Is standardization good for innovation?


Balancing standardization and innovation is critical during times of organizational change. And it’s an ongoing issue in open organizations, where change is constant.

When we are constantly being told to value the new and the different, it may come as a surprise to learn that the standard, the shared, and the common can be strong drivers of transformation. Many innovations that have changed the world, including railroads, modern manufacturing, interchangeable parts, money, agriculture, containerized shipping, numbers, the Internet, and even language, only succeed because of standardization.

Organizations looking to transform their operations, customer experience, or even their industries can benefit from incorporating as many types of standard, shared, and common features into their efforts as possible. 

Any organization facing the prospect of change will confront an underlying tension between competing needs for standardization and innovation. Achieving the correct balance between these needs can be essential to an organization’s success.

Experiencing too much of either can lead to productivity problems. Over-stressing standardization, for example, can have a stifling effect on the team’s ability to innovate to solve new problems. On the other hand, unfettered innovation can lead to time lost due to duplicated or misdirected efforts.

The need for standardization

Duplicate, conflicting, or incompatible systems – or systems that, while helpful, do not address a team’s highest priorities – can find their way into organizations, complicating processes. This is where standardization can help. By agreeing on and implementing a common set of tools and processes, teams become more efficient as they reduce the need for new development methods, customized training, and maintenance.

Standardization frees people in organizations to focus more attention on other things – products, for instance – and not on the need to coordinate the use of potentially conflicting new tools and processes.

People can create this existing by finding a set of consistent metrics to assess product quality across multiple products or multiple releases of individual products. Standardization effectively provides the organization with a common language for measuring quality.

The need for innovation

A danger of standardization arises when it becomes an all-consuming end in itself. A constant push to standardize can inadvertently stifle creativity and innovation. If taken too far, policies that overemphasize standardization appear to discourage support for people’s need to find new solutions to new problems. Taken to an extreme, this can lead to a suffocating organizational atmosphere in which people are reluctant to propose new solutions in the interest of maintaining standardization or conformity.

New opportunities result in further problems that require unique solutions. Any organization must adapt, and its people must have the freedom to innovate. 

However, the freedom to innovate can not be the freedom to do whatever we feel like doing. The challenge for any organization is to encourage and inspire innovation while keeping innovation efforts focused on meeting your organization’s goals and addressing the problems you’re trying to solve.

Leaders may be inclined to impose rigid, top-down limits on innovation in organizations. Instead, they should provide a direction or path forward in terms of goals and deliverables and enables people to find their way along that path. That forward path is usually not a straight line; innovation is seldom linear. Like a sailboat making progress into the wind, it’s sometimes necessary to “tack” or go sideways to make forward progress.

Blending standardization with focused innovation

Are we doomed to always think of standardization as the broccoli we must eat, while innovation is the ice cream we want to eat?

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Perceptions play a role in the conflict between standardization and innovation. People who only want to focus on standardization must remember that even the tools and processes they want to promote as “the standard” were once new and represented change. Likewise, people who only want to focus on innovation have to remember that for a tool or process to provide value to an organization, it must be stable enough to use it over time.

Standardization and innovation are the two sides of the same coin. Standardization provides the foundation on which innovation can strive. Think of standardization as a core set of tools and practices you must apply to all products. Innovation can take the form of tools and practices that go beyond this standard. This will enable every team to extend the core set of standardized tools and practices to meet the individual needs of their specific projects. Standardization doesn’t mean that all forward-looking actions stop. Over time, what was innovation can become standard and make room for innovation.

Let’s take the example of a skateboard, an automotive platform. A skateboard is a type of configuration for automotive chassis used for automotive platforms of battery electric vehicles. The skateboard chassis includes a base structure or a platform, which houses the batteries, electric motors, and other electronic components fundamental to an electric vehicle.

A skateboard chassis is a self-contained platform with all the necessary driving and electronic components integrated into it, which remains standard across and can be mounted with a variety of bodies after scaling them into various sizes. The beauty of the skateboard system is that a variety of body styles can develop to fit the same platform, saving carmakers loads of cash. Carmakers can now innovate on various components like the battery or the motor. Skateboard is the perfect example of standardization and innovation at the same platform and scaling businesses. 

Standardization and Innovation go hand-in-hand with Cubyts

Scale innovation much faster with Cubyts

If you can achieve good process maturity & standardization, you can innovate much better on the product. The more mature your design processes are, the better your team will innovate.