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.
As a leader, you have an opportunity to create an environment where innovation can flourish. Of course, it’s never easy. As you build an innovative organization, here are a few areas to consider:
- Policies — do they support or hinder creativity?
- Vision and Rules — do you have the right balance?
- Structure — does it support true collaboration?
Policies can severely inhibit creativity. One reason for this is that they promote conformity which is the opposite fresh ideas. Another is that while the intention may be to nurture creativity, policies often align more with risk management than trying things that are untested. Policies and red tape have been known to destroy the creative soul. They bind staff into certain ways of working, offering little room to be fresh and innovative.
In some organizations, 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. Now, to be fair, policies aren’t always bad: They can ensure consistency which is important in large organizations with large numbers of staff and multiple locations.
Maintaining clear policies can speed up routine work and decision-making, 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 they’re no longer relevant or helpful.
Policies Can Prevent Fresh Approaches
This unbelievable true story shows how policies can get in the way of progress. Two government 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 fresh new idea of creating a liaison role be established.
Organizations that follow rules and don’t change their policies quickly become 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 rules and policies against their goal or purpose is essential for a healthy innovative organization. And the fewer policies or rules you have, the more flexible your organization.
Vision and Rules
Achieving a healthy balance between having rules or policies, and having the freedom to create poses 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. They’re clearly written and quickly identify what that organization is trying to do. However, stodgy old bureaucratic organizations 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 department’s 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. Another example of the ‘vision/rules disconnect’ in organizations crops up around the noted value in creativity of taking risks which often leads to mistakes. As they say, 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. So many theorists say, “Take more risks!” Hearing this, bosses declare to their staff, “Mistakes are fine because they lead to creativity.” However, they never change policy to reflect this. So, when someone does take a calculated creative risk, but it leads to a failure. policy almost always prevails. And that person is punished. Unless there’s a brave manager.
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, make sure you revoke it. 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. It’s important to strive for the right balance.
A common situation in organizations struggling to spur creativity is they have heavily hierarchal structures. Hierarchy tends to quash innovation and the creative spirit. There are many reasons for this. One reason is that the relationships follow outdated command-control assumptions rather than collaboration practices. Another is hierarchal organizations tend to be very competitive with lots of fiefdoms, or as they say silos. This leads to rivalry between departments and divisions as bosses try to outdo each other. It blocks any potential channel 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 organization’s structure, aim for a flat structure where people are free to talk to each other across boundaries.
Getting this right is hard work
Creating an innovative organization is not easy. Like anything if you want to inspire your team, department or organization to become an ideas factory, you need to work hard at it. Looking at policies, creating a balance between vision and rules and then designing an organizational structure that is collaborative will help.
Ironically, these are the easy things to do. An innovative workplace also relies on the people who make the organization, in particular the leader. We’ll explore that in another post.