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By Lauren Keller Johnson

Lauren Keller Johnson is a freelance writer living in Harvard, MA

To survive in an arena marked by constant change, your company has to innovate—create new offerings, as well as new business and operating models. To do that, people in every group, function, and team need to envision fresh, bold ideas that can be transformed into groundbreaking new products, services, and ways of getting things done.

That’s where you as a manager come in. As Lisa Bodell points out in her book Kill the Company, it’s your job as a manager to make your group a “zombie-free zone”—a place where people combat complacency by using their brains. Where innovation can thrive naturally. Where your people know that if they go out on a limb they have a safety net, so they’re not afraid to experiment.

To create a zombie-free zone, you need to foster the right culture in your group. Bodell recommends starting by rooting out any unhealthy obsession with process. Efficient processes do plenty of good things for managers, but pushed too far process obsession saps innovation—by focusing everyone’s attention on short-term results instead of a longer-term vision that new ways of thinking and doing could help realize.

Diagnosis: Process obsession

Is your group process-obsessed? According to Bodell, the answer’s yes if you and your people seem to spend your days asking for innumerable approvals and sign-offs before taking action. If you waste hours filling out expense reports and time sheets, attending redundant meetings, and answering irrelevant e-mails. If every task or communication is labeled “urgent,” every deadline, “ASAP.”

Under these conditions, how can anyone find time to monitor what’s going on outside your company—with customers, technology, competitors—and use those observations to drive innovation? The answer’s simple: You can’t.

Consider the research: In one study of U.S. and European companies, The Boston Consulting Group found that over the past 15 years, the number of procedures, vertical layers, interface structures, coordination bodies, and decision approvals needed has increased by anywhere from 50 to 350 percent, and that managers spend 40 percent of their time writing reports and 30-60 percent of it in coordination meetings.

Treatment: Kill stupid rules

The siren call of process obsession can be hard to resist. But you have to try. As Bodell explains, a great way to start is to kill the “stupid rules” preventing you and your team from innovating. Here’s how:

  1. Gather your people, and have them pair up.
  2. Give the pairs 10 minutes to answer this question: “If we could kill or change all the stupid rules that get in the way of doing our work, what would those rules be?”
  3. When each pair has listed all the rules that drive them crazy, have each person write down their most-hated rule on a sticky note. Have them indicate on the note (a) how easy it would be to kill the rule and (b) how much killing it would help the team innovate.
  4. Put the notes on the wall, grouping them according to ease-of-killing and magnitude-of-impact.
  5. Focus everyone’s attention on the group of rules that are easiest to kill and that, if killed, would have the best impact on your team.
  6. Look for patterns. Rules that show up on lots of stickies in that group deserve killing first. If your group’s like most, those rules probably won’t be big, companywide mandates. Instead, they’ll be those small, everyday annoyances—reports, paperwork, meetings, e-mails—that sap your team’s innovative power.
  7. Brainstorm ways to change or eradicate the easy-kill/high-impact stupid rules—then put those ideas into action.

Want to know more?

Killing stupid rules helps you and your team shake off some of that process obsession. But an unhealthy obsession with process is just one root cause of the complacency that can afflict a group or organization and ruin its ability to innovate.

To find out what the other major root cause is, check out Chapter 2, “Three Kinds of Culture—Which Is Yours?” in Bodell’s Kill the Company. In that chapter and others in the book, you’ll find lots of additional ideas and tips for unleashing innovation in your group—including fostering a culture of curiosity, shaking up standard practices, and awakening your own and your people’s ability to think and innovate.


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