lion tamer at work
Innovation inevitably leads to change, but can also lead to conflict PHOTO: National Media Museum @ Flickr Commons

Almost universally, innovation is regarded as a positive force. In fact, in today’s fast-paced business environment, it’s often considered essential for business survival. For example, consider how many businesses — especially in the technology space — now have a Chief Innovation Officer whose job it is to originate new ideas, while recognizing and fostering innovative ideas generated by others.

Anarchy, on the other hand, is generally associated with destruction and conjures up images of insurrection, disorder, chaos and mayhem.

So what do I mean by "the anarchy of innovation?"

Innovation Means Change

The reality is that innovation means change. Introducing innovation in the form of new ideas, changes and fixes, particularly when done on the fly, will inevitably result in change — but quite possibly conflict as well. And there’s no question that innovation in the form of major business transformations will drive massive and widespread changes across organizations.

Innovation can disrupt repeatability and consistency. And if not managed properly, it can cause disorder and chaos, especially for team members who struggle with change.

What Is a Process-Driven Culture?

While some would suggest that innovation is in direct conflict with, and can even be crushed by, over-controlled, process-driven cultures, business process management doesn’t have to be like that. In fact, it really shouldn’t be.

Imagine for a moment, a process-driven culture. Did you picture gray people with a gray culture, constrained by pages and pages of extremely detailed, static processes and procedures?

If so, that’s a mindset born of outdated, legacy approaches to business process management. It results in a view of process as a complex, separate documentation and audit activity, rather than one that sees process as a fundamental component of doing business and an enabler of business improvement and innovation.

Fueling Innovation

Innovative organizations know that their process knowledge needs to keep up with their creativity. That means processes that not only keep up with how teams truly do things but where the ownership of know-how is also shared with the right people in the business.

That way, everyone becomes aware of their knowledge assets and can challenge them, debate them, revise them and use them daily. In short, organizations should be using processes to fuel, not inhibit innovation.

Providing Needed Structure

Charles Araujo, principal analyst at Intellyx, expressed a similar sentiment in a recent whitepaper entitled The Innovation Map: How to Create Disruptive Innovation in a Complex Digital World. In it he notes, “It’s not a lack of creativity that stifles innovation, but rather fear, vagueness and ambiguity. When team members are unsure of how things work, they hesitate to take risks or suggest new ideas.”

In fact, organizations actually need to provide a certain level of structure for teams in order to promote and encourage innovation, as counterintuitive as that might sound. After all, how can teams improve the ways they do things if they are unsure what the existing process is, where to find that information, how to suggest improvements and where they should direct their improvement suggestions?

Discipline Creates Clarity

Araujo went on to say, “Many people erroneously associate discipline with rigidity. Focusing on process for the sake of process, they fail to stay focused on the desired outcomes, resulting in rigid, bureaucratic processes. Adopted properly, however, discipline creates consistency and clarity — two key, albeit underrated, enablers of creativity.”

Ideally then, processes should be dynamic, easily accessible and integrated into an employee’s day-to-day activities to make it easier for teams to collaborate around process improvement and constantly innovate.

Executive Support for Risk-Taking

It’s also important to note that while a strong process culture is key, innovation cannot be sustained without the active commitment of executive leadership. That’s because innovation requires a level of risk-taking and tolerance for failure that would be impossible without executive support. Indeed, unless the C-Suite makes innovation a priority, it won’t happen.

Clearly, innovation can cause anarchy, but only if it isn’t properly managed. By establishing a platform for people to engage with process and make the case for change, innovation can be fostered. Those working with the processes every day need to be given a voice that allows them to share their insights and ingenuity.

Harnessing Innovation

That platform should facilitate the coordination and integration of changes and improvements. Ultimately, business process management should be all about harnessing innovation, rather than stamping it out.

Can it be done? Absolutely. First, though, organizations need to change the way they look at process. Only then can they truly change the way they view innovation and fully realize the positive benefits that innovation can deliver.