What is the Best Organisational Structure for Creativity?

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We all know that creative people are different from you and me, right? Creative people are more creative in, well, everything.  They dress differently, they tend to be depressed a lot of time, or manic, they need exotic settings to work in, and so on.

If this is true, what is the best way to make your organisation more creative?  You hire a bunch of special creative people, you isolate them from the rest of your company so that they aren’t inhibited by the mundane day-to-day operation of work, you give them special rooms with bean bag chairs and nerf guns, and you leave them alone.  You let the creative people create, and let the normal people do the real work.

Lots of companies try this.  The problem is that the idea that creative people are different from everyone else is a myth.

This is one of the myths that David Burkus tries to dispel in his excellent new book The Myths of Creativity.  He calls it the Myth of Breed – that creative people are a breed apart.  Burkus thoroughly goes through the evidence for this idea, and demonstrates conclusively that this idea is false.  First, he reviews research investigating whether or not creative people have a particular type of personality – they don’t.  Then, he looks at whether or not there is a genetic basis for differences in creativity – there isn’t.  In fact, creativity is mostly due to opportunity – if people are put into the right situations, their natural creative will come out.

This has big implications for business.  Burkus says:

If creativity isn’t limited to specific types and creative ability is not a result of the genetic lottery, then why does the strict separation in some organizations continue?  Why do we insist on segregation between creative and noncreative roles?  If creativity is within the grasp of every person, in every department or industry, then perhaps the way we structure our organizationa should reflect that integration and make it possible for everyone to contribute his or her own creativity.

This is the basis behind one of my favourite quotes from Nilofer Merchant - “Not everyone will, but anyone can.”  That quote is part of why I keep making you look at my lousy drawings, and it’s right in the middle of my laptop:

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The Myths of Creativity is an excellent book.  Burkus does a great job of using research to show what is and isn’t true, and why a lot of the things that we think are true, aren’t.  This kind of belief is dangerous, because believing myths leads us into making poor organisational choices.

So what should an organisation look like if it is built for creativity?  Burkus says that it might look a lot like W.L. Gore & Associates – the company that invented Gore-Tex.  Paul Hobcraft has a great summary of how innovation works at Gore, and you should read that post.  In brief, Gore is organised in small teams of 8-12 people.  They only have three layers of management, the CEO, a handful of functional heads, and Associates (everyone else).  And that’s in a company of 8000!

Hobcraft outlines some of the key things that enable innovation at Gore:

  • Information sharing and peer review are the norm.
  • A strong focus on getting the environment right and the business stuff gets easy.
  • More coaches than bosses, lots of peer reviews.
  • Belief that giving the right people the tools and knowledge will bring out the best in everyone.
  • Trust individuals to do the right thing.

Everything is driven by the team.  If you have a great idea, and can convince others that it has potential, you can start a team.  Burkus describes their lattice structure:

The lines of communication are direct, and the responsibilities are lateral.  There are no real organizational charts, no ladders to climb, and no departmental distinctions between creative and noncreative roles.  Gore’s structural units are the self-managed teams of associates who band together around each project.  These associates are responsible to each other.  They rely on each other’s creative contribution to a project’s success, and they even determine each other’s compensation.

But if everything happens within these small teams, how does the company keep moving in the same direction?  CEO Terri Kelly answers this in an interview with Gary Hamel:

The challenge in this distributed leadership model is to make sure it’s not just chaos. First of all, there are norms of behavior and guidelines we follow. These are our ‘rules of engagement.’ Every associate understands how critical these values are, so when leaders make decisions, people want to understand the “why.” They know they have the right to challenge, they have the right to know why this decision is the right one for the company. This puts a tremendous burden on the leader to explain the rationale behind the decision, and to put it in the context of our culture: Why is this fair? Why is it consistent with our beliefs and principles? So again, the burden on leaders is different from what you’d find in many other companies, because our leaders have to do an incredible job of internal selling to get the organization to move.

And the results at Gore at great.  They are one of the largest private firms in the world.  Because they are private, figures are hard to come by, but they are reportedly one of the most profitable private firms in the world as well.  In other words, their radical approach to management and creativity works.

So why doesn’t everyone organise their company in this way?  There are a few reasons.  One is that it’s hard.  It is a lot easier to put up some inspirational posters on the subject of creativity, and hope that works.  But it won’t.  Restructuring a company to reflect the fact that everyone there has creative skills takes a lot of work.  Gore has been built this way from Day 1.

The second reason is that many people still don’t believe that everyone can be creative.  The Breed Myth is powerful, and widespread.  If you believe it, then you hire special people and put them in special rooms.  If you don’t, you have to figure out how to put everyone in your firm into a position to be creative.

That’s hard work.  But it pays off.  If you genuinely want your organisation to be more creative, then think about organising like W.L. Gore does.

The Myths of Creativity tackles this idea, and nine other dangerous myths.  It’s worth reading.

Here is Kelly talking about Gore’s innovation culture:

And here is the preview for The Myths of Creativity:

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Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

12 thoughts on “What is the Best Organisational Structure for Creativity?

  1. Very interesting post Tim. I think I will add this book to my list. For those with the creative bend, Steven Pressfield`s `The War of Art` is an inspiring read.

    • Thanks Simon. Pressfield’s stuff is very good. I like Do The Work (an eBook) even a bit more than The War of Art. Both are definitely worth reading though.

  2. Great post Tim. An example on how you can “organise” internally to foster creativity and innovation can be found in the NZ initiaitive “What’s your problem NZ?” see the following

    http://www.academia.edu/1235707/Problemsourcing_IRLs_Whats_Your_Problem_New_Zealand_Competition

    http://problemsourcing.com/page3.php

    http://www.innovationexcellence.com/blog/2013/03/27/a-new-form-of-crowdsourcing-for-innovation-problemsourcing/

    http://timreview.ca/article/665

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