4 min read

Have you ever tried to make an improvement that looked feasible and seemed to have buy-in from all the right people, and yet turned out to be more resistant to change than you anticipated? Why does that happen? Well, part of the answer is that innovation is often hampered by structural and political factors.

Structures are human efforts to pour chaotic reality into predictable forms. I live near Memphis, Tennessee which sits right on the edge of the great Mississippi River. I was stunned the other day when I saw a satellite picture of the Mississippi winding its way from north to south. I guess I had not realized how snake-like it was. You could see where it had changed paths many times and how its bends and turns were literally shaping the geographical features of the Mid-South. Yet, near Memphis, this wild thing called the Mississippi River is kept in its place by the great levees that border its sides.

Structures perform the same function in organizations. They channel the chaos of life into predictable patterns. This controlling function of structure, while necessary for organizational stability, is also the reason why many great innovative ideas are never allowed to develop. Innovation needs fluidity and freedom to thrive. By its very nature, innovation is an attempt to break through the levees and create a new path. When organizational structures are too rigid and unable to adapt to needed changes, they can kill the very innovation the organization needs to survive. Take for example the following experience that was recently shared with me by a friend:

I recently led a manufacturing organization that had chemists (many of whom had come out of R&D). But, because they were in ‘manufacturing’ and not R&D, their talent and experience were not leveraged for new product development. In other words, you HAD to be in R&D as a chemist to truly participate in innovative new products. Regardless of your talent/experience/ideas, if you were NOT in R&D, you were an outsider and not allowed to contribute in developing new products. This was strictly a matter of organizational structure getting in the way because the R&D Director was a control freak. Effectively, organizational structure was a convenient innovation constraint.

Another innovation inhibitor is politics. And I’m not just talking about Washington politics. The fact is that every organization from the single-family business operation to large corporate enterprises, are influenced by internal and external politics.

I’m talking about the possession of power, in-group loyalty, and personal ambitions. These realities naturally limit the innovative possibilities of organizations. If an innovation threatens the prestige or territory of a person in a position of power, that person may resist the innovation out of a sense of self-defense. He or she may not even be aware of what they are doing. Justifications and rationalizations become ways by which the human mind avoids the uncomfortable truth that people are simply protecting their “place” in the company. It takes a rare and visionary leader to sacrifice personal gain for the good of the organization.

Politics creates “camps” or “schools of thinking” that limit our creative capacity. It is normal and necessary for larger organization to form group loyalties. But these groups can become rival ways of thinking about how to get things done. The pressure to remain intellectually loyal to your group is powerful and can inhibit innovative thinking.

The challenge for any organization is to balance the inhibiting forces of structure and politics with the urgent need for innovation. This may require some significant changes in organizational culture, structure, reward systems, and human resource policies. All of these organizational elements need to be tweaked and leveraged to provide a more fluid organizational environment that encourages innovation and change.

What has been your experience with the innovation/structure tension? Do you have any stories you could share about how politics has inhibited innovation in your organization?

Portrait of Dr. Waddell

Dr. Greg Waddell is passionate about helping church leaders equip their people for ministry. He believes there is wild potential in every believer that begs to be released. He can help you develop and implement practical strategies for increasing the ministry capacity of your congregation.


Photo: Mississippi River Sheet 1895 by C. W. Clark, Mississippi River Commission, 1895. Public Domain.