Creative Deviance – Bucking the Hierarchy?

7 July 2016

Case 3: Creative Deviance – Bucking the Hierarchy? One of the major functions of an organizational hierarchy is to increase standardization and control for top managers. Using the chain of command, managers can direct the activities of subordinates toward a common purpose. If the right person with creative vision is in charge of a hierarchy, the results can be phenomenal. Until Steve Jobs’ regrettable passing in October of 2011, Apple had used a strongly top-down creative process in which most major decisions and innovations flowed directly thru Jobs and then were delegated to sub-teams as specific assignments to complete.

Then there is creative deviance, in which individuals create extremely successful products despite being told by senior management to stop working on them. The electrostatic displays used in more than half of Hewlett-Packard’s instruments, the tape slitter that was one of the most important process innovations in 3M’s history, and Nichia’s development of multi-billion-dollar LED bright lighting technology were all officially rejected by the management hierarchy.

In all these cases, an approach like Apple’s would have shut down some of the most successful products these companies ever produced. Doing “business as usual” can become such an imperative in a hierarchical organization that new ideas are seen as threats rather than opportunities for development. It’s not immediately apparent why top-down decision making works so well for one highly creative company like Apple, while hierarchy nearly ruined innovations at several other organizations.

It may be that Apple’s structure is actually quite simple, with relatively few layers and a great deal of responsibility placed on each individual for his or her own outcomes. Or it may be that Apple simply had a very unique leader who was able to rise above the conventional strictures of a CEO to create a culture of constant innovation. Questions 1. Do you think it’s possible for an organization to deliberately create an ‘anti-hierarchy” to encourage employees to engage in more acts of creative deviance?

What steps might a company take to encourage creative deviance? 2. What are the dangers of an approach that encourages creative deviance? 3. Why do you think a company like Apple is able to be creative with a strongly hierarchical structure, whereas other companies find hierarchy limiting? 4. Do you think Apple’s success has been entirely dependent upon Steve Jobs’ role as head of the hierarchy? What are the potential liabilities of a company that is strongly connected to the decision-making of a single individual?

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