In many sectors, the disruptive changes now occurring are so major that they have been described as the “fourth industrial revolution”. In response, organisations are focusing on innovation – hackathons, innovation labs and design jams are popular. Unfortunately, many innovations do not make it through to implementation.
Many explanations are offered. One is change resistance, but this is oversimplified and usually inaccurate. A more nuanced view is that implementing innovations is much harder than thinking them up in the first place.
An essential factor in being able to implement innovations is to diagnose the sources of resistance. One major source is the routines we find in all organisations.
Routine works at various levels
An organisational routine is the collection of knowledge, systems, processes and practices that form the fabric of “how we get things done”. Routines can exist at several levels:
- macro – organisational, inter-organisational and even national routines
- meso – policies, processes, information systems, knowledge and ways of doing things
- micro – the way people perform their jobs from day to day.
Routines exist to enable the organisation to function more efficiently, and to help people carry out their jobs.
For example, school or university teaching is usually divided into terms of, say, 14 weeks and then into 50-minute periods. Students and educators organise their personal teaching and learning routines around this model.
This is supported by meso-level routines. For example, school terms are integral to the management of the institutions themselves, including hiring, holidays and timetabling.
At a macro level, teaching routines are part of the fabric of wider society. For example, legislation governs the number of days that schools are required to open each year.
Let’s imagine a university lecturer who wants to implement a seemingly trivial innovation. They want to make attendance at class optional; deliver course materials online in a series of 12-to-15-minute “mini-lectures” instead of 50-minute lectures; and allow students’ progress to be self-paced, so they are not required to complete the course within the normal 14-week term. This plan quickly runs into trouble due to the existence of organisational routines based on the term structure.