How to Create a Permission Structure for Innovation

Posted 09.15.2020

Most of the organizations I’m talking to and observing during the pandemic recognize the need to up their levels of innovation and agility. After all, if you need to pivot your business model and set yourself up to succeed in whatever environment presents itself next, you need to have those two qualities embedded in your culture. Some companies have been successful in pivoting quickly, while others have found it more challenging.

What’s the difference between the two groups? It’s a lot of things, actually, but one of the big ones is whether or not the organization has created a permission structure for innovation. The successful pivoters are either reinforcing existing cultural norms or are creating new ones that make it feel safe for their leaders and people to do things differently. It’s really more of a macro cultural play than a micro individual play and, because it is, when organizations are successful in creating a permission structure for innovation, it starts with top leadership.

To create an effective permission structure for innovation, successful senior leaders encourage cultural norms like these:

Ask the Why Questions: Executive leaders in agile organizations are intentional about creating and supporting a permission structure that makes it acceptable and welcome for other leaders to ask, “Why?” As in:

  • Why this initiative?
  • Why now?
  • Why is this more important than that?
  • Why are we still doing this?
  • Why aren’t we doing this differently?
  • Why are we always going to the same people?

Since human beings are pretty much wired to go on the defensive when asked, “why” questions, it’s important for leaders to remind themselves that questions like the ones above aren’t personal, they’re business. They’re also the ones that will uncover opportunities for innovation.

Question Assumptions: The most agile and responsive organizations are using the crisis to question assumptions that have been so long-held that they weren’t even recognized as assumptions. Take the Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud as an example. Prior to the pandemic, his NYC restaurant Daniel was the pinnacle of white-table cloth fine dining. Now, as reported in a recent profile in the Financial Times, he and his team are serving customers on the sidewalk outside, delivering to the Hamptons, providing carry out meals that are picked up at the curb by customers, at least one of whom drives a Rolls Royce, and placing members of his kitchen staff as private chefs for the wealthy. None of that was even in his imagination prior to the pandemic. Questioning the assumptions of how they do business has enabled Boulud and his team to reimagine how they serve customers.

Say Something Other Than Yes: We too often get stuck in one of two responses to requests for our time and attention – either yes or no. Because high achieving people usually aren’t comfortable with saying no, they say yes instead and end up overcommitting themselves to the point where they don’t have the bandwidth to innovate. If you’re a senior leader, encourage your people to think about yes and no as representing opposite ends of the spectrum of possible responses. There are a lot of options in between such as:

  • Yes, but with these conditions.
  • Yes, but not now.
  • Yes, but not me.
  • Tell me more.
  • Why now instead of later?
  • What about some alternatives that don’t require as much?
  • What else would work or help, instead?
  • No, but here’s what I can do.

Agile organizations create a permission structure that makes it OK to say something other than “yes”.

A permission structure that makes it OK to ask why, encourages the questioning of assumptions and allows people to say something other than yes is really dependent on the cultural messaging and role modeling done by top leadership. As I’ve written many times, they control the weather. However they show up is completely predictive of how everyone else will show up. If they demonstrate receptivity to and support of open and honest communications, then everyone else will be more likely to engage in open and honest communications.

Where are you on the permission structure spectrum? If you’re a senior leader what do you and your colleagues need to keep doing, start doing or stop doing to encourage your people to ask tough questions, question assumptions and say something other than yes. Your organization’s capacity to pivot and innovate will likely depend on how you act on your answers.

If you liked what you read here, subscribe here to get my latest ideas on how to lead and live at your best.