The Evolution of Work: Organizational Structure and a Culture of Creativity


There has always been pressure in workplaces to perform — but the quality and measure of that pressure has evolved significantly of late. With greater emphasis on ideas and innovation, organizations find themselves wondering: How can we stay on the cutting edge? How do we help talent, help us?

While many organizations have explored strategies over the years to facilitate cultural change to enhance creativity, in practice they vary considerably in their ability to do so. Most organizations have the potential to increase their level of creativity. But, this often requires an adjustment or redefinition of organizational structure.

Where creativity and innovation are concerned, an organization’s operating “form” may need to adjust to follow the desired function. Without needed revisions in structure and supporting processes, positive changes are difficult to realize.

Organizations are beginning to make the connection between structure, creativity and innovation. One example, is uniquely represented in Valve’s Employee Handbook. Valve — a video-game developer located in upstate Washington, works with a flat organizational chart that allows talent to flow freely within its structure. One  basic tenet, is the belief that ideas have tremendous value —  and deserve to be explored by those who have an interest in their development. Employees are not completely limited by reporting structure and are free to gravitate toward the projects where they can make the greatest contribution. Projects are rarely assigned, as employees determine how they dedicate their time based upon skills, interest and what they can bring to the table.

Work swarming, a process quite similar to “mobile” talent utilization process used at Valve is not unlike the spontaneous mechanisms borrowed from nature. Discussed previously by Gartner, swarming emphasizes an organic flow of energy toward specific tasks. You’ll find examples of work swarming operating in various workplace cultures — for example, in hospital emergency rooms. Ultimately, elements of swarming allow needed resources to focus upon a task of real importance or potential value. This is not often realized in traditional, mature organizations.

Work swarming has great potential to encourage both creativity and innovation. However, there is often a general hesitancy to give up the security of prescribed roles within traditional hierarchies. As such, contributors remain in their designated lines of work. Common sense does tell us, that Valve’s “purist” methods won’t work perfectly for all organizations. However, we could adapt the process and it could be utilized. many organizations may need some aspects of a set hierarchy —  but many functions would reap benefits from the implementation of swarming.

Job descriptions and reporting relationships prescribe specific activities and relationships. But to encourage creativity and innovation, it may be advantageous for employees to have the opportunity to function outside the realm of their “day-to-day” routine — a “hybrid” solution. Not unlike the 70-20-10 concept pioneered at Google, employees would feel free to explore new projects, ideas and trends. As such, employees would be allowed to “unhitch” from the organizational hierarchy and work flexibly for a percentage of their time. In this way, employees could contribute to worthy projects in which they have interest; new ideas are explored and employee engagement may be enhanced. Talent would flow toward projects which could transform an organization.

The implementation of swarming components would require a clearinghouse of information concerning trending ideas and projects — possibly through an internal crowd sourcing platform — and the available talent. In this way employees can make decisions concerning where to spend their time. If there is enough interest in a new project, a team is organized and employees can plug into the action and contribute. Not enough interest? The project dies before an inordinate amount of resources are devoted.

There are certainly logistics that would need to be addressed to modify an organizational form or structure, in this manner. However, in the case of creativity and innovation — changes to enhance these processes may prove worthy endeavor. In essence, talent needs to move toward those projects where the potential impact is the greatest.

Note:  A form of this post has been previously published at Talent Zoo

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is a Workplace Psychologist. Connect with her on Twitter and Linkedin.

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