Innovation is the Opposite of Policy

Lois Kelly and I are regularly amazed and humbled by the resonance that Rebels at Work continues to have. And just when we think there aren’t any new wrinkles out there for us to share, we come across a new voice.

Daniel Hulter is in the US Air Force. He is writing about innovation on LinkedIn. And he shared a piece recently that made a wonderful and necessary distinction between innovation as the glamorous endeavors of Mavericks and the almost routine actions of individuals who figure out the right thing to do in any given situation. Like the individual in a bureaucracy who has the wisdom to see that a policy, written forty years ago by individuals perhaps no longer on this mortal coil, cannot be followed in a particular human situation.

Hulter has the hunch—and we agree—that if organizations worried more about encouraging the latter and less about their flagship innovation projects, they would improve just as quickly with less sturm und drang. A simple and meaningful definition of Innovation is the Opposite of Policy. Policy incorporates what the past has told us about the best way to do something—and let me just say that the “best way” incorporates a whole set of assumptions that merit examination. For example, organizations often think that smooth operations are the BEST operations; the desire for smoothness, however, can trample over other good things such as diversity of thought and trying out new ideas.

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But let me add a qualifier. Not all policies are bad and not all innovation is good. Amy from Minneapolis (not his real name) wrote me to complain that it’s not a good thing when employees in a large organization ignore security policies and thus open themselves to malicious hacking. Some policies are worth having and some innovations are just stupid. It is an annoying fact of life that to navigate it successfully you must learn to maneuver through the grey. Shades of grey are difficult to distinguish from black or white. What I thought was a simple matter turns out more nuanced. That’s why you need allies, disagreeable givers, a wild pack, and, yes, even opponents to help you see.