You and your innovation team are becoming even more essential to the success of your company. Your team’s management and their efficiency is critical to this success. One of the stories I like to reference for innovation management wisdom is the “Hawthorne effect.” This wisdom is from the 1930s and is just as true today nearly 90 years later.

The Hawthorne effect is named after what was one of the most famous experiments in industrial history. It marked a sea change in thinking about work and productivity. Hawthorne established that the workplace environment and the staff influence employee performance as much as the employees’ own abilities.

The experiments took place at Western Electric’s factory at Hawthorne, a suburb of Chicago, in the late 1920s. The original purpose of the experiments was to study the effects of physical conditions on productivity.

Two groups of workers in the Hawthorne factory were used in the experiment. One day the lighting in the work area for one group was improved dramatically while the other group’s lighting remained unchanged. The researchers were surprised to find that the productivity of the more highly illuminated workers increased much more than that of the control group.

The working conditions were changed in other ways too (their working hours, rest breaks and so on), and in all cases their productivity improved when a change was made. Indeed, their productivity even improved when the lights were dimmed again. By the time everything had been returned to the way it was before the experiment began, productivity at the factory was at its highest level ever.

The experimenters concluded that it was not the changes in physical conditions that raised the workers’ productivity. Rather, it was the fact that someone was actually concerned about their workplace, and the opportunities this gave them to discuss changes before they took place.

A crucial element in the findings was the effect that working in groups had on the individual. In 2008, The Economist noted that “the desire to stand well with one’s fellows, the so-called human instinct of association, easily outweighs the individual interest and the logic of reasoning upon which so many spurious principles of management are based.”

A YouTube video of the Hawthorne effect also emphasizes the dramatic learning that took place during the experiment.

In our daily busy lives and our required lack of focus, we must remember this lesson of old — we must understand that our team needs to have our concern. Any outside influences pale to this simple yet often overlooked management practice.

Keep innovating!


1 Comment

  1. Ray, excellent post. A modern day example can be found in the book “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg where Paul O’Neill, former CEO of Alcoa, focused on safety first. Productivity went through the roof.

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