First, you copy, then understand, finally, you master. Once you master innovation inevitably happens.
Innovation Comes From Standardization of Processes
Application to managerial-leadership
As a professional you are, expected to walk into the door already being a master of the work you do. This is tough because mastery of a process and work may take years.
Many people just fake-it, quickly learning by drowning then that one swimming-stroke saved them, it’s all they ever use.
For example, consider a new manager who has to set goals, develop plans, and delegate tasks. This new manager got promoted during a busy time. The organization believes that smart people figure things out. The organization assumes that once you become a manager, you know these things. The manager freaks out (learning by drowning) YELLS at someone, poorly delegates the work. The project gets completed, but is late, over budget and the below quality.
The project got-done, no-one supplied this manager with any feedback. What he did must have worked, right?
Any learning process goes through 3 phases:
- Rote Copying – Mimicking and doing what the directions, LOP, Policies Procedure, teacher, the trainer does. There is no room for interpretation just following the steps.
- Surface Understanding – Following the Rote Copying you begin to create an understanding for how to get things done. The learning becomes more than just copying. You now understand why and when and how to do the steps.
- Personal Mastery – Following Surface Understanding you enter the personal mastery phase. The learning becomes innate; you do the work without much thought about the details. In this phase, you have mastered the basics so much that you begin to create your own new, unique and useful solutions to the work. Innovation comes from mastery.
Application to Innovation Processes
- Standardization is the first step to innovation
Without the standard of a Rote-Copying method then Surface Understanding to Personal Mastery, innovation cannot take place. Because we have no standard to measure against and move forward and backward. The lack of a standard makes it impossible to assess progress.
Personal Mastery comes from friction between the standard and the actual performance.
To develop innovation, you take new managers through these three phases in the same way that you would teach a person how to use a machine.
Delegation as an example
- The person who is accountable for the output of the trainee manager teaches the trainee manager a step-by-step method of how to delegate and follow-up on delegation of tasks. This is a shared standard. The trainee manager copies this method step-by-step with the coaching of their manager.
- Once the trainee manager has the basics, They delegate following the steps. They may vary slightly from the steps using their own words and interpretation, and they are still following the standardized system that was established by their manager. By following the standardized process, the trainee manager can receive coaching and feedback about his/her effectiveness in delegating tasks.
- Now comes the possible variations only once understanding, coaching, and feedback plus metrics and solutions are found and transferred into skilled-knowledge. The manager may find the order of the standardized steps cumbersome and can now change them to better achieve the objectives. This still happens with coaching and feedback from their manager. The manager can evaluate effectiveness in a different category, because the time was taken to move beyond Rote and Surface Understanding, to develop improved processes.
Now Innovation Occurs
Possible Objections and Responses to the Objection
There are several possible objections to my claim above, that Standardization is the first step to innovation. Here is one of the objections and my response.
“…every team is different. I think you have to take the principles and practices you mention, align them with the goals of the organization and decide where to place the emphasis. The application would vary greatly if you were running a highly regulated business, e.g., healthcare vs. an innovative internet retailing business.” Alan Kay
I agree that the emphasis may be different for different teams and industries. And every organization and person, in order to do their best work at their maximum effectiveness seeks personal mastery.
For innovation to take place, the person traverses through 3 phases of learning. Rote Copying, Surface Understanding, Personal Mastery.
Using the example above let’s see how the innovation process and the need for standardization applies.
- HealthCare: This industry is regulated. Since I have had my blood drawn and seen blood drawing at 5 different facilities in the past year that will be my example. Each facility and individual when drawing blood has their own way of completing this task. They use different techniques, tell different stories. I have even seen a variety of needles, tubes, containment systems…different ways to arrange the needles, different steps they take, etc…
All of this is their judgment and decision in solving the problems that arise during their tasks. This ‘personalized’ technique and for some great skillset (some phlebotomists are amazing and you cannot even feel the needle, some are really horrible they dig and poke and leave bruises) came from;
- Rote Copying in Medical and / or Nursing school, plus some residency or apprenticeship. Where they were watched and told to just follow the steps.
- Surface Understanding. As the comfort level increased and the professor, managers, peers coached and showed their tricks, they began to “get a feel” for how drawing blood works.
- Personal Mastery after several years the gains in process innovation in blood drawing are great, and they now have their own process that is still within the regulations.
This one feels obvious, because what the Nurse does is routine, day in and day out from what we see. But with every step in the process, they use judgment about the environment, patient, time, and several other factors.
- Innovative Internet Retailing Business: Perhaps not as regulated as healthcare and still there are Goals, Roles, Procedures that exist either explicitly, because they are part of a training manual, shared understood, known to the employee. Or implicitly, not documented although they exist as part of the unspoken rules and norms of the organization.
The people who make up this business all must operate within the assigned Goals, Roles and Procedures of the company-otherwise the company would not exist.
While we may think that Rote Copying, Surface Understanding, and Personal Mastery doesn’t apply to what is called innovative business, it does.
A Customer Representative from this company is an example. All customer reps in this company like the phlebotomist above have their own way of solving a problem and making decisions, within the boundaries of their work. These boundaries are often called Policies & Procedures, Local Operating Standards (LOP) Standard Operating Procedures (SOP). The representatives have their own personal mastery of how they answer the customer request, calm irate people, solve problems.
All of this is their judgment and decision in solving the problems that arise during their tasks. This ‘personalized’ technique and for some great skillset (some customer service reps are amazing, some are really horrible) came from;
- Rote Copying. They had to learn how to answer the phone, use the computer system, communicate with other sales reps and departments within the company, speak to a customer, etc. This all happened in a combination of on the job, training sessions, and possibly from other workplaces. They copy what they see and are coached evaluated by more senior members and managers.
- Surface Understanding After some time the rep. begins to work on his own taking calls, solving problems and dealing with customers. From the rote copying, they know some boundaries and best practices from others. The understanding of how the system works and how to interact with the customer increases. Still, the manager and senior members supply coaching and feedback.
- Personal Mastery Now the rep is examining their process for working with customers and finds tricks and steps to improve the work within the given set of boundaries. They are using relationship building and continuous improvement to master the innovative Internet retail business.
At any given moment all of us, whether in work, personal relationships, or anywhere else in life, are Rote Copying, Surface Understanding, and Personally Mastering many things and many times at many levels.
What an organization needs to do is acknowledge this and develop a system where everyone consistently is improving their work. The manager’s job is to learn how each person is improving their work, encourage everyone to teach and share what and how they are improving, then unify this knowledge in such a way that others can learn from it.