Freedom Can Limit Innovation

September 22, 2011  

InnovationOver the past couple of weeks, I have had the identical conversation with several different clients. Apparently, there is an existing belief that if you want to instill a mindset of creativity, you need to have less “structure.” To some degree that is true. But unfortunately, most companies, when undergoing this kind of change, swing too radically to the other side.

One company that has been autocratic for decades now wants to be more innovative. Their belief is that they can accomplish this by letting people do what they want to do, in turn, enhancing their competitive position.

Another organization wants it’s employees to be more creative. They are now encouraging people to “think outside the box” while giving them minimal constraints.

In both of these cases, the company is going from a highly structured and bureaucratic approach to one that is a bit of a free-for-all. Sadly, and often surprisingly, swinging the pendulum that far in the other direction might also kill creativity and innovation.

To illustrate this point, there is an exercise I conduct with my clients that is simple yet powerful. I won’t go into all of the details here as I describe it in my new book, Best Practices Are Stupid: 40 Ways to Out-Innovate the Competition (available one week from today!). But here’s a short version…

Exercise #1: People are asked to list a number of ways in which they can use a brick. They are given no restrictions (unbounded). I give them about a minute. Typical answers involve using it as a paperweight, a door stop, or a weapon.

Exercise #2: Then they are asked to identify something random (e.g., on the body, in the kitchen, in a marriage) and are to find all of the uses of a brick for that. For example, if “a kitchen” were the random context, people might find uses like heating it up to make paninis, flattening a lump of dough, or using it as a trivet.

When I ask groups which approach – #1 (unbounded) or #2 (connecting to something random) – yields more creative solutions, nearly 90% of audiences choose the second way. In fact, when we take the time to evaluate the uses, there is indeed much greater divergence when using the second method. The first approach tends to yield a lot of common solutions.

In some respects, this seems counterintuitive. By bounding people we actually increase creativity.

How can this be applied in a business setting?

A client, in an attempt to expand, is always looking at ways to branch into new markets. To accomplish this, they used to ask employees the unbounded question, “How can we adapt our (commodity) product to new markets?” Unfortunately they found that most suggestions were mundane. Therefore, as a way of increasing their level of creativity, they created a list of 200 different industries/roles (one for each business day of the year) and posted it on their wall. Each day management chose a different industry/role from the list (e.g., toll booth collectors, nurses/healthcare, or librarians) and used that to brainstorm new opportunities for their product for that industry/role. They found that they generated greater insights when bounding the conversation around a specific market segment.

In this case, more structure increased creativity.

The same is true when it comes to organization structures. For this, I use jazz and classical music as the metaphors.

Most organizations, in the past, have been designed like classical symphonies. Large compositions (processes, policies and procedures) where employees were expected to perform rote, note by note, exactly as written. There was very little room for creativity or improvisation.

But some organizations, in their attempt to increase their level of innovation, have decided to throw out all structures. Power to the people. However this leads to chaos, not innovation. There is no coordination between individuals or groups. The level of work redundancy is high. And the level of collaboration is low. If you brought together a bunch of musicians and didn’t give them any structure, they would not be able to play anything that resembles music.

Therefore, organizations would better benefit by structuring themselves like jazz music. Jazz is not random. There is a simple structure – like a 12 bar B flat blues – that enables the musicians to collaborate and play together while improvising their own parts. Adding structure, in this case, allows innovation to emerge in the moment when it is needed most.

Although it might be tempting to throw structure out the window in the name of innovation, this may kill the very thing you want. Paradoxically, more structure often leads to greater innovation.

P.S. The brick exercise, as it is described in Best Practices Are Stupid, makes several other important points on innovation and breakthrough thinking.

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