innovation and standards: you can't have both

Most companies will tell you that they’re innovative and at the same time create innovative standards. The problem is that these two things are completely paradoxical. You can’t have standard processes and standardized/optimized workflows and expect anything to be innovative. You’ve boxed yourself in, put a fence around a problem and called it solved. How can you ever expect a new solution to a problem to reveal itself if you’re so busy maintaining the existing process? You’ve hired workers, built systems and structured work around the current rules. So when the rules change, it’s going to be painful.

This is what can creep up at giant corporations. Everything has to have a standard. Every process has to be written, processed, be discussed by committee in meetings, voted on and signed off by everyone important that it could possibly affect. Group think starts to become a major hinderance. If there’s no formal definition of the process, it shouldn’t be done. In a sick and twisted way there’s so much time spent on maintaining the process that at the end of the day you don’t even have time to work on what the process was really trying to address. You’re caught up in the busy for the sake of busy.

There’s been so much cruft that has accumilated around the process. So much pressure has been put on how the workflow should be executed. How can there ever be hope of repealing today’s standards if we ever need to act quickly to solve a new and unforseen problem? How can a new and better way ever be discovered? We can’t have new servers for developing and testing an idea, because that would require five different groups to approve and coordinate to set it up for us (So no one ever asks for a new server and the idea is discarded). We can’t switch to a new programming language, even if it would let us develop the new software system in half the time with less bugs, because we’ve invested so much in the current one. We’ve put standards and process around it so heavily that to peel back what we have could cost someone their job. It could disrupt the status quo and force us to think about things differently. We may have to deviate from the day-to-day norm and actually make some noise.

Innovators by their very nature are rule breakers. That’s just how it works. You can’t do something radical and amazing by staying within the confines of the rules. If you could, it wouldn’t be innovative, it would already have happened. Innovative people can take existing knowledge, structure and standards of today and stretch and warp them into the ideas that will meet the requirements of tomorrow. You can’t do this kind of stuff in committees. Committees like to encourage you to stay within the rules. “That’s not in the handbook”, “We’ve never done anything like that before, it seems too risky.” Of course it seems risky, it’s never been done before. That’s what makes it innovative. Yes it might fail, but at least we can fail knowing that we’re one step closer to solving the problem.

The important thing to recognize is that trying something and failing is a sunk cost. But the experience and knowledge that you gain from failing can stick with you in the future. The best innovators are those who understand that to create something great means failing along the way and moving on from these failures. The propensity is to only do something that’s safe, only step out into the void if you know what’s going to happen. But if you don’t take the step, nothing substantial will ever materialize. This reminds me of a quote from Dory in Finding Nemo (paraphrased slightly):

Nemo: I promised that I'd never let anything happen to him! (In reference to his lost son Nemo)

Dory: That's a funny thing to promise. If nothing ever happens to him, then nothing will ever happen to him.

That’s right, nothing will ever happen. Sometimes we don’t want anything to happen. Let the standards take over. Stop thinking about it: let the rulebook guide us. Allow life to zip on by.

How boring.

Standards and innovation are a great paradox. If anyone tells you that they max out on both, be wary - they’re probably trying to sell you something. We can’t all be innovators all the time. But what we can do is shift to a mindset that recognizes when standards and rules need to be broken. When innovation can be achieved at the sacrifice of rules. We need to be quick to see when ‘something needs to happen’, the rules need to be rewritten because they’re just not cutting it anymore. Remind yourself that a human probably wrote those rules, and you have to be someone that can step up to the challenge of writing the rules for tomorrow (and again knowing when the very rules you wrote need to be broken).

about the author

Blake Smith is a Principal Software Engineer and leads the Infrastructure group at at Sprout Social.

Blake Smith

create. code. learn.