The conventional wisdom is clear: hierarchical organizational structures stifle innovation. Is that actually true? Bret Sanner and J. Stuart Bunderson have written a brief article for Sloan Management Review titled, "The Truth about Hierarchy." They summarize the main conclusion as follows:
Specifically, we found that hierarchies help teams generate, identify, and select new ideas by performing three critical functions (and then getting out of the way): bounding solutions, converging ideas, and structuring processes.
- Bounding solutions: Constraints actually can be conducive to innovation. Hierarchies can help establish boundaries and constraints that will be helpful as people generate possible solutions to a problem.
- Convergence of ideas: Hierarchies can help teams winnow the ideas down after an extensive brainstorming process. They can help teams by establishing evaluation and selection criteria, for instance. Alternatively, they might step in to help a team come with up techniques for narrowing down a list of alternative solutions.
- Structuring processes: Hierarchical structures can help establish ground rules for participation and engagement in a problem-solving process. Hierarchy also helps insure that people have well-defined roles. Role clarity can be very important in a group, particularly when its tackling complex problems.
The authors did not cite the recent research of Stanford's Melissa Valentine, but that would have buttressed their arguments. Valentine explained her research in a recent podcast with Bob Sutton (Friction podcast). Valentine argues that some structuring processes and mechanisms can help teams be more effective. She describes her research in chaotic health care situations such as emergency room care. It's a great interview. Check it out!