Hierarchies and Creative Deviance

One of Senge’s (1994) disciplines of a learning organization is the idea of mental models. We all get stuck in particular views of the world or opinions on how it ought to be. It’s not different in creativity. In a fast moving world, creativity requires an open-mindedness and willingness to examine new ideas.

Perhaps one of the most deeply entrenched mental models in organizational management is the idea of the hierarchical structure. This centuries old idea assumes that, in order to properly leverage resources and divide labor, one needs to divide up specialize tasks and place proper levels of management above the specialized roles in order to ensure work gets done. However, this type of structure often inhibits organization creativity (Williams & Yang, 1999). As new ideas are generated, the require permission and resources from managers, who may not understand the new idea due to their lack of specialized knowledge. If top-level managers are stuck in an inefficient mental model, some creative ideas may get struck down before they can properly examined to determine if they are truly innovative.

Mainemelis (2010) asserts that in such organizations, creative deviance is the only factor responsible for new innovations. Creative deviance occurs when individuals with new ideas disobey orders to suspend elaboration and choose to continue working. As idea generators run up against management’s old mental models, continue to pursue the creative idea becomes an act of deviance. Without such deviance, creativity has a difficult time surviving in the organization. While creative deviance is not ideal, such deviance does help innovation.

The question becomes, how can leaders build an organization that doesn’t require creative deviance for innovation?

Senge, P. (1994). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday

Mainemelis, C. (2010). Stealing fire: Creative deviance in the evolution of new ideas. Academy of Management Review, 35(4), 558-578.

Williams, W. M., & Yang, L. T. (1999). Organizational creativity. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Handbook of creativity (pp. 373-391). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University


  1. says

    I will write more about this later and a quick response;

    “Those rampaging against hierarchies today rarely stop to consider that hierarchy as a form of social organization occurs throughout nature. Instead of throwing rocks at hierarchies, it behooves us to try to understand why hierarchy might actually be important and the principles that might guide leaders in distinguishing functional from dysfunctional hierarchy.
    No one has done better thinking on this subject than Elliott Jaques. His Requisite Organization should be required reading for all managers genuinely interested in what-rather than simple tradition, established biases, and pure power politics-might truly JUSTIFY hierarchies capable of serving human and organizational goals.”

    Peter M. Senge

    • says

      There you go with Jacques again. ; )

      Actually, I had you in mind when I wrote this post. This shouldn’t be read as a reason to rally against hierarchies, but merely point out their their presence can have a negative effect on creativity and discuss one possible way for getting around that.

  2. says

    WOW. this is a great post and you are spot on. In the way that many hierarchies are established the creativity is squeezed and beaten out of everyone. This ‘mental model’ that is cited we have all felt and seen. The idea for leaders is larger, it falls into the idea of developing organizational systems that are able to allow for people making decisions and using their judgment in their roles. This is covered in many, many leadership and organizational books and is still not very well done.
    It falls back into the System-Drives-Behavior – If (as you mentioned) and is written about (i.e. Amabile The Progress Principle) the system is one that discourages and places block, then creative deviance is going to happen. ALL people want to be creative in their work…All people want to be do their best work and when creative deviance is a symptom, then creating a way to change the system is the cure.

    • says

      Spot on. While hierarchies definitely aid the division of labor. They have drawbacks. I’m fascinated by companies that have managed to get around them. Thanks.