Want to spark innovation? Try killing stupid rules

Employees are finding it increasingly difficult to set aside time for big ideas or creativity. Lisa Bodell examines a way in which people can be innovative when they are inundated with reports, policies and meetings.  

Where “global knowledge” was once essential for leaders, a 2012 IBM Global CEO Study cited “creativity” and “opportunity-seeking” among the top leadership qualities for the future. This is one of many signals that the business world is evolving away from the information age, where left-brain technical skills, knowledge and expertise were king. In A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future, Daniel Pink, author and former speech writer to Al Gore, asserts that global conditions – abundance, Asian outsourcing and automation – are setting the stage for a brand new era: the “conceptual age”.

In the conceptual age, right-brain skills involving simultaneous metaphorical, aesthetic, contextual and synthetic processing will be key. Given the velocity of change and the complexity that results from this, leaders need to think beyond just knowledge or expertise. The best employees of the future will excel at creative problem-solving and different ways of thinking – synthesizing seemingly diverse things together for better solutions, using metaphors to explain fresh ideas for which no context might yet exist.

In spite of this, the modern worker is finding it increasingly difficult to find the time and mental space for “big-picture thinking”. Would it shock you to know that managers in large-scale organizations spend 40% of their time writing reports and 30 to 60% of it in “co-ordination meetings”? The very structures we created to grow businesses too often hold leaders back from reaching their potential. Look under the hood of your own company: do you see long-term vision or layers of red tape?

When we, as humans, are overwhelmed with processes and procedures, there’s no room for big ideas or innovation. Ideally, processes are meant to standardize and simplify the essential tasks that keep businesses running smoothly. They also provide a tangible measurement of progress and productivity, giving people a sense of efficiency and accountability. But processes can also nurture a climate of complexity that reinforces the status quo instead of encouraging innovation. How can people be expected to innovate when they are up to their necks in reports, policies and meetings?

If you want to be innovative, innovation cannot be your starting point. First you have to stop, eliminate and simplify. At futurethink, we use a bold tool called Kill a Stupid Rule to identify what rules, processes and procedures should be eliminated to make room for more productive tasks. This innovation tool has been helpful to our clients to clear red tape and make more space for creative thinking.

Kill a Stupid Rule

Kill a Stupid Rule can be an eye-opening exercise for managers who have no idea that some of their operating procedures can be irritating or cumbersome and it is cathartic for teams unaccustomed to being honest about what’s on their minds. Not many people feel comfortable going to their superiors and saying: ‘You know that system you rely on? We hate it.’ But a tool like Kill a Stupid Rule creates a framework to question the status quo in a safe environment. Managers can also use this exercise as a great way to start shaking their teams out of complacency.

Start by bringing employees together and break them down into two- or three-person teams. Kill a Stupid Rule works best when people from different departments and seniority levels are brought in together. The more diverse, the better – from the marketing department to the legal department, and from the interns to the function heads. Encouraging cross-department collaboration helps break down silos and enables employees
to interact with people they do not usually collaborate with.

Provide each team with blank sticky notes and markers for them to write their ideas on. Have the leader ask everyone this question: ‘If you could kill or change all the stupid rules that get in the way of better serving our customers or just doing your job, what would they be and how would you do it?’

Usually this question sets the room on fire – eyes light up, employees start talking, the whole group is engaged. If they stare back at you in stunned silence, you might want to add: ‘You have 10 minutes! Go!’ After 10 minutes, people will likely ask for more time – not because they’re stumped, but because there are so many stupid rules. Do not interrupt their catharsis. After all, how often do you see your employees so engaged? Do remind them, however, that government regulations are “red rules” – illegal to change – but everything else is a “green rule” and, thus, fair game.

When the pairs finish listing stupid rules, ask each person to take a single sticky note and write the one rule he or she hates the most. Meanwhile, create a 2×2 grid (below) on a whiteboard or flipchart.

Axis Y represents how easy or difficult the rule is to kill and X represents the business impact (low to high) of killing the rule. Encourage everyone to place their rule in the most fitting quadrant. There is no right or wrong placement because each person defines what goes where according to their unique perspective in the company. If they believe it is easy to kill the rule and the effect is high impact, it belongs on the top right quadrant. If they believe it is difficult to destroy – or it will not impact the entire business – put it on the bottom left.

At this point, you have a visual cluster of rules that your employees want to personally smother. Pay attention to any that show up again and again, as this is proof that it needs to be re-evaluated. Additionally, rules in the right quadrant of easy-to-implement and high-impact indicate your immediate targets –  “quick wins”.

As you open up discussion about the rules, listen objectively about where change is needed and resist the urge to be defensive. The majority of employers find that their most vilified rules are not really “rules” at all. Instead, they are annoying procedures like continuous reports or conference calls, reimbursement protocol and layers of sign-offs.

Now it is time for the moment of truth – and action. Among these “rules”, have the employees take a vote on which ones should be killed. Encourage them to look at the implement/high impact quadrant as those rules would be easy to kill and have high impact.

Then do it, right on the spot. If possible, axe more than one. Or do the next best thing: kill the rule for a few months and promise that if no one misses it, the change will be permanent. Your people will likely be shocked and ecstatic. But beyond the gratification, killing a stupid rule sends a powerful message that you are listening and committed to improving their work lives.

Case Study: HBO

I recently worked with television company HBO’s domestic network distribution department to encourage “leadership and innovation from every seat” across the 200-person department. HBO wanted to explore options for streamlining its processes to make way for a more innovative and fun environment. The Kill a Stupid Rule exercise was popular with its staff, and employees were encouraged to “kill” rules they thought were “stupid” such as low-value policies and procedures.

From the results, managers learned there were similar pain points across the department, which made it easy to prioritize opportunities for improvement. One common frustration that was uncovered related to meetings running on the longer side. After learning about this feedback from employees, managers decided that no meetings at HBO should run over one hour. This has resulted in more purposeful and focused meetings, and gave people permission to not feel like they always had to say something – their value is not determined based on what they do or don’t say in meetings.

The aftereffect of immediate changes for this rule and others was so positive that HBO decided to add employees’ suggestions for killing stupid rules to Google Docs so everyone could access them, make comments and add ideas as they come up. Shelley Brindle, executive vice-president of the department, explains: ‘Creating the Kill a Stupid Rule as a shared department document – making it a process, organizing it, getting everyone involved to build accountability and ownership – makes it transparent. Transparency creates accountability for everyone in the department, including leadership.’ She also makes it a point to give an update in her bimonthly team meeting of the status of stupid rules killed. Welcoming suggestions sent a powerful signal across the department that leaders were listening and has helped it strengthen the company’s innovative culture.

Tips to drive innovation

The following tips will help your organization implement the exercise and start driving positive change immediately:

Look for themes. If several people are identifying the same types of tasks as being a waste of time, there’s a good chance they’re right. A frequent topic that comes up during this exercise is unnecessary meetings. It is easy to schedule meetings in a bid to stay organized and keep everyone on the same page, but this time spent together can quickly become an inefficient way of making progress.

A group of managers at internet services provider Sprint were concerned that staff were spending too much time in meetings, so they did a meeting audit and eliminated 30% of internal meetings. This released a huge amount of time for employees and has been estimated to have saved the company significant dollars in productivity time. This quick change allowed staff more time for other projects and cleared space for innovation.

Keep your focus on solutions and creative suggestions for improvement. When a rule is proposed for being eliminated, make sure to get feedback from the group to gain insight from people who might be affected differently by the change. Including all levels of employees in the decision-making process will help secure the companywide buy-in needed for profound transformation.

Differentiate between red and green rules. It is important to point out that not all rules can be killed. Any rules that are government-regulated are off limits to kill and hence red rules. Think employment law, tax law and industry regulations.

Discuss “smart mistakes”. Managers often create rules out of fear, or the need to control the unknown. That’s normal. Recognizing that some unnecessary things were put in place with the right intent but wrong outcome still motivates people to try new things. Often too, when killing or changing a rule, the habit is to put a new one in its place. This can actually be a good thing. Getting rid of something that didn’t work and replacing it with something better means positive progress.

I worked with an organization where employees didn’t like how contracted employees were treated differently than full-time salaried employees. The staff brought up these rules and suggested abolishing them, but were unaware of the legal guidelines that require employers to uphold different rules based on employment status. Although this was a Red Rule, employees became better informed of the reasoning behind the rules, which led to widespread acceptance.

Realize that most “rules” aren’t actually rules. Often, people keep doing things a certain way because that’s how they were taught to do them. As it’s always been done that way, they assume it’s non-negotiable. It turns out most “rules” are just cultural norms, not corporate mandates.

Do not get offended. There may come a time when people question a rule you created. If this happens, don’t take it personally. Sometimes policies start out being helpful, but become less relevant over time as the organization evolves. When employees are instructed to focus on solutions instead of complaining, it makes it easier on those who initially created the rules that are on the chopping block.

Ease into change with a pilot test. Sometimes it is not immediately clear whether eliminating certain processes will be an improvement or create other issues. When you run into that type of situation, try killing the rule on a trial basis. If everything works out after the agreed time frame, you can permanently kill the rule.

Publishing company McGraw-Hill decided to do this when staff suggested eliminating the monthly operating reports. Senior leadership was hesitant to make this change, but agreed to put the reports on hold for six months to see if anyone would miss them. After the pilot period ended, managers agreed the reports were not a necessity and they killed the report permanently.

An unflinching look under the hood of your organization often reveals thick layers of policy that are choking its innovation potential. To move forward, reduce or eliminate low-value processes that are not driving growth. Killing “rules” and unnecessary tactics not only steers your business away from the danger of complexity, it invigorates employees and allows them to accomplish much, much more. Simplification is the first step toward fuelling and achieving your company’s innovation goals.

Sometimes innovation isn’t about starting things, it’s about stopping things that get in our way. Kill a Stupid Rule will help you and your team assess whether you’re making the best use of your time, eliminate unproductive programmes and behaviours, and  make space for productive work and creativity – an essential skill in the “conceptual age”. It’s a simple way of creating quick wins and driving immediate transformation, sending a positive signal across your organization to embrace change.

Lisa Bodell is founder and CEO of futurethink, a member of Duke CE’s educator network and author of provocative culture-change book Kill the Company: End the Status Quo, Start an Innovation Revolution.