Your colleagues are not dinosaurs – it’s workplace routines that make innovation difficult

An example of how routines can limit innovation is classes and terms that run for a set time, which limits the flexibility of educators and students. Shutterstock

Your colleagues are not dinosaurs – it’s workplace routines that make innovation difficult

In many sectors, the disruptive changes now occurring are so major that they have been described as the “fourth industrial revolution”. In response, organisations are focusing on innovation – hackathons, innovation labs and design jams are popular. Unfortunately, many innovations do not make it through to implementation.

Many explanations are offered. One is change resistance, but this is oversimplified and usually inaccurate. A more nuanced view is that implementing innovations is much harder than thinking them up in the first place.

An essential factor in being able to implement innovations is to diagnose the sources of resistance. One major source is the routines we find in all organisations.


Read more: Three ways to build innovation into your organisation


Routine works at various levels

An organisational routine is the collection of knowledge, systems, processes and practices that form the fabric of “how we get things done”. Routines can exist at several levels:

  • macro – organisational, inter-organisational and even national routines
  • meso – policies, processes, information systems, knowledge and ways of doing things
  • micro – the way people perform their jobs from day to day.

Routines exist to enable the organisation to function more efficiently, and to help people carry out their jobs.

For example, school or university teaching is usually divided into terms of, say, 14 weeks and then into 50-minute periods. Students and educators organise their personal teaching and learning routines around this model.

This is supported by meso-level routines. For example, school terms are integral to the management of the institutions themselves, including hiring, holidays and timetabling.

At a macro level, teaching routines are part of the fabric of wider society. For example, legislation governs the number of days that schools are required to open each year.

Let’s imagine a university lecturer who wants to implement a seemingly trivial innovation. They want to make attendance at class optional; deliver course materials online in a series of 12-to-15-minute “mini-lectures” instead of 50-minute lectures; and allow students’ progress to be self-paced, so they are not required to complete the course within the normal 14-week term. This plan quickly runs into trouble due to the existence of organisational routines based on the term structure.

The disruptive effects occur even at a macro level. For example, if an institution is funded on the basis of the number of students who complete courses, then uncertain completion dates make this hard to estimate. Full-time students might receive income support, and full-time status is difficult to determine if courses have no fixed completion time.

At a meso level, staff workload management systems would be disrupted. Existing processes and information systems might not be fit for purpose.

At a micro level, staff would need to structure their course materials differently, and students would need to change the way they study.

All of these routines would need to be rebuilt for the innovation to be successful.

Even a seemingly minor innovation can pose implementation conundrums. Often these are legitimate and have nothing to do with resistance to change.

The good news is that routines can often be flexible. Compromises might be possible to achieve the benefits of the innovation without stretching routines to breaking point. In our example, a choice of 14-week and 28-week course completion options could be offered, rather than making the completion date entirely flexible.

However, “flexing” or redesigning organisational routines is probably not going to happen in response to every promising prototype that comes out of the innovation lab.


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Five ways to promote innovation

Based on our understanding of organisational routines, we have some suggestions to help implement innovations.

  1. Analyse affected routines as part of the implementation plan. The scope should include micro-level routines (how people perform their jobs), meso-level routines (organisational systems, IT systems, processes, knowledge and shared understanding), and macro routines (inter-organisational or national policies and systems, legislation). Be realistic about the scale of the change required. Does the value of the innovation justify it?

  2. Modify the innovation to reduce major disruption to routines. Can the innovation be modified so existing routines can be “flexed” rather than disrupted completely? Can you remove or limit macro-level disruption, as these routines will be the hardest to change?

  3. Develop new routines to replace the old ones. Organisations need routines to function efficiently. The innovation implementation process needs to include the design of new or changed routines.

  4. Create a separate organisational unit or brand. New routines can be developed and trialled before being rolled out to the whole organisation.

  5. Aim for a more agile organisation overall. Many apparently promising innovations genuinely do not justify the effort involved in implementation. However, if there is a regular pattern of innovations never making it out of the lab, a wider examination of your organisation’s agility and change readiness may be required.

The very routines that make organisations great at the way they currently do things can also be major obstacles to change, and pointing this out does not mean your colleagues are dinosaurs. Being savvy about the role and importance of organisational routines is essential for successfully implementing innovations.


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