Innovation Without Structure is Anarchy

I recently had a conversation with a friend who is in the high-tech distribution industry who was grappling with a problem.

He had been having a rather heated argument with one of the most potentially innovative people he had ever met in his company.  Her argument was that he was wrapping too much structure around the company and that this would stifle innovation.  His counter-argument was that they really could not innovate if they could not agree on what the standard,  most efficient ways to do things were from a baseline perspective.  He believed (as do I) that innovation is born out of those standard structures – producing new approaches to current problems or new products/services that extend the company’s value proposition.  He knew he had a sympathetic ear since I totally agree with this philosphy.

My friend and I were having this conversation in the hotel bar, and I subconsciously noticed that Charlie Parker was playing in the background.  So I started down this path – “John, what kind of music does Jane listen to?”  He said that she actually had a similar background to John and I which was the Grateful Dead and Jazz.  (Most folks probably do not realize how close the Dead and Jazz are.  Phil Lesh and Bob Weir of the Dead consider John Coltrane one of their biggest influences.  For the more modern rocker, Dave Mathews claims Charlie Parker as one of his biggest influences.)  Jazz musicians like Parker, Coltrane & Monk are some of the greatest improvisational (read “innovative”) musicians in the world.  But they innovate off of structure.  For Parker there was, in general, a beginning to the song where he set (or allowed to be set) the structure off of which he would innovate.  Bebop players changed the rules a bit by flattening the fifths inside the chord structure, but that was in itself an innovation that then became a standard to build upon.  The point here is that the song had structure at the start, and then came back around at the end many times to replay that structure.  In the middle was a clear structural foundation of chords and harmonies that the artist could innovate off of.  Without that contextual foundation, all you really have is noise or anarchy.

The Dead were the same way.  Bob Weir once remarked that the Dead started a song with a specific structure, and then literally “leapt off the building”.  The difference here was that they relied on the fact that one member in the band would re-introduce structure (structure meaning baseline chord progressions that they all were intimately familiar with) to the song before they “crashed to the ground”.  Anyone who followed the Dead from that perspective knows that the band grew stronger and stronger with each leap.  They learned from the improvisational experiences, and would re-introduce those improvisational elements as new structures in future iterations of the song. 

Innovation (read improvisation) without structure will lead to anarchy.  Employees who must execute against the new innovative idea need to contextually understand how you got to the new innovative solution, and their roadmap is made up of structure where the beginning is where they are today.  You can innovate all you want, but if you cannot get your employees to execute inside the innovation, all you have done is created a song with no sound.

Technology has the greatest opportunity to be both the driver of the foundational elements of every business process, and at the same time be the true spark for innovation.  But in order to create that spark there must be standards (process with structure).  My point to John is that Jane can not only innovate with greater value, but also help others to innovate, once she recognizes that the innovation is really an improvisation off of an existing chord structure (ie business process).


2 responses to “Innovation Without Structure is Anarchy

  1. William Hurley Sr.

    There is a clear definitional difference between Innovation and Invention … the most telling is the need for a contextual basis for innovation … Interestingly, innovation and improvisation have etymological differences in context, with innovation being in the physical/technological and improvisation being in music … Crucially, as you pointed out, both imply a prior structure whereas invention does not! From a business perspective, characterizing change as one of the three can be important in evaluating its potential for the business … The implications of whether it is innovation or improvisation may have decidedly shaded, but important implications in how rigorous is the evaluative process.

  2. From a software and hardware perspective the iPhone and iPad were considered significant inventions. However after reading your post, it is worth noting that they are really innovations on the structure of the cell phone and laptop, respectively. Thus the rapid success and adoption rate. Apple’s slogan “You already know how to use it.” implies that we can get the value from the innovation without the learning curve from invention.

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