Traditional management hierarchies stifle creativity, Macquarie researcher says

Traditional management hierarchies stifle creativity, Macquarie researcher says

by Freya Lucas

July 15, 2020

The best way to have the kind of ‘creative chaos’ that results in innovative thinking and problem solving is for managers to “get out of the way”, and that’s exactly what they should do, Macquarie University researcher Dr Lars Groeger has said.

 

Traditional management structures, which operate from a top down perspective impose too much control over employees, he added, saying that an alternative approach of embracing shared decision making and distributed leadership leaves space for creative and divergent thinkers to discover new things and independently act on them and make changes. 

 

“Almost by definition, top-down management seeks to control and impose order. But the people down the line are playing by a different set of rules. They are on the periphery, both spatially and culturally,” Dr Groeger said.

 

“This is not to suggest they are not doing what they’re supposed to – they are still acting in the best interests of the organisation. They could just be going about it in different ways. Freed from traditional management rules, they might pursue side-projects. They might even pursue objectives of their own by following a localised discovery or breakthrough,” he added.

 

While this perspective, in relation to distributed leadership, is often met with concerns from traditionalists “who want to know where decision-making should reside” if not with a manager, Dr Groeger said the answer is simple – with everyone.

 

“Decision-making should be distributed so that creative types who discover new things are able to independently act on these discoveries and make changes,” he added.

 

Although letting go of control can be a challenge for traditional top down managers, who fear releasing the reins will result in chaos, Dr Groeger said these “chaotic” qualities can be the same which result in complex and adaptive systems which grow and evolve over time.

 

In conducting the research which underpins these beliefs Dr Groeger and his colleague, Associate Professor Dr Kyle Bruce examined ‘complexity theory’, the idea that several disparate strands of an organisation can order themselves into a coherent system. Dr Groeger simplifies complexity theory as ‘order within disorder’.

 

So what would this look like in practical terms? Dr Groeger is not advocating anarchy; rather a targeted approach to how creatives, or ‘agents’, as they are known in complexity theory parlance, can be set free.

 

“We believe everything should be on the table and the entire organisation should decide the boundaries of control. More realistically, however, owners and managers could establish a few simple rules or boundaries, within which creative chaos should reign,” said Dr Groeger.

 

“When teams or units have full autonomy within their own boundaries and without hierarchical management, we see positive outcomes. Also required is the existence of a psychological safety net; the knowledge that agents can get things wrong and not be punished.

 

“Managers can then focus on translating the organised chaos into the mainstream language of the organisation, thereby protecting the unit. This requires very different skills to those of traditional management.”

 

While the “creative chaos” thinking cannot be applied to every aspect of roles in the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector, given the complexity of the regulatory environment, there may be some space for creative problem solving where this model might work well, such as the revamping of programming, or in collaboration with communities. 

 

To read the work of  Dr Groeger and Associate Professor Bruce, please see here

 

For the original coverage of this story, please visit the Macquarie University Lighthouse, here.

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