The can’t is a lie. Bureaucracies and innovation

Can you think of a well-defined and -implemented process at your work that most of your colleagues would adhere to to optimize operations? A way of performing a task that you are convinced most people would follow? Yeah, right. Anything from management reporting to onboarding processes.

Now, can you think of a well-defined and -implemented methodology at your work that most of your colleagues use when they get an idea of how to change work for the better? Not? In fact, how many value-adding innovations do you remember were implemented at your work? Perhaps you can think of none, because there is a dedicated department or role at your work to address innovation challenges.

You get the point. Processes and systems are widespread and well recognized throughout the organization – and fully dominating the picture in large corporations and government agencies. This is fine as long as the external environment (competitors, technologies, threats) is static. However, in times of significant change or disruption (demand, technologies, war), our well-known processes are doomed to fail. Why? Processes and skills direct our behaviour in known situations. Think about it? How can you train your skills for something you don’t know?

You cannot go through life without change. As a matter of fact, change and innovation is a continuous event in all successful organizations. So, it is quite a paradox that you answered ‘no’ (you did, didn’t you?) to my question about the method for innovation at your work.

But you are not alone. This paradox is dominating in most large corporations and government agencies. And this is why large corporations lack competitiveness vis-à-vis their minors / start-ups over and over.

In order to innovate effectively we have to get rid of the dominating processes that prove effective when corporate life is in cruise mode. And while other processes / methodologies will help you onto a better track in times of change and innovation (lean start-up methodology, ideation, incubation), the mindset must change too.

Why? Because while skills direct our behaviour in known situations, attributes direct us in situations of stress and uncertainty. Beneath obvious skills our surprising core attributes prove to be hidden drivers of performance – including cunning, adaptability, courage, even narcissism – which determine how resilient or perseverant we are, how situationally aware and how conscientious we are (Rich Diviney).

This should have dramatic impact on how you design your organization. The right processes for static situations, the right attributes for changing situations. Roughly speaking.

While bureaucracy eliminates human errors – exactly as it should do – it also punishes the inevitable deviations and failures of a learning and discovery process. Innovation is based on irregularity, so in times of change bureaucracies – with all its processes and systems and managers (controllers) – must dismiss or heavily re-prioritize the very core DNA (the structure it set up) in order to reach a new horizon, which may lead to a new static situation.

Much too often I hear hard working professionals say they can’t perform a task differently with reference to ‘how we do things around here’ (processes). But the unconventional and innovative thinking is exactly what is needed.

In times of change, the can’t is a lie.