Innovation ALWAYS Demands We Change the Rules

Innovation ALWAYS Demands We Change the Rules

How do you feel about the proposition:

“Innovation can bring benefits if and ONLY if it diminishes a limitation”

Let’s examine this proposition. Do you agree with it? Don’t be too hasty in coming to agree with it. Once we agree, you’re hooked! So, let me explain a little more, starting with some definitions:


We’re talking here about all kinds of innovations. Not just tech innovations (new materials, new languages and tools, new industrial processes, new scientific discoveries) but other innovations too (new ways of doing things, new ways of structuring and managing organisations, new ways of developing products and software, plus many others).


What do we mean by “limitation”? A limitation here is anything that restricts us from getting our needs met to the maximum possible extent. (And btw that maximum is, itself, a limitation).

Limitations can be “recognised” (for example, a speed limit on a motorway) or unrecognised (for example the physical speed limit for a given curve, with a given vehicle, in specific road conditions).

Examining the Proposition

So, back to the proposition: “Innovation can bring benefits if and ONLY if it diminishes a limitation.”

Do you agree?

We were alive and functioning even before the innovation became available. Correct? It must be, then, that long before the new innovation, we developed modes of operation, modes of behaviour, policies, rules, to accommodate the limitation. I’ll refer to all these as simply “rules”.

We were able to operate. Rather than run smack into the limitation and die. That’s obvious.

Before the innovation, we created certain rules to cope with the limitation (recognised or unrecognised, known to us or unknown).

Suppose, then that we make a very good job of implementing an innovation, and thereby diminish the associated limitation totally. Still, the question is:

What benefits will any innovation bring, if we neglect to change the rules? The rules that helped us to accommodate the limitation, before the innovation was available? What benefits will we see if we neglect to change the rules?

Do you start to see the answer?

The Old Rules Block Any Benefits

What benefits will we see if we neglect to change the rules? Basically, no benefits. None. Why? Because as long as we obey the old rules – the rules that were there to bypass the limitation – for as long as we obey these rules, for all practical purposes we will continue to behave as if the limitation is still there.

Can it be that we’re so stupid that we continue to adhere to our old rules, the rules we originally invented to bypass or cope with the limitation? You know the answer.

This is what is happening every day, for the vast majority of organisations, and for the vast majority of innovations they adopt. For a long time after adopting the innovation we still obey the old rules. And because of this, for a long time we don’t get any of the real benefits from our investment in the innovation.

Four Not So Frequently Asked Question

So, how might we proceed if we need to ensure that innovations really do bring us the promised bottom-line benefits? We might choose to ask ourselves the following sequence of four questions:

Q1: What is the POWER of the innovation? (Just ask the inventors, they’ll be more than glad to explain, and explain, and explain…).

Q2: What limitation does this innovation diminish? (We must find a specific and precise answer, here).

Q3: What existing rules served to help us accommodate that limitation (i.e. what obsoleted rules must we get rid of)? Here we can for the first time evaluate the tangible bottom-line benefits from removing those old rules. Note: As long as the old rules remain in force, we will never see the promised benefits from the innovation.

Q4: What (new) rules must we use now, in place of the old rules which the innovation has obsoleted?

Let me give you an example. Let’s take Agile Software Development as our innovation.

Q1: What is the POWER of Agile Software Development?
A1: Agile Software Development increases the likelihood that we’re developing software that meets our customers’ real needs.

Q2: What limitation does Agile Software Development diminish?
A2:  Risk of misunderstanding customers’ real needs, both now and as they evolve.

Q3: What existing rules served to help us accommodate that limitation?
A3: Contractual terms. Big up-front specifications. Rigorous plan-driven project management. Change control. Specific duration projects. Formal V&V.  One-off or infrequent release into production.

Q4: What (new) rules must we use now?
A4: Development and delivery as experiments. Short, tight feedback loops. Constant collaboration between customers and developers. Constantly evolving specifications and solutions. Multiple “stop/continue” checkpoints. Incremental and frequent release into production.

Try It For Yourself

Here’s some other innovations we see introduced in e.g. software development organisations. May I invite you to run through the above four questions for one or more items on this list?:

  • Teams / team-based development.
  • Obeya (big-room).
  • TPDS (Toyota Product Development System).
  • Lean Product Development.
  • Cost of Delay.
  • Flow.
  • Python, ELM, or some other new language or tool you may be considering adopting.
  • Self-organisation / self-management.
  • Servant Leadership.
  • Holacracy.
  • Serious Play.
  • Continuous Improvement.
  • [Your own favourite innovation].

We Must Change the Rules

“Human beings cannot progress unless somehow they do things differently today from the way they did them yesterday.”

~ Shigeo Shingo

So now we can see that the real effort we must make is NOT in adopting new innovations, but in changing the rules. And these rules are manifest in the assumptions-in-action, the collective mindset, the culture, of an organisation. This, btw, is the central message of Rightshifting and the Marshall Model.

– Bob

Further Reading

Beyond the Goal ~ Eliyahu M. Goldratt (Audiobook only)

  1. bborghi said:

    Thank you for reminding us of working on the old rules.
    isn’t this inspired by Goldratt ?

    • bborghi said:

      Yes, this audiobook is great – and it’s fun to hear Goldratt.

  2. Under your definition, then, an innovation that enables us to address needs that we didn’t previously know that we had is still diminishing a limitation. But you’re adopting a very broad definition of “needs” – especially in adding the proviso of “to the maximum possible extent” and making “maximum” itself a limitation – so that our ignorance of the limits of our ability to fulfil a need is a whole higher order of limitation.

    How far down the hierarchy of needs you are prepared to go is another matter. Innovation may well come up with solutions to problems that aren’t really significant; is the world really in need of, say, a solar-powered whoopee cushion?

  3. Hi Robert, I’d be delighted to address your question(s), but I’m not sure exactly what your question(s) are. :} Would you be willing to clarify?

  4. I didn’t really have a question, just an observation; the one question that I did put in my post was purely rhetorical. I was really just seeing how your proposition stood up to needs that were previously not known to us, or indeed might be challenged as even being “needs” at all. (And also challenging your moving the goalposts by redefining the “maximum extent” limitation.)

    After all, you DID say “Don’t be too hasty in coming to agree with it (the proposition)” 🙂

  5. bborghi said:

    “Meeting a need” and “Bringing benefits” should be considered as synonymous expressions here.
    Sometimes, we recognize a need the moment it is met. The need was unknown but latent.
    The art of the innovator is to discover before others a need that is to be met – the problem – and imagine a solution that helps to meet the need.
    A solar-powered whoopee cushion is not an innovation if we don’t what need it helps to meet, if we don’t know what limitation it diminishes. It’s just a thingy.

    • On that basis, then, not all those who CLAIM to be ‘innovators’ actually ARE innovators. The test of an innovation therefore has to be “meeting a need in a better way than it was met previously”. A need that we didn’t know we had is met by the improved way of actually meeting that need in the first place when it wasn’t met previously.

      I think that clears up my concern about unidentified needs.

      I was in part motivated to ask the question in the first place partly out of a slight sense of perversity (sorry about that) but also because here in the UK, for quite a while we had a mail-order catalogue called “Innovations” and it was mainly full of gadgets like solar-powered whoopee cushions and similar thingies. The needs they fulfilled, if any, were really at the bottom of the hierarchy.

    • Thanks for drawing our attention to this connection. For clarity, I’d say that “bringing benefits” might also be restated as “adopting a more effective strategy for meeting some need (or related collection of needs)”. I’ll have to think some more about it to decide whether this restatement always applies, or just sometimes.

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