Structure and Creativity

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
Enjoyed your presentation yesterday, have a question. In your model, whose job is it to balance structure and innovation? (or structure that permits innovation?) How is this implemented? Is it a time span issue vs. a creativity/mindset issue? I worry about calcification and lean against structure which prevents innovation.

Response:
Thank you very much for your questions. Remember, yesterday, we only scratched the surface of Elliott’s research. You have many questions (not just one).

Let me first talk generally about structure and creativity. You are fearful that structure will stifle creativity, when in fact, Elliott believed quite the opposite.

Specifically, organizational structure looks rigid on a chart, with its neat boxes and circles and arrows that point the way. Off the paper, organizational structure is simply the way we define working relationships. And, there are two types.

On a chart, we see managerial relationships in a vertical fashion, and we have an intuitive sense how that works. In a moment, I will attempt to shift your intuitive sense in a way that opens up the creativity you cherish (all organizations cherish). But, before that, the other type of working relationship is horizontal. People have to (required behavior) work with each other, but they are not each other’s manager. On a chart we typically represent these with a horizontal dotted line. It’s the dotted line that gets us in trouble. Again, we have an intuitive sense of this horizontal working relationship (cross-functional), but we rarely define it with any more clarity than the dots in the line that connect.

What is missing are two A words. Accountability and authority. In a managerial relationship, we get the authority part, but fail to understand the accountability part. A client of mine, Mike, owned a carpet cleaning business. Every once in a while, thankfully not very often, a technician would ruin a customer’s carpet. Who did Mike want to choke up against the wall? The technician, of course.

You see, Elliott assumed that technician showed up for work that day with the full intention to do their best. And it is the manager Elliott held accountable for the output of that technician. The manager hired the technician, trained the technician, provided the tools, the truck, selected the project and created the working environment for the technician. The manager controlled all the variables around the technician, it is the manager that Elliott held accountable for the output of the technician.

In this vertical managerial relationship, we get the authority part, without understanding the accountability that goes with it. Only when the manager understands the accountability-for-output is placed on them, that the shift takes place. Elliott was very specific, he called this an MAH (Management Accountability Hierarchy). The org chart is no longer an org chart, it is an accountability chart. And, that chart now illustrates who is accountable. This small shift changes everything we understand about management.

We casually call them reporting relationships, when reporting doesn’t have much to do with it. It is an accountability relationship where the manager is accountable for the output of the team member.

It’s all about context. It is incumbent on the manager to create the context. Remember, Elliott assumed the technician showed up for work that day with the full intention to do their best. It is incumbent on the manager to create the context in which each team member can do their best. It is in the creation of that context, that creativity flourishes. I know you have more questions, but, enough for today.

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