Do standards hinder innovation?

When boundaries are imposed, do they really hinder innovation?

A few days ago I was having a discussion with a colleague about standards and best practices.  After a while the discussion turned to innovation and how it is affected by the imposition of these standards and best practices in a business environment. 

Her argument was that by imposing boundaries you limit the amount of creativity that can occur.  She felt that people will naturally or unconsciously limit their thinking if they feel that they will be “called on the carpet” for coloring outside the lines, so to speak. Or they will be demotivated by virtue of the fact that they can’t use all the ideas and resources at hand to come up with the best solution.

While part of me agrees with her thoughts, I consciously took the opposing position to explore the subject further. My argument back to her was that when people know the boundaries of the field of opportunity, they are able to focus more intensely on solutions that address the problem or opportunity and not be distracted by “what ifs” that could result from unbounded thinking. This, in turn, has the potential to shorten the innovation cycle and allows them to move on to the next opportunity or challenge. 

I also argued that by working in an environment governed by standards, the resulting solution may have a broader impact since more people or businesses will be able to use it.

In order to drive home my point, I used the example of Apple’s wildly popular iPhone. While the iPhone is not a standard or best practice, the platform on which it is built could be loosely compared to either. If you think about it, iPhone apps have to adhere to the “standards” defined by Apple, the iPhone operating system and its unique user interface. Over 30,000 apps are now available for the iPhone and iPod Touch today. Not bad for a proprietary platform! Now I will admit that a lot of those apps are not overly useful (my son recently demonstrated how he can light his virtual Zippo lighter by “flicking” his iPhone…), but a LOT of innovation has occurred within the boundaries imposed by the iPhone platform.

To take this to a more practical level, let’s look at the examples of the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL). ITIL is a best practices framework for providing information technology service management. I argued that by having this framework in place, IT organizations can now challenge their people to create new and innovative ways to apply the framework and to develop new services that couldn’t have otherwise been delivered without it in place. 

My final argument to her was that by imposing standards, there will be a subset of people who will always challenge those boundaries and intentionally color outside the lines just to see what they can create. Somewhat of the “see, I told you so” approach to personal and corporate anarchy. This approach will often result in the realization that maybe the standards are wrong or inappropriate for the situation and will drive additional positive change. 

I’m not sure my colleague bought into all my arguments, but it made for an interesting discussion! So do standards really hinder innovation? I would really be interested in your opinion. Please share it in the comments area below!

  • hooli

    Standards to prevent innovation. General purpose computing will soon be decentralized into the internet of things. If we allow megacorps to take ownership of the IoT then we will lose all our freedoms in the process but if we use it in a DIY fashion to automate our household, free us from megacorps and free our time then we will be free to do the work we want to do and spend our time with family.