Change is perhaps one of the few constants that we encounter on a day-to-day basis. Innovative ideas surround us. Small and large companies continually introduce new products that take advantage of the innovations. Most organizations usually surround the innovators with a well-oiled corporate structure that sets down various ground rules to control and coordinate the way their employees work. Those rules, though, may actually stifle innovation. Unfortunately in many cases, no one can recognize that the rules are holding people back because most employees are pretty comfortable with them.
Rules don't have to be onerous to be restricting. They represent a frame of mind that people won't lose—from things as simple as keeping to the right when walking down a hallway, to following certain layout guidelines when creating a product data sheet. Still, we can't just throw out all the rules and work day-to-day. Rules can be changed. But if changes are made, who can say how onerous the changed rules will be? Will that bring us back to square one, or send us down a dead end?
So, it's up to us to occasionally break the rules and test the boundaries when we want to do something out of the ordinary. Breaking rules, although frustrating to the people responsible for keeping order, can usually expose inadequate or outdated approaches, as well as stimulate additional ideas for improvements. To some extent, the challenge is in knowing how much the rules can be broken or bent before the system bites back (reprimands, dismissals, and so on).
Most corporate structures will resist change, just like objects in physics—objects at rest or in equilibrium will resist changes that put them into motion. To spark change and innovation, we have to find the delicate line, which when crossed, will put the system into motion, but not go so far as to put the system into chaos. Once in a while, some limited form of controlled chaos can also add value by reawakening a highly complacent organization. Plus, once the system is in motion, it will need continual inputs to keep it in motion, lest it fall back to a new equilibrium.
Complacency, or the attitude that "we've always done it this way," has no place in an organization that must survive in today's highly competitive marketplace. Rocking the boat, though, isn't comfortable for many of us. We tend to think of ourselves as loyal employees who support our company. So if the company's objective is to introduce innovative new products, wouldn't we be remiss in our support of the company if we didn't break some rules to try to further enhance the company's ability to compete?
There's nothing wrong with following rules, as long as they're the "correct" set of rules. How does your organization stack up? What should it do to encourage innovation?