Hierarchies are often seen as obstacles to innovation. However, a growing body of research shows that the right kind of hierarchy can help teams become better innovators and learners.

Experts, academics, and experienced innovators frequently espouse the virtues of eliminating hierarchies to make sure every idea is heard and to unlock innovation.1 As intuitively appealing as this view is, it does not stand up to scrutiny. In fact, a growing body of research, including studies by one of this article’s authors, shows that the right hierarchy can help teams become better innovators and learners.2 We have also seen what happens when teams insist upon being flat. They often become unfocused, tumultuous, and inefficient because their pursuit of perfect equality prevents the more expert team members from resolving conflicts and playing leadership roles in group learning and innovation.

Debunking the Myths

Research on social species ranging from ants to zebras shows that hierarchies are important for group functioning.3 When a group has a chain of command, disagreements can be more easily resolved so that the group can take coordinated action. Coordinated action improves the odds of survival. Human beings also have a tendency to think and act hierarchically.4 In fact, hierarchies — distinct differences in group members’ power and status — can be found in virtually every human group, from children on the playground to executives in the boardroom. Depending on the circumstances, hierarchies can be formally designated or emerge naturally. And while the idea of hierarchies may go against democratic instincts and beliefs, they can and do play useful roles.

IDEO, the product design and consulting firm, offers a useful example. In 1999, ABC News’ “Nightline” chronicled the efforts of an interdisciplinary IDEO team to redesign the supermarket shopping cart. Since airing, the video has become a classic example of how innovation works. Initially, IDEO founder David Kelley expresses strongly negative views about hierarchy, saying, “In a very innovative culture, you can’t have a kind of hierarchy.”5 But as the story unfolds, a small group of senior IDEO people step in to direct how the product development team allocates its time.

References

1. A.C. Edmondson, R.M.J. Bohmer, and Gary P. Pisano, “Speeding Up Team Learning,” Harvard Business Review 79, no. 9 (October 2001): 125-134; and T. Kastelle, “Hierarchy Is Overrated,” Harvard Business Review, Nov. 20, 2013, https://hbr.org.

2. J.S. Bunderson and B. Sanner, “How and When Can Social Hierarchy Promote Learning in Groups?” in “Oxford Handbook of Group and Organizational Learning,” eds. L. Argote and J.M. Levine (New York: Oxford University Press, in press).

3. M.M. Moosa and S.M.M. Ud-Dean, “The Role of Dominance Hierarchy in the Evolution of Social Species,” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 41, no. 2 (January 2011): 203-208.

4. E.M. Zitek and L.Z. Tiedens, “The Fluency of Social Hierarchy: The Ease With Which Hierarchical Relationships Are Seen, Remembered, Learned, and Liked,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 102, no. 1 (January 2012): 98-115.

5. ABC News, “The Deep Dive,” July 13, 1999, www.youtube.com.

6. Bunderson and Sanner, “How and When Can Social Hierarchy Promote Learning in Groups?”

7. B.A. Hennessey and T.M. Amabile, “Creativity,” Annual Review of Psychology 61, no. 1 (January 2010): 569-598.

8. J. Barney, “Firm Resources and Sustained Competitive Advantage,” Journal of Management 17, no. 1 (March 1991): 99-120.

9. ABC News, “The Deep Dive.”

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12. J.S. Bunderson and P. Boumgarden, “Structure and Learning in Self-Managed Teams: Why ‘Bureaucratic’ Teams Can Be Better Learners,” Organization Science 21, no. 3 (December 2009): 609-624.

13. S. Helper and R. Henderson, “Management Practices, Relational Contracts, and the Decline of General Motors,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 28, no. 1 (winter 2014): 49-72.

14. J.S. Bunderson, G.S. van der Vegt, Y. Cantimur, and F. Rink, “Different Views of Hierarchy and Why They Matter: Hierarchy as Inequality or as Cascading Influence,” Academy of Management Journal 59, no. 4 (August 2016): 1265-1289.

15. H. Bresman and M. Zellmer-Bruhn, “The Structural Context of Team Learning: Effects of Organizational and Team Structure on Internal and External Learning,” Organization Science 24, no. 4 (July-August 2013): 1120-1139.

16. J.S. Bunderson, “Recognizing and Utilizing Expertise in Work Groups: A Status Characteristics Perspective,” Administrative Science Quarterly 48, no. 4 (December 2003): 557-591.

17. C. Anderson and G.J. Kilduff, “The Pursuit of Status in Social Groups,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 18, no. 5 (October 2009): 295-298.

18. C. Anderson, D.R. Ames, and S.D. Gosling, “Punishing Hubris: The Perils of Overestimating One’s Status in a Group,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 34, no. 1 (January 2008): 90-101.

19. G.S. van der Vegt, B. de Jong, J.S. Bunderson, and E. Molleman, “Power Asymmetry and Learning in Teams: The Moderating Role of Performance Feedback,” Organization Science 21, no. 2 (March-April 2010): 347-361.

20. C. Anderson and C.E. Brown, “The Functions and Dysfunctions of Hierarchy,” Research in Organizational Behavior 30, no. 10 (2010): 55-89; A.K. Brooks, “Power and the Production of Knowledge: Collective Team Learning in Work Organizations,” Human Resource Development Quarterly 5, no. 3 (fall 1994): 213-235; and E.G. Foldy, P. Rivard, and T.R. Buckley, “Power, Safety, and Learning in Racially Diverse Groups,” Academy of Management Learning & Education 8, no. 1 (March 2009): 25-41.