Monday, March 29, 2021

Innovation guardrails

 Have you ever been driving along a dark road at night, and been thankful for the guardrails that line the roadside?  Of course, if the road is relatively flat and straight, guard rails are not very important, except to keep you out of the oncoming lane.  But consider a high mountain pass, with rock facings on one side and a relatively sheer drop just off the other side.  In that setting, on a dark night in poor conditions, you'd be very happy to have a guardrail there, to keep you from plunging over the edge if you made a fatal driving mistake.

In this regard, guardrails are like corporate culture and unwritten rules.  When the way is easy and you stick to the straight and narrow, the culture reinforces you, gives you comfort.  When the way is more challenging or difficult, the reverse may be true.  The culture acts as guardrails to keep you in line, to keep you from going beyond what the culture or unwritten rules feels is appropriate.

Then you have to ask yourself - are the guardrails there to keep me in (limiting exploration) or to keep me from crashing (to allow some exploration but keep you from the worst accidents possible)?

Like a trained elephant we limit ourselves

I've written before about elephants that are trained when they are young to stay in one place with a leg collar.  They learn when they are young that they cannot pull the anchor out, so they act passively.  However, when the elephant grows larger it has the power to pull out the anchor, but it accepts its training that it cannot pull the anchor up.  We in the corporate world are very much like the elephant.  We have been trained by our executives, our peers, our culture and by society in general that we should stay in the straight and narrow, watching but never approaching the guardrails.  This helps organizations operate efficiently, when everyone knows their role and their place and never varies or creates exceptions.

This limits innovation, however, because it is difficult to create interesting ideas to begin with, and more difficult to find people, time and resources to develop the ideas, while simultaneously fighting with the culture and feeling like the guardrails are pushing you back to status quo.

Culture isn't wrong, but our interpretation may be unhelpful

So, again I ask - is the guardrail there to keep you on the straight and narrow, or is it there to help you avoid the worst crashes?  I guess this is a subtle difference, but it grows in magnitude when we consider corporate culture as the guardrail.  Is corporate culture there to force you to think in a specific way, to create automatons of us all or is it there to guide thinking and help you make better decisions?  I'd like to think that culture, its unwritten rules and its compensation models are there to encourage innovation, risk taking and new growth, but we are so aware of what "not to do" that we read corporate culture too literally.

What does your culture actually say about innovation?  What does it accept, encourage and nurture?  What does it avoid or attempt to block?  Could you be reading your culture too narrowly, or is your corporate culture really not a guardrail but a guide rail, like those kiddie rides that dictate exactly where the car will go, regardless of how you steer?

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 1:56 PM


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