There’s a certain joy in seeing the company that operates like a well oiled machine. Witnessing it in action, every process and procedure definitively outlined. Everyone has a job description outlining how their time and value will be measured, rated and remunerated. When a trigger event happens like a new sale, there’s a cascade of clever automation and simultaneous processes and checklists that execute. This ensures the contract is filed correctly, the billing is done, the CRM is pristine, shipping orders go out. The product or service is delivered impeccably with surgical precision to the SLA. It is beautiful, like watching a row of dominoes fall.

In contrast, in small and fast growing businesses, the ones often thought of as “scrappy” and “innovative”, there’s a different magic to witness. They function in the opposite way. When a new sale is made there’s a shout of joy, perhaps a bell is rung, and everyone scampers around the office in a daze to ensure the client gets a quality service. Running from memory, marshalling on-demand resources through coercion and flattery, hoping not to forget anything. A flurry of verbal follow ups in a mix of overlapping clumsiness and confusion to deliver the end result. Working to exhaustion to ensure the client is surprised beyond belief. The variability between positive surprise and negative surprise is what pains these businesses. It is beautiful, like watching a house of cards collapse.

Both the above parodies are at the extreme ends of the spectrum. However, sometimes not far from reality. Innovation in both environments is a challenge.

In the hyper-structured and rigid efficient mega-company, everyone has their small piece of the “machine” they are accountable for. A territory, a vertical, a subset of a process, a percentage of a service. It’s hard to step back and look from a distance at an end-to-end process and innovate from the trenches. Beyond that, it’s hard to move freely in such a strict environment, especially when making wholesale innovative changes against the status quo. It can feel like the existing way is carved in stone.

In the fast-and-loose environment, everyone can see everything and the lack of clarity is from a lack of structure. Here things are hard to improve because they’re not being done consistently. Responsibilities slide between people and departments like sand between your fingers. The fluctuating consistency of delivery, frenzy of activity, big ups and downs make it hard to sit down and structure a basic process to reduce the noise. To free up the time to step back and innovate or redesign how things are done, and why they’re done that way.

A healthy mix of both worlds is the best environment for innovation to grow, for ideas to be nurtured. For amazing things to happen. The environment is just the potential, the seed in the dirt waiting for the sun to shine and water to rain down. The real innovation must come from you. Choose to be the sun and water that makes the potential a reality.