Environment: Does it Prevent or Promote Innovation?
IN THIS ARTICLE:
policy and your vision
How to overcome the
restrictions of policies to drive innovation
structure can help or hinder innovation
Driving innovation in
Innovative organizations exist when employees have the freedom
to be creative and develop new ideas, products, services and
ways of doing work.
If you’re planning to lead innovation in your workplace, look at
the organizational environment. It will either inspire
creativity. Or inhibit it.
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
Communication of your vision
Policies versus Vision
Policies can severely inhibit creativity. Especially in large
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
It’s all a shame. Used wisely, policies should boost
creativity. In practice they don’t.
Policies aren’t always bad
Generally, policies aren’t 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 quite formal –
especially junior managers – they are reluctant to withdraw or
ignore them. So policies are followed religiously even when
they’re no longer relevant or helpful.
Organizations that follow rules and don’t change their policies
quickly becomes antiquated, inflexible and dead.
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 do I know if a
policy or rule needs to be withdrawn? And secondly, how do
members of my 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
And innovative organizations generally have very focused
They’re 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
The CEO stands up one day and declares, “We need flexible
working conditions so staff have the right work/life balance.”
But she never rescinds the HR policies that require all staff to
be at their desks by 9am. 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 there’s a brave manager.
So the answer to our first question is that 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
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 don’t exist for minutiae but
their vision. However, policy ends up carrying more weight than
the vision itself.
For example, the US Defense Department deploys thousands of
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
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 it’s consistent with your vision. And then you throw out
any rules undermine your vision.
Second, get your employees to focus on the vision by. Give 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 miss 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 shouldn’t 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.
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
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
When someone discovers a great idea it gets passed through
numerous managers before it reaches the person who can make a
And of course, any questions the decision-maker has, have to 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
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. More conversations that lead to collaboration.
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 isn’t easy
either. But it’s worth it. It gives your people the freedom to
work outside the box and further your organization’s innovation.
If you need help working on your vision, reviewing your policies
or thinking through these concepts, talk to Talkshow as we can
help with coaching, consulting, workshops and motivational