Creating technical innovation in a regimented world

Estimated reading time: 4 mins

In today’s climate of risk management, compliance, ITIL, Prince II and sophisticated management (the ‘regime’) innovation often loses out, as strict control of projects and operations demand repeatable, mature processes. A lot of investment goes into that situation, and changing them is costly and disruptive. So how inside a regime can innovation be stimulated without being shackled by the regimented status quo?

Actually, I don’t think there is a one-size fits all answer to this, as each organization has its own degree of rigour and bureacracy, as well as differences in choices of technology, culture, core values and leadership. But I do hope to offer some ideas, and I think they apply to any technical department.

In strict regimes, workers often prefer structure and to feel the comfort that a process has been established to perform and manage tasks. Innovation, by virtue, is a challenge to established methods and structures, which can cause workers to feel threatened or uncertain about the outcome.

So my first idea is to follow suit, by creating an ‘innovation framework’. Such a framework can support clear objectives (i.e. improve the performance of development by reducing cost by 25%), providing they are realistic, measurable and timebound.

The framework can support a process in which innovation is applied, and is perhaps key to its success. For example, an IT department could set aside one half-day a month as ‘thinking time’ where ideas are brought to the table as agenda items. Each idea is discussed openly and without being constrained by ‘other work’ outside of the discussion. The resulting discussion will generate actions that should be recorded in minutes, to be followed up in the spare time of the members or in agreed slots. Each action can be given a ‘budget’ of time and resources to complete.

The framework can also support groundrules so that any perception of anarchy is limited. For example, ideas in the formative stages shouldn’t be announced outside of the team, unless specific permission is granted. Another example is that ideas should be allowed to be discarded, but only by justification.

The framework can support an organization, but I think this is where it might differ from the wider organization norm. Rarely does innovation take hold if hierarchical courtesy is to be upheld and dissent hampered by seniority. I think in the framework, leadership needs to be ‘thought leadership’, so it may be likely that normally junior members of the department take ownership and lead the discussion. Ego’s mustn’t get in the way! However, the organization works best when there is a Chairperson, which may indeed be the most senior representative of the department, but this role must be there to ensure that the objectives of the framework are met, but not to preserve the power of the wider organization. Let me stress this. Innovation will not happen if the brains of the organization fear retribution for speaking up and challenging the status quo. Innovation will be stifled if the positional power of the organization is present and threatening (it doesn’t even have to be applied).

The framework can support a set of outputs for disclosure to stakeholders, demonstrating which ideas have floated to the surface for consideration by the wider organization. These ideas will often form projects and ‘proof of concepts’ which may result in change to the operation of the organization, and will require resourcing and funding. Any Exec worth their salt will want to see that ideas have been validated, challenged and endorsed by the brains of the outfit, and the framework is setup to achieve that.

My second idea is to form working parties that involve representatives from across the whole organization. This group should meet regularly to provide each other with honest feedback. This group should agree to allow equal representation and not allow bullying by more powerful departments. For example, a sales-led organization will observe a lot of power being exerted by the sales team. The needs of the sales team become regimented as the status quo, so therefore allowing sales to rule the roost in this group won’t change anything.

This group can be formed voluntarily and in most cases without the formal approval of senior management, providing that the decision-making goes up to the appropriate level. In my experience, the Exec body won’t feel threatened by this, and will normally welcome this display of initiative.

These ideas are but two ways of stimulating innovation. Both, in essence, involve allowing open challenge to the status quo, but have boundaries that can slot into the regimentation of the organization. The degree of which is down to you and the appetite or your organization!

This subject was suggested by Jay Amin from London (Thanks Jay)

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