Workplace innovation is heavily influenced by your organizational environment. Organizations become highly innovative when employees have the freedom to be creative and develop new ideas, products, services and ways of doing work. Organizations also produce innovation when staff are clear about the vision they are working toward and have the autonomy to make decisions based on achieving that vision, rather than being restricted by out-of-date policies and unwritten rules that often undermine the vision. As a leader you have an opportunity to create an environment where innovation can flourish. Of course its never easy. As you build an innovative organization, here are a few areas to look at: * Policies * Vision and Rules * Communication of your vision * Work without policy manuals * Structure Policies versus Vision Policies can severely inhibit creativity. Especially in large bureaucratic organizations. Large bureaucratic organizations are known as boring, bland places. A lot of government departments and big old organizations suffer from this. Policies and red tape destroy the creative soul. They bind staff into certain ways of working, offering little room to be fresh and innovative. The mere act of questioning policy asking if it is still appropriate is often seen as treason. Questioning if a policy still achieves what it was originally designed for, is regarded suspiciously. Its all a shame. Used wisely, policies should boost creativity. In practice they dont. Policies arent always bad Generally, policies arent bad to start with. They ensure consistency. This is important in large organizations with large numbers of staff and multiple locations. Policies also speed up routine work, freeing your mind to focus on more interesting tasks. And they are important to ensure legal and financial compliance. However, because formal policies often take a long time to enact in larger organizations, they tend to live on long after their use by date. And given most managers see policies as the standard especially junior managers they are reluctant to withdraw or ignore them. The policies are the guidebook that keeps a manager that lacks confidence on a track without risk. When called to account, the manager can point to the policy which guided the action. So policies are followed religiously even when theyre no longer relevant or helpful. This unbelievable true story shows how policies can get in the way of progress. Two organizations agreed that in order to better work together, a liaison role would be created. After a year of discussing the process and policies to make it happen, it failed. Both organizations could not get past one policy: each required that the other organization be the first to write a memo requesting that this liaison role be established. Organizations that follow rules and dont change their policies quickly becomes antiquated, inflexible and dead. Like in the example, the policy did not foster progress. It was inflexible. And no one was willing to change it. Questioning the rules and policies is essential for a healthy innovative organization. And the fewer policies or rules you have, the more flexible your organization. Vision and rules Achieving this raises two questions. First, how can you know if a policy or rule needs to be withdrawn? And secondly, how do members of your staff work without rules and policy manuals? The answer to those questions lies in how you use your vision. Innovative organizations are more focused on their vision than their rules. And innovative organizations generally have very focused visions. Theyre clearly written and quickly identify what that organization is trying to do. Question one: Vision/Rule disconnect The problem with stodgy old, bureaucratic organizations is that they often have significant disconnects between policies and vision. The CEO stands up one day and declares, We need flexible working conditions so staff can have the right work/life balance. But she never rescinds the Human Resources departments policies that require all staff to be at their desks by 9 in the morning. So managers, who are busily watching their own job security, refuse flexible working conditions. A common example of the vision/rules disconnect in organizations that aspire to become innovative concerns the question of failure and success. An important principle in innovation and creativity theory is the path to success is littered with little failures. Think of Edison and his light bulb. More than a thousand failures. But he got there and changed the world. Bosses declare to their staff, Mistakes are fine because they lead to creativity. However, they never change policy to enact this. And when someone does make a mistake, policy almost always prevails. Unless theres a brave manager. So the answer to our first question, policy needs to be constantly reviewed in line with your vision. If you want to be a creative organization, make sure your policy reflects it. If not, stodgy old rules will almost always prevail. When a policy clearly belongs to the past and contradicts your vision, pull it out. Or re-write it. Policies are important for mundane issues and compliance. They help consistency across the organization. However, the fewer you have, the more flexible your organization. Question two: work without the policy manuals Some employees find it very difficult to work without policy manuals. This is sometimes the result of working for years in an organization that has not encouraged employees to think. Policies tend to focus on the minutiae rather than the big picture. However, organizations dont exist for minutiae but for their vision. However, policy ends up carrying more weight than the vision itself. For example, the US Defense Department deploys many civilians abroad every year. Their policies that cover their deployment and conditions of living are written to ensure employees experience a reasonable standard of welfare when overseas. Because of their inflexibility and the inability of a rule or policy to cater for every circumstance, they very often create unpleasant experiences. So while their purpose is to look after staff, managers end up looking after rules. The answer is to place more emphasis on the vision rather than rules. Of course rules are important. Especially in life and death matters such as combat. And this is how you can spur on innovation in your workplace. First, you reduce the number of rules by examining each policy to ensure its consistent with your vision. And then you throw out any rules that undermine your vision. Second, get your employees to focus on the vision by giving them the leeway to make their own decisions based on it being the efficient and effective way to achieve the vision. Furthermore, allow them some discretion. You may find that in your review of policy, you missed one that should really be thrown out. It clearly contradicts your vision and makes it difficult to achieve. So give your employees some discretion to bend the rule to achieve the vision. They should be able to explain how breaking it achieves the vision. Obviously this license shouldnt be given where it undermines ethics or puts the organization at legal risk. Often employees will do better when not handcuffed to rule books, but freed to seriously achieve your vision. Structure One of the symptoms of organizations bound by thick policy manuals is heavily hierarchal structures. Hierarchy tends to quash innovation and the creative spirit. There are many reasons for this. One reason is that the relationships are either of subservience or dominance rather than collegiality. Another is they breed empires faster than rabbits. This leads to rivalry between departments and divisions as bosses try to outdo each other. It also closes down the channels of collaboration that could lead to new ideas. Another reason hierarchy stifles innovation is that it takes forever for ideas or initial expressions of interest to be approved. When someone discovers a great idea it gets passed through numerous managers before it reaches the person who can make a decision. And of course, any questions the decision-maker has must be passed down through the same managers. When you review your organizations structure, aim for a flat structure where people are free to talk to each other across boundaries. There was considerable criticism when flat structures became trendy. People accused senior managers of passing more decision-making responsibility down to junior staff. While this may still be valid in some organizations, it opens up innovation. So, do what you can to build a flatter structure. Getting this right is hard work Working through your vision is hard work. And then reviewing all your policy under the lens of your vision isnt easy either. But its worth it. It gives your people the freedom to work outside the box and further your organizations innovative culture.
Originally published on June 17, 2011 by SpeakerMatch Speakers Bureau