When Innovation is Frowned Upon

Innovation is a common theme for companies, but they don’t always turn the concept into reality. Why not? For some, it’s because of the nature of their industry. In some fields, innovation seems to be frowned upon even as companies say they want it.

Why would an industry discourage its members from being innovative? One simple reason is the regulatory environment in which they operate. Think about banks, and all the financial rules that limit them, rules that may be global or that may vary from country to country. Consider airlines, where safety has to take top priority. How about pharmaceutical firms, where both regulations AND safety have to take precedence? How can you be innovative in this environment?

The reality, of course, is that the emphasis on regulations or safety does not have to affect every part of a business. While airline pilots have to follow strict rules to get passengers safely from one place to the next, the HR team in that airline does not have the same limitations, and should be willing to be more innovative and open to risk than the crew in the cockpit is. What often ends up happening, though, is that the focus on safety or legal compliance that affects the company’s core function often becomes a key element of the organizational culture, and that shapes everyone’s thinking regardless of whether those rules apply to them. So how can you encourage innovation in a highly restrictive environment?

Hire athletes.

Think about it: athletes focus on being successful within a strict set of rules. Basketball players, for example, have to stay inside the lines (literally “inside the box”), must keep dribbling the ball, cannot use force against another player, and score points based on where they are on the court. To be successful they have to be innovative and develop strategies and techniques that are better than their competitors’, and they have to do it within a set of rules…just like a bank, just like an airline.

This is not to say you should necessarily fill out your ranks with nothing but athletes, but what it does suggest is that you should think carefully about who you hire and how they fit into your particular needs. If you operate in a largely unregulated field, then look for new hires who don’t spend a lot of time worrying about rules, but if you face a lot of limitations, then look for people who can be successful within a set of constraints.

Innovation may mean different things to different firms, so the definition of an innovative employee may be different too. Don’t just try to follow some generic concepts about innovation, but instead, adapt your innovation philosophy to your particular needs. If you can do that better than your competitors can, you will be farther ahead at the end of the day.