The Truth About Hierarchy

  • Bret Sanner and J. Stuart Bunderson
  • December 11, 2017

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. When asked why the intervention was necessary, one senior person explains that the process of finding creative solutions sometimes needs to be “very autocratic for a very short period.