Is Disciplined Innovation an Oxymoron?


Not according to Donald Sull who recently published a new book, co-authored with Kathleen Eisenhardt, Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World. A former McKinsey analyst and now a senior lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, Sull summarizes his theories in an article entitled, The Simple Rules of Disciplined Innovation.

Fundamentally, he believes that innovation and creativity need purpose in order to avoid chaos. Not that chaos is bad, but it can be distracting. I found truth in this statement the moment I read it as I recall from my days in advertising that the best ads created by the creative department, were ones which has clear parameters regarding audience, message to be conveyed, medium, duration or space in that medium and budget. It was amazing to see what came from those creative geniuses.

Sull highlights some basic rules about putting innovation rules in place for a company:

– Every company should have some in order to assess whether an innovation, business opportunity, partnership, or other such matter is right for that company, at that time.

– The rules should be simple and small in number. This ensures that everyone knows them, they are easy to understand, easy to apply, and easy to share.

– The rules offer concrete guidance that still offers room for creativity and discretion.

– The rules fit within the context of what the company is trying to achieve, with its culture, within its strategy, or other parameters. For example, a rule may be that the opportunity create value. Value can be defined differently for companies such as the need to stay within budget, become a best seller, cause a customer to buy another product, must make use of existing supplies that are on hand or reuse of product, etc.

– Don’t be shy about borrowing rules from another company. But be sure to modify them to fit your company, culture, strategy, etc.

Sull gives excellent examples in how LEGO, Corning and Zumba use such simple rules to continually innovate within their own business, thus keeping their companies alive and thriving. Zumba, for example, has two rules for their assessment of products, partners, and people who want to affiliate with their brand: (1) every opportunity must support the instructors; and (2) that the opportunity provide “FEJ” (pronounced “fedge”) – Freeing Electrifying Joy.

I also find the exercise of determining the rules a fantastic way to get deep clarity on ones objectives. An excellent exercise for every corporate and business team, and also for individual practitioners. So what do disciplined innovation and creativity look like for you?

by Limor Schafman

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