Change is hard as we humans don’t like change. However, in organisations, there is another reason why change is so hard, and it’s called Policy.

policyLet me give you an example of Policy in action. I was recently working with a client who was running an idea challenge in their company. The CEO and the board were sponsoring the challenge and expecting great things. To launch the challenge, the CEO emailed every employee to ask them to get involved by submitting their ideas as they ideas were needed urgently. Good so far.

However, part way through the challenge, they wanted to remind people to get involved to maximise the number of participants. The obvious solution was to send out some reminder emails.

Sounds reasonable, but apparently it wasn’t. This action was blocked because the internal communications department thought that too many emails had been sent, and further emails would break their corporate email policy.

Even through the challenge had the support of the board; their email policy had stopped the much-needed communication. Maintaining policy was more important than involving staff in a board-supported innovation initiative.

Great, employees got less emails, but hang on, less people got involved in the challenge. Which will drive the organisation forward, less emails, or ideas? It’s not a hard question…

My wise friend, Alan G Robinson, recently tweeted:

Policies aren’t created for fun, but are created to solve an issue or stop a potential issue occurring. It’s all very sensible, until those very policies stop the organisation moving forward into new things that will keep the organisation relevant, current and most importantly, solvent.

It can get worse, when policies are in place and nobody knows why. I’m sure you know the story of the five monkeys in a cage that is used to exemplify policy gone bad. If you do, skip the next paragraph….

monkeys in cageFive monkeys were put in a cage with a banana hanging from the top of the cage. In the centre of the cage was a stepladder to get the banana. Monkey #1 looked up and saw the banana, climbed the stepladder, reached for the banana and at that very point, the whole cage was hosed with cold water. The monkey fell off the ladder in surprise. While he was licking his wounds, monkey #2 climbed the ladder, reached for the banana and again, the cage got hosed with water, and the second monkey fell off. This went on with each monkey climbing the ladder and all the monkeys got very wet. In the end, the monkeys just ignored the banana. One of the original monkeys was replaced with a new fresh-eyed (hungry) monkey. This new monkey looked up and began to climb the ladder. At this point the other four monkeys jumped on the new monkey and pulled him off the ladder as they had just dried off! The new monkey thought this was a bit odd, tried again, and this time the other monkeys jumped on him until he gave up all thoughts of bananas. Another original monkey was replaced with a new monkey, who started to climb the ladder and got promptly jumped on by all the other monkeys. This went on until all the original monkeys were replaced. Every time a monkey started to climb the ladder, every other monkeys jumped on him, even though they did not know why, but had accepted that this was the way things were done around here.

As this story illustrates, Policy is a strong adversary of new ways. Policies are necessary, but they must be regularly reviewed to ensure that they are still relevant, still solving the problem they were created for and not causing bigger problems in the organisation.

Use your mavericks, your “new” people with fresh-eyes to help you spot policies that are stopping your innovation journey and change agenda. If you do not regularly review your policies, you will snuff out all the bright lights, the new ideas and hinder the ability of your organisation to adapt, grow and thrive.