Setting Boundaries

When I coached my kids and their classmates in the creative problem solving competition known as Odyssey of the Mind, one of the fundamental rules was: If it’s not prohibited, it’s allowed. In other words, whenever the kids were given an impromptu problem to solve, they understood that if the rules of the problem did not specifically rule out some particular approach, it was permitted. Indeed, the primary purpose of the problems they were given was to encourage them to come up with innovative solutions—solutions that were not contemplated by whoever designed the problem.

The more unique and creative the higher the score, provided that the approach met the problem’s criteria for a solution. As a result, the solutions they came up with were often highly creative. Isn’t that the essence of the American system of free enterprise? Isn’t our whole legal system, as established by our constitution, based on the fundamental premise that if it’s not prohibited, it’s allowed?

That’s arguably the quintessential definition of freedom and it has fostered the most innovative and successful economy in history. So why don’t we do the same thing within our businesses? Instead of carefully prescribed procedures that define exactly how the work must be done, why don’t businesses set thoughtful boundaries and then say, “If it’s not prohibited, it’s allowed.”?

To many executives, that’s a frightening prospect. They’re thinking, I don’t know what someone might come up with and try…which is true. It also happens to define innovation.

What if someone does something illegal?

Well, that needs to be one of the boundaries: It must be legal.

Wouldn’t we need a long list of boundaries?

Isn’t your book of corporate policies awfully thick now? Setting boundaries instead of prescribed procedures might make it much thinner and simpler.

Shouldn’t employees at least ask permission first?

Sometimes, or maybe you simply require appropriate notification. Allowing people to try new approaches doesn’t mean removing accountability for getting the job done. Even in Odyssey of the Mind, solutions had to meet certain criteria.

Wouldn’t it be insane to have people “experimenting” on a manufacturing line?

True, there are places like an assembly line or a surgery suite where you don’t want someone transposing parts just to see what will happen. Such settings demand much tighter boundaries, but there’s still sure to be room for making improvements, indeed high value improvements. Perhaps improvements that are critical to staying competitive.

Think about this: What would it do to your company to have to ask permission from the government before anything could change? Yet isn’t that what large corporations routinely require of business units and employees? Do you think maybe it has the same effect?

To be fair, many businesses allow their business units some latitude, but it’s usually limited, and it often goes no deeper than the person who heads that unit. That person often feels that in order to fulfill their responsibilities, they must insist that everyone they oversee “ask permission first.” In reality, only relatively few people have real discretion.

Revising corporate polices is no small task, but for many companies it might be a very productive exercise. It might force everyone to refocus on true business objectives, instead of rules and procedures. It might reveal why many things that you’re doing are not getting any better—why you may not be getting robust innovation.

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