Organising for innovation

Aspects and characteristics

It is unlikely that anyone doubts that the ability of an organisation to innovate is strongly dependent on the nature of that organisation. Its nature can be described by various characteristics (including cultural, behavioural and structural characteristics) and by several aspects (including the static and dynamic aspects) of those characteristics. 

Structure and behaviour

In his post, Does your Structure help or hinder Innovation?, Paul Sloane discusses the role  of an organisation’s structure in determining its ability to innovate. He argues that the relaxation, or wholesale destruction, of an organisation’s typically hierarchical structure encourages innovation.

However there are many other factors in the model of an organisation which contribute to the encouragement or discouragement of innovation; many of these are behavioural rather than structural. Some important ones include the allocation of responsibility, the freedom to experiment within defined limits, the allocation of praise and blame, as well as other factors that might be summarised as the “carrot-to-stick ratio” in the organisational environment.

Form and function

We can debate whether form follows function, or function follows form. Also there is no doubt that everything works better when both form and function follow the same model; although, if they do not, then one will usually dominate so that they will fall into line. But, arguably, more important is that the behavioural function within that model is effective for the people and the organisation, irrespective of its structural form.

As examples of departure from hierarchy, Paul Sloane refers to Opticon’s so called “spaghetti organisation”, and to W L Gore & Associates’ flexible model which they call a “lattice management” approach, which went much further than other, so called, “matrix management” models.

Direction and orientation

Nevertheless, the behavioural characteristics are in some ways independent of the structural issues, as they relate to the directional characteristics of individual and collective relationships rather than to their relative structures. For example, relationships can be command-driven or demand-driven (that is, “push” or “pull” driven) irrespective of whether the structure is predominantly vertically or horizontally oriented, and whether it is hierarchical, matrix or lattice in form.

Even in situations that appear otherwise both functionally and structurally identical, those differences can occur due to the culture of the organisation, contractual differences or simply the characters and expectations of the people involved.

For example, W L Gore has teams with leaders, apparently like other organisations. Yet, in that organisation, leadership is defined by followship; that is, team members choose the people by whom they wish to be led. If someone calls a meeting, and no one shows up, then the problem lies with the person who called it, not those who ignored the call! They also determine their leader’s remuneration, which is opposite to the behaviour in the vast majority of organisations.

Other questions

So: “does your structure help or hinder innovation?”; it might do. However, while there are many cases in which more innovative organisations have different structures, it does not follow that an organisation’s structure is the cause of its innovation performance.

But: “does your behaviour help or hinder innovation?”; of course it does. A wide range of behavioural factors affect the propensity of people to innovate.

And: is there a relationship between an organisation’s behaviour and its structure? Probably; as above, they tend to align with one another.

So is it not more likely that, in more innovative organisations, any structural differences are a consequence of their behavioural characteristics which also affect, favourably or adversely, the innovation performance?


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