO teams”, Peter Oeij explains. A mindful working environment arises from the effects of the organizational climate and of innovation resilience behaviour on team behaviour.
More projects with positive outcomes
Dr Oeij then turned to innovation management, to find out whether the same conditions applied there. He found that it worked. HRO concepts were, indeed, applicable to the world of innovation management. The innovation teams responsible for applying these insights report that more projects now have positive outcomes. A mindful working environment and innovation resilience behaviour make it easier to discuss complex issues and areas of uncertainty. Instead of being risk-averse, such teams use an open-minded approach to effectively resolve project risks and critical incidents.
Tool for everyday practice: what can you improve?
In addition to these findings, Peter Oeij introduces a tool that enables teams to easily take stock of – and improve – their own mindful working environment and innovation resilience behaviour. “In just three steps, this tool will give you insights into four specific aspects of your team or department. These three steps consist of exercises or assignments in which defensive behaviour, a mindful working environment, and innovation resilience behaviour are listed and made tangible. This will highlight any defensive behaviour, the causes of risk-averse behaviour, and elements of a mindful working environment that facilitate innovation resilience behaviour. Lastly, it will reveal any behaviours and competencies that underpin the five HRO principles. You can then use this knowledge to decide whether you want to make improvements and, if so, what exactly needs to be improved. It gives you a clear impression of team performance, and can sharply define any areas that are in need of improvement. This tool is easily accessible and can be used to directly develop improvement tools.”
“The knowledge generated by the tool gives you a clear impression of team performance, enabling you to sharply define any areas that are in need of improvement”
Time and commitment
Dr Oeij does add one caveat, however. “Before using this tool, give careful thought to whether you really want to switch to a mindful working environment and to resilience behaviour. This requires a solid foundation of safety and trust. Moreover, it is difficult to motivate people to do something that they would not do automatically. Everyone is busy, yet the team members will need to devote the necessary time and commitment to getting this off the ground. Changing behaviour requires a willingness to invest a great deal of mental effort in developing new skills and a new team climate. The team must truly believe that it’s feasible”, Peter Oeij stresses.
The principles associated with a mindful working environment and with innovation resilience behaviour, which originated in HROs, are applicable to innovation management. Could this also apply to teams in other working environments? Dr Oeij thinks this is very likely the case. “Project-based work is fast becoming the norm. So it is also important to consider how we can make this approach as efficient and effective as possible. The tool’s versatility means it can be used in a range of project settings, not just for innovation management.”
Download the dissertation
Would you like further details? Download Peter Oeij’s dissertation here.