Talk to a typical employee inside almost any major American corporation and they will tell you that despite a lot of talk about so-called enlightened leadership, the reigning cultural norms are still to conform, follow the program, and don’t question authority. Unfortunately many of our most time-honored management practices are a sure way to undermine innovation, especially when you combine them with some all-too-typical corporate politics.
Here’s a brief reminder of just how well these strategies work:
1) Provide all information on a strictly need-to-know basis.
(This is necessary to maintain the prerogatives of management and to make sure no one’s running around with excess information. They might use it to make unforeseen connections and come up with new ideas.)
2) Determine the “best” way to do a task and insist that employees strictly adhere to that procedure.
(To maximize efficiency, assure consistent quality, and preclude any changes that might be required of management. If you allow employees to alter anything, they might come up with a better way to do it.)
3) Co-opt the ideas of those you supervise, whenever possible, so credit is transferred up the chain of command.
(That way all ideas will get the most ‘serious’ hearing possible, and no one will suffer the embarrassment of having a subordinate out-think them. Doing this just once will usually prevent an innovative thinker from ever offering new ideas again.)
4) Evaluate ideas based on their source rather than their merits.
(Some people couldn’t possibly have anything to contribute. And even if they do, you really don’t want them to.)
5) Always correct people in front of their colleagues.
(That way everyone will learn from the mistake and no one will ever dare to make
an independent decision again.)
6) Always hire the person who is most experienced at what you want them to do.
(So that it will continue to get done the same way.)
7.1) Always reward teams, never individuals.
7.2) Always reward individuals, never teams.
(Either approach will discourage innovation a substantial percentage of the time. So just pick one according to the latest business fad. You don’t want to be troubled by having to sort out the subtleties of each situation.)
8) Treat all explanations as excuses.
(Tell them to, “Just do it,” to assure that no one questions your authority, and so you can avoid taking any responsibility for the problem. This will assure that you don’t learn anything from past errors.)
9) Severely penalize mistakes.
(To assure that they’re never repeated, and so you can say you took corrective steps when they are.)
10) Minimize trust.
(Trust leads to healthy communication, which helps people make connections, which leads to new ideas.)
Look familiar? Any one of these may be powerful enough to stop innovation cold, but they’re more effective and reliable when used in combination. If you’re a business leader, you have almost certainly used one or more of these at one time or another. (I know I have.) If you want to avoid innovation, you need to keep at it.
Don’t let down your guard now or you’ll risk unleashing waves of creative new ideas.