Creativity Versus Structure: A Useful Tension

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Management training rightly stresses the resolution of tensions and conflicts. But there are some organizational tensions and conflicts that managers shouldn’t try to resolve. For example, a necessary tug of war exists between how companies generate knowledge in practice versus how they implement it through process. The tension reflects the countervailing forces that, on the one hand, spark invention, and on the other, introduce the structure that transforms those inventions into marketable products. In isolation, these forces can destroy a company, but conjointly they produce creativity and growth.

New knowledge, vital for growth, frequently emerges from small communities of practice. In other words, research groups often develop a common set of habits, customs, priorities and approaches that both produce new insights and enable them to flow with little attention to how they might be transferred to outsiders.

During the early days of Fairchild Semiconductor (the company that spawned Intel and just about every major Silicon Valley chip developer), the founders worked in overlapping groups on a variety of tasks, all of which came together to produce successful semiconductors. According to Christophe Lecuyer’s history of Fairchild in “The Silicon Valley Edge: A Habitat for Innovation and Entrepreneurship,” Jay Last worked with Gene Kleiner on a step-and-repeat camera and with Robert Noyce on photographic emulsions. Meanwhile, Gordon Moore developed the aluminum process and joined Jean Hoerni and Noyce in their silicon-oxide experimentation, and Hoerni and Noyce teamed up on the integrated circuit. Shared knowledge, inherent coordination and collective understanding were necessary to make that collaborative inventiveness possible. The same chal- lenge, approached by five separate labs within a corporation, would be more difficult (if not impossible), in part because of debilitating discussions over who does what and when.

Creative shared practice also was evident in the group that invented the computers at the heart of the original Internet. In a 1998 interview with PreText Magazine, Frank Heart recalled that “everyone knew everything that was going on, and there was very little structure. … There were people who specifically saw their role as software, and they knew a lot about hardware anyway; and the hardware people all could program.”

Alan Kay, reflecting on the more homogeneous group that developed the graphical user interface (GUI) at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), describes the dynamics in similar terms.


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