The red tape challenge

The Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies here in Washington DC, has been running a series of roundtable discussions on various aspects of technology and innovation. Last week I was one of the panelists at the discussion on policy and innovation.

Since I'm not a policy wonk and nor a technology nerd ("A PolicyWonk is related to the Technology Nerd, but understands people" according to I was a bit baffled about how to contribute effectively, however, once I got the email telling me that I was to provide an overview of my point of view, to go in the participant info pack and reminding me that I also had to speak to for ten minutes on this, I knew I had to get my act together.

It was good to find that actually I did have a point of view: reminding me of the phrase that I enjoy "when I hear what I say, I'll know what I think" . Policies are part and parcel of any organization design and can work in favor or against innovation. However, it's not that simple.

Policies are just one aspect of what I think of as the 'red tape structure'. Explicit red tape includes formal rules, regulations, policies, executive orders, guidelines, frameworks, and so on. Some of this red tape is legally binding and some isn't. Organizations and their members generally have to comply with a mass of both internally and externally generated formal red tape. Think of health and safety regulations as a case in point – there are government impositions and usually additional company requirements on health and safety.

Beyond the formal red tape structures are all the informal ones – the implicit cultural red tape that guides the way people in organizations do things. You hear this coming out in phrases like: "That's what we do", "We've always done it that way", "I'll have to ask my supervisor" , "It's more than my job's worth ….", "It's our policy …" , "It's against the rules …." The Agatha Christie story illustrating this is one I tell in Chapter 5 of my book on Organisation Culture. Whether or not it is true it is a fun example of the type of informal red tape story that people encounter everyday.

Agatha Christie (a thriller writer) was the guest of honour at a Foyle's literary luncheon. The doorman asked her for her invitation and refused to admit her when she couldn't produce it. She didn't make any fuss but just went home.

This is an example of someone who feels that the thing he is being held accountable for is more important than taking responsibility, showing initiative, or even acting sensibly. For the doorman it is more than his job is worth to take the risk of being penalized for contravening the rules and expectations of his employment i.e. to only allow people into the event who can produce their invitation.

My line is that both formal and informal red tape is far more likely to stifle innovation and creative thinking than to generate it. (I'm not going to define 'innovation' which none of us participating in the roundtable attempted). To mitigate that risk it's important to ask a number of questions first when thinking about initiating or introducing a piece of red tape, and second when reviewing its efficacy. Sadly, more often than not the initiating questions are glossed over, and it's very rare that systematic organizational reviews of red tape ever take place. However, let's assume that people wanted red tape to foster rather than restrict innovation. Here are the questions to ask when introducing it:

• What do we want it to do?
• Why is it needed?
• When does it work well?
• How will we know?
• Who will monitor and track its efficacy?
• Where is the other organizational infrastructure support for it?

Peter Drucker, called for the systematic review and then 'planned abandonment' of things like out of date policies, business processes and so on. But before getting to that point we need to be clear that reviewing is necessary by asking:

• Why don't we review?
• What are the benefits of reviewing?
• How can reviews be instigated?
• Who would do the reviews?
• When should they happen (time frame)?
• Where should review accountability lie?

Once we are clear we need to review then we can go on to the planned abandonment phase.

Sometimes reviews and abandonment come quickly on the heels of introducing a policy. As, rather than stifling innovation, people are very inventive in doing red tape workarounds. Take the example of the London bus drivers who when asked to get their buses to the destination at the time indicated on the schedule or lose their performance related pay, responded by not stopping to pick up passengers as that ran the risk of not getting back in time!

I like the fact that both President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron have taken up the cudgels against red tape. Cameron issuing both a letter on it and setting up the 'red tape challenge' and Obama issuing an executive order on the topic.

Most organizations would do well to take up Cameron's injunction – posed in relation to specific sets of regulations:

Tell us what you think should happen to these regulations and why, being specific where possible:

Should they be scrapped altogether?
Can they be merged with existing regulations?
Can we simplify them – or reduce the bureaucracy associated with them?
Have you got any ideas to make these regulations better?
Do you think they should be left as they are?

Let me know if your organization regularly reviews its formal and informal red tape.