In this blog post I wrote about how playgrounds and organizations are remarkably similar, and how they both constrain intrinsic motivation and innovation.

The essence of the problem is that organizations (like children’s playgrounds) work to reduce risk and economize.  In playgrounds that manifests itself in rubberized surfaces, small slides, immovable parts, and structures cemented into the ground.  Children can play around the structures and on the structures, but can do little to move anything or change the structure to provide a new format or structures for their games.  They must be willing to stay within the prescribed format of the play structure and work their play around it, rather than alter the structures they are playing with to more fully engage in their play.

In many ways this is a metaphor for the way most organizations work.  There is a (perceived to be) immovable structure which people learn to play around and use as best they can.  Whether or not the structure is actually cemented into the ground is debatable; what matters is that most people think it is.

At the same time that the structures are immovable, leaders keep talking about the need to innovate, and bemoaning the lack of real innovation within their organization.  Seriously, how easy is it to really innovate – to either create something new or to use something old in a really new and innovative way – if the structure is presented as being immovable?

The message many people get is, “Innovate, as long as you do so around the current structures, don’t move anything, and don’t add anything to change the structure significantly because that would potentially be risky and we don’t want that level of risk.”  Is that the message leaders mean to send?  If so, that’s fine – and they should understand how much that limits the innovation and not bemoan the lack of truly “innovative” ideas.  After all, if nothing can change, how much innovation can you really expect?

For those leaders who don’t intend for that to be the message, what do you want people to do, and how much are you willing to risk to provide an environment where intrinsic motivation and innovation – and the potential payoffs from those improvements – is higher.  How much of the structures are you willing to unlock from the cement?  Are you willing for people to attach possibly risky structures to the currently stable structures?  Or would you prefer to keep the current structures in place and provide a completely new area where participants can create and innovate, understanding that whatever is created is likely to be both less stable in the beginning and more likely to change frequently as people try new things?

Just like the people designing and constructing playgrounds, leaders need to understand how the perceived and real structures in the organization constrain what their employees believe is possible, and how structures that are unchangeable reduce (crush?) innovation and the intrinsic motivation that goes along with it.  For leaders who really want the outcomes of innovation and intrinsic motivation, how much are you willing to risk to get it?  As Will Rogers said “Why not go out on a limb? That’s where the fruit is.”  If leaders want their organization to collect more fruit, leaders need to help their organizations provide employees the license to go out on a variety of limbs.  How can you as a leader provide enough flexibility in the organization you’re your people to try new approaches to getting the fruit when they find a limb with potential?

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