The more horizontal and the fewer the steps between employees and the highest boss, the greater the creative potential of an organisation. In the small creative start-up company, everyone knows each other, both as individuals and professionals (knowledge, strengths, weaknesses).
The challenges and tasks are so many that everyone must be prepared to jump in where the efforts are needed, and the one who is most suitable to take on a task does it with enthusiasm and without regard to formal status in the organisation in a kind of “creative anarchy“. In such an environment, creativity, enthusiasm and spontaneity often flow.
But as the company grows, and more and more employees come in, inevitably, more organisation, bureaucracy and standard processes follow. A magic limit is about 150 employees. When this number is exceeded, it is no longer possible for everyone to know everyone else and then previous built-in internal organisation knowledge about who does what best, is replaced by a more structured organisation where each of the employees has a more specific role. This entails specialisation, but also losing the broad initiative and creativity seen at the staff level of the smaller company.
In even bigger organisations, more and more layers are being established between staff and senior managers, group leaders, senior executives, unit managers, department heads, division managers … Such strict vertical, hierarchical organisations are often adept at rationalising, but often very effective creativity killers. The more steps in the hierarchy from idea to decision, the more people can kill a brilliant idea by saying “No!”.
Also, the more of everyday decisions that must be endorsed by higher levels, the more bureaucracy, inefficiency and cold hands on creativity, originality and self-initiative. In a creative company it is vital that as much of the decisions as possible be taken as close as possible to the employees.
You cannot trim a big company into a small one, but there is scope for retaining some of the creative anarchist spirit from the start-up company. Google, for example allows employees to do what they want 20% of their working hours.
Other companies resolve it through a long-going delegation or that parts of the organisation are relocated. Many successful dot.com companies, such as Google and Microsoft have set up development departments (Google X and Microsoft Research).
Here, creative developers can work in a more creative climate beyond the more organised and bureaucratic production parts of the companies. The more strategic and long-term the work is, the more distant (both geographically and mentally) the development departments can be.
With increased responsibility put on the individual employee and the team she works in, not only the flow of ideas and creativity grows but also the job satisfaction and thus the ability to recruit and retain the best skilled persons.
With such an attitude, it is always the ideas and not who hatched them and from which position in the organisation, that are important, and it is imperative that all ideas come forward. Sometimes the curious janitor who goes between the departments can have a better idea for improvement than the development engineer stuck in his thinking.
Another way to mentally break down the hierarchies is to work rotate and temporarily try to work on other jobs, preferably within other parts of the organisation. As a manager, you get a completely different insight into the employees’ everyday lives, and for everyone it gives you greater respect for other people’s jobs, and you may also get insights and impulses that you can take back to your regular job.
Coming new to an organisation also means looking at processes and tasks with new fresh and non-blind eyes, which makes it easier to see opportunities for improvement. This phenomenon could be systematically used with new employments. An insight seeking manager can take the habit of consistently interviewing all new employees after a shorter period of 1-2 months at work for the purpose of making use of these fresh eyes for improvement.
This blog post has been inspired by:
Bushnell Nolan, Stone Gene (2013). Finding the next Steve Jobs – How to find, keep and nurture creative talents. London: Headline.
Sloane Paul (2006). The leaders guide to lateral thinking skills. London: Kogan Page.