This study was motivated by what researchers saw as a disconnect between the rhetoric and the reality in management theory and practice concerning hierarchy.
The view that hierarchies are the enemy of new ideas seemed misguided in light of past research suggesting that hierarchies were unavoidable in groups and that they actually served important functions.
The researchers’ goal was to provide an overview so that managers and consultants could question popular negative assumptions about hierarchies. Hierarchies are often seen as obstacles to innovation. However, a growing body of research shows that the right kind of hierarchy can help teams become better innovators and learners.
Experts, academics and experienced innovators frequently espouse the virtues of eliminating hierarchies to make sure every idea is heard and to unlock innovation. As intuitively appealing as this view is, it does not stand up to scrutiny. In fact, a growing body of research shows that the right hierarchy can help teams become better innovators and learners.
Researchers have also seen what happens when teams insist upon being flat. They often become unfocused, tumultuous, and inefficient because their pursuit of perfect equality prevents the more expert team members from resolving conflicts and playing leadership roles in group learning and innovation.
Research on social species shows that hierarchies are important for group functioning. Human beings also have a tendency to think and act hierarchically. When a group has a chain of command, disagreements can be more easily resolved so that the group can take coordinated action. Coordinated action improves the odds of survival.
In fact, hierarchies can be found in virtually every human group, from children on the playground to executives in the boardroom. Depending on the circumstances, hierarchies can be formally designated or emerge naturally. And while the idea of hierarchies may go against democratic instincts and beliefs, they can and do play useful roles.
Hierarchies help teams of people innovate much the same way they help animals survive in the wild. They keep teams moving in the same direction even when strong disagreements threaten to keep the teams from progressing or even tear them apart.
Specifically, researchers 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.
During idea generation, hierarchies set the parameters and goals of innovation. A paradox of creativity is that people are more innovative when they have clear constraints (such as time, budget, customer requirements, etc.) within which their solutions must fit.
But teams aren’t very good at establishing constraints on their own. Team members with influence can accelerate the learning process by clearly setting the boundaries for innovation and then giving the team wide latitude to explore within those boundaries.
In the early stages of innovation, teams come up with a large assortment of ideas and possibilities. Ultimately, however, some ideas are more promising than others, in part because they better align with the company’s capabilities and resources. Hierarchies can assist here by helping teams decide which ideas have promise and should be pursued, which ideas should be put on the back burner, and which ideas go on the waste pile.
To transition from generating to refining and implementing ideas, teams need to develop mechanisms for deciding which ideas to hone in on. This can be easier said than done because different team members may be emotionally attached to different ideas. By helping teams converge in a single direction, hierarchies keep teams from getting lost in aimless exploration.
Finally, effectively going through the learning process requires members to use their specialised knowledge to propose potentially wild ideas and challenge potentially sacred beliefs. These behaviours are interpersonally risky in that they open up members to ridicule and social sanctions.
As a result, teams must have norms and processes in place that lower those risks so that team members are able to engage in the learning process. Hierarchies can actually help here, too, by creating ground rules that enable and encourage members to speak up. Research has shown that brainstorming groups struggle without a hierarchy to provide structure to what can be a haphazard process.
How can we make hierarchies work?
People are suspicious of hierarchies for a reason – they sometimes stifle good ideas and the learning process that leads to good ideas. So, how can organisations foster learning and innovation? Here are three things leaders can do to leverage the power of hierarchy on teams yet avoid its pitfalls.
Have a clear chain of command
The study found that hierarchies work best when there is no confusion about who defers to whom. Teams with a clear chain of command (clarity and agreement about who defers to whom) were less likely to get bogged down in conflicts and stalemates than teams where influence was more cyclical.
Create a performance-based culture
A clear chain of command means that some team members will defer to others who are “higher up” in terms of status or respect. Group hierarchies in performance-based cultures are more likely to be based on expertise and less likely to be based on others characteristics.
Use team feedback
Another way to improve the way hierarchies function is to encourage those at the top to act in ways that support the group rather than acting in their own best interest: hierarchies promoted learning and performance when goals and feedback were group-oriented, but they stifled learning and performance when goals and feedback were individually oriented.
Group goals and feedback encourage higher-ups to use their advantaged position to encourage members to collaborate through information sharing, experimentation, and reflection. Individual goals and feedback keep people focused on their own tasks and outcomes.
Adapted from an article by Bret Sanner, assistant professor of management at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia. J. Stuart Bunderson, George and Carol Bauer Professor of Organizational Ethics and Governance and codirector of the Bauer Leadership Center at Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis. – MIT Sloan 201804