Hierarchy Kills Innovation

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Photo: Instagram/giovanni_setaro

There was a time in our organizational past when hierarchies worked well enough. During the heydays of heavy industry, firms operated like machines.Their mission was to crank out products, as uniformly, efficiently, and prolifically as possible. Not just manufacturers, but also service firms like mortgage companies hewed to this model; they hammered out financial products. And what each organisation needed was a chain of command that issued the orders to start the machine and keep it chugging.

That was the way we were, starting with the Industrial Revolution and up through most or nearly all of the 20th century. In that paradigm, innovative ideas were seen as pretty much outside the machine—relegated to R&D. They weren’t needed to keep things going, to preserve the status quo, to carry on business as usual. They weren’t part of the core mission, what a firm saw itself as doing and producing.

All that has changed, though not in every industry and every firm.

Today, businesses have to operate like brains, not like machines. They need to be fast, flexible, and adaptive, all of which require a robust flow of ideas. Ideas, in fact, have to be appreciated as important products of business in themselves. They’re what you learn in doing the job that helps you do a better job. It’s an intangible though essential product.

The problem is that traditional organizational hierarchies aren’t especially good at fostering fresh ideas. Hierarchies have an important role, of course. They issue the directives and make the necessary decisions. But as organizational behaviorist David Burkus has pointed out, they do this “so well that creative ideas stand little chance of being utilized unless they’re being shared from the top downward.”

And that’s not a solid plan for constant innovation. The high commanders, almost by definition, are too far removed—from the products, processes, and customers—to harness all the valuable insights. Their brains aren’t big enough to come up with all the ideas that need to be in play. Nobody’s brain is big enough. That’s why an organisation needs all hands (and minds) on deck.

This is a huge question, and very thoughtful people are chewing on many different pieces of it. For now, I’d like to slice off one part, having to do with hierarchies and conversations. As my friend Bill Fischer likes to say, conversations are the building blocks of innovation, the way we usually take an idea from origination to application. But hierarchy often gets in the way. That’s partly because leaders aren’t watching out for the effects of rank on a conversation.

An Unlikely Solution: Give them the “Stupid Stick”

Producers of weekly television dramas and comedies understand very well that hierarchy must be neutralized if they want conversations to yield exceptional ideas, if they want insights to flow among talented professionals. The scripts for those shows are usually crafted in what are called “writers rooms,” often a hotel room where the writing staff hammers out ideas for episodes. Though the participants are seldom of the same rank—they might include rookie writers, midlevel writers and producers, and co-executive producers—the rule is that everyone has an equal right to contribute ideas.

Deric A. Hughes, a writer for the science fiction series Warehouse 13, told of an executive producer who announced emphatically on the first day of work, “Here, inside the writers room, I don’t care about a person’s rank. I just want to hear good ideas. And if you don’t have any good ideas, I’ll find someone else that does.”

Himself one of the mid-level writers, Hughes was quick to explain in a 2010 interview with Marc Bernardin for the science fiction blog io9: “Now, of course, he didn’t mean that you shouldn’t respect a person’s rank and history, but it should never preclude you from coming up with ideas and sharing them with the room. So when he said that, I think this immediately broke the ice and allowed everyone to relax, be themselves, and focus on coming up with great stories to tell.”

One of my premises is that all ideas should be welcomed, though not every idea can or should be acted upon. To arrive at a single innovation, you generally need bursts of ideas from all directions. Conversations are a prototypical way of triggering the crossfire of ideas, but an exchange will not bear fruit if people fear that their ideas will be declared dead on arrival, swept aside as wild, or denounced as dumb. Another writer, Javier Grillo-Marxuach of ABC’s Lost and ABC Family’s The Middleman, drove home the point:

One of the things I absolutely believe that no writers room should be without is a stupid stick. A stupid stick is a device that, when held by the person that’s pitching, shields that person from ridicule. I find that it’s actually the most useful tool I’ve ever seen in a writers room. A lot of the time, especially in the early going, people feel very unsafe, just talking about themselves, talking about any number of things. Like they’re gonna be mocked. I generally believe that the writers room has to be safe. A good stupid stick allows people to believe that they’re protected.

For those of us who are not television writers, the stick is optional. The important thing is for the environment to feel safe, so that people will open up and share their ideas. When you’re at a meeting, do you feel free to hold forth with the stupid stick in hand, literally or otherwise? In your conversations, are people pouring out ideas as though they were assuredly wielding the stick?

If they’re not, you may have a hierarchy problem.

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