Don’t Wait for Permission to Innovate

One question that comes up all the time is: “how can I innovate when my manager won’t let me?”

The answer is one people usually don’t want to hear: “Innovate anyway.” But it’s true.

Here’s a clip from the Management Innovation Exchange of Jeffrey Pfeffer talking about how to create your own job – it’s short and well worth watching:

Jeffrey Pfeffer: Punch Above Your Weight

Jeffrey Pfeffer’s recommendations are based on research, but they are awfully similar to those of Seth Godin, which are based on experience:

The number of people you need to ask for permission keeps going down:

1. Go, make something happen.
2. Do work you’re proud of.

3. Treat people with respect.

4. Make big promises and keep them.

5. Ship it out the door.

When in doubt, see #1.

My recommendations are based on a combination of experience and research.

When people ask me how to innovate when they don’t have permission, my answer is “how much can you get away with?” If you can sign of on projects worth $100 without your manager’s approval, then you can test out any new idea that costs less than $100.

When I started one of my management jobs a while ago, I read a few of books by Tom Peters and a few other people, and I wrote down 48 ideas that I could try with my new team. None of them cost anything more than time and energy to execute. Over the course of two years, we tested all but two of those ideas.

Not every one worked, but a lot of them did. Our team was responsible for recruiting students for a tertiary institute, and as we tried out those ideas together, our team got better and better at matching up people with the courses that interested them.

In our first year of experimenting, we increased enrolments by over 10%, which had about a $2 million impact on the bottom line. All from trying out ideas that cost nothing. That’s all that I had to work with in that job. After that year, I had a bit more slack.

The point here is that I didn’t ask permission. I was given the job to manage, and that’s what I did. I tried out as many new ideas as I could within the authority that I had. And I gave my team as much slack as I could so that they could try out as many ideas as they could. It was a collective effort.

That’s how you innovate when you don’t have permission.

So, how much can you get away with?

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

12 thoughts on “Don’t Wait for Permission to Innovate

  1. Thanks Brian!

    Joe, the 48 sounds bigger than it was – the vast majority of them were pretty small ideas. And the most effective one was very simple, which was to get our information team at the end of each talk with someone about a program of study to ask them “would you like to put in an application for the course?”. It was astonishing how many people just needed the smallest of nudges to move on something like that.

    Thanks for the recent Godin link – the number of people reading me but not him must be VERY small… :-)

  2. In my own experience, there’s a spectrum, with people who don’t even think of asking for permission at one end and those who *need* permission from others to do anything.

    For those at the “need permission” end of the spectrum, the biggest obstacle they need to get over is themselves.

  3. I agree Matt. And people are definitely on a spectrum. I run into a huge number of people on the “need permission” end of it – still not quite sure what’s the best thing to tell them…

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