Every organization develops a set of social norms that guide people's behavior automatically. Norms are behaviors that people engage in a particular context without thinking about them. These norms influence the way people interact and they allow people to signal that they are part of the same social group. Obeying norms tells the people around you that you can be trusted, because you understand how to act around them.
By definition, norms are stereotyped actions and reactions that people engage without thinking. Classic research by Sherif demonstrated that norms arise because there is strong pressure for people to conform to the beliefs and judgments of other people. People quickly and effortlessly come to act like the people around them.
At first glance, the need to establish norms would seem to work against being innovative. After all, if everyone in a group is doing similar things, that should actually make the organization less innovative over time.
But, the generation, acceptance, and implementation of creative new ideas is a process. The key question is whether the social norms in your workplace support creativity and innovation.
How do the people around you react when you ask them to share their knowledge? In competitive workplaces, the norm is often to provide only cursory answers to questions in order to maintain a competitive advantage for promotions. In busy workplaces, the norm is typically to push off difficult questions about knowledge in favor of tasks that need to be done right away.
When the norm is to avoid providing deep answers to questions, people quickly stop asking others to share knowledge. That may make the workplace more efficient day-to-day, because knowledge-sharing has most of its benefits in the long-term. Right now, it is almost always easiest for the person with the knowledge to handle tasks in their area of expertise.
But, innovation typically happens at the intersection of different types of expertise. So, when the norm is to make time to share knowledge, there are many opportunities to develop new ideas for products and processes.
Support Your Local Innovator
Organizations also differ in the way they handle requests for time and resources to pursue new projects. It is important to be critical of new ideas and to examine them carefully. Investing too much in a new idea too quickly can be expensive.
At the same time, there is a fine-line between being critical and being dismissive. It is important to engage with new ideas and to search both for what is interesting and right in new approaches as well as the flaws. Even if the initial statement of an idea cannot be implemented, there may be a way to capture the spirit of that idea.
When people feel like their ideas are not taken seriously, they stop sharing their ideas. It quickly becomes clear that the norm is to continue doing things as they have been done in the past. Organizations like this may hold special brainstorming sessions to solve problems, but the normal workday focuses on implementing the existing business plan.
Creative breakthroughs do not come on a schedule. If people feel like their insights are not being considered carefully, then the norm will be to avoid trying to develop new ideas on a regular basis. The companies that pursue the most ideas will come up with the best ideas. So, it is important to give time and space to people who are generating interesting new approaches.
Make innovators visible
Social norms develop through spreading conformity. If you want to create social norms that promote innovation, then you need to make your best innovators visible. That does not mean they should have a platform to give lots of inspirational speeches. Instead, your best innovators need to be working side-by-side with lots of people in the company on a regular basis. That way, their behaviors set the norms for how people interact with each other.
People's goals are contagious. Whenever you see someone engaging in an action, it makes you more interested in doing the same thing. Watching people try out new ideas regularly and give good critical and constructive feedback reinforces this behavior in everyone. It need not be difficult to create social norms around behaviors associated with innovation. It just requires an organizational commitment to support innovative ideas and a willingness to give visibility to the people who reliably engage in behaviors that lead to innovation.