Innovation and Ethics

Innovation and Ethics

Innovation and Ethics

All good leaders aspire to bigger and better innovation.  And all good leaders need to play by the rules.  When we welcomed Bob McGannon to our 2019 Leadership Series®, we spent some time talking about rules and knowing when to break them. How can you obey the rules, adhere to your company's standards, and still find ways to break out and innovate?  Can both exist in the same environment? How do you hint at rule-breaking without actually promoting it?

First, let’s understand the concept of ethics as it relates to the rules at your company.  Ethics is a broader concept directly connected to your morals and principles. Rules are derived from necessity and are essential to the workplace.  They ensure order, safety, and reinforce a functioning environment.  Understand that breaking the rules is not necessarily an ethics violation, but it still deserves your careful consideration and a very light tread.

Let’s Talk About Alignment

Your moral code is likely already closely aligned with the rules or policies of your organization. Just because you are willing to break a rule doesn’t mean you can put your company at risk with unethical behavior. As you decide or discover the rules to break, you must also appreciate how this might impact your entire company.  “Rule-breaking” innovation is one thing, like developing and testing a new work order process during off-hours with hopes of a timelier and more efficient outcome. Unethical and dangerous behavior is another.  Purchasing a new work order program on a company credit card without proper approval is unethical and breaks the rules.  Know the difference and make choices you can stand behind.

Similarly, it would be best if you didn't work for an organization that does not align with your ethics.  If there is any doubt about this alignment, you need to have a bigger conversation with yourself, your organization, or your team.

Don’t Use a Hammer when a Firm Grip Will Do

Once you've discovered the need to break some rules, you should do so as gracious and as gingerly as possible.  There is not an immediate need to throw out all the rules.  Be mindful of what you need to work around and what standards you can live within. Likely, there will need to be an assessment and rationale of the broken rule, so be deliberate, strategic, and tread lightly to leave things in-tact and give merit to your reasoning.  You don't need to break all the rules just because you need to work around one.

Brace for Impact

So, you broke the rules.  Now what?  Now, you need to prepare for reactions and consequences.  In a perfect situation, you could know which rules to break, innovate, and win accolades from everyone.  But there will be fallout from the diversion you’ve taken.  Understand you will need to speak to your thought process and your intent.  If your rule-breaking was a success, present your findings in a way that can be repeated.  If you took a chance and it ended in failure, still own your decision, be patient with any questioning, and accept the consequences.  Most importantly, learn from the experience.


Ethics and innovation don't need to be competing concepts.  You're a great leader, and you can get both from your company and your team.  And, if you need to move outside of the standard, this might be a good time to think about how the rules need to change on a more permanent basis. Innovation is about thinking differently.  And ethics can guide you as you navigate through new patterns and concepts.  The two should work together to make you even more robust.

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