Quality versus innovation: a conundrom

"The art of progress is to preserve order amid change and to preserve change amid order. "

(Alfred North Whitehead)

Managing for quality involves reducing both variability and risk. It is basically a process of making the status quo as efficient and reliable as possible. It tends to be both linear and reductionist (breaking the process down into its smallest components and optimizing each component) and it has no tolerance for error. It both depends upon and aims for predictability. It is easy in simple systems, and still possible (with effort) in complicated systems. Traditional quality-focused management becomes a problem in complex systems, because managing in the setting of complexity and emergent change requires a high degree of innovation.

Real time, front line innovation is necessary for success in complex systems, rather than the traditional centrally planned and deployed change. Innovation is not improving the status quo, it is the process of replacing the status quo with something better. Innovation depends on creativity, the generation and evaluation of new and untested ideas, and the use of experimentation. It requires encouraging rather than discouraging variation, tolerating significant risk rather than minimizing it, and being comfortable with rather than afraid of frequent failure.  It aims for agility, not stability. 

Quality consists of doing the current process right. Innovation consists of finding the right process.

Whether at the level of leadership and management, or on the front line, the mind set and processes for maximizing quality and fostering innovation are so different they often function as natural enemies, and are often perceived as incompatible. This is not the hopeless impasse it might seem, and the reason is simple: innovation is flexible.

Successful innovation starts with ignoring the boxes (not just thinking outside them), fostering variation, and trying things to see what happens; it always includes monitoring and testing the results. This monitoring and testing is a key component of maximizing quality. Quality is easily included as a metric for success in an innovative culture.

It isn’t a question of which is better. It is a question of what comes first. We didn’t refuse to learn to walk because our first steps were faltering. We didn’t refuse to learn language because in the beginning we made non-stop errors. Innovation and quality are not really natural enemies - as long as we remember to start with innovation and then improve the quality of our innovations. If we refuse to innovate because we are wedded to improving the quality of the status quo, the runners will leave the crawlers in the dust.

Bottom line: managing solely for quality precludes innovation. Managing for innovation requires attention to quality.



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