Are rules killing innovation?


When was the last time a day went by without someone mentioning the word “Innovation”?

It is everywhere! Any business or educational article, blog, magazine seems incomplete without (at least) once mentioning the word.

While keying in this article, I checked up on the usage of the word in Google’s Ngram Viewer to check on a hunch & I was right.


Till recently the buzzword organizations preferred was “Imagination” which enjoyed the same glory as “Innovation” these days. Organizations were expected to have people with “Imagination” in order to come up with world class solutions. In the last few years, there was a decline of “Imagination” in books & gradually the focus shifted from people with “Imagination” to outcomes which are “Innovative”.

Every organization yearns to be innovative and have made considerable efforts to get there. While some have made it, most have just created the products with a new label. For unlike “imagination” of individual employees, “Innovation” is a more collective effort which requires conscious effort from the organization.

The motivation for this article came from HR expert Roberta Matuson’s article on the 4 (Dumb) Rules which could kill a company’s culture. The article got me recollecting the different scenarios or rules I have observed directly or heard accounts of, which kill innovation for an organization.

While few of these show their side effects right away, some slowly eat away till they can be discovered, by then the effects are irreversible. Most of these might appear obvious, but they happen more often that we can imagine.

To keep it short, I have tried to list 4 of the “Top” or most common scenarios or rules which can kill Innovation. This list is not exhaustive, so please feel free to build on it in the comments section.


Innovate using established and documented standards

Could be true if we are talking about Operations, when it comes to Innovation, it’s a completely different ball game. New Ideas needs New Platforms and standards to nurture & flourish. Most organizations have set standards such as Agile, Waterfall etc for Project Delivery. While these are proven to be effective, Innovation needs a platform which is more dynamic and whose foundation is centred on collaboration.

Though Agile Project Management tries to address these fundamental necessities, organizations which are in the competitive market where an extra day or two to introduce a product can cause losses in millions, things should be more than Agile, it should be Super Agile.

While standards and practices have their rewards, such organizations should focus on creating a platform which is dynamic to adjust itself to change with little or no overhead.

Innovation happens in isolation

When was the last time you came across a brilliant idea while locked up in a quiet room without any kind of disturbance?

How many times did creative ideas strike you while you were travelling in a crowded bus and staring outside the window?

Many studies suggest that some levels of ambient noise might actually help in increasing concentration levels. But my suggestion is beyond just some minor ambient noise. Innovation doesn’t happen in silos or when individuals crouch over their computers while their supervisor looks over their shoulder.

The key ingredient of innovation solutions is collaboration and a considerable influence by external variables, whether they are your co-worker or a boy selling tea on the street. Ideas and best practices are everywhere and one needs to develop a trained eye to identify them irrespective of the source.

Innovative organizations have identified this and converted their cubicle spaces to collaboration spaces. Smartboards or simple white boards which aid collaboration now replace the motivational posters which hardly served any purpose.

Teaching old dog new tricks

Teaching an old dog new tricks could be true, but when it comes to IT, it is a known fact that every individual need to keep his/her skill set up to date with the market. While this could be sufficient to keeping one’s job, it needs to be taken a step further when it comes to innovating solutions.

While few organizations pick key people to form “Action Teams” or “Expert Groups” aimed at innovation there are few others have decided to take the easier way to simply change the focus of teams towards “Innovation”. While the former method is very effective, the latter, hardly makes any significant impact.

Traditional teams which have been used to following standard operating procedures (read the first rule) often try to “fit” their new focus in the same lines as what they practiced. With little or no change to surroundings, culture, they try to look at innovation through the same looking glass as traditional projects were carried out.

Organizations need to create the initial “chaos” which forces individuals to feel the change in focus and create new approaches which would eventually lead to innovation.

Hierarchy brings in Organizational Structure

True. But does it aid Innovation? Maybe not…

During the last decade or even earlier, leading organizations have realized that in spite of the clarity & structure which vertical tree hierarchy provides, there is a huge price to pay. For the fast paced market where time is crucial, a vertical structure not only introduces bureaucracy based time delays but also loss of valuable information between key participants (I shall refrain from using stakeholder-developer terminology).

While vertical tree hierarchy looks good on a PowerPoint presentation, it could be the slow poison for your company’s innovation capabilities.

A vertical hierarchy structure introduces checkpoints or levels, which drastically slows down an otherwise agile system which is meant to be dynamic. Besides the obvious loss of key information and redundant players, these could delay important decision making which slowly but definitely erodes away the enthusiasm which innovation required.

Like I said before, this list is not conclusive and can be built further. As competition increases and industry constantly evolves, it is up to organization to continuously reinvent themselves fast to ensure they don’t fall off the carriage.

Would love to hear your feedback and comments….

  1. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says

    Well thought out article on Innovations and rules.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

  2. Indraneel Chakrabarty says

    Nice one & so authentic.

    1. Abhijith Jayakumar says

      Thanks Indraneel!

  3. Arpitha Chandrashekar says

    That's Right…I cant agree more!

    1. Abhijith Jayakumar says

      Thanks Arpitha Chandrashekar!!

  4. Altaf Rahman says

    Excellent article.
    Rules to be followed ? It is good in some incidents, bad in some.
    In Galilio’s case they were bad. He had to give up his life to prove that Earth is round.
    In case of human cloning, the present rules are good. They preserve human ethics. Its not a question of weather we can do it or not. Its a question of weather we should do it or not.

    Its a case to case basis argument.

    Just my two paisa :)

  5. Naweed Chougle says

    Excellent article, I agree with the view that innovation doesn’t arrive by rigidly following all the rules.

    In fact, if you sift through the pages of history you’ll discover that many breakthroughs were made by accident.

    If all rules had to be followed, accidents would be just that – accidents. Thanks to the quest for innovation regardless of the rules, they have the potential to be called discoveries!

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