Reflexivity and flexibility: Complementary routes to innovation?
Post written by Maria Luisa Farnese, Roberta Fida and Stefano Livi based on an article in Journal of Management & Organization
Increasingly dynamic, and sometimes unpredictable, environments compel companies to adapt quickly to changing rules and market demands. Within this scenario, flexibility is considered a crucial resource for the organisations’ survival and success, allowing them to react to environmental challenges and crises, to generate changes and to promote performance and innovation. However, flexibility is not a ‘free good’, because it also implies economic and human costs (e.g., cost of production, mistakes, feeling of uncertainty and employees’ stress and resistance to change). In addition, excessive flexibility can also lead to reduced accuracy and complexity of the decision-making process, loss of control, up to a lack of organisational focus or even in chaos, rendering the organisational structure random and aimless. Having this picture in mind, organisations need also a different resource for dealing with the environment. Indeed, when flexibility is not a viable strategy, reflexivity may complement it making innovation still attainable. Reflexivity may foster the organisation’s divergent learning capability, the generation of a variety of options, the reduction of the cognitive inertia and the consequent risk of stagnancy.
The aim of the research that has been conducted was to examine the interplay between flexibility and reflexivity in enhancing innovation.
Results of the study, conducted on a sample of 350 Italian employees, showed that both flexibility and reflexivity act as levers to foster innovation, enhancing both organisational openness towards innovation and the adoption of innovative outputs. More importantly, results highlighted that they exert compensatory and protective effects on each other: when flexibility is low, reflexive practices still allow the organisation to gain innovation and vice versa. This means that when one strategy is unfeasible or not worthwhile, the other complements it, allowing the organisation to purse the innovation in a different way. For instance, organisation’s investments in flexible processes may sometimes represent a choice that balances an unviable use of reflexive practices, thereby allowing the organisation to respond quickly to challenges and to pursue innovation. In addition, this study highlighted that reflexivity may be a strategic asset when organisational ability to be flexible is inhibited, may anyhow enhance innovation, helping to enhance changes coherent with organisational goals, evaluating options and opportunities and reducing the risk of making the organisation random, aimless and acephalous.
Overall, findings of this study showed that both flexibility and reflexivity are strategic organisational assets in dynamic environments and that successful organisations are those contingently able of choosing the best balance between these two leverages for innovativeness.