Conformity and Innovation

I am not a big believer in conformity. My view of conformity is that it is a means of control. It is a manner in which to ensure that the status quo remains, that the population does not question and that everyone has the same information available to them.

Think of the educational system. From grade school through to the end of high school, we learn the same information. We are taught to do things the same way. We are told that school develops and reinforces social skills. We are told to play nice and not to stand out. Don’t be an individual, teamwork is the only way. Why is that? Because it is a means to an end. Now don’t get me wrong. I believe education builds knowledge. I believe school can teach a lot of valuable life lessons. But I also recognize that there is a certain mold that students are forced to subscribe to if they are to succeed in school.

Have you ever heard a student say, especially in grade school, I finished my work early but my teacher told me I cannot progress farther and must wait for everyone else. I have and I think it sucks. Here is a student trying to advance themselves and the existing establishment is saying “You need to wait for everyone else”, which to me is the same as saying “You’re not conforming”.

Now let’s fast forward a few school years and give a prime example of what non-conforming can do. I think a lot of people have seen the movie about Facebook. There is a particular scene which really drives the point home – it’s the scene where Zuckerberg is hauled in front of the committee at Harvard in an attempt by the school to discipline him for his actions. It’s obvious what they were attempting to do – force him to conform. To tell him- “what you did is not nice and you need to be reprimanded”. I think most people were shocked at his response – essentially telling the establishment he did them a favor. But why was anyone surprised at his response? Innovation doesn’t happen by following the status quo. Creativity is not created by listening to what you’re taught. It’s by doing things that you’re not taught.

The willingness to go outside the norm, to question what you’re told and to push the boundaries is what enabled us to create the world we have today. Not willing to conform is in essence the same as being willing to innovate. Imagine if Zuckerberg had instead just agreed. His reprimand might have left him feeling dejected and it might have been the last straw that quashed any innovation and creativity he had. And then we wouldn’t have what we have.

Conformity is innovation’s enemy. Don’t forget it.

Risk and Reward: Manager Profiles and Innovation Outcomes

One of the interesting challenges that managers face is the tension between expectations of senior leaders that managers minimize risks for their organizations while also motivating their direct reports to be more innovative. Finding a balance is no easy task, as managers consider the impact of decision-making on their reputation, job security, the impact decisions might have on their direct reports, and the short- and long-term impact of their decision-making on their organization.

Consider the following management profiles and the possible outcomes of these mindsets:

HIGH RISK AVOIDER – This manager defaults to the safest possible decision and encourages his or her direct reports to do the same. The manager will rely heavily on established policies and procedures and punish his or her employees who do not carefully follow these guidelines. This fosters a culture of risk avoidance in this unit. Employees that will thrive in this environment are those that like a predictable routine and are reassured by the presence of clear parameters for decision-making. This manager will likely push any risk up the chain of command rather than making a tough call himself or herself.

HIGH RISK TOLERATOR – This manager is very comfortable with risk and encourages his or her employees to test the boundaries of policies and procedures when a possible benefit can be seen for the company. This manager expects that his or her employees will fail and make mistakes and accepts this is the cost of doing business on the cutting edge. The manager will encourage employees to try new things and step outside of their comfort zones, rewarding them when they successfully innovate but avoid punishments that might stifle future innovation. Employees that will thrive in this environment are those that enjoy autonomy, are comfortable with change, and naturally look for new and better ways of doing things. This manager will likely assume responsibility for decision-making and look to upper management for the financial support and latitude to achieve innovative outcomes.

MODERATE RISK MANAGER – This manager is willing to take calculated risks and recognizes that he or she may forego major innovations when the potential for success seems slim. He or she will likely encourage employees to keep their eye out for opportunities and allow latitude for deviations from policy or process, but feel more comfortable if the employees discuss anything beyond minor risks with him or her before moving forward. This manager is likely to forgive minor missteps as a result of innovative activities, but large-scale mistakes would not be expected or accepted without repercussions. Employees that will thrive in this environment are those who appreciate the opportunity to be creative, but prefer to defer to managers when greater risks are apparent. This manager will likely involve upper management before taking action on riskier decisions in the same way he or she expects to be involved in these decisions with his or her direct reports.

It is important for managers to recognize that the way that they approach risk in their business unit and the value they place on innovation must be in alignment. A manager cannot expect to play it completely safe and also generate large-scale innovations. How employees are rewarded (and punished) influences the way that they approach problems and their willingness to try new things.

There is no “right” way, as each approach has its own benefits and drawbacks. High risk managers are probably not well suited for managing nuclear power plants. High risk avoiders are probably not well suited for working on Wall Street. A moderate approach is not a silver bullet compromise either. Small incremental changes may be great in a large bureaucracy, but equally harmful if the next great innovation would be missed because it appeared too risky on the surface.

Innovation and the Experimental Mindset

When you’re watching a toddler learn to walk and she falls, you don’t wonder if she should quit trying to walk. Instead you know she is on a learning curve. Innovation requires experimentation. And experimentation requires a mindset focused more on learning than on getting it right.

Key elements of that mindset?

— When something doesn’t come out the way you planned, it’s not a failure; it’s an opportunity to learn what doesn’t work. Just like that toddler learning to walk.

— Focus on relationships as a context for learning. If others are involved in the experiment in some way, make a connection with them. When we feel connected to someone, we are less likely to punish a “mistake” and more likely to support the learning.

— Think about a margin for error. If you’re changing a process, be sure you can revert back to the old process if necessary. That way you can feel free to try things that might not work. Although some advocate that you burn the ships when you land so there is no turning back, in many cases you can take more risks if you leave yourself a way back.

What is the fastest way to kill experimentation? Develop a mentality that it’s more important to blame someone for a problem than it is to learn from the problem. That will ensure that everyone spends a lot of time spent making themselves look good and distancing themselves from problems. When those are the priorities, experimentation, learning and innovation will die off pretty quickly.

On the other hand, adopting the key elements above will help keep an experimental mindset alive in your organization. That can help you and your organization be more innovative every day and it makes work more fun!