Think of a street play where the script forms the routines and the power of agency lies with the artists. Can we have a play without a script? Yes, we can, but it just won’t be the same.

The same logic applies to the routines and agency (which lies with managers) in the corporate context. While managers do follow scripts (read processes), they can also change the script through improvisation and improvement. That’s how routines are not static, but dynamic in nature, evolving continuously.

Placing routines at the heart of organizational work culture raises three key questions: where do these routines originate from; where do robust routines leave the role of talent; and, can routines foster a culture of innovation at a large-sized organization?

In one of the earliest studies on the subject, in 2003, Prof. Brian Pentland of Michigan State University and Martha Feldman of the University of California, Irvine defined routines as “repetitive, recognizable patterns of interdependent actions, carried out by multiple actors". They further identify routines as comprising two aspects—the abstract idea of the routine (structure), called the “ostensive", and the actual performances of the routine by specific people, at specific times, in specific places (agency), called the “performative" aspect of routines. The ostensive aspect can be best understood as organizational processes or standard operating procedures, while the performative aspect is the enactment of those procedures, not always as stated.

With this understanding of routines and their variants, let’s look at their origins. At the very beginning of an organization, there is just the founding team and its personal competencies, which translate into “ways of doing things here" over time. The founders, in person or spirit, direct employee behaviours, which, over time, form the ostensive aspects of routines, through the systems and structures.

The following statement by the CEO of Intuit, rated as one of world’s most innovative software companies, on the role of founder Scott Cook, speaks volumes about how founders build robust routines and competencies. In their official video, titled “The Intuit Story: 30 years of innovation", CEO Brad Smith says: “We turn individual ability from our founder Scott Cook into an organizational capability (where) we all learn the techniques and practise the methods to be innovators that change the world."

On the imperative of how structures shape behaviours, the former chief of IBM and turnaround expert, Lou Gerstner, says: “If the practices and processes inside a company don’t drive the execution of values, then people don’t get it. The question is, do you create a culture of behaviour and action that really demonstrates those values and a reward system for those who adhere to them?" In short, the greatest contributions of CEOs and founders is often in shaping routines that shape behaviours for a long time to come.

Where does this leave the middle layer of management, the front-line staff and the people managers? Do they have no power of agency? Certainly they do, but it is limited. Remember, in the absence of routines or “the script", we are staring at chaos, and in absence of agency or managerial input, we are looking at decay. The very enactment of a script or following a routine can lead to the creation of new routines over time, provided the leaders allow sufficient experimentation and risk tolerance. This power of agency and initiative has been the driving force of innovative companies such as 3M, as is evident by the following statement by its legendary chairman William McKnight: “Management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kills initiative. And it’s essential that we have many people with initiative if we are to continue to grow."

If one studies innovative companies, it becomes apparent that such organizations are driven by stated and unstated rules and processes (routines) that shape what people can and can’t do. Success is then an outcome. Hence, between great talent and robust routines, I will clearly side with the latter.

Pavan Soni is the founder of Inflexion Point, an innovation and strategy consultancy.

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