Australia's fascination with standardisation is hindering innovation

 Photo by: Vmenkov CC BY-SA 3.0
The worst thing that ever happened to Australian innovation was the lack of standardisation in rail gauges. Ever since then, Australia's fascination with standardisation has pervaded almost every aspect of life, but in particular, innovation.

In recent times, the fascination with standardisation has been played out in federal politics. Whenever there is a perceived problem, all power is given to the feds to fix the ad hoc measures employed by the states.

The fascination with standardisation can be observed in healthcare, education (in particular, the National Curriculum), the NBN, road rules, industrial relations, and more recently, research.

For some time, numerous reports have outlined the extent of innovation lagging in Australia, for example:
Numerous reasons for the lack of innovation are espoused, but one area is rarely considered: standardisation.

I blame the railways debacle for Australia's fascination with standardisation. But in an era of increasing diversity and consumer choice, this fascination actually hinders innovation.

Try and do something different in Australia: if it doesn't fit in with the standard way of doing things, it is not allowed. Try do something new in the bureaucracy and see how that goes, too. Put simply, you are not allowed to do anything that may affect the standard. Indeed, it may be that standards are developed, based on outmoded ideas, which actively prohibit innovation.

Take for instance the federal government's rhetoric about teleworking, but then try to work from home. Mannheim (writing in the Canberra Times today) hit the nail on the head:
..."the attitude of employers and middle managers" was a major hindrance... I hear often of managers who refuse to allow staff to work from home, citing their inability to monitor performance. (If a manager can't assess an employee's performance by their work, they're probably unfit to manage.)
What is the standard here? If you can see the employee, then they will magically be productive?

But standardisation is also about making everything the same. Australian policy-makers have long adopted a mechanical view of the world: a belief that you can indeed control innovation.

Imagine prescribing procedures for the late Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg to make them innovate more or faster, or punishing Michelangelo or Da Vinci until they become more creative? Or telling them how to innovate - the very concept is absurd.

But that is how it is done here in Australia: chaos and conflict are to be avoided so leaders can remain "relaxed and comfortable". The strangest thing is that this has a negative impact on the future, and future generations will have to pay for the apathy of leaders in business, government and higher education today.

There are three possible outcomes from attempts to influence people: commitment, compliance and resistance. For too long in Australia, policies and other interventions have focused on ensuring compliance and punishing resistance.

Auditing performance of outcomes is one thing, but auditing performance based on prescribed procedures is quite another. The smart employee will either look for a vocation where their ability to introduce new ways of doing business will be valued, or worse, simply resign themselves to complying with the standard. On the other hand, punishing resistance only teaches people not to buck the system. Only encouraging and rewarding outcomes will ensure commitment, especially where "standardisation" is not the outcome being sought.

It's true that the railway system in Australia was a major stuff-up. But should our view of the world be framed by the response to a mistake made over 150 years ago?

Our fascination with standardisation may have served us well in the past, but if we really want to innovate, we need to adopt a systems view of the world. Put simply, this means that one can disturb a living system, but not direct it. 

In the meantime, leaders who insist on forcing employees to work within the confines of their fascination with standards should expect nothing more than compliance; and consequently, absolutely no change in Australia's lagging innovation.