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May 7, 2012
Organizational Restructuring to Nurture Creativity
There has always been pressure in the workplace to perform — but the quality and measure of that pressure seems to have increased significantly over the last few years. With greater emphasis on ideas and innovation, organizations find themselves wondering: How do we stay on the cutting edge? How do we encourage innovation?

Organizational Hierarchies and Talent
Workplace culture has been a much-considered topic. While many organizations are striving to make positive changes, it remains that they will vary considerably in terms of their ability to encourage creativity and innovation. Most organizations do have the potential to increase their level of creativity. However, this may require a redefinition of organizational structure. Where creativity and innovation are concerned, form may need to follow function.

One of the most interesting documents that I have read recently came as a complete surprise. The document — Valve’s Employee Handbook — had me riveted. Valve, a video-game developer located in upstate Washington, has a flat organizational chart that allows talent to flow freely within the organization. One of the basic tenets at Valve is that ideas have tremendous value, and these ideas should be explored by those who have a real interest. In fact, employees at Valve are free to gravitate to the projects where they can make the greatest contribution. Projects are not assigned, as employees determine how they dedicate their time.

Work Swarming
I first saw a discussion of work swarming, similar to the talent utilization process operating at Valve, in an article published by Gartner. Work swarming, a type of spontaneous teaming borrowed from nature, emphasizes an organic flow of energy to a particular task. You’ll find examples of work swarming operating in various workplace cultures — for example, in hospital emergency rooms. Swarming allows needed resources to focus upon a task of real importance or potential value.

Work swarming has the potential to encourage creativity and innovation, but the issue has been giving up the security of prescribed levels and roles within a traditional hierarchy. Common sense tells us that Valve’s way of doing things won’t work for all organizations. But, we could adapt the process so that it can work. Yes, organizations may need some aspects of a hierarchy, and yes, many might reap benefits from the implementation of “work swarming.” So, a type of “Hybrid” organizational structure could be explored.

Flexibility and Job Descriptions
The very nature of a job description prescribes specific activities and relationships. But in creative environments it may be advantageous for employees to function outside the realm of their “day-to-day” part of the time. During this time new projects, ideas, and trends could be explored. What would happen if employees were 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 might be enhanced.

This process would require a clearinghouse of information concerning active projects — maybe an internal crowd sourcing platform — so that 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. 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 structure or form. However, the potential for increased levels of innovation may be worth the trouble, as form may need to change to realistically enhance function.

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Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Organizational Psychologist who specializes in work survival strategies, corporate culture, and organizational change. She is a Practice Manager at Rand-Gottschalk & Associates, a consulting firm that helps employees and businesses excel.  She is author of the blog The Blend, which addresses current workplace topics and issues and also serves as a LinkedIn Influencer.
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