Achieving Business Excellence with John Spence

How Do You Balance Process and Innovation?

This weekend my good friend David Whitney, who is the Entrepreneur in Residence at the University of Florida’s College of Engineering, sent me the following question about a company that he and I serve on the advisory board for:

 “How do we create an organizational culture that accommodates work systems/processes, yet reinforces (and advances) a highly innovative spirit?”

Here is how I answered him:

It seems as though a company that embraces process and systems would have a hard time being innovative – on the surface it appears to be a dichotomy.  However, the two can and MUST coexist… elegantly.

To me, the key is understanding that there is no “repeatable” success – no ability to consistently deliver superior quality products and services – without processes, procedures and systems.  However, the goal must be to ONLY put processes and systems in place where they add real value – and ONLY in areas that are truly critical to the success of the business and leverage the power of a process.  The precarious balance then comes in being able to create and basically demand that people follow those processes – while also demanding they be innovative and creative in constantly improving the process and bringing their own personality the process.

Perhaps the best example of this is Starbucks – they have very clear, specific, detailed processes for making and serving their coffee at every single location worldwide (which is now roughly 3.4 zillion) – with a highly regarded procedures handbook that all of the baristas know by heart and understand is essential for achieving consistent quality.  Yet, the Starbucks management team also strongly encourages employees to inject the process with their individual personality, great ideas, energy, and innovation.

Another added element to this is that when there is a specific process or procedure… innovations and changes must be carefully vetted before they are implemented.  So it isn’t a willy-nilly, any time I have a good idea I just go in and change the process – it is – I follow the process to the letter… until I feel like I have a truly valuable innovation… then I bring that innovation to my management team and we beta-test it – if it works – the process is changed for everyone.  So this is where you see the rigorous (but not ruthless) adherence to process – while eagerly embracing continuous ideation, creation and innovation around the processes – testing out of these new innovations in safe places – and then changing processes when it actually adds real value to the delivery of the products and/or services and makes them superb – as defined by the customer.

 Let me know if this makes sense David — or if you have any other questions.  I admit that it is absolutely a tightrope walk, no question about it, but it is a tightrope walk that must be taken every day.  My big takeaways from this idea are:

  • Process is essential in the ability to deliver consistently superior quality and customer service – as defined by the customer.
  • Innovation is essential to growing and improving every business and every part of a business.
  • Rigorous process + continuous innovation are not a dichotomy – they are a synergy!

Oh crap, I have to finish the memo now —  I just used that horrible consulting type word… synergy… this is terrible, I’m going to have to go directly to the bar and start drinking!

*** By the way, I should point out that I answered David’s question from my hotel room – my wife and I went to the beach for the weekend to get some sun and so that I could attend a “Beach Beer Festival” that was raising money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association – so I did go immediately downstairs and grab a beer!


  1. JR Anchors says:

    John, I enjoy your injection of humor in a situation that troubles many leaders and how to walk that fine line of innovation and process. I like to use the phrase “Rigid Flexibility” when interacting with my team and encouraging them to be innovative in a process driven world of healthcare billing.

    Keep up the great insight and thanks for your comments.

    Have a Great Day! JR

  2. Jeff Lyons says:

    Hi, John.
    I attended a session this April on “mission planning” by a consulting group named Afterburner. One of the great takeaways from this group’s methodology was the need for a structured, deliberate debrief after each project. This often-skipped activity is a great vehicle for ongoing process improvement and innovation, and it makes sure that the innovation is targeting specific deficiencies in the process, lessons learned, etc. rather than just ad hoc innovation that may or may not drive real performance efficiencies. I think if organizations include debrief as part of their process, it reinforces a culture of innovation and continuous improvement. Not the only thing you have to do, but an important thing.

  3. i think the culture part of it is the hardest. getting people to give you their ideas in a way that they know they will be appreciated, not laughed at or told this is “the way”. Day in and day out we demand the exact same product every time, so no matter when the guest comes in its the same. But we also reward innovation and great ideas during our off time, or down time. A new menu item, a special beer pairing, all things that needed to be thought up, tried, tested, tweaked, tested again, systems and processes applied to and then they eventually become part of the bigger system that we must in turn execute within our systems and processes. Then we start all over with another great idea, talk about it, test it, tweak it, … i think to start the “culture of systems and processes with innovation”, you have to reward your free thinkers at the same level and time you reward the great users of your system… it is absolutely necessary to value input and great thinkers, but we all have to master the systems and processes. An employee comes up with a great idea or new way of doing things and we reward them, put their name on it (the dj roll, or the alex angle), we change or edit our system, it and tell everyone about it so that the whole team knows that innovation is wanted and appreciated.

    • Dave, fantastic comments – thank you so much for lending your voice to the conversation. What you have described here reminds me in some ways of kaizen – continuous incremental improvement – always coming in every day trying to find ways to do things just a little bit better, 1% better, 2% better – day in and day out – with discipline. I also love the idea that you have put forward about strongly encouraging creativity during downtime – testing new things and trying out new things during the off time – to bring back into the restaurant and use to delight and surprise your customers. Lastly – you hit the nail on the head – it takes lots and lots and lots of communication to make sure that everybody embraces the new innovation and clearly understands, as you have said it so well, that innovation is wanted and appreciated.

  4. Coming from an environment of private business contracted by the government, I can tell you this is nothing but my most consuming thought day in and day out. If we don’t bring innovation to our process laden bureaucracies where “that’s the way we’ve always done it” is the quicksand of productivity our country will continue to decline, as all do who grow beyond the growth of innovative thinking and begin the downhill slope of dysfunctionality. I am constantly telling my managers, “I don’t see you making enough mistakes from trying new things”. The corporate culture aspect is critical and difficult when trying to spin around a 180 degree change. Strong positive reinforcement when innovations work is critical, but even then, getting them to become the new normal process takes courage from everyone from board members to marketing to reception at the front door. In large bureaucratic organizations, that’s when the feeling sets in of constantly stabbing at windmills being nothing more than attempting death by a thousand paper cuts. Keeping that mindfulness of kaizen retains sanity…. Great blog!

  5. Julia Thompson says:

    John – what a timely reminder about creativity and innovation in an era where agencies, especially governmental agencies are rocking back on their heels to put processes in place in this ever changing fiscal and political environment. The public sector is challenged in both directions and with budgets continuing to shrink; creating a balance without employing fear factors and overburdening existing employees can provide “leadership” with interesting decisionmaking and management choices on a day to day basis. Thank you again for sharing great thoughts that deserve diliberation on all fronts!

  6. Bill Dailey says:

    Innovation, in and of itself is a process.
    Thomas Edison, probably the single most innovative person in American history – at least one of them – filed 1,093 patents. That’s a new idea that at least he thought was worth patenting, every week for 21 years, week in and week out. And part of that was the process of writing the patent, or at least describing it to someone who would flesh it out.

    Many of his ideas were related to the phonograph, electric lights and the generation and transmission of electricity.

    They weren’t all good ideas. Edison nearly went bankrupt after he tried to automate the mining industry. But there had to be a process of getting from idea to patent. He also played around with the elimination of paranormal beings – yes, like Ghostbusters. . .

    But patenting something is a process is starts with an idea. And inventors usually work at the solution really hard before getting there. It’s not usually like Archimedes hopping into the tub. The flash of inspiration has to be recongnized, and it’s rarely perfect for today’s problems.

    Somewhere in the process there is a need for the creativity, as well as the need for the discipline to refine and finish it. It’s not always one person. The world belongs to those who understand that things will be different tomorrow – you may not always predict it properly, but if you don’t try to predict the future, at least a little bit, then you’re not going to be successful when it arrives.

  7. I agree with this sentiment whole heartidly. While facilitating BPM and BPD initiatives within my position, I am continually urging folks to define their service catalog first, analyze each process, and seek out ways to lean out prior to even thinking of automation. So many organizations are jumping to automation before even having a grasp on the actual process inter workings. Not every process/procedure should automated, and for sure not an inefficient one.
    And the amount of effort it would take to document, analyze, and implement automation for an entire organization would be a scope hard to not only accomplish, but to measure and control after. Start w/ an organizational plan/road map, and empower the program level managers to perform an analysis on their own service catalog, ergo it rolls down hill.


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