How do you encourage innovation in an authoritarian culture?

Introduction: Part of the culture in a post-authoritarian regime is the acceptance that things are just the way they are, no change will occur. People can feel powerless. To illustrate this concept we can use examples I have seen in Bucharest, Romania. The two are:

  1. An acceptance of poor service in the postal system
  2. An acceptance of corruption in medical services
House of Parliament in Bucharest

Post office example: I have encountered an acceptance that the postal service is just going to be unreliable. Here is what happened. A family relative sent a package to our address in Bucharest well over a month ago. It has not arrived. When informing Romanians of this issue, I received a horrified look and a statement that the package will either never arrive or may arrive in a number of months (if we are lucky). Moreover, according to locals, it turns out that postal workers will open our package and steal whatever they want with no consequences.

Medical services example: This is an area of great concern. Again, this information is second hand and taken by word of mouth from Romanians. I have been told the public hospitals’ doctors commonly require bribes to operate on a person or simply administer basic care. Apparently when someone needs a surgery we will need to ask other patients what the doctor’s bribe amount is to get medical attention. In terms of priorities. The post office can take second fiddle to medical care. People’s lives are on the line with this issue.

To be clear all of this activity in both examples is illegal, but no one is punished. The problem is people have accepted both as standard. So when there is such a deeply accepted way of life, that the postal service is corrupt, that doctors need to be bribed, what can be done? How can such a deeply rooted element be separated out from others and changed? How can people see that an accepted standard may need to be updated? To inquire on this topic I decided to look into characteristics of the business innovation culture and see if there are possible solutions.

Here is a list of innovation business culture characteristics from a Forbes article ( .

List A

  1. Understand the different types of innovation that you’re trying to foster
  2. Empower champions to push back against bouncers (Friendly spaces to test…ideas, while also providing a level of protection against managers who are charged with focusing on the core.)
  3. Redefine metrics and incentives
  4. Give employees the tools they need to make their case

I found a list of post-authoritarian regime culture patterns. A sampling of key characteristics are below that seemingly apply to Romania. (To research characteristics for cultures in the aftermath of authoritarian rule I referenced the book Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies. Here is a link )

List B

  1. Great uncertainty about outcomes
  2. Fear about the possibility of an authoritarian regression
  3. Constant flux in how the rules…are defined

While reviewing these two lists it appears we may have a fit. For instance, we can put List A: 1 with List B: 1 and 2. Those in charge must understand the innovation to foster. That combined with fear about the possibility of an authoritarian regression and constant flux in rules leads to a potential option. The government can begin a campaign to reduce these two unknowns and reduce these fears. If it is clear the country will not revert to authoritarianism and rules become consistent; then people will have a stable predictable environment. Confidence in the future may be fostered.

Let’s get specific.

Post office example continued: How do we get postal workers to do their job? One option would be to look at List A: 2 and 3. Empower champions while also providing new metrics and incentives. These two can be merged. Provide incentives to reduce mail theft and on-time delivery. On top of that champions in charge of making this change can give a stronger push toward success. In the example from the Forbes’ article success is more likely if the organization picks out a test location for a case study. Once the test locale works out the organization can implement the new policy with a recent success story. That provides buy in, evidence it should work, and therefore a valid reason to forge forward with change.

Medical services example continued: What can be done to reduce the culture of bribery in the medical sector? It may be similar to the post office example. Then again this might be an issue of List A: 3 and 4. Doctors may lack an incentive to refrain from asking for bribes. It may also be a factor that doctors need tools to make the case. Or in other words increased salaries may make the case. Have a look at this Vice article: Doctors are not asking for extra cash out of malicious intent to hurt those most in need. Salaries are low. Another way to reduce corruption is to raise salaries, reducing an incentive to ask for bribes. As can be seen from the article medical services issues in Romania are much more complex than bribes and corruption.

Conclusion: I wish I had the answers. Perhaps raising awareness of these difficulties is all I can do. These topics are tough to write about. On the one hand I genuinely want circumstances to improve for Romanians. On the other hand I don’t want to offend by saying it could be better when many Romanians have accepted this way of life. In no way do I believe I know best. I do think Romanians would have a better life if innovation is attempted to combat the legacy of authoritarian culture.