Tag Archives: innovation

When Can Innovation and Hierarchy Co-Exist?

Designing an innovative organization doesn’t necessarily mean a “flat” organization. We tend to believe that innovation and hierarchy are antithetical, but in truth, innovation often thrives in hierarchical organizations. Here are the key ingredients to an innovative organization, whether hierarchical or not.

The Internet: A Democratic Utopia We tend to believe that hierarchy kills innovation and creativity. This is particularly true for organizations that design and build technology. The cultural heritage of the Internet is one that implicitly values a utopian vision of anti-authority.

The initial plans for ARPANET explicitly included a commitment to the open architecture concept, with “no global controls at the operations level” (Leiner, 1998). In other words, those that designed the Internet designed it explicitly to have no central authority.

Stickin' it to The Man

This decentralized structure connoted a sense of democratic administration. The hacker ethic has reinforced this implicit belief in democracy. In his 1984 book Hackers, Steven Levy (Levy, 1984) traced how the “laid back” culture of universities, such as Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence lab, spread to other technology start-ups. Technological innovation came to be culturally synonymous with an explicit rejection of hierarchy.

The Innovation World Is Not Flat But this is cultural myth of “democratic” innovation is merely a representation of innovation, and not a necessary ingredient for it. Take, for example, Apple Inc. Apple’s legendary innovative reputation is not contingent on democracy – far from it. Indeed, it appears that Steve Jobs and his senior leadership team have a iron-grip of control over innovation projects. This hierarchical order is ironically represented as democratic, a fact that The Onion happily lampoons in “Apple Employee Fired For Thinking Different.”

The reality is that large organizations in today’s global economy require some form of hierarchical control. This is a requirement of both capitalism and the sheer scope of modern corporate life. Alfred Chandler (1977) showed how the growth of the railroads required detailed project management, making 20th century management both rational and hierarchical. 21st century management must grapple with the same issues of synchronizing the schedules of employees across multiple time zones, and grappling with constant changes in the competitive landscape and the economy. “Democratic” innovation is messy, time consuming, and difficult to manage. For this reason, many companies like Apple have created controlled environments in which innovation can occur.

Innovation Within A Hierarchy If your organization is hierarchical (and in most cases, that will be true), there are features of innovation that can be embedded within this hierarchical system.

Creating Flow Through Non-Time Measurement:

Clocking in at Creativity Inc.

Innovative teams are those that are insulated from time-based metrics of productivity. Working for one hour on a rote task is not equal to working for one hour on a groundbreaking project, yet oftentimes organizations treat these hours as exactly the same.

My research on time in interactive agencies found that time-based metrics frequently interrupt “flow,” making it difficult for designers to work creatively. Organizations that want to optimize creativity must abandon time-based metrics of performance.

Stop Lying About Democracy: rare is it today that an individual truly doubts the need for some form of hierarchy in a profit-seeking company. But pretending that hierarchy doesn’t exist is corrosive. Organizations that continually fail to live up to their democratic ideal must continually tell lies to mask this gap. Over time, this gap renders real democracy meaningless (after all, the Bullshitter cares nothing for the truth).

Ruthlessly Commit To Project Resources and Timelines: many people are familiar with the agile development notion of the “sprint.” A group of people are dedicated exclusively to a software project for a specific, discrete period of time. Their attention is devoted completely to this project and they are enormously productive as a result. Why do innovation project often fail? Simply because individuals are pulled in too many directions or senior leadership changes priorities, seemingly on a whim. If you mean to combat the negative aspects of hierarchy, then you must commit to a project and let nothing get in the way. Individuals must be dedicated. The project length must not be shrunk. And collectively, the organization must stake its reputation on this commitment.

Be Democratic When It Matters: creative people can take direction, even when it infringes on their work. But they must have a say in what infringements are negotiable. The biggest mistake managers can make is assuming that the bounds of hierarchy is understood equally by everyone; they are not. Accept that democratic rule can and should happen, even when it affects timelines. Be unfraid to collectively identify what is negotiable and what is not. Most people do not question the legitimacy of authority, but they do question the legitimacy of lack of debate. In the end, innovation can occur in hierarchical organizations. The democratic ideal provides an aspirational model but don’t be afraid to accept that it is an ideal, at times.


Chandler, A. D. (1977). The visible hand : the managerial revolution in American business. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press.

Leiner, B. e. a. (1998, Februrary 20, 1998). A Brief History of the Internet.   Retrieved April 10, 2000, 2000, from http://www.isoc.org/internet/history/brief.html

Levy, S. (1984). Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. New York: Penguin Group.


Design thinking’s big problem

So-called “design thinking” is the new It-Girl of management theory. It purports to provide new ways for managers and companies to provide innovative, creative solutions to old problems. But design thinking alone will not solve these problems because a lack of creativity was never the issue.

The real issue is one of power.

Design is attractive to management because it is a de-politicized version of the well known socio-cultural critique of managerial practices. Design thinking is so popular because it raises only questions of “creativity” or “innovation” without ever questioning the legitimacy of managerial practice. Instead, design thinking aspires only to “better” management technique by investigating “contextual problems” or the truly innocuous “pain points.”

The inconvenient truth is that the science of management fails because it treats people as either mere inputs into the production process or as faceless “consumers” who have no real stake in outcomes. Design thinking allows for these truths to remain unaddressed, thereby avoiding any discussion of power itself. Workers are cast as something to be organized or “incented.” Consumers are to have their “needs met.” And neither group is granted a meaningful stake in the creative process.

Within this frame, design techniques attempt to solve managers’ typically tone-deaf executions of creativity without ever naming the root cause of workers’ and consumers’ dissatisfaction, which is their lack of meaningful participation in the design process. Managers’ ability to control both the organization of work and the availability of consumer goods is the true problem, not an inability to think “creatively.”

Managers have control over the working conditions under which creativity is supposed to happen, as well as the the distribution of the fruits of such labour. One significant reason workers’ creativity does not flow easily from studio or factory to consumers is because of management’s need to control costs and secure profits. Were it not for the profit motive, workers would be free to radically innovate continually and consumers would have unrestricted access to such new and innovative goods. But because profit stands as the pre-eminent benchmark of business success, both workers and consumers are thwarted in their pursuit of supplying and demanding innovative goods.

In other words, there is no shortgage of creative solutions to “unmet needs,” only a shortage of profitable ways to provide them.

Hence the inevitable ineffectiveness of design thinking, if applied in isolation to the problem of creativity. Designers must consider what role power plays in an organization’s inability to create innovative products. But more importantly, designers must be prepared to identify and name power and its sources (e.g., the pursuit of profit at the expense of innovation).They must not simply use ethnographic techniques to uncover “unmet needs”.

This is perhaps where designers will feel most out of their depth. It is a long leap from solving contextual problems to providing an analysis of inequality. All the more reason then, for designers to study the socio-cultural theory that underlies ethnography and other qualitative research methods.

In particular, designers should study feminist writers such as Canadian sociologist Dorothy Smith. Smith founded the method she calls “institutional ethnography,” which takes the standpoint of its participants and not that of the organization. This method frequently yields lived experiences that differ from the “official record” because it assumes that users of a technology, a product or a social policy lack meaningful access to those who record such records.

Ethnographic approaches are a good starting point for designers to cultivate empathy and hone observational skills. But it is in issues of power that rememdies to innovation bottlenecks will be broken.

No Business: In defense of social science research

Folks, I normally don’t offer opinion pieces on this blog, but recent changes in federal research funding must be discussed. The Canadian federal government, under the Conservatives, included this quote in the budget:

Scholarships granted by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council will be focused on business-related degrees.

I have more than a few things to say about this, and none of them good.

  • The phrase “business related” is entirely too vague to be useful. Moreover, it is impossible to determine ahead of the time. The social theory of  “social capital” was absolutely NOT “business related,” yet it has unquestionably been useful for business.  I can only assume that no one with training in social science and humanities authored such a imprecise phrase. Had they studied these disciplines, they would have learned analytic precision and writing skills.
  • My second major objection is that it doesn’t actually make good business senseBusiness people themselves are complaining that business faculties are not providing the kinds of thinkers they need. Increasingly, businesses are turning to people trained in sociology and anthropology who understand methods such as ethnography. They’re asking for MBAs to have a sense of design. It’s remarkably short-sighted to crowd out cultural researchers and artistic scholars by specifying “business related” as a requirement for scholarships.
  • Basic research is a public good, and as such, must be publicly funded. Countless insights would never have been discovered had university-based researchers not been provided this funding. Businesses rely on basic research just as much as society at large. It is a dangerous step to limit innovation by attempting to “pick winners” before research has even begun.

If you’re a reader of this blog, you’ll know I’m a sociologist. You’ll also know that many of the insights I bring are adaptations of social research that are not in the least bit “business related.” Readers who value this kind of insight,  tell the feds what you think.

Mind the gap: qualitative insights and strategy

It’s very common to turn to numbers first when strategizing about new products, policies, or social movements. But nuanced, sideways or “integrative” thinking often requires more than just numbers. This is where qualitative research can help you.

Most people are trained to think of “research” as numbers and “hard facts.” That approach will lead to very specific, numerical questions when crafting new strategies. What are the most popular products consumers want? What are the top five frustrations with our current policy? What are the top Web sites that progressive people visit?

But imagine there was no such thing as numerical “evidence.” Imagine instead that you were trying to figure out how to innovate without the benefit of any kind of counting. What kinds of things would you consider to be insight?

Why do consumers get frustrated with their telecommunications service providers? How and in what ways do citizens react to our policy on childcare? What kinds of digital tools do progressive people use in everyday life?

These second sets of questions are far more likely to yield what qualitative researchers call “thick description.” Thick description fills the gaps between numbers. If I told you Superbowl 36 ended with a score of 20-17, you’d miss all the detail and the drama of the late-in-the-game push by the Rams, and the final Patriot field goal that ultimately won the game. Thick description tells you the entire story, not just the numerical summary.

If policymakers know that 49% of parents are frustrated with no childcare policy, that doesn’t begin to explain a day in the life of a working parent. Spend a day with a working parent and a sick child, and you will begin to understand all the detail and the drama of childcare.

If you spend time with person who is interested in progressive causes, you may learn that they spend more time using their mobile phone than their computer. Or perhaps you learn that for them, computers = work. That may lead you to think that mobile campaigns are better than Web-based campaigns.

Qualitative research intended to fill the gaps that numerical data inherently possess. If you rely too heavily on numerical data, you miss a great deal of nuance that could ultimately result in true innovation.