Why Innovation Requires Rules

By Paul Hebert

When you hear the word innovation most people think, new, groundbreaking, disruptive, interesting, free-form. The word doesn’t evoke images of strict processes and rules. Yet my experience working with most companies is that rules are required for creating innovative ideas and processes.

Let me set up this discussion with a story.

About 10 years ago, we took in one of my son’s friends to live with us for a short time. He was from an unstable family – father absent, mother who paid little attention to him, step brothers who got more attention than him and picked on him, stayed at random homes during the week. He asked me if he could stay with us. He was 13 at the time. We asked his mom and she said sure. That sums up the situation right there. But this isn’t a story about how to raise kids. This is a story about how to drive innovation.

One day, we were sitting around talking with the kids (ours +1) and our guest says…

“I like it here with you guys. You have rules. I like that.”

Think about that for a minute. You would think that a 13-year-old boy would love to live in a world without rules. Running wild, all “Lord of the Flies.” But no. He was happier living with the rules we held him to… the same as our own children. He wanted the rules. He needed those rules.

Now think about innovation for a second. Innovation in business is about finding new products and services that customers will find valuable enough to pay for, or that inform and support existing products that help your company demand greater price/margin than your competition. For many companies the process of innovation is foreign to the work they do every day. If you really dig into it, many of jobs in a company are designed to perpetuate existing services and products driving business results. In other words, all the process, procedures, and rules are primarily designed to keep things moving in the same direction reducing variability (cost) and increasing profit. Even our HR processes and procedures can be very inflexible – fighting change.

Rules play a huge role in managing processes. Rules keep the trains running on time.

Rules remove doubt and remove fear.

Asking people to be innovative when their “normal” work is the antithesis of that is scary. Which is why innovation requires rules.

Most of your employees are skilled at keeping schedules and supporting the day-to-day work of the company. They have procedures and historical knowledge that informs and supports every decision they make each day. But when you step into the innovation world it gets a bit fuzzier. Your people are NOT skilled at innovation and that creates fear and uncertainty. You need to remove that fear and uncertainty. You can’t just set up a brainstorming session and expect the result to be innovative.

You need to give your people the rules and the “values” of innovation.

You need to makes sure they know…

  • Innovation is iterative. It’s not about getting the answer right the first time (unlike their normal job – employees assume you want them to be right every time.)
  • Innovation is a team sport. You’re not judging individuals (unlike their normal job – most companies still see performance as zero-sum activities.)
  • Innovation isn’t always about HUGE change. Sometimes a very small change can have huge impact. Set expectations around impact and movement not size (unlike their normal job where they see big ideas getting rewarded and little changes ignored.)

Like our 13-year-old guest… the lack of rules meant he had to evaluate every decision he made each day without the skills and understanding needed to make those decisions. Because we had “rules” for our house, we removed the fear and anxiety of doing something wrong. Having rules meant he could do what he was supposed to do… be 13. He didn’t have to be 30.

Your teams must be similarly prepared.

Don’t take a team trained, designed and comfortable with keeping the trains running on time and ask them to find a new form of transportation without giving them rules. They will be afraid. They will fail.

Give them rules for innovation – even little ones. It will help.

BTW – our young guest got his GED, works full-time in a plant and recently got married. He’s contributing and being what he is supposed to be. I’m not sure he’d be there if there weren’t some rules to help him along the way.

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