A recent BusinessWeek cover story on 3M raised some interesting questions about whether a laser focus on process improvement via Six Sigma or similar off-shoots can end up inhibiting innovation and creativity in an organization. In 3M’s case, a maniacal devotion to rigorous analysis and process improvement – where repetition and predictability are critical – seemed to stifle the company’s legendary creativity.  This theme – of a well-intentioned desire to analyze and refine established business processes becoming an impediment to adaptability and innovation – is very relevant to public relations.

I see parallels with the 3M story in the communication functions of several organizations, where an almost stubborn allegiance to structure, process and even titles prevents the team from fully embracing new trends and innovations. I’ve witnessed a number of cases – which I suspect are reflective of a much broader trend – where communication professionals were virtually locked into roles that were defined by specific projects, tactics or even tools. The problem is, some of these tools or titles can become irrelevant or obsolete from one day to the next. And that’s not a bad thing. (As an example, on my own team I would estimate about half the roles on the team today did not even exist a year ago.) It would make much more sense for roles to be fluid and dynamic and for teams to align themselves to broad strategic objectives rather than defined responsibilities. Fighting to retain old titles or hierarchies is a symptom of a company’s inability or unwillingness to adapt and evolve to remain relevant.  And it excludes the critical elements of learning and unpredictability from the equation. Slavish dedication to any model or process – whether it is dedicated to fixing defects or driving share of voice – can be a dangerous thing.  

Want to see a way to do it right? Take a look at another story in BW on advertising agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners, which totally changed its approach and structure to be truly media-agnostic.