Bureaucracy — Innovation's Archenemy
In addition to close-minded leaders and teams, nothing will suck the life blood out of innovation quicker than bureaucracy. There, I've said it! In an attempt to turn chaos into calm, an inordinate number of organizational hurdles and obstacles have been implemented with great intentions, but with disastrous and oftentimes unintended consequences. As a result, laborious decision-making frameworks and policies continue to exert a stranglehold on organizations. Put another way, "Bureaucracy is the technology of control. It is ideologically and practically opposed to disorder and irregularity. Problem is, in an age of discontinuity, it's the irregular people with irregular ideas who create the irregular business models that generate the irregular returns...Unfettered controlism cripples organizational vitality." (Harvard Business Review, "Bureaucracy Must Die", November, 2014) Unfortunately, too few leaders have the courage, passion and energy to confront bureaucracy insanity.
Striking the Right Balance
Can we abolish all organizational policies and practices? Certainly not! Organizations that lack some level of precision, consistency and predictability are doomed. Operating in a wild west environment is not only unhealthy, it's unsustainable. Left unchecked, free-for-alls create a no man's land between external/internal sales and operations, leading to angst and instability, followed by a steep decline in self-accountability and initiative. Predictable Success author Les McKeown has coined no man's land as "whitewater" — where decision making becomes more difficult, lines of communication become blurred, navigation becomes more complex and execution becomes more difficult.
What we CAN DO specific to policy and decision-making is the following:
- Swiftly identify existing obstructions, enthusiastically interrogate roadblocks and accelerate their mitigations.
- Be equally passionate about unleashing creativity as we are about creating predictability.
- Mindfully and exhaustively identify intended and unintended consequences prior to policy adoption.
- Rethink and reshape our risk and reward models — policies and decision frameworks are necessary, but at what cost?
Additionally, we must experiment. Taking a page out of Intuit Founder and Chairman Scott Cook's play book...
" Normally, companies put up a phalanx of barriers and hurdles and mountains to climb that may not seem hard for the boss or the CEO, but are intensely hard, impossibly hard, for our young innovators to conquer. So our job as leaders is how do we get all of those barriers out of the way? If I had to point to one thing that's made the biggest difference at Intuit — and there's a package of things — it was to change how we make decisions, whenever possible, from decision by bureaucracy, decision by PowerPoint, persuasion, position, power, to decision by experiment. (McKinsey Insights & Publications, "How Big Companies Can Innovate", February 2015.)
Taking Risks and Experimenting - Is This Crazy Talk?
While risk taking and experimenting are the hallmarks of start-ups, many incumbents laden in bureaucracy are perpetuating the myth that risking taking and experimentation are BAD! Fortunately, some incumbents are shattering that myth. Case in point — 2015's Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show (CES) — a whopping 2.2 million square feet of exhibit space that is packed edge-to-edge with innovative technologies. Which incumbents and their disruptive innovations caught Forbes'1 eye in 4 of 5 innovation categories?
- Toyota's Mirai hydrogen fuel cell vehicle emits nothing but water.
- Audi's console can be removed and replaced like a tablet computer.
- VW's ultrasonic technology can predict where you'll find a parking space.
- Health and Fitness:
- Sleep Number is debuting SleepIQ that measures and reports sleep patterns.
- iHealth (Andon Health subsidiary) has created the world's smallest, most portable glucometer.
- 3D Systems developed CoCoJet, ideal for chocolatiers and bakers who can print custom designs in dark, milk or white chocolate. 3D will soon be releasing ChefJet, which will allow cake decorators and candy makers to prepare then print elaborate designs.
- Internet of Things (IoT)
- Intel's IoT solutions offer even smaller and more powerful components that can be embedded into everything that isn't already "smart".
- Parrott's Smart Pot has built-in sensors that measure temperature, moisture, sunlight and fertilizer levels.
- Belkin's WeMo line of smart home offerings can now monitor water and power usage and identify, from a single location, such as the breaker box, multiple devices and their individual performance.
The above companies didn't accidentally stumble upon innovative products and services. Intuit's Scott Cook states that he, and disruptive innovation leaders in general, intentionally "...put in a series of systems and culture where the expectation is that if there's an idea that someone's passionate about, we'll make it easy, fast and cheap for them to run an experiment. Strip it down to what leap-of-faith assumption you want to prove, and how you can run an experiment next week or next month, to test that idea."
Now some of you may be saying "The CES examples aren't relevant to my company since we provide services, not products." My response is three-fold:
- Forbes' "The World's Most Innovative Companies" list can be sorted by industry, naming multiple service industries and companies within those industries.
- All you need to do is launch your internet browser, enter "2015 innovative disruptors <your industry>", and voilà, you can select numerous links that will take you to the top technology innovations within your service industry plus their early adopters. While you may not be developing innovative products, you can certainly become an early disruptive innovation technology adopter. Here's an example specific to healthcare: 10 Biggest Innovations in Health Care Technology in 2015
- In one of my recent blogs, "Empathy - The Heart of Customer-Centric Innovation", product and service companies alike have a great opportunity to pursue disruptive innovation in the customer experience and service delivery spaces.
Do You Have the Courage, Passion and Energy?
Whether we're leading a start-up or incumbent, or whether we're in the product or service industry, we can't take risks, we can't experiment and we can't become innovative if we're unwilling to confront bureaucracy as it taunts us at every twist and turn in the road. Challenging bureaucracy is not only unpopular, it's also incredibly time consuming and mentally exhausting. That said, as authentic leaders we must challenge bureaucratic ideologies and promote and foster organizational enlightenment and agility if we are to do something truly amazing for our customers!
1 Forbes, "The Five Most Disruptive Innovations at CES 2015", January, 2015.