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Innovation and Creativity versus Standards - Who is Winning the Battle in your Company?

Innovation and creativity have been buzzing around corporate environments. Companies need to compete with global markets. Staying a step ahead of the competition is getting harder. Corporations are realizing that good, consistent quality, and excellence in service is not enough to compete in todays markets. Products need to meet future needs of the customers. Launching a new product could take years. The company needs to predict products of the future years ahead.

Some corporations are creating new career paths for their employees and creating innovation initiatives. In the past engineers and designers determined the specifications of the product. Today according to Business Week Magazine many other employees from various backgrounds help to finalize the product spec.

The standard by the virtue of its nature refers to something that has been established, usually based on the past experience. It implies consistency and compliance. You can see the conflict between the standard and creativity and innovation. Employees in charge of creativity and innovation are butting heads with those striving for standardization.

Many times, when we would incorporate design and R&D into the management system these employees would be some of the toughest to get into compliance. They had the best understanding of standards since they used them daily, yet when standards were being applied to their methodology and creative process, they would react negatively as if their creativity was being squashed.

I can see why they would feel that way and in many organizations that are struggling with implementation of the standards, it can be true. Some of the management processes were designed in a way that stifles creativity and innovation. The management system is slow and unresponsive. It takes months to change a simple procedure or a work instruction. But it does not have to be that way. The standardized management system can embrace innovation and creativity and make it flourish throughout the organization. The other way around the creativity and innovation can feed the management system to make it more responsive and more effective. I see the two interacting like yin and yang.

Every department or operation in a company needs to perform in a consistent manner. ISO 9001:2000 standard requires that all the processes are continually being improved. Improvement needs creative thought process and innovative ways to do old tasks. As technology is continually evolving, management systems need to be continually questioned: "Is this still the best way to accomplish this task?" The comment "We've always done it this way" is no longer a valid excuse. You need to question why it has been done that way. Do the reasons still exist? Can you do it better and faster with the new tools available?

I still remember walking into the conference room as an auditor, where a proud management representative introduced me to a conerence table covered with over 30 4-5 inch binders of all the procedures and work instructions they have created. My first question was "Why are they in the binders? Why are you filing and retrieving paper copies?" And I was right. It took them months to change procedures, many procedures were no longer applicable by the time they were finally documented. A management system today needs to be as fast as e-mail, because if it isn't, it will be replaced by e-mail quickly.

It makes me sad when I walk into a company and see a documented system being managed on paper forms, while the rest of the company is using hand helds to do everything they need to. Standards don't kill creativity or innovation, management does when they view the standard and the registration process as a one time project. When innovative process is managed in a consistant-standard manner, it can then be improved. Products can be launched faster and more efficiently. When information and communication is managed, it produces better results. Waste can be a huge factor when a creative process is ran haphazardly. Methods can be established for the creative process as for any other process. Once they are established they can be changed and improved to maximize the benefits. Measurement of the creative process can be established as for any other process.

If applied correctly, creativity, innovation and standardization complement each other. Build and rebuild your management systems using the newest techniques. So you spent a lot of time and energy in building the old system. Learn from it. Take it apart and make a better system today, so that tomorrow you can create a better one, and so on...

Danuta Highet

Foqus, Inc. June, 2006

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