Balancing standardization and innovation in open organizations

Why innovation can't happen without standardization

Balancing standardization and innovation is critical during times of organizational change. And it's an ongoing issue in open organizations, where change is constant.

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Any organization facing the prospect of change will confront an underlying tension between competing needs for standardization and innovation. Achieving the correct balance between these needs can be essential to an organization's success.

Experiencing too much of either can lead to morale and productivity problems. Over-stressing standardization, for example, can have a stifling effect on the team's ability to innovate to solve new problems. Unfettered innovation, on the other hand, can lead to time lost due to duplicated or misdirected efforts.

Finding and maintaining the correct balance between standardization and innovation is critical during times of organizational change. In this article, I'll outline various considerations your organization might make when attempting to strike this critical balance.

The need for standardization

When North American beavers hear running water, they instinctively start building a dam. When some people see a problem, they look to build or buy a new product or tool to solve that problem. Technological advances make modeling business process solutions or setting up production or customer-facing systems much easier than in the past. The ease with which organizational actors can introduce new systems can occasionally, however, lead to problems. Duplicate, conflicting, or incompatible systems—or systems that, while useful, do not address a team's highest priorities—can find their way into organizations, complicating processes.

This is where standardization can help. By agreeing on and implementing a common set of tools and processes, teams become more efficient, as they reduce the need for new development methods, customized training, and maintenance.

Standardization has several benefits:

  • Reliability, predictability, and safety. Think about the electricity in your own home and the history of electrical systems. In the early days of electrification, companies competed to establish individual standards for basic elements like plug configurations and safety requirements like insulation. Thanks to standardization, when you buy a light bulb today you can be sure that it will fit and not start a fire.
  • Lower costs and more dependable, repeatable processes. Standarsization frees people in organizations to focus more attention on other things—products, for instance—and not on the need to coordinate the use of potentially conflicting new tools and processes. And it can make people's skills more portable (or, in budgeting terms more "fungible") across projects, since all projects share a common set of standards. In addition to helping project teams be more flexible, this portability of skills makes it easier for people to adopt new assignments.
  • Consistent measurements. Creating a set of consistent metrics people can use to assess product quality across multiple products or multiple releases of individual products is possible through standardization. Without it, applying this kind of consistent measurement to product quality and maintaining any kind of history of tracking such quality can be difficult. Standardization effectively provides the organization a common language for measuring quality.

A danger of standardization arises when it becomes an all-consuming end in itself. A constant push to standardize can result in it inadvertently stifling creativity and innovation. If taken too far, policies that over emphasize standardization appear to discourage support for people's need to find new solutions to new problems. Taken to an extreme, this can lead to a suffocating organizational atmosphere in which people are reluctant to propose new solutions in the interest of maintaining standardization or conformity. In an open organization especially focused on generating new value and solutions, an attempt to impose standardization can have a negative impact on team morale.

Viewing new challenges through the lens of former solutions is natural. Likewise, it's common (and in fact generally practical) to apply legacy tools and processes to solving new problems.

But in open organizations, change is constant. We must always adapt to it.

Finding and maintaining the correct balance between standardization and innovation is critical during times of organizational change.

The need for innovation

Digital technology changes at a rapid rate, and that rate of change is always increasing. New opportunities result in new problems that require new solutions. Any organization must be able to adapt and its people must have the freedom to innovate. This is even more important in an open organization and with open source source software, as many of the factors (e.g., restrictive licenses) that blocked innovation in the past no longer apply.

When considering the prospect of innovation in your organization, keep in mind the following:

  • Standardization doesn't have to be the end of innovation. Even tools and processes that are firmly established and in use by an organization were once very new and untried, and they only came about through processes of organizational innovation.
  • Progress through innovation also involves failure. It's very often the case that some innovations fail, but when they fail, they point the way forward to solutions. This progress therefore requires that an organization protect the freedom to fail. (In competitive sports, athletes and teams seldom learn lessons from easy victories; they learn lessons about how to win, including how to innovate to win, from failures and defeats.)

Freedom to innovate, however, cannot be freedom to do whatever the heck we feel like doing. The challenge for any organization is to be able to encourage and inspire innovation, but at the same time to keep innovation efforts focused towards meeting your organization's goals and to address the problems that you're trying to solve.

In closed organizations, leaders may be inclined to impose rigid, top-down limits on innovation. A better approach is to instead provide a direction or path forward in terms of goals and deliverables, and then enable people to find their own ways along that path. That forward path is usually not a straight line; innovation is almost never a linear process. Like a sailboat making progress into the wind, it's sometimes necessary to "tack" or go sideways in order to make forward progress.

Blending standardization with focused innovation

Are we doomed to always think of standardization as the broccoli we must eat, while innovation is the ice cream we want to eat?

Are we doomed to always think of standardization as the broccoli we must eat, while innovation is the ice cream we want to eat?

It doesn't have to be this way.

Perceptions play a role in the conflict between standardization and innovation. People who only want to focus on standardization must remember that even the tools and processes that they want to promote as "the standard" were once new and represented change. Likewise, people who only want to focus on innovation have to remember that in order for a tool or process to provide value to an organization, it has to be stable enough for that organization to use it over time.

An important element of any successful organization, especially an open organization where everyone is free to express their views, is empathy for other people's views. A little empathy is necessary for understanding both perceptions of impending change.

I've always thought about standardization and innovation as being two halves of one solution. A good analogy is that of college course catalog. In many colleges, all incoming first-year students regardless of their major will take a core set of classes. These core classes can cover a wide range of subjects and provide each student with an educational foundation. Every student receives a standard grounding in these disciplines regardless of their major course of study. Beyond the standardized core curriculum, then, each student is free to take specialized courses depending upon his or her major degree requirements and selected elective courses, as they work to innovate in their respective fields.

Similarly, standardization provides a foundation on which innovation can build. Think of standardization as a core set of tools and practices you might applied to all products. Innovation can take the form of tools and practices that go above and beyond this standard. This will enable every team to extend the core set of standardized tools and processes to meet the individual needs of their own specific projects. Standardization does not mean that all forward-looking actions stop. Over time, what was an innovation can become a standard, and thereby make room for the next innovation (and the next).

About the author

Len Dimaggio - Len is happily employed at Red Hat in the Boston, Massachusetts (USA) area and concentrates on quality for open source middleware and cloud products. Len is also a avid writer and blogger and photographer.