Don’t break the rules, change them – on paving the way for innovation

When I started to work in innovation, I remember someone with a lot of experience both in GMP and innovation management telling me that innovation is nice and all, but it would never work in regulated environments. At that point, I agreed. After all,many times when someone tries to teach innovation, one of the first things they tell you is that you need to “break the rules!”. How could all that buzz about breaking rules fit into a regulated environment? But the thought never really left me, and it kept bugging me in that back-of-your-mind kind of way.

The idea that you need to break the rules of your current situation to find innovative solutions is such an ingrained trope in the innovation culture that it took me almost two years to find out why it had been bugging me so much. When I think of the rule-breaker innovator, I think  of someone who is dedicated to push their idea through (which is great) and has the energy to find ways around their current rule system. But what I miss in this scenario is the concern for the people around them, and for the sustainability of an innovative culture. What about the colleagues that do have innovative ideas, but don’t have the energy to circumvent the rules? Or just plain don’t feel comfortable with that kind of behavior? Wouldn’t all the energy that goes into breaking the rules be way more effective when it gets applied to changing the rules for everyone?

In many areas, rules serve a very important need. Aside from legal protection and so on, they also provide the social framework how we collaborate. Here’s an example: in my experience in regulated environments, people are generally more comfortable when they can receive written conformation of agreements. Other areas have been more relaxed with just verbal agreements. It leads to the question where an organizations should focus to increase their output of innovative ideas. It’s great to offer support on an individual basis – but as awesome as a single idea or solution might be, I believe an organization can benefit a lot more if they educate their innovators towards changing the system around them instead. Otherwise, you create “heroes” instead of an innovative culture, and you focus on ideas that may very well die when their creator(s) run out of energy before implementation.

It’s good to question the rules in your environment (please do!), so by all means, break the rules in your ideation sessions.  Go wild, go crazy with your thoughts! The point when people realize that they are allowed to imagine outside of their current system is what I especially love about running innovation sessions. But breaking rules for implementing a single idea does nothing to increase the overall permeability of a system for ideas. Your’s, or someone else’s.  So shout out to all you crazy rule breakers out there – why don’t you try to apply your energy to changing the rules instead? The people around you might surprise you once you pave the way for them.