First published on the ImpactHUB Zurich blog.
A bad system will defeat a good person every time.- W. Edwards Deming
Now here’s an interesting thing: if you’ve ever dived — even a little bit — into the world of organizational structures and design, you’ll likely come across the word ‘creativity’ hovering somewhere in the vicinity.
Over the past decade, ‘creativity’, thankfully, has become much more accepted as a basic human trait, and much less of a quality accessible only to artists, designers, dancers, writers and musicians: so-called ‘Creatives’. Furthermore, it’s becoming apparent that when we humans are given autonomy—to make decisions and, on the flip-side, take responsibility for our activities—we are able to act in a more creative (and happier) fashion. Which in turn has a positive impact on our productivity and ability to get stuff done.
Lars Tvede (author of The Creative Society) has looked at creativity and innovation across nations, and discovered that pivotal breakthroughs and disruptions in science, art, music, engineering, mathematics, etc., throughout human history can be attributed to a number of specific environmental factors, one of which is the decentralization of state power. In each case, the innovators had a high level of autonomy. In fact, Tvede says, human creativity has always been at its best when we had small city states. Empires—with no exceptions—self-combust when they grow too large: look what happened to the Romans or the Ottoman Empire.
By way of contrast, we can look at the example of the Apache Indian tribes of North America, effectively a decentralized ‘org’ that remained unconquered for decades because the Spanish Conquistadors were unable to locate core tribal leaders.
This robust character is what Tvede terms ‘networked decentralization’. The key takeaway for organizations being: if you want your org to support creativity in its people, you need to find ways to decentralize, while maintaining connectivity.
Kill the hierarchy?
Hierarchies are one element of organizational structures that perhaps hold less significance these days than, for example, in pre-digital or ‘Industrial’ times. In many ‘developed’ countries (Australia, the US, Switzerland, Germany, New Zealand) some orgs are restructuring along lines that don’t necessarily do away with hierarchies altogether but, rather, re-think their hierarchy’s locus, depth, and nature through the lens of what that organization needs in order to function well.
Flatter hierarchies, which are symptomatic of the digital or ‘information’ age, certainly give employees “a versatile working environment” (to quote one of the HUB’s incoming Summerpreneurship program attendees, Hannah Fürstenberg!), due to the inherent need for the element of ‘self-organization’. But for existing orgs that attempt the decentralization process, implementing change can be … well, complicated, and multi-layered.
A collaboratively written Harvard Business Review article suggests that, historically, it’s an organizational need for reconciling two sometimes opposing forces—reliability and adaptability (for and from leaders and employees)—that has been key to re-thinking structures along self-organizational lines. To this end, “… the open-source movement, agile and scrum methodologies, and the sharing economy have inspired participative, responsive structures—holacracy, podularity […] and a range of company-specific variations on self-organization.”
- Separates people from functions;
- Assigns activities to specific roles;
- Adjusts roles as companies/environments evolve; and
- Makes sure roles have great clarity.
Andy Doyle (co-founder of the Medium platform), wrote publicly about Medium’s (short-lived) move to holacracy, which worked for a time, but there were downsides. “Holacracy also requires a deep commitment to record-keeping and governance. Every job to be done requires a role, and every role requires a set of responsibilities. While this provides helpful transparency, it takes time and discussion. More importantly, we found that the act of codifying responsibilities in explicit detail hindered a proactive attitude and sense of communal ownership.”
Whether it’s company culture clashing with processes or individual employees at odds with their job descriptions, it seems there will be challenges with whatever paradigm is in place. Sociologists might put this down to the endless, cyclic modernist condition that began the moment we started attempting to impose structures (order) on our activities and environment (chaos).
It’s interesting to note, though, that while decentralized organizations can work extremely well for communities (e.g. Alcoholics Anonymous, the Apache tribes), when it comes to financial profit, centralized structures win, hands down. Finding the ‘sweet spot’, according to Brafman and Bechstrom, is down to the unique traits and skills of the people in the organization (and you can read more about those ‘catalytic’ abilities and behaviours in their book).
So, next time, we’ll dive into Diversity and Inclusion in teams. Because if we want our orgs to thrive, a good place to start is to cast the net wide, and nurture our co-workers’ ‘catalytic’ abilities!