Thursday, February 14, 2013

Structure and innovation: the tipping point

There are some interesting coincidences about life on earth.  For example, if the Earth were just a bit closer or a bit further from the sun in its orbit, life as we know it wouldn't exist.  And, while we need oxygen to survive, the atmosphere has a nice mixture of oxygen and other gases that we don't require to live, and if the oxygen level were much higher life would be difficult.  In other words, there are many factors and attributes that work together in harmony, even if in isolation they would appear to be antagonistic.  The same is true with creativity, structure and innovation.

Like many things in life, the far ends of the spectrum are often compelling but very ineffective.  In the case of innovation, at one end of the spectrum we find the "no structure" advocates.  These individuals believe that innovation and creativity reject all structure or process.  Innovation is innate and obvious, and will progress based on mutual recognition of value.  Innovation is effortless, spontaneous and continuous, just waiting for us to commercialize.  On the other end of the spectrum is structure, process, concreteness, the ability to document, justify and prove.  Innovation at this end of the spectrum is the outcome of carefully designed methodologies, concrete evidence and risk reduction.  Innovation is a checklist or formula and we provide little room for divergence or creativity.  Clearly, I'm creating illustrative examples at the extreme ends of the innovation spectrum for a reason:  I really want to write about the tipping point.  Not Gladwell's Tipping Point, but the tipping point that occurs when we add just the next ounce of structure and process that begins to hinder true innovation and creativity.

For those creative types who worry about structure and process hindering innovation, you can rest assured that there is such a thing as too much structure and process.  On the other hand, while ideas may be created in a completely free form environment, without some structures and processes it is exceptionally difficult to transition the idea into a new product or service.  So, I think we can stipulate that some structure or process is necessary, if for nothing else to determine the usefulness, validity and ultimately the commercial viability of the final product.  Process adherents (and I confess I can be in this camp) like to document everything, define everything and "lock down" all aspects of an activity.  One can constrain innovation to a checklist, but what you lose is true insight, true creativity and breadth and depth of scope.  Fully constrained innovation becomes fully incremental innovation, and eventually simply continuous improvement.  Too many constraints, forms, templates, structures and processes limit innovation.

That means that somewhere between the two extremes exists a tipping point - a place where full creativity and the lack of structure reaches a balance with purposeful, valuable and necessary structures and processes.  Move much more toward additional structure and you begin to limit and stifle creativity and innovation outcomes.  Move much more toward freedom and creativity and you lose the ability to manage, develop and commercialize ideas.  Where does the tipping point reside?

To a certain extent that depends on the maturity of your organization, the ability of the staff and culture to recognize and sustain innovation and the existing business as usual culture.  In organizations where purposeful innovation is fairly new, the tipping point is closer to the regimented side, since there are few widely distributed capabilities or tools.  As an organization gains experience innovating, the structure and rigidity become less important, as innate skills and culture learn to shape and manage ideas more effectively.

Balancing structure and freedom, processes and creativity is an art, not a science.  Your innovation activities need enough structure to identify and commercialize great ideas effectively, but not so much structure that people are stymied or slowed by processes, forms and decisions.  To a great extent this is a cultural phenomenon, which means hard and fast rules don't apply.  But, like another Gladwell tome, Blink, suggests, there are those of us who've seen enough examples that we can tell you fairly quickly where the appropriate balance is now, and in the future.

There are many example of the old saying "too much of a good thing".  Too much structure stymies innovation, while too much freedom often doesn't result in viable, practical solutions.  Balancing creativity and freedom with structure and process optimizes innovation outcomes.  The trick is finding the right balance, and staying in balance as your organization matures.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 12:56 PM


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