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 your work. 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 intelligent people figure things out. The organization assumes that you know these things once you become a manager. The manager freaks out (learning by drowning), YELLS at someone, and poorly delegates the work. The project gets completed but is late, over budget, and below quality.
The project got done. No one supplied this manager with any feedback. What he did must have worked.
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 of how to get things done. 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. 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 occur 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 like 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 the 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 still follow the standardized system established by their manager. By following the standardized process, the trainee manager can receive coaching and feedback about their effectiveness in delegating tasks.
- The possible variations come only once understanding, coaching, feedback, 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 achieve the objectives better. 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 organization’s goals, 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 seeks personal mastery to do their best work at their maximum effectiveness.
For innovation to occur, the person traverses through 3 phases of learning: Rote Copying, Surface Understanding, and 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. When drawing blood, each facility and individual has their way of completing this task. They use different techniques and 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 this is their judgment and decision in solving the problems arising during their tasks. This ‘personalized’ technique and some great skillset (some phlebotomists are exceptional, and you cannot even feel the needle, some are horrible; they dig and poke and leave bruises) came from;
- Rote Copying in Medical and Nursing school, plus some residency or apprenticeship. Where they were watched and told to follow the steps.
- Surface Understanding. As the comfort level increased and the professor, managers, and 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 significant, and they now have a process that is still within the regulations.
This one feels evident 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, or 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 must operate within the company’s assigned Goals, Roles, and procedures; otherwise, the company would not exist.
While we may think that Rote Copying, Surface Understanding, and Personal Mastery don’t apply to innovative business, it does.
A Customer Representative from this company is an example. Like the phlebotomist above, all customer reps have their way of solving problems and making decisions within work boundaries. These boundaries are often called Policies & Procedures, Local Operating Standards (LOP) Standard Operating Procedures (SOP). The representatives have mastery of how they answer the customer’s requests, calm angry people, and solve problems.
All this is their judgment and decision in solving the problems arising during their tasks. This ‘personalized’ technique and some great skillset (some customer service reps are excellent, some are 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 different workplaces. They copy what they see and are coached and evaluated by more senior members and managers.
- Surface Understanding After some time, the rep. begins to work on his taking calls, solving problems, and dealing with customers. From the rote copying, they know some boundaries and best practices from others—understanding 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 examines their process for working with customers and finds tricks and steps to improve the work within the given set of boundaries. They use 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.
An organization needs to acknowledge this and develop a system where everyone consistently improves 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 so that others can learn from it.