Man & anchor

Innovating can be a challenge for established firms.  Some the reasons for this range from inflexible management structures, to unsuitable organisational design to inappropriate systems of incentives.  I can’t speak to all of those, but what I can speak about is the constraint that being really good at your job puts on your ability to innovate.

One of the things that makes people successful in their field is their mastery of the rules of that govern that field.  These rules can be technical in nature, for example engineering or accounting standards.  These are ‘hard’ rules that are usually written down and are relatively easy to identify.  Alternatively rules can be ‘soft’ in nature, for example collective organisation behaviours.  These unwritten rules often define what needs to be done to get ahead in a business, for example, expectations about the hours spent at your desk (as opposed to the quality of your output!).  In all cases, learning and mastering these rules tends to go hand in glove with a rise up the ranks.

While there are some obvious downsides to that, there are upsides too.  Mastering the rules means that a lot of behaviour becomes automatic, freeing you up to deal with more complex tasks.  This is one of the things that distinguish more experienced practitioners from the less experienced ones.  By being familiar with the rules, mundane activities can be completed much more efficiently as you don’t have to sit down and think about what needs to be done – you just get on and do it.  This allows you to add more value in a context where productivity is important.  So mastering the rules is a valuable capability in most business environments.

Where it falls down though, is where the environment is uncertain and non-standard behaviours are required to be successful.  This is one of the reasons that a transition from a large, established corporate environment to an entrepreneurial one can be difficult.  Predictable action based on established rules can be totally at odds with the dynamic, undefined and unstructured nature of small, start up endeavours.  Conversely, the transition from a fluid, open environment with unformed rules into a highly structured business can be traumatic as well.  What makes you successful in one isn’t likely to make you successful in the other.

This problem is even more evident where innovation is the name of the game.  Those ingrained rule-following abilities that are fused into minds over the years can be a real barrier to developing truly innovative ideas.  This is largely because follow a set of rules provides a predictable set of outcomes; this is the point of having rules in the first place.  However, innovation involves the deliberate use of uncertainty which can mean breaking the rules.  But really successful people have embedded these rules into their behaviours and make them part of their habits, habits which are difficult to because people are no longer consciously aware that they govern their behaviour and thinking.

A couple of recent experiences highlighted this problem for me.  Firstly, I had an engagement where a client had asked an engineering firm to come up with some cost savings on a new technology.  A group of engineers were gathered around the table to brainstorm the issue, and the discussion centred on optimising the engineering of the current solution.  That was great, but it wasn’t going to bring about the step change in costs that the client needed.  Refining a design based on ‘normal’ or ‘good’ practice wasn’t going to be enough.  The rules had to be broken.  Eventually we came up with an innovative solution, but it took time to break the team out of their engineering habits on what was a relatively simple piece of work.

A second experience involved a tender for significant piece of engineering infrastructure.  Upon reviewing the preliminary design provided by the client, the (very experienced) engineering team decided that it had been well designed.  However, to win the job, the business needed to bring innovation to the table.  By agreeing that the design was done well, what the team was saying was that the rules that they use for designing this type of work had been effectively applied to this project. This was a great validation of our systems of education – it had produced a cadre of skilled engineers that could efficiently design large infrastructure projects in a similar way, despite their differing organisations.

However, drilling down into those comments it became clear that a whole range of assumptions weren’t appropriate for this particular project.  The high standards normally applied to public projects of this type weren’t mandatory for this work, meaning that far more radical approaches could be taken.  Old rules could be abandoned in favour of (in this case) better ones.  Once the veil of familiarity had been lifted from the team, a whole range of innovative ideas were thrown into the mix and the challenge become one of narrowing them down, rather than coming up with them in the first place.

Both of these examples highlight that part of the challenge to coming up with innovative ideas is finding ways to see what is taken for granted.  It’s a forest for the trees type of problem, but there are tools that can help the process.

One is to get someone involved who is completely unfamiliar with the task at hand. They ask the ‘really stupid questions’ that can allow a team to see what assumptions are being made without even knowing that they are being made.

Another is to use the questioning technique outlined in the recent book by Warren Berger, called A More Beautiful Question.  This book is focussed on asking questions rather than moving straight into solutions.  Berger defines A More Beautiful Question as ‘an ambition yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something – and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change’.  His basic framework for achieving this is start by asking ‘why’ something is as it is at the moment.  This is followed by asking ‘what if’ and then ‘how’.  To get a feel for how that works, you’ll need to read the book, but I like the process because it forces a rethink of assumptions that underpin how things are today, providing space to think about innovative ways to approach old problems.

Another good reference is Gamestorming by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown and James Macunufo.  The book is a collection of techniques for idea generation and development aimed at creating breakthrough innovations.  The book is particularly useful because it presents a wide range of tools to choose from, all of which are set into a context of creating change.

Above all of these though is the explicit recognition that the things that make people successful in the past won’t necessarily make them successful innovators in the future.  The things that make someone an engineer, accountant, technician, IT guy or programmer are also the things that can constrain their imagination and ability to generate out of the box solutions.  The good news is that it doesn’t take much to turn that around.  Breaking the habits of a working lifetime can actually be relatively easy once you recognise where you’ve come from and how it shapes your thinking.  The most dangerous course of action is to assume that what’s served in the past will serve in the future.  Once that hurdle is overcome, what makes you good at your job today can make you even better at your job in the future, as it opens a whole range of possibilities that the rules simply don’t anticipate.

Innovation adoption, Socio-technical, Technological change
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  1. […] is required ever more than before to counter the ever more changing environment. As I typed this, this article […]


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