All work and no play: how to strangle innovation

HRZone recently published an interesting article by Emma Littmoden, partner at The Living Leader, called Can HR devise rules that stimulate not stifle innovation? A question that begged for a response – possibly a fairly abrupt one – from the organisational equivalent of ‘the cheap seats’, I thought, so it’s lack of comments so far comes as a surprise. Perhaps everyone else’s HR departments have issued memos banning employees from posting comments at HRZone?

There were quite a few points I wanted to pick Emma up on, in the nicest possible way. First of these was her surprise at Apple’s apparent introduction of stern social media protocols, given the money it makes from handheld devices that encourage ‘the free-flowing ideas of the individuals on the payroll’. Once some of the world had stopped loading candle apps on their iPads and leaving £400’s worth of hi-tech equipment outside shops to mourn Steve Jobs (I’m no accountant, but a tea-light would have said the same, and been far cheaper and less of a personal data security risk), I got the impression that the control-freak tendencies of the recently deceased were aired more freely than previously. And Apple, for all the design savvy of its products (for which thanks should strictly speaking go to Johnny Ive), is a company that makes it very hard to dig beneath the OS, install open source software, and is very keen that we load our (very profitable) new toys with apps, tunes, books, movies and so on bought from an online store that very much runs by their rules. Apple’s version of the world is impeccably stylish, but pretty tightly closed. I’m not sure everyone wants to rule the world, but Apple is keener than most: their internal application of the tendency didn’t surprise me in the least.

The second point at which I paused mentally was her final point:

Responsible staff understand that for a group of individuals to function together in an effective way, there needs to be an agreed set of protocols. If these are developed in consultation and respect for the impact on valued employees, then their feeling of involvement and ownership can be maintained, even grown.”

The opening words generated a reflex wince: I can’t read that without thinking that “Responsible staff understand” is the kind of opening to a sentence that leaves the firm impression that a) the author considers themselves to speak from a position of authority, and b) has no intention of being disagreed with. When I encountered “for the impact on valued employees” in the next sentence, I’m afraid I winced again. I’m not inclined to be irresponsible or unvalued, but the tacit condescension the paragraph – I hope unintentionally – left me feeling that I might be more inclined to be so if I was on the receiving end of too many more sentences. Surely if HR want people to feel involved and to have a sense of ownership, dividing the responsible from the irresponsible and the valued from the chaff isn’t the most optimistic first step? Some of the people I’ve worked with over the years might have said something quite unpleasant about the horse she rode in on.

But I’m being discourteous to someone I’ve never met, so I’ll apologise. The article’s central argument – that there should be a trade off between protocols, rules and procedures on one hand and creativity on the other, and the tone of delivery of the message is critically important – is an important one, and one that should be central to innovation. But I think the article missed two bigger points.

The first can’t be made without being sweepingly rude about HR as an entire profession, but here goes … I strongly suspect that a large percentage of the working population of the UK routinely does things that HR have issued memos, guidelines, handbooks, procedural documents and entire intranets sternly warning them against doing. There, I said it. Civilisation didn’t end, the ceiling is still intact, and no-one got struck by lightning. Most people are too far from the watchful eyes of HR most of the time to be policed, monitored and cajoled to the nth degree. While the cats are safely occupied in their office on the 6th floor, guess what the mice will get up to?

HR communications might perhaps give a message – intentional or otherwise – that anything that strays from written diktats will lead to the massacre of the first-born, and people with immense latent creativity might move on to more agreeable shores. But, in most organisations, I don’t think HR is close enough to the action to actually stifle innovation.

The second, rather bigger point that Emma’s article missed was, with due respect, an open goal. Indeed, the point was sitting right there in its title: actually stimulating innovation never quite made an appearance. The argument began and ended with “There have to be some rules: anyone sensible knows that”, but what the rules were to achieve didn’t quite heave into view. Given the distance between HR and day-to-day working life, that’s perhaps not so surprising. But another article – published in McKinsey Quarterly – seemed to strike nearer the mark, addressing the behaviour of people who might rather more directly impact on the working life of others: How leaders kill meaning at work. The opening paragraph makes its point pretty directly:

As a senior executive, you may think you know what Job Number 1 is: developing a killer strategy. In fact, this is only Job 1a. You have a second, equally important task. Call it Job 1b: enabling the ongoing engagement and everyday progress of the people in the trenches of your organization who strive to execute that strategy. A multiyear research project whose results we described in our recent book, The Progress Principle, found that of all the events that can deeply engage people in their jobs, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”

I’m not sure that McKinsey got the target group for its message entirely right: the most powerful influence on workplace behaviour – and learning (application), work satisfaction, engagement and more besides – is the line manager, rather than the ‘Senior Executive’ per se, although McKinsey can perhaps be forgiven for addressing its most probable readership. Indeed, they acknowledge this in a later, important paragraph that – to my mind – came rather closer to identifying where many organisations stifle, rather than stimulate, innovation:

[…] managers at all levels routinely—and unwittingly—undermine the meaningfulness of work for their direct subordinates through everyday words and actions. These include dismissing the importance of subordinates’ work or ideas, destroying a sense of ownership by switching people off project teams before work is finalized, shifting goals so frequently that people despair that their work will ever see the light of day, and neglecting to keep subordinates up to date on changing priorities for customers.”

And perhaps it’s mere coincidence, but their points also echo findings into the most common factors that enhance workplace engagement (feeling that you are making a valued contribution, having a sense of ‘voice’ and the opportunity to take ownership of tasks or responsibilities that you can develop).

The same is true of some of the more important factors that work against successful transfer and application of learning, where a lack of opportunity to practise and a lack of line manager support and encouragement make the Workplace Environment group of learning transfer factors among the least frequently used. If you’d like to read more, you can request a copy of the Learning Transfer 2010 Report – the findings of the first national survey into learning transfer practice in the UK. As one of the respondents to the survey was moved to comment:

I would estimate that millions of pounds are wasted on training in the UK where learners are unable to put what has been learned to use due to other more pressing matters or managers’ lack of support in encouraging learners to apply their freshly invigorated skills-sets back in the workplace. Enlightened leaders are aware of this and challenge their staff to apply new skills and share knew knowledge straight away.”

There’s plenty of good reading to be had about how innovation comes about, and ways in which it can be helped to blossom – one starting point might be our earlier review of Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From. There’s excellent reading in Gwyn Teatro’s blog post Encouraging Innovation & The Story of the 5 Monkeys (where one of the commenters points out a more valuable side of Steve Jobs, triggered by an interest in calligraphy and a belief that things could be beautiful). The idea of allowing people the space and latitude to be creative is undoubtedly important: as we commented in an online Q&A session with Peter Cook:

There’s an argument that ‘play’ means more that celebrating success and creating great places to work – that it involves giving people the space and the permission to experiment a little, or to extemporise from processes and procedures. Through play, through loose rather than strict interpretation, can come ‘happy accidents’ – serendipitous moments that provide real breakthroughs and insights. These are essential by-products of the quirkiness of people: if human capital is the golden goose, these are the free-range eggs.”

But, to answer Emma Littmoden’s rhetorical question, an HR team that’s aware that innovation needs stimulating within its organisation might want to consider talking to the managers rather than just revising the rules for the employees. It might be not the rules that need changing, but the nature and culture of the game.

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