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?


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About the author

David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.

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