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Think Outside the Suit

Open work policies and empowered self-expression are the keys to unlocking innovation in modern corporations.

Did Johnny Damon really need to shave his beard to be a New York Yankee? Does facial hair affect his ability to hit or round the bases? Yes and no. There’s no difference in physical performance, but in order to play ball, Damon has to comply with the strict rules of the Yankees organization. Most corporations have organizational policies, including dress codes, that managers believe keep their operations moving along efficiently and consistently. But as the game changes, it might be time to loosen up and allow for more individuality within the world of business.

From Henry Ford’s assembly line to Motorola’s Six Sigma, the managerial ethos of the 20th century was a relentless pursuit of efficiency. Steps were clearly outlined, variances eliminated, and outliers quashed. Along the way, people were reduced to ID numbers, buttoned up in button-down shirts, and driven to finance the khaki industry.

Today, CEOs must highlight fast-moving innovation to be taken seriously. Perhaps it’s because over the past decade most of the lower-level business activities have already been outsourced. Or maybe it’s because consumers have been conditioned to want a new smart phone every 12 months. Whatever the reason, “innovation” is the biggest buzzword in business, and everyone wants more of it.

But companies grown to run with world-class efficiency are not necessarily well-equipped to be innovative. Rather than remove variances, innovative companies must seek out anomalies and champion risky ideas in order to turn them into breakthrough concepts. Ultimately‚ innovation is a creative activity—it’s fuzzy‚ complicated, and highly subjective—and it can’t be achieved by corporate mandate. So, instead of managing employees to be conformists and optimizers, companies need to empower their employees to think freely.

I suspect that's why business leaders have been looking to creative organizations to help them be more innovative. Companies such as frog design have always had “loose” cultures in which employees are free to think and dress as they please. A work environment where nonconformity is the norm and freethinking is encouraged helps to produce breakthrough ideas for clients. Moreover, the “creatives” who work at creative agencies naturally crave the freedom to be self-expressive, tend to be a little wacky by nature, and often are not comfortable in khakis. So companies based on creativity have typically been built to foster and encourage diversity, not to instill homogeneity.

In fact, creative types are often expected to look and dress differently. The first act of self-expression a person performs every day is selecting what to wear. If corporate policy forces clothing choices that do not mesh with a person’s personality, then the first thing that an employee does when they get home is change clothes. As they change their clothes, they change their mentality—and the types of ideas they generate.

Corporate dress codes put employees into a box, and a person can’t be expected to think outside that box if they are walking around all day in one. Innovative companies need to provide employees with the freedom to be who they want to be all day long. If employees are free to be who they truly are while they’re at work, then that means they are also free to bring work with them into their personal lives. Inspiration for innovation doesn’t only come between the hours of 9 and 5. Once the walls of organizational confinement begin to crumble, employees can blend their personal and work lives so that they may generate breakthrough ideas at any time from any place. Indeed, the truly innovative employees will be those who are exactly the same at home as they are at work.

Even daydreaming is something that may be worth encouraging and rewarding. A recent study from the University of British Columbia in Canada shows that a wandering mind can activate parts of the brain associated with problem-solving. (Maybe that’s why many great ideas occur in the shower.) By allowing creative employees to be freethinkers and pursue what interests them, companies gain access to a diverse set of invaluable precursors to innovative ideas.

While there is no single approach to unlocking creative thinking, it is more likely to happen in environments where personal constraints are minimized and employees are empowered to voice any wild idea they might have. Design firms have been doing this almost unintentionally for decades, and now the business world is waking up to the merits of free‚ creative cultures. Innovation only emulsifies when individual voices are empowered by open policies.

If 21st-century managers want to succeed, then it’s time to do away with the dress codes and time sheets that are the relics of an efficiency-driven era. It’s time to unlock the power of individuals, let people be creative, and embrace individual personalities within the mass of an organization. Innovative employees are hired as individuals‚ and they should be free to be unique. Then, they will reward the economy with the next 100 years of good ideas.

So‚ on your next business trip, when you’re standing on the jetway waiting to board, take a look at the people around you. Which person do you think is most likely to come up with the next big game-changing idea? Is it the person in the suit with the expensive roll-aboard? Or is it the 20–something wearing jeans, a T-shirt, and sneakers? If you’re overlooking the latter, you may be doing so at your own peril. And perhaps you should think about how comfortable you are in your clothes, too. The future of our economy depends on businesses tapping into creative, innovative thinking. In the years to come, that means the most important employees might be the ones wearing sneakers—if that’s what they feel like wearing. There will always be a place for rules, but rules are so 20th century.

A version of this piece appeared in the April 2010 issue of design mind magazine.

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